Friday, 8 June 2012

LEARNING FROM THE APOSTOLIC CHURCHES: THE CHURCH IN CORINTH


By

S. ’Jide Komolafe

(Continued from “The Church in Rome”)


I have affirmed Romans as Paul’s major systematic doctrinal treatise in the construction of a Christian theology. By contrast, the epistles to the Corinthian church have a more pastoral and practical purpose for the church. Except for the way Paul refers to the cross and the resurrection, it is from the Corinthian epistles that we see the application of Paul’s theological convictions expressed in the life of the church. Simply put, it is the doctrine of the cross in its social application.

Since the purpose of these series is to garner and apply lessons from the past, particularly as they relate to the normative (that which should be the ideal) and the indicative (that which ought to happen), my discussion here will focus almost exclusively on 1 Corinthians. The reason for this is not far-fetched. 1 Corinthians presents an excellent case study for hermeneutical theories. It represents a church’s encounter with practical problems, the theological implications of these problems and the apostolic grasp of the local situation. In other words, not only does 1 Corinthians contribute to our understanding of primitive Christianity in its practical expression, it possesses both theological and ecclesiological value by which the contemporary church can interpret what it means to be and remain “the people of God” in a difficult environment.


The Church in Corinth

The picture given us of the Corinthian church is far removed from what our contemporary understanding holds to be the ideal of a New Testament church. The inner relations, the disposition and thoughts of the people were such that Paul qualifies them as pagans (1 Co. 12:2). It is, therefore, important to attempt an understanding of the sociological characteristics of Corinth, together with its religious and philosophical milieu, since these have bearing on our understanding of a community that struggled to define its identity as the church of God in a complex and sophisticated urban setting.


The Context of the Church: A Tale of Two Cities

Corinth was an ancient and powerful commercial city located on the Isthmus that linked the Peloponnese to the rest of Greece and separated the Saronic and Corinthian gulfs. Corinth owed its wealth to this strategic position. Not only did it control the traffic between its two ports, Cenchrea on the side of the Aegean and Lechaeum at the edge of the Gulf of Corinth to the west, it also controlled the overland movement between Italy and Asia. This strategic location, therefore, sealed its fate as a prosperous city sitting at the crossroads of the world, tariffs, commerce, and ideas (Wayne Meeks, 1983; J. Murphy-O’Connor, 1983; Gerd Theissen, 1982; Strabo, 1932).

The city, however, suffered destruction in 146 B.C. in the hands of a Roman army led by Lucius Mummius who attacked the city for its leading role in the revolt of the Achaian League. Corinth then lay in ruins for one hundred years, until it was re-founded by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. as a Roman colony. Corinth quickly regained its prosperity and in 27 B.C. became the seat of the region’s proconsul and the senatorial province of Achaia (southern and central Greece) in 44 A.D. 

As the city regained its reputation as a center for commerce, so also did it regain its renowned vice as the center of sexual promiscuity and degrading worship. While the old city was renowned for its practice of treating visitors to free usage of the “Hieroduli” (consecrated prostitutes) at the temple of the goddess of love, Aphrodite, the new Corinth also restored the worship of Venus (the Roman counterpart of the Greek Aphrodite). The city’s reputation for sexual laxity was such that Aristophanes (c. 450-385 B.C.) coined the term “korinthiazesthai” (“to act like a Corinthian,” meaning to be promiscuous).

Similarly, with the restoration of Corinth also came the restoration of most of the pagan worship. There were temples of various gods such as the Pantheon (temple of all the gods), the temple of Aesculapius (the god of healing), and other foreign cults such as the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis. By the time of Paul, Corinth had become a “pluralistic melting pot of cultures, philosophies, lifestyles and religions.” This background, therefore, explains the frequency of Paul’s admonitions against sexual laxness, pagan idolatry and feasts in his Corinthian correspondence (1 Co. 6:9-11; 8:1-11; 12:2).


The Establishment and Composition of the Corinthian Church

It is important to place the establishment and the composition of the Corinthian church in proper perspective as a prelude to understanding the picture that emerges as we examine the contextual issues that preoccupied the life of the community.


Establishment of the Church

Internal evidences from the epistle itself leave us with no option to negotiate the fact that the apostle Paul himself founded the Corinthian church (1 Co. 3:6, 10; 4:15). Similarly, the antecedent conditions of the institution of the Corinthian church are further supplied in Act 18: 1-18. Paul was on his second missionary journey and had established several churches in Macedonia. However, the persecution in Macedonia drove him to Athens from where he left for Corinth after a brief and not too successful work. Arriving in Corinth alone (Act 18:5), Paul was soon joined by Silas and Timothy. With the coming of his helpers, Paul devoted himself to an intensive, full-time ministry in Corinth (Act 18: 5). After one and a half years of intensive ministry (Act 18:11), Corinth became a center of the Pauline missionary work alongside Ephesus.


Composition of the Church

That the church comprised of members from both Jewish and Gentile backgrounds is supported from the account of Acts 18:8. However, that Gentiles dominated the believers in Corinth is illustrated by the problems and issues the church had to deal with (1 Co. 6:9-20; 7; 8:1-10; 22). Such highlights as participation in cultic banquets, civil litigation, and prostitution are overarching symbolism of a community with a pagan past (1 Co. 12:2).

By making allusion to internal evidences in the two Corinthian epistles, Arthur McGiffert has observed that majority of Corinthian converts “seem to have come directly from heathenism.” According to him, “there is nowhere in either of his epistles to the Corinthians a reference to the connection between Judaism and Christianity, or to the Christian’s relation to Jewish law, of which he makes so much in his epistles to the Romans and Galatians.” Even where the apostle makes use of the Torah, “he employs it only for the sake of illustrating or confirming what he has to say, and not as an authoritative code or a final court of appeal” (1906:267-268). A number of these illustrations include 1 Corinthians 1:19, 31; 3:20; 9:9; 10:1-13; 2 Corinthians 6:2; 9:7.

The church also had a mixed social background. There were a few of noble rank in the church, such as the synagogue leader Crispus (Act 18:8; 1 Co. 1:14), and Erastus, who was the director of public works in the Corinthian city administration (Rom. 16:23). A number of the Corinthian Christians were also property owners (Act 18:2-8; Rom. 16:23; 1 Co. 1:16; 11:22a; 16:15ff.). Most of the church’s membership was, however, from the lower strata (1 Co. 1:26-31). There were low-paying vocations such as “dockyards, potteries, and brass-foundries, from poor shopkeepers, bakers, brokers, fillers, and stray waifs in the motley crowds of Corinth” (John K. Chow, 1992).

Gerd Theissen has stretched this even further by affirming that the Corinthian situation had more to do with socially complex interactions of structures and not wholly determined by theological and religious factors as previously held. According to him, “the Corinthian congregation is marked by internal stratification” that pits the lower classes majority against the minority upper classes. This “internal stratification is not accidental,” but have been rendered plausible by yet another factor, the “structural causes/elements,” which could either “be found in the social structure of the city of Corinth itself or . . . from the structure of the Pauline mission” (1982:69-119). On top of the fact that the diverse social origins were enough reason for internal strife, it is important to add that the young church was equally influenced by its pagan environment, which continued to be a factor in the daily lives of its members.


Contextual Issues in the Corinthian Church

The Corinthian epistles provide us with Paul’s conception of the Christian way of life. Yet the urban Christians with whom he was dealing were a vivid portrait of a community whose life together was a mixture of confusion, pettiness, and ambition, combined with enthusiasm and fervor. The “mixture” in the Corinthian church was of a different kind. Unlike some of the other primitive churches (as I have highlighted with regard to the churches in Jerusalem and Rome) where “mixed congregations” occasioned most of the contextual tensions, such a Jew-Gentile tension is in no way perceptible in the Corinthian letter. Rather, the larger agenda was how the Corinthians should relate to their culturally conditioned and pluralistic pagan environment now that they were Christians. My intention, therefore, is to discuss in brief some of the problems of the Corinthian church, especially as they relate to their complex urban context.


The World in the Church

In a study that has shown to be a significant attempt at a reconstruction of the Roman world, John Chow has drawn attention to the power and social significance of patronage. According to him, the Roman society was built around a patron-client structure in which both patron and client obligated themselves to each other. It is, therefore, possible to infer that members of the Corinthian church had to operate within this patronal social order (1992).

This is the agenda that the Corinthian church had on its hands. That is, the necessity of understanding the inner logic of what it means to be the “people of God” in a world that is marked by religious pluralism and cultural relativism. Pulled between the movements of separation and assimilation, the following examples indicate the extent to which the Corinthian church patronized its world.


Factions in the Church

In discussing the problems of the Corinthian church Paul begins with the problem of division. The fact that Paul alludes to the factional allegiances and continues its discussion over four chapters indicate the seriousness of the issue (1 Co. 1:10-4:21). On first sight of 1 Corinthian 1:12, four ecclesiastical parties are evident in the Corinthian church, each with a definite set of beliefs and practices. These parties include: a Paul faction, an Apollos faction, a Cephas faction, and a Christ faction.

Attempts to identify the Corinthian factions have generated considerable scholarly disagreements. Of particular interest is Derek Tidball’s interpretation. He sees the divisions in the church as evidence of the social distinctions and an expression of cultural differences that have been brought about by the differences in the social classes of the church members. He notes that the preaching of Apollos may have appealed to the more educated; the preaching of Cephas to the more traditional Jews and the preaching of Paul, with its more direct style, may have appealed to the more common folk (1984).

C. K. Barrett seems to have approached the factions differently. By focusing on 1 Corinthian. 1:13, he sees a link between baptism and the divisions in the Corinthian congregation (1982). This argument looks appealing especially when we are forced to probe the reason for the series of questions in 1 Corinthian. 1:13, and the relief Paul expressed that he had baptized so few in Corinth himself (1 Co. 1:14-16).

In all of this, one important factor that cannot be overlooked is the influence of the Hellenistic culture on the Corinthian Christians. By expressing their factional loyalty to their “favorite preacher,” the Corinthians had demonstrated the influence of the tradition in which the Greeks were known for esteeming various schools of philosophy. And since the Corinthians had no famous teacher of philosophy, there was a natural inclination to view Christianity as a system of thought that might be given varied interpretation and expression.


Sexual Immorality in the Church

The situation at Corinth involved a variety of ethical issues. Most blatant was the issue of sexual laxity (porneia) that there was mention of an incestuous situation within the church. The incident was so severely reproachable that Paul describes it as “of a kind that is not found even among pagans” (1 Co. 5:1). Although the precise character of the situation is not clear, a church member was evidently cohabiting with his stepmother. This is a behavior that was forbidden both by Jewish law (Lev. 18:8) and the Roman law under which Corinth was being ruled.

Sexual ethics, as I have already noted, had degenerated to a sodomic level with Hellenistic society. The deviation in the Corinthian church was of such a lower kind that the conduct seemed to have gone without it being censured by the congregation itself. Instead, there was both a display of flagrant pride and independent attitude necessitating the apostle’s severe reproach, “And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief?” (1 Co. 5:2).

Hensley Henson has observed that “[t]he disgraceful inactivity of the Ecclesia in the matter of the incestuous communicant indicated a singular inability to grasp the full greatness of its own position” (1898:34-35). This view seems to have a common currency in contemporary scholarship. That is, that the Corinthians saw this as an example of their spiritual liberty, and therefore not one to be censured (John Polhill 1999; James Dunn 1995).

Besides the case of incest, the Corinthian church was also troubled by other varieties of sex-related problems. There was another example of sexual immorality relating to the patronizing of prostitutes, a conduct which the apostle strongly denounced (1 Co. 6:9-20). Perhaps the only area where the Corinthians could be credited for taking good initiative on sex-related issues was in the area of marriage. Whereas an informant probably related the incestuous situation to Paul, the questions regarding marital problems were generated out of a written inquiry from the Corinthians themselves (1 Co. 7:1-40). There can be no doubt in affirming that the Corinthian way of life in its larger social context was one of immorality and sexual promiscuity against which even the church in Corinth had no immunity.


The Church in the World

I have mentioned the attempt of John Chow to reconstruct the Roman world. His observation is, once again, instructive. He has observed that scholars have largely concerned themselves with theological questions in Corinth at the expense of the underlying contextual factors (1992:122f.). It is my contention, too, that any contemporary attempts to reconstruct the Corinthian past must give assent to the socio-cultural milieu that informed the life and mission of the church. From the accounts in 1 Corinthian 6:1-11, we know that there was at least one case of legal dispute in the Corinthian church. Although Paul gives no specific information about the kind of dispute involved, he does hint at it as being of the “smallest matters” (biōtika).

The Corinthian Christians had a common practice of seeking litigation before the pagan courts over trivial cases that could have been settled within the church. This action fills Paul with indignation such that his reaction alternates between statements of horror (6:1, 6), rhetorical questions (6:2-4, 5b-7b), sarcasm (6:5), and threat (6:8-11). Attempts at reconstructing Paul’s understanding of the ethical issues involved in civil litigations can be hindered if one fails to recognize the social fabric of first century Corinth. Roman Corinth was a society noted for its vexatious litigations whether civil or criminal.

In first century Corinth, cases related to inheritance, legal possession, breach of contract, and the type described in 1 Corinthians 6:2 as the “smallest matters” (biōtika) would be categorized as civil. Although civil litigation was a common trait in Roman Corinth, an important feature of the system was that it tended to be prejudicial, serving only the interest of the governing elites (Peter Garnsey, 1970). It is, therefore, possible to attribute Paul’s frustration not only to the church’s failure to exercise its prerogative in settling internal feuds; but also to the inability to recognize its juridical authority over the world and angels alike (1 Co. 6:2-3).



The Ministry of the Church

It hardly needs proof that the Corinthian peculiarities caused the apostle Paul severe pain. It is not merely the consciousness of the pull between the movements of separation and assimilation but of near complete immersion in a sea of paganism. William Baird puts it well when he remarks, “The church . . . was like a tiny boat tossed about in a vast sea of paganism. Its members had until recently flourished in that ocean, and its happy waves continued to beckon them” (1964:89).

There also existed within the church problems of worship that created tensions of theological and ethical significance. Rather than be a community in ministry, the church itself was in need of a sustained ministry on what it means to be church in a defiled world of paganism. In all likelihood the Corinthian church was aligned with the world so much so that its members were unable to draw the boundaries between the inside and the outside. I will focus on two particular aspects of the world’s inroad into the church: abuse of the Lord’s Supper and misunderstanding of spiritual gifts.


Abuse of the Lord’s Supper

Paul had no praises for the Corinthians in this regard, but to strongly express that their “coming together” (synerchesthai) was not for the better but for the worse (1 Co. 11:17). Although a socially diverse congregation, the scandal for Paul was that the Lord’s Supper, which was to be a solemn occasion for reconciliation, unity and Christian love, had become the congregating point for flagrant displays of “schisms” (schismata) and “factions/sects” (haireseis;1 Co. 11:18-19). There was a division between the rich and the poor; between the haves and the have-nots. While the rich over-indulged themselves with eating and drinking, the poor looked on with a sense of inferiority.

The Corinthians’ abuse of the Lord’s Supper may be attributed to the practice of public sacred feasting in both Judaism and Hellenistic religions. In both cases, meals served a congregational purpose for religious observance and socialization. The situation in the Hellenistic world was one in which there were meals associated with sacrifices, meals held by associations, meals celebrated in the cult of the dead, and the meals associated with the various mystery religions in Hellenism, Judaism and the Gnostic sects.

Studies have also shown that it was common practice for clubs and associations to have common agape meals or “love-feasts,” with provisions being mainly contributed by the wealthy. The food was distributed inequitably with the rich taking gluttonous portions at the expense of the poor who remained empty. The “religious” gathering at Corinth paralleled this practice where meals were held in private homes, usually hosted by the richer members of the church.

Although the rich opened their houses to the church, they did so in a way that emphasized social divisions. Since most houses were large enough only to accommodate a few, the rich would be treated to quality foods in the triclinium (dining room) while the poor would dine on lesser fare in the larger atrium in the center of the home. An alternative view holds that the rich feasted and reveled even to drunkenness while the poor had to “stand by with empty stomachs and envious glances” (Ernst Von Dobschütz, 1904:61).

Despite the differences in interpretations, the important thing is that the coming together of the Corinthian church was a naïve expression of love and Paul did not mince words that such display of social distinction belonged in private homes and not in a Christian gathering.


Misunderstanding of Spiritual Gifts

The church at Corinth was especially troubled by problems of spiritual gifts that the phrase, “now about,” in 12:1 indicates that they had taken the initiative to ask Paul about the subject. To the Corinthian Christians, the most important demonstration of the indwelling Spirit was the pneumatic phenomenon of speaking with tongues (glossolalia). The outcome of this understanding was a free congregational worship that allowed some people to stand out as those from whom charismatic ministry could be expected.

Two problems are identifiable from this misperception of spiritual gifts. First, it created disunity, elitism, and individualism between those who claimed the Spirit’s endowment and those who felt left out. Second, the uncontrolled display of spiritual manifestations naturally led to disruption in church worship.

As in my analysis of the abuse of the Lord’s Supper, this is yet another example of how much of the pagan world was brought into the church’s worship. The cults of the Hellenistic world were renowned for their pneumatic phenomenon and ecstatic behavior (1 Co. 12:2). It was common features in these pagan cults for devotees to behave in erratically unpredictable ways, to throw themselves about, and to speak in a frenzied manner. The Corinthian Christians took this uninhibited behavior as a justification for the manifestation of the Spirit. It is, therefore, not out of place to infer that part of the problem the Corinthian church was facing was largely due to its pagan environment out of which many of its members had been drawn.


The Theology of the Church

I have identified, as far as is practically relevant, some of the problems that were confronting the church at Corinth. In doing so, I have also noted that there was a vast presence of doctrinal errors with very disruptive effects on both individual and corporate testimony of the Corinthian church. The picture which has emerged is that theological response to the Corinthian church needs to be coupled with the contextual issues and the problems that occurred within them. In the following paragraphs, I will attempt the theology which underpins Paul’s response, and thus his ecclesiology.


Factions in the Church

Paul destroys the validity of the Corinthians’ factionalism by making reference to the nonessentiality of any individual person. Rather, the unity of every individual, including the church, is grounded in Christ and appropriated in baptism. He then follows logically by arguing the incompatibility of human wisdom with the divine wisdom of God (1 Co. 1:18ff.). By human standards the presentation of the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but the power of God unto salvation to those who believe. Paul then uses this argument to set revealed truth as the one centering on Christ and his atoning death over against the human philosophical and religious wisdom (1 Co. 1:24).

The Corinthians’ pursuit of human-centered wisdom and the factionalism that it has caused is descriptively referred to as “carnal” (sarkikos). Through their behavior, the Corinthians have demonstrated not only their spiritual immaturity, but their incapability to understand the deeper spiritual truths (1 Co. 3:1-4).


The Problem of Sexual Immorality

Paul takes up the matter of sexual impropriety as an evil that does not belong in a Christian congregation (1 Co. 5:1-5). He uses the Greek word porneia to describe loose and licentious living. He rebukes the church for failing to act appropriately in relation to such flagrant displays of immorality. Rather than take pride in such unacceptable behavior, the church should rather engage in a mournful reflection. He instructed the Corinthian congregation to excommunicate the offender.

The purity of such discipline is the restoration of holiness to the community, symbolized in the removal of leaven in the celebration of the OT Passover, which is fulfilled in Christ, ‘our Passover Lamb’ (1 Co. 5:6-8). He reminds the church that to enter into union with a prostitute is to become one flesh with her, which is contradictory to a believer’s union with Christ (1 Co. 6:16).


Abuse of the Lord’s Supper

Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ abuse of the Lord’s Supper represents a significant teaching on sacramental theology. The focus of his response is to reclaim the real significance of the Supper as a memorial of the Lord’s sacrificial death. He does this by making recourse to the “tradition,” the tradition of the Last Supper when the Lord shared the bread and the cup with his disciples as a symbolic representation of his body and the new covenant in his blood. The “bread,” representing the body of Christ, points to a constant reminder of his sacrificial death for all. Likewise the “cup,” signifying the new covenant in Christ’s blood, inaugurates a new relationship between God and His people.

Paul’s teaching is that salvation through the sacrificial death of Christ has created a new community of people who have now become the new people of God. It is a community where those who share at the table of the Lord are brought into a unity with one another where social distinctions cannot be allowed to exist. The exhortation for the Corinthians is for self examination before coming to the table lest they come under divine judgment. 


Misunderstanding of Spiritual Gifts

Paul does not challenge the Corinthians’ understanding of the divine origin of gifts. Rather, his primary purpose is to correct the misunderstanding that undergirds their inordinate zeal for tongues so that the people might begin to understand spiritual gifts as God-given and for specific community function. In his effort to curb this misguided zeal for spirituality, Paul begins by offering a criterion for distinguishing between a frenzied ecstasy and a legitimate enthusiasm. A legitimate enthusiasm affirms the Lordship of Jesus, whereas ecstasy generates behavior hostile to the affirmation of Jesus’ Lordship. Consequently, his emphasis shifted from the “spiritually gifted” (pneumatika) to God’s “gifts of grace” (charisma).

All Christians are endowed with diverse gifts for the common good (sympheron) of the church. The emphasis, therefore, is that if the community is truly to be “of the Spirit” (1 Co. 12:4-30), then it must embrace the diverse manifestations of gifts without recourse to individualism or pride. Since the believers are united into one body through the Lord’s Supper, then they ought in their everyday lives to live as members of the one body and realize the unity of the one body.

The motivating factor for seeking spiritual gifts, therefore, must be for the love of the community and to serve the faith, without which the gift counts for nothing (1 Co. 13:1-13). He concludes by exhorting the Corinthians to be motivated to seek after intelligible utterances and order (1 Co. 14:1-25, 26-40), so that through that the church might be built up (1 Co. 14:1-19, 26-33) and outsiders converted (1 Co. 14:20-25).

Let me conclude momentarily by reminding us the motivation for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” series and for taking this classical route. It is needless repeating the obvious that the pattern of church expansion in Nigeria is out of the ordinary. Unfortunately, this has not translated into any meaningful gain whether in theological, moral, or civil terms. It is indeed appropriate to infer that the Nigerian church, much like the Corinthian congregation, is like a tiny boat tossed about in a vast sea of carnality, corruption and everything ungodly. The Nigerian church, without any doubt, is presently poised at a “strategic inflection point” where discernible strengths and limitations must be juxtaposed with a fresh articulation of the task and role of the church in both kingdom and nation building.

My desire is to identify a “hermeneutical key” that points in the way of the obligation to context and Scripture. This is where the extensive discussions on the various problems of the apostolic churches provide the hermeneutical principles for the contemporary church. Although “we cannot turn to the past for solutions to the problems of the present, it is possible to find in the past analogues to the situations and circumstances in the present which raise some of the perennial questions that Christian reflection in every age is required to handle” (Kwame Bediako, 1992:427).

Not only do we find “analogues” in the past but the answers that were given in the past may illuminate the path of the modern inquirer after solutions to the problems of the present. Problems such as paganism, cultural identification, worldview allegiances, sexual immorality, nominality, and materialism are not new developments but phenomena that had prominence even in ancient times. What I hope to do as we continue on this journey of “faith seeking understanding” is to apply the answers that were given in the past as hermeneutical principles in our attempt to identify what it means to be a church that is biblical, missional, and contextual for Nigeria today.


(Next series: The Church in the Epistle to the Ephesians)

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