Paul and the Church in Corinth
Now that we have a basic understanding of the online world and how it both impacts and is being impacted by our society, we will consider Paul's leadership and communication with the church in Corinth in the first century.
The church framework developed by Paul in his two letters to the church in Corinth is, of course, limited to the particular issues and context into which Paul was writing, and we should be careful in our interpretation to recognize those limits. A full Pauline ecclesiology is beyond the scope of this series, but a careful consideration of these two letters will give us enough detail to sketch a basic church model.
In this post, we will discuss the basic posture of the church as united in the wisdom of God and the mission of the cross. In the next post, we will outline a simple model of sacramentality in worship and then consider Paul’s methods for the church’s continuing growth and faithfulness.
Paul's Method(s) of Communication
For Paul, letter-writing was a long-distance replacement for oral communication—an attempt “to accomplish what would otherwise be done in person,”—and he intended his letters to be read aloud to the congregation by his messenger. The messenger was probably coached by Paul to convey the tones (like sarcasm and irony) and theology of his letters and to be able to expound upon their messages in response to questions and challenges.
Because Paul synthesized oral and written communication this way, it is impossible to separate his use of the written word from his use of oral rhetoric. Our analysis must take a balanced approach of considering the impact of the medium, his rhetorical methods for navigating relational difficulties, and his theological positions regarding group dynamics.
All of this must be understood within the social context of the church in first-century Corinth before we can interpret it into the twenty-first century context. We will examine the concept of Christian cruciformity in his communication with the Corinthians, a concept that also pervades Paul’s letters to other churches, as well as Paul’s emphasis on the wisdom of God as a specific message tailored to the believers in Corinth.
The Potential of the Church
When the apostle Paul looked at the city of Corinth, he saw a place of incredible potential for believers to embody the cruciform gospel of Christ.
When he wrote to the church there, he was not doing so as an outsider to the community. He had been involved in the church from its very beginning; he saw them as his family, repeatedly referring to the members of its community as “brothers and sisters” and considering himself the “father” of the community. According to the account in the book of Acts, Paul lived in Corinth for eighteen months as he founded the church there, actively shaping its community and theological development while working as a tentmaker to support his ministry (Acts 18:1–4, 11).
At the time Paul was in Corinth, around 51 ᴄᴇ, the city was a young, vibrant place of economic opportunity and, as N. T. Wright describes, was “excessively proud of its Romanitas, it’s ‘Romanness.’”
Corinth: A City Destroyed and Rebuilt
About two hundred years before (in 146 ʙᴄᴇ), the city had been destroyed by a Roman army and had lain desolate for over a hundred years. Then, in 44 ʙᴄᴇ, because of the city’s location along an important shipping trade route, Julius Caesar had made it a Roman colony and imported freed slaves and other members of lower classes to populate it. These lower classes were excited with their freedom and were eager for this opportunity to enhance their social standing.
Over the next few generations, the city flourished under the ambitions of its inhabitants, who quickly formed a fluid social stratification that was somewhat unique in the Roman world—there was a thriving upper class, as well as a significant lower class who were, in spite of their economic status, offered opportunities to rise in the city’s social hierarchy.
The concepts of honor and shame carried deep social meaning in the first-century world—they were the cornerstones of one’s social identity. Honor was the currency of public life. Bruce J. Malina, in his seminal study of the cultural anthropology of the New Testament Mediterranean world, describes honor in this way:
Honor is the value of a person in his or her own eyes… plus that person’s value in the eyes of his or her social group. Honor is a claim to worth along with the social acknowledgment of worth.Bruce J. Malina, The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology
Within the bounds of the honor-shame system, though, the city’s denizens had a seemingly unlimited potential for social mobility. This capacity led them to form social and trade-based associations (called koinon) to promote their own self-interests.
For the inhabitants of Corinth, just as in the rest of the first-century Roman world, a person’s self-identity was formed through the groups and classes in which they were members. For most Corinthians, these groups were divided along social strata. Paul’s task in shaping the church, then, was to break them away from this cultural expectation and encourage believers to form their group identity, their koinonia, not around social concepts of honor, but around submission to the cross of Christ.
Unity in the Cross (1 Cor 1:18–31)
From the beginning of his letter, Paul asserted that the potential of the Corinthian church was connected to its willingness to assume a posture of cruciformity to one another.
After Paul left the city of Corinth, the church there quickly divided into “parties” based on which apostle they chose to follow—these new factions mimicked the group segmentation of the greater Corinthian society. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was written to correct this division within the community, a point he made clearly within the first few verses of the letter: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10).
Paul urged them to be unified amongst themselves. To discourage factions within their group, he established a clear distinction between insiders and outsiders of the group:
- Insiders were those who understood the wisdom of God.
- Outsiders were those who thought God’s ways foolish.
By giving the Corinthians an external group from which to distinguish themselves, Paul made it possible for them to rally around a shared value that could transform their self-identity: the willful obedience of the Messiah to be crucified.
He wrote that the wisdom of God was on full display in Jesus’ crucifixion, which was Rome’s method of humiliating political dissidents. For Paul, the cross was not simply something Jesus did for humanity in the past tense, as if the church was a passive recipient of its freedom, but was a posture into which Christ called the church to participate, to offer their lives in a continual, ongoing overpowering of death.
This idea was nonsense to the world because it asserted that the path to life was through continually following Christ’s willing subjection to the way of death, trusting in the power of God for resurrection.
For Judeans, this was foolishness because the boundary markers of their identity were formed by adherence to their Scriptures. Many of them waited expectantly for a conquering warrior like King David to deliver them from the heathen Roman government.
For Greeks, it was foolishness because their identity was formed around the search for social and philosophical ascendance, and they lived in constant pursuit of increasing honor.
The wisdom of God did not make sense within the context of the world’s priorities.
Paul’s point was not that followers of Christ necessarily needed to proceed to a physical death as Christ had done, but that they were to find their identity, their boasting (v. 29), in the Lord (v. 31), rather than in any human accomplishments. In verses 27–28, he reinforced this idea by making an intertextual allusion to Jer 9:23–24, a Hebrew prophecy that Walter Brueggemann calls a “triad of bad bragging” which contrasts the wisdom of the wise with the delight of YHWH. Brueggemann diagrams the prophecy in Jeremiah this way:
Do not let the wise boast of their wisdom.
Do not let the mighty boast of their might.
Do not let the wealthy boast of their wealth.
Brag in steadfast love.
Brag in justice.
Brag in righteousness.
Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, creatively reinterpreted Jeremiah’s triads, challenging the believers to embrace an alternative reality to the wisdom of the world—a complete reorientation of priorities centered around rejecting the accumulation of power and embodying faithfulness to God above all else.
With this orientation, the Corinthians could not form their group identities around apostolic leadership, rhetorical proficiency, or other measures of social status. Their only boast could be in Christ, and him crucified. For Paul, then, the reimagined prophetic triad was shaped like this:
God chose the foolish to shame the wise (according to the world).
God chose the weak to shame the strong (mighty).
God chose the low and despised to reduce to nothing the things that are exalted.
Christ became righteousness.
Christ became sanctification.
Christ became redemption.
In this way, the Corinthians were to find the wisdom of God in God’s perfect righteousness, just sanctification, and loving redemption, which is to say that they were to find their group identity in participation in the humility, weakness, and love of Christ’s crucifixion.
In his call to unity, Paul did not encourage the believers to unite behind the truth of his own doctrine, the strength of his arguments, or the power of his charisma, because those things were all shadows of the wisdom of the world. While the world sought power, status, and wealth, they were to unite around their shared participation in self-giving weakness that trusted in God’s faithfulness to transform death into resurrection life.
The Cruciform Mission (2 Cor 5:14–21)
The mission of the church, according to Paul, is to live into that call of participation in the cross of Christ.
Paul most likely wrote his second letter to the Corinthians a year or more after his first letter, and his relationship with the church had deteriorated in the meantime. Whereas the theme of 1 Corinthians was unity within the church (reconciliation with one another), Paul’s theme in 2 Corinthians was reconciliation between himself and the church. This focus was emphatic in 5:14–21, where Paul discussed his motivation for pursuing reconciliation—namely, he was compelled by the love of Christ as a model for “the ministry of reconciliation” (v. 18).
Building on his previous letter, where he had developed the idea that the wisdom of God was based in God’s perfect righteousness, just sanctification, and loving redemption, Paul now expanded the discussion to include the call of believers to embody God’s wisdom in their relationships with the world.
According to Paul, Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them” (v. 15). Michael J. Gorman describes these verses in 2 Corinthians as “Paul’s most fundamental expression for this participatory life [in the mission of God] that is, in fact, salvation itself.” He further summarized this mission, saying,
...it is God’s way of bringing about a seismic shift in the story of the world…. The God-given commission for the community of the new creation is to embody the saving justice of God in the world—to incarnate it, so to speak—in such a way that the message of God’s reconciliation in Christ is made visible in the midst of the world’s alienation. This entails a community that practices love, mercy, and forgiveness within the community toward outsiders.Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord
The cosmic nature of this charge should not be missed. It was not simply a reconciliation between God and the church, or between God and individual believers. Christ’s death and resurrection accomplished reconciliation for the whole world.
Witherington writes, “Christ died for the sins of the world, not merely the elect…. Christ died so that all those who believe in him might live for him, patterning their lives on his.” For Paul, the act of being transformed into God’s righteousness—accomplished through the reorientation of one's own priorities to align in self-giving faithfulness to the cross of Christ—was in itself a missional act because it communicated God's priorities to the world.
Each act of reconciliation was an incarnation of the Spirit-empowered movement of turning death into resurrection life.
Because of the cosmic scope of God’s reconciliation through Christ, the task of the believers was to “regard no one from a human point of view” (v. 16). In his first letter, Paul created a group distinction between believers and unbelievers, but here Paul challenged the church in Corinth to see the entire world—including those outside their Christian community—as equals under the reconciling event of Christ’s death.
Thus, as the believers lived their faith every day, they were to seek to win unbelievers to Christ not by condescending to them or by debating them rhetorically (those acts would be products of the world’s wisdom), but by being ambassadors of Christ, demonstrating the transformed nature, the new creation, that came from God.
To be effective ministers of this reconciliation, the believers needed to ensure that they themselves were reconciled to God, and that they were righteous in their faithfulness to the wisdom of God.
Now let's examine how Paul structured worship and leadership in the Corinthian church.
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