Probably the third surviving text from the unfolding life of the early Christian communities, I Corinthians is a much longer, and therefore richer, source of St Paul’s thought, then the two earlier epistles.
Unity & Love
The Christian community in Corinth is suffering from divisions. It’s clearly very mixed in its membership (1:26-28). Richer members are not waiting to share food with the less well-off ones at the Lord’s Supper (11:21-22). Members appeal to different Christian leaders as the source of their authority (3:1-9) and Paul seems to have written this letter to settle some disputed issues indicated in a letter received from Corinth; he also intends to visit in person at some later date.
Famously, chapter 13 is Paul’s great text in praise of love – always patient, always kind and bearing no record of wrongs. In a letter elsewhere confrontational, here he challenges the Christians of Corinth to rise to the heights of love. He does this after reminding them that the church is one body, and the “weaker members” of a body deserve “greater care” (12:14-26).
The Holy Spirit
The Spirit (or “breath”) of God features prominently in this letter. We have already seen that both in Thessalonica and Galatia, St Paul’s audience experienced some sort of dramatic manifestation of the God’s spirit, and we are told this also happened in Corinth (2:4). Verses 8-16 of the same chapter set out Paul’s understanding of what it is to be led by God’s spirit, which comprehends the depth of God, and equips believers with the “mind of Christ”. Each Christian believer is therefore a temple of God’s Spirit (3:16-17).
Because the Corinthian Christians have been touched by God’s spirit, they are now manifesting charismatic gifts. But again, the lack of love in the community causes these to be exercised in an inconsiderate way, and Paul gives directions on the right use of spiritual gifts in the worshipping community (12 & 14). There is no reason to think that the list of nine gifts mentioned by Paul is exhaustive; other gifts may be bestowed by the Holy Spirit at God’s pleasure.
“We proclaim Christ crucified.” Paul’s message, at its heart, is about a man who was executed on a Cross (1:23). Near the end of the letter (15:1-11) he sets out the Gospel which he himself “received” (he doesn’t say whether in a heavenly vision or handed on from the apostles who were witnesses), stressing that it is of “first importance” that Jesus died for our sins, was buried, rose and appeared to many of his followers.
Earlier in the letter, Paul also passes on what he has received about the Lord’s Supper (11:23-26) – in the breaking of bread and the cup of the new covenant, believers “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”.
Immediately following (11:27-32), Paul warns of the consequences of unworthy participation in this ritual meal. Those who do not “discern the body” bring judgment upon themselves; Paul says this is why some have become weak or even died! Now “discerning the body” here seems to point less to an understanding of the Real Presence and more towards the Christian community as Christ’s body. It comes soon after words about Christ as the “head of humanity” and before the image of church as one body of differently-gifted members (12:27).
It is clear that at this early time in the life of the church, the Lord’s Supper is being kept in the way Jesus celebrated it originally – in the context of a meal, at which bread and wine would then be blessed and shared. It is unlikely the host family would provide all the food; this letter has the clear sense that what was meant to be a “bring and share” meal has descended into a “bring your own”. (How many of us have gone to a church “bring and share” bringing our own favourite food, and favoured that out of all the variety on display to us, even when we have waited our turn to fill our plate?)
Paul seems to believe that selfish behaviour at the Lord’s supper attracts God’s direct punishment (11:31-32), but this is for our own good. Is this telling us Paul’s personal opinion, or something he has learned through a revelation? (Most of the New Testament points to judgment as being something awaiting at the end of our lives rather than a current intervention from God.)
“The body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body” – St Paul understands that we are called into relationship with Christ, and this has consequences for all our other relationships. I Corinthians is marked by much thinking about the “body” – in sexual relations, in how the dead shall be raised, and in the church as “body of Christ”.
Should the unmarried or widowed marry? Ideally no (7:8 & 27), because this will leave them free to concentrate on their relationship to Christ (7:32-38), but it is no sin if they do; but they should marry a believer (7:39). This letter reflects an “equality” in Christian marriage where each spouse has rights over the other’s body (7:1-7).
An unbelieving spouse is connected to Christ through their marriage to a believer – and that’s a good thing (7:14). But a sinful sexual relationship connects a “prostitute” to the body of Christ, and that’s a bad thing (6:12-20). Divorce is to be avoided; but if an unbeliever abandons a believer, then the believer is free to marry again as long as the new spouse supports their faith (the Pauline Privilege). The community were expected to know that it was utterly forbidden for a man to live with his stepmother (5:1-2).
In 6:9, Paul gives an explicit list of behaviour which forfeits heaven – not just the unspecific porneia but also adultery and the active and passive roles in a homosexual act.
Meat & Idols
Can we eat meat sacrificed to idols? This is the key question in chapter 8, but is returned to in chapter 10. Paul’s main response (8:3-13) is that Christians are free to eat meat which has previously been involved in pagan temple sacrifices, but this should not be done when it gives offense to other members of the Christian community. He returns to the theme (10:14-11:1) but there seems to be having conflicting thoughts. He muses that once you become “one body” with Christ, how can you “drink the cup of demons”? Yet he also affirms that you may “eat whatever is sold in the marketplace”. So if you know that no-one in your house is going to be scandalised by your purchases, Paul is saying, “carry on, if you’re happy to eat something that connects you to demons”. (A strong minded Christian householder might retort that by giving thanks over the food, the connection has been broken.)
Slavery & Torah
Paul lives in an age where slavery is an everyday institution. It’s not clear whether he approves of slavery in general; it is clear that he doesn’t expect it to be overturned, so guidance is needed for Christian slaves and Christian masters. He does affirm that one’s status as slave or free is irrelevant for one’s standing in the Christian commununity (7:21-24) – and leverages the institution to model our relationship with Jesus: Paul would have everyone be a “slave to Christ” (while enjoying their “freedom in Christ”!)
There may be a parallel between Paul’s opinion of slavery and that of the Jewish Law. Paul is pragmatic. He follows the Jewish Law when it serves his mission purposes (9:20); he sets aside his rights when he needs to. He knows that being Jewish does not bring automatic security; the Jews spent 40 years in the wilderness. He believes strongly that a Christian man’s circumcision status is irrelevant (7:17-20). Paul is wrestling with a question which will confront any serious Christian thinker: Why did God reveal the Jewish Law (Torah) to Moses, only for it to cease to apply to believers following the Resurrection of Christ? We have already seen this is a major theme in Galatians, and we shall return to it when we consider Romans.
The Second Coming
Picking up a theme prominent in I Thessalonians but not Galatians, Paul expects a “Day of the Lord” to come when our work will be tested (3:12-15). As in that first letter, he refuses to enter into details about what form our risen bodies will take (15:35-54). Careful study of chapter 15 is needed to see where Paul speaks of the reward of believers vs. a univeral raising of all who have died. Paul’s Gospel is that Jesus rose from the dead, and did so for our sins. Through this good news the Corinthians are “being saved”, as long as they hold firm to it (15:2). This form of words is significant for dealing with evangelicals and questions of whether we are “already saved” or “working out our salvation” and whether salvation can be lost.
Paul asks that he not be “judged” by the Corinthians, as that will happen when the Lord returns (4:1-5).
But he does pass “judgment” on the man living with his stepmother, and expresses disappointment that the Corinthian church had not already done so (5:3-5). He also tells the believers not to accept into their midst one who practices porneia or one who is greedy – or a drunkard – an idolater – or a reviler – or a thief (5:9-13).
Further, he does ask trustworthy members of the community to adjudicate disputes between members (6:1-11) – clearly there has been at least one case of fraud inflicted by one member of this church on another.
There is scope here for a deep study of ‘judgment’ and when Christians should practice it, and when they should refrain.
Paul and Women
One final topic remains to be considered: the status of women in the Corithian church and in Paul’s thinking. But this is so contentious I will leave it for a post of its own. Watch this space!