Worship, Sacrament, and Conflict in the Corinthian Church

October 29, 2020
Let us consider how Paul structured worship and leadership in the Corinthian church, as well as how he handled conflict within the church body to maintain growth and faithfulness.

The Online Church

The church has a long history of adapting to cultural and technological contexts. As the first Christian communities sprang up in the first century, the apostle Paul helped form them by using letters as a technology of sorts to communicate with Christians across regions, social class, and time. His use of media to shape early churches can help us understand the potential of online connection to cultivate an authentic, digital Christian community.

We have considered Paul's admonition to the church in Corinth as to its posture of cruciformity and the mission of reconciliation, so now we will turn to the way Paul structured worship and leadership in the church, as well as consider how he handled conflict within the church body to maintain growth and faithfulness.

The Structure of the Church

Paul did not believe the church's potential would happen as a natural by-product of existing in community together. After all, he wrote these letters because the church had failed to live up to his expectations for them. Indeed, the majority of the text in these letters was devoted to addressing specific instances of misconduct or poor decision-making.

A full consideration of Paul’s advice is beyond the scope of our discussion, but we will consider two core components of the life of their church: their practice of worship in the Lord’s Supper and the structure of their leadership as members of a body.

Sacramental Worship (1 Cor 11:17–34)

Paul had grave concerns about the ways in which the Corinthians were engaging in worship. He was concerned they were presenting themselves—as a corporate body—unworthily before God (11:29–30). Paul wrote about the gravity of this situation in regards to the way they came together to participate in the Lord’s Supper.

The problem was that, when they came together as a church to eat and drink in the name of the Lord, they divided themselves along socioeconomic lines. Witherington notes that, in the Lord's Supper, “the social stratification of the congregation was overemphasized and exacerbated. A serious division between haves and have-nots was thus threatening the fragile unity of the Corinthian Christian community.”

Those who were well-off arrived earlier to the meal than those who were poorer, because the poorer had jobs and other necessities to manage. The wealthy picked the best food for themselves, started drinking early, and gave the leftovers (if any remained) to the latecomers from lower social classes.

This kind of hierarchy was common in Greco-Roman cultic meals and celebrations, but Paul argued that such division had no place in a community bonded over the cross of Christ.

The pride of the wealthy—and the resultant humiliation of those who had nothing—was not a remembrance of Christ, but was a demonstration of “contempt for the church of God” (v. 22). A community properly centered in cruciformity could only participate in the Lord’s Supper as equals with one another. Any practice of the Eucharist that favored some over others was a failure to recognize the cross as an act of transformation—an act of reconciliation—for all.

As a proclamation of “the Lord’s death” (v. 26), the Supper was to be not simply a remembrance of the cross, but an act of embodiment wherein believers were to participate in the cross by denying their own privileges to treat all as equals.

Bearers of the cross of Christ could not wield the Lord’s Supper, or any other element of their worship, as an instrument of division against those for whom Christ had died.

Thus, when Paul said that whoever participated in the Supper “in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord” (v. 27) and discussed “all who eat and drink without discerning the body” (v. 29), he was using the term “body” in a way that spoke to the identity of the church as the body of Christ, a foreshadowing of the full metaphor he would detail in the next chapter (to which we will turn shortly).

Indeed, Paul’s purpose for discussing the Lord’s Supper in this passage was not to offer a doctrine of Eucharist, but to remind the Corinthians that their identity as followers of Christ compelled them to treat their worship as a sacramental embodiment of the community of God, an opportunity for them to abandon the social stratification of their culture and embrace their shared identity in Christ. Witherington describes this sacredness of the community, saying, “Paul does not talk about sacred buildings, but he does talk about holy persons and holy occasions when such people gather for worship and fellowship.”

The sacramentality of Christian worship, then, was centered on the communion—the community—of the believers. The ritual of the supper was of secondary importance to the worthiness of the body, a metaphor we may now consider more fully.

Leadership and the Call of the Body (1 Cor 12:12–31)

In this portion of his letter, Paul described the church as members of a body. It was not uncommon in Greek and other ancient discourse to craft a social argument around the idea of a body, but it was typically used as a model for power—as an argument that the lesser members (such as the feet) should submit to the authority of the more influential members (such as the head or the heart).

Paul turned that rhetoric on its head (pun intended), asserting that all the parts of the body needed one another. A member could not be a part of the body if it were removed from the body. The “honorable” (honor-filled) parts were no greater than the “less honorable” (shame-filled) ones (vv. 23–24).

Paul taught the Corinthian believers to count all of its members as honorable, as worthy of respect, because it was God who had “so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member” (v. 24).

Robert J. Banks described the use of gifts within Pauline communities, saying, “Distinctions no longer provided a way to maintain an advantage over others. Instead they provided the basis for serving others.”

Paul’s metaphor therefore achieved two simultaneous goals:

  • It was a recognition that each believer had a unique and vital contribution to the functioning of the body, and
  • It was also a call for them to honor one another in their diversity.

It was, as Witherington noted, “both diversity in unity and unity in diversity.”

This call for honor was a call for them to value one another and empathize with one another in the understanding that God had placed in each one of them a special gift and an indispensable contribution to the community.

In one sense, we might argue that Paul called for an upside-down form of leadership wherein the ones in a position of authority within the body—those who might be considered clergy today—were to be engaged in self-giving service to other members of the body.

In his two letters to the Corinthians, though, Paul did not truly recognize any kind of special spiritual authority for individual leaders within the body. He did not describe roles for clergy or special responsibilities for the administration of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or other sacred duties in any of his surviving correspondence with the Corinthians. Instead, he spoke only of the importance of service as a demonstration that they understood their corporate value as the body of Christ.

Banks points it out this way:

Paul is not using ‘servant’ instead of ‘leadership’ language to highlight inferior as opposed to superior tasks or positions. He uses it to highlight the dependent character of the work and responsibility in contrast with the independent stance that often goes with leadership.

Robert J. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community: The Early House Churches in Their Cultural Setting

Their service to one another was ordained as itself an act of worship, which is to say that every believer needed to take leadership in the work of service—for anyone to be disengaged was to harm the whole body.

In his recognition of the individuality of gifts and the way they were brought together in the Spirit as a community, Paul returned them to the corporate unity of the Lord’s Supper, the ministry of reconciliation, and the cruciformity of their identity in Christ.

Handling Conflict in the Church

At times, the church in Corinth failed to live up to the cruciform identity to which they had been called, and Paul was not blind to that reality. When they stumbled, he challenged them to seek the guidance of the Spirit of God and to measure success not by their accumulation of honor, but by their humility and empathy for one another.

The Spirit-Led Path to Maturity (1 Cor 2:6–3:3)

The church in Corinth seems to have developed a hierarchy of spirituality in which some believers saw themselves as more spiritually advanced than others. This idea was raised in 2:6 with Paul’s discussion of what it means to be “mature” (teleioi), and the Corinthians viewed their maturity as a contrast to the immaturity, or infancy (npioi) of others in their community. They found their markers of maturity in their intellect, their rhetorical skills, and their social status, because those were the cultural norms for measuring success—they gained honor through the means of their associations and their ability to debate with others.

In this part of his letter, Paul rebuked the Corinthians for their stance—not by completely repudiating the idea that believers could be at different levels of maturity, but by arguing that the knowledge of God was given by the Spirit of God and was demonstrated by their active participation in taking up the cross of Christ. As Gorman notes,

Paul is not affirming two “levels” of Christian maturity, the “carnal,” or “fleshly,” and the “spiritual.” Rather, he is labeling a certain kind of so-called spiritual maturity fraudulent, fleshly, and determined by worldly standards…. Now, for believers, failure to identify Christ crucified as the wisdom of God—with all the implications of that identification—reveals the absence of wisdom and of the Spirit, despite any and all claims to the contrary.

Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord

Paul called the Corinthian believers to embrace their ecclesial identity in the reoriented wisdom of God, distinct from the wisdom of the world, where their mission was to be reconciled to one another as Christ had reconciled them with God. He expected them to demolish and reconstruct their culturally-defined social stratifications. He called them to abandon their pursuit of individualistic honor and seek instead to serve one another, considering every member of the body as an integral part of the community.

This cruciformity could not be accomplished solely by human effort (2:11, 14), but could only be brought about by the revelation of the Spirit (2:12, 13). Thus, for Paul, the elevation of knowledge and status were not markers of maturity, but of immaturity; the proper mark of a mature believer was the presence and abundance of self-giving love in their lives

Yet Paul accused them of not living up to this standard. He confronted them on their own spiritual infancy, criticizing them for still being “people of the flesh” (3:1) even after four or five years of opportunities for spiritual growth. It was time for them to take the knowledge they had gained of God and put it into action through the Spirit in the way they related to one another.

For Paul, the embodiment of love within their community was the proof of a mature faith.

Faithfulness to the Wisdom of God (2 Cor 11:1–15)

To this point, over the course of the two letters, Paul had used many examples and strategies to teach them that the heart of the good news of Christ was found in a posture of humble cruciformity and in the transformation of their community. As he brought his instructions to a close, though, he turned to address the problem of false teachers who would lead the Corinthians astray.

Paul said that these so-called “super-apostles” (11:5) may have used words that sounded like the gospel of Christ, but their prideful actions did not match the lifestyle that Paul himself embodied, and thus their lived proclamations were in opposition to the wisdom of God (v. 13).

In verse 4, Paul accused them of proclaiming “another Jesus.” This was the only instance in all of Paul’s writings where he referred to Jesus without the messianic title of “Christ”—when he referred to the Lord by name, he tended to prefer “Jesus Christ,” which balanced both the humanness and the divinity of the Messiah, so this emphasis on Jesus’ humanity is important. Raymond F. Collins surmises that “Paul’s use of the name Jesus without further qualification may imply that the interlopers are proclaiming an exalted Christ, with little or no reference to his suffering and death.” This kind of one-dimensional depiction of the Messiah was unacceptable for Paul, because the suffering Christ was the model that the believers were called to emulate in their own lives.

Paul saw himself as the father of the church in Corinth—the father of the bride of Christ (v. 2), as it were—but he was concerned that the believers had tarnished their purity by heeding the vain, self-indulgent teachings of the super-apostles.

To softly chastise the Corinthians for being taken in by those false teachers, Paul used self-deprecating irony as a rhetorical device. This allowed him to soften his criticism of the believers themselves so they were able to hear it, yet it still allowed him to utterly condemn the super-apostles. Whereas the super-apostles achieved some measure of worldly success in their speaking and teaching—they had earned positions of honor—Paul had come in a better way: as a servant who had consistently demonstrated an attitude of humility. In Greco-Roman philosophy, humility was not seen as a virtue, but as a vice associated with the mentality and social status of a slave.

Paul turned the characteristic of lowliness on its head, arguing that humility was in fact an embodiment of the wisdom of God.

The faithful witness of the believers in Corinth, like the faithful witness of Paul himself in these verses, was to follow in the cruciform path of Christ, humbling themselves as a community and lovingly submitting themselves in service to the others in the body. There was to be no boasting in status, maturity, or knowledge (as the super-apostles had done), but only in the unity that came through their group identification with the self-giving weakness of the cross.

Now that we have developed this sketch of Paul’s concept of ecclesial community, we may examine how that ecclesiology can inform our development of a digital church.


To see the footnotes for this chapter, please download the full ebook.

 

Randall J. Greene


My heart beats for my faith, my God, my wife, and our puppy. I am a web strategist by day, but I identify as a writer. Occasionally I also lead classes and conversation groups at my church. I completed a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Central Baptist Theological Seminary.

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