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What's Going on in Corinth? (1)

Why is 1 Corinthians such a mixed bag of instructions that seem to contradict each other? Are women and men to be mutual partners in marriage?

Are women to speak and prophesy publicly or be silent?

What is Paul's advice to reduce the divisions in the congregations?

Does Paul discuss mutual dependence and equality?

Let's examine the most common contradictions and controversies.


temple of apollo in Corinth
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d3/Temple_of_Apollo%2C_Corinth%2C_203010.jpg

Corinth

Corinth is a busy trade city in ancient Achaia (today's Greece). It is the port city on the Ionian Sea (facing Italy). just ten km from Cenchraea, the port city on the Aegean Sea (facing Ephesus). It became a Roman colony in 44 BC and became the governmental seat for Achaia. It had a Roman theatre, public baths, a gymnasium triumphal arch. It featured a great Temple to the Greek god Apollo (built approximately 550 BC). The temple of the Greek goddess Aphrodite had a thousand temple prostitutes. Corinth held places of worship for other Greek and Roman gods and Jewish synagogues. Ancient Corinth had a reputation for vulgarity, lechery, fornication and materialism (1)


Paul in Corinth

Paul's 2nd missionary journey, from AD 50-52 is described in Acts 16-18. Paul travelled to Macedonia where quite a few prominent women and some God-fearing Greeks became believers. When Paul was persecuted, believers in Berea helped Paul flee to Athens. There, Paul spoke to the Council of the Aeropagus and some of them became followers, including a prominent woman named Damaris. Paul went through Cenchraea to Corinth, where he stayed a year and a half. On the way from Athens to Corinth, he met Phoebe in Cenchraea and she became a benefactor to Paul. While in Corinth, Paul met the Jewish followers of The Way, Prisca and Aquilla, who moved to Corinth when Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome, sometime between AD 48-50. Paul also met Chloe, a native of Corinth who became a leader and hosted a congregation in her home. It appears Paul made a vow before Phoebe since he let his hair grow as long as he kept the vow and returned to Cenchraea to cut his hair and complete the vow before leaving Achaia. Paul, Prisca and Aquilla went to Ephesus, where Prisca heard Apollo preaching and took him aside, explaining and teaching Apollo the way of God more fully. Then Apollo went to Corinth and Athens. Paul returned to Jerusalem and then his sending church in Syrian Antioch. He set out on his 3rd missionary journey AD 52-54, spending over two years in Ephesus. While Paul is in Ephesus and receives a report from Chloe in Corinth; delivered by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor 16 17) who also bring Paul Chloe's supplies for Paul. The letter called 1 Corinthians is Paul's reply to Chloe's report. This letter was specifically concerned with a local church and the issues it faced.


I divide my discussion of 1 Corinthians into 6 sections.

This is part 1 of 6, covering Chapters 1-4 and discussing divisions in the body of believers. Paul advises not to fight among ourselves, criticizing those who follow one teacher or another, but instead to focus on Jesus Christ, the foundation and beginning of our faith, and be unified in Jesus.


1 Corinthians 1: Divisions in the Body of Christ

Paul greets his friends and commends their faithfulness, noting that they are not missing any spiritual gifts. Paul confirms that believers in Corinth were called by God to partner with Jesus, our Lord. Paul refers to a report from Chloe's people about how they are fighting with one another, claiming to follow various apostles as opposed to following Christ.  Paul encourages the brothers and sisters to be of one mind and purpose, not to be divided into rival groups.

Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift (1 Corinthians 1:7).

Paul says the world does not come to know God through its wisdom but through foolishness. The message of salvation through the cross seems foolish to the world.

We honour Christ who was crucified as a criminal, which seems foolish to the world, but to believers, Christ is God's power and wisdom" (v.24). God chose what the world considers foolish to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong, and the low-class to reduce those who are puffed up (v. 27-28).  Our gender or race does not grant power or authority. We are saved because of God. God makes us righteous. God delivers us. If we brag, we should brag in the Lord. Jesus is the source of power to love others more than ourselves.

For it has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by members of Chloe’s people, that there is rivalry among you (1 Corinthians 1:11).

Egalitarian Reflections:

In this opening chapter, Paul tells Corinthian followers of The Way that as a congregation, they do not lack any spiritual gift. There is no gender specified for particular spiritual gifts. Men and women must both fully employ their gifts to build up the body as God intended.Paul opens by reinforcing how Jesus overturned hierarchies. God chose Paul, a persecutor of the faith, to be a great preacher of the faith. God chose women, who were dishonoured in the Greco-Roman culture, to deliver the Messiah and to be apostles to the apostles (Matthew 28:9-10, John 20:17-18). While women were not legal witnesses,


the Sword cards
Card 16 Excerpt from The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage

In my book, The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role, I present flashcards with opposing views. Card 16 shows the Egalitarian view that Chloe was a church leader who sent a delegation to Paul seeking his support in dealing with a disruptive, overbearing group of men. The Complementarian defence is that Chloe was a householder and a peacemaker submitting to Paul's authority.


Paul trusted the report from Chloe, not males in authority above Chloe, and he replied to her concerns in the letter called 1 Corinthians. She is identified as the head of a household and likely the head of a house church, and the report is sent by her people. It seems her people could refer to agents she sends, entrusting them to deliver her message to Paul. Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus do not give their own report but seem to be an official delegation sent by Chloe. They are Chloe's people, letter carriers she sends to represent her, trusting them to deliver her message to Paul. He respects Chloe's position as a Corinth church host who has influence among believers there and who sends emissaries to Paul.


1 Corinthians 2: God's Wisdom

Paul came to Corinth and focussed only on preaching Jesus, the Christ, crucified and risen. Paul says he did not come to Corinth with great wisdom, confidence, or expert speech, but with God's Spirit. Likewise, Paul wants our faith to depend not on human wisdom but on God's power. God's wisdom has been a great mystery hidden from humans but now God has revealed it to us through the Spirit. We have the mind of Christ and God's Spirit so that we can know the things God shows us. Spiritual things seem foolish to the unspiritual; the world does not understand.

...we declare God’s wisdom, a mystery that has been hidden and that God destined for our glory... (1 Corinthians 2:7)

Paul fears that the Corinthians may be deceived by great speakers who boast they are superior to Paul, and perhaps take money from the people. Paul acknowledges he is an untrained speaker, but confirms he is not inferior and has knowledge (2 Corinthians 11:3-6). Being humble does not mean debasing your own value, but holding an accurate assessment of yourself.


Egalitarian Reflections:

Speakers and leaders are not chosen by human wisdom or earthly credentials but by God's Spirit. Throughout the history of Israel, God's Spirit revealed mysteries through both male and female prophets. God reveals a great mystery to men and women through Jesus.


1 Corinthians 3: Christ is our Foundation

When you have jealousy and fighting, you are living foolishly, like unspiritual people without God's Spirit. When Chloe's ambassadors informed Paul that there were quarrels among the Corinthians based on whether they followed Paul, Apollos, Peter, or Christ, Paul said the church should not be divided over leaders because all are following Christ. Each apostle is only a servant and God assigns each a task: Paul said he planted the seed of faith in Corinth and Apollos watered it and God made it grow; we are co-workers in God's service (v. 4-9). Paul laid the foundation of Jesus Christ, and others are building on top of it. Each one's work will be clearly shown (v. 13). Paul doesn't want rivals to honour human leaders or teachers but to honour Jesus, first and foremost. Paul warns people against destroying God's temple: other people. If you think you are wise, you should become foolish so you can rely on God's wisdom. Paul respects other apostles, evangelists, and church leaders as co-workers.

... their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work (1 Corinthians 3:13).

Egalitarian Reflections:

God assigns each woman and man a task; women and men will be accountable for what they build. The foundation is Jesus, not human apostles. Each believer is God's temple, a house for God's Spirit. Believers should not abuse, hurt, or limit fellow believers, male or female. Believers should not claim they have earned large crowds of followers or jealously guard their individual following.

Everything is already yours as a gift... and you are privileged to be in union with Christ, who is in union with God (1 Corinthians 3:21-23).

Paul warns men not to brag about being more important than other men (or more important than women). No one should brag about who is following whom or what belongs to whom. Jesus is our authority, not men or women. Remember that you follow Jesus, and everything belongs to God. Paul will be returning to this concept of mutuality, saying that women are to honour men, men are to honour women, but everything belongs to God.


Egalitarian Reflections

This warning seems to apply to televangelists and mega-church pastors who may be tempted to feel more important as individuals, as opposed to accepting their influence as a gift from God. While we may choose to worship in a variety of Christian traditions, those who build on the foundational belief of Jesus, the risen Christ, are one body. It hurts the universal church to say that one denomination is right and another is wrong. Paul says that believers in Jesus are brothers and sisters.


1 Corinthians 4: Apostles as Servants

This, then, is how you ought to regard us: as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries God has revealed (1 Corinthians 4:1).

It is arrogant to support one teacher over another. We cannot brag about what we teach, since we teach only what is received from God or other people. Do not judge one another, because God will reveal all the hidden secrets and motivations and recognize and judge accordingly. Paul talks about being hungry, thirsty, wearing rags, being homeless, insulted, harrassed, and abused, yet responding with a blessing. Some have been arrogant, criticizing Paul for not coming to Corinth. Paul is willing to be weak to show the power of God.


Egalitarian Reflection: Paul tells men and women believers to be faithful managers of the great mystery God has entrusted with us.


Conclusion

In Chapters 1-4 of 1 Corinthians, Paul tells believers to avoid loyalty to competing teachers or factions, remembering that Jesus is the foundation of our faith. Today, this means that no matter which denomination of Christ-follower you choose for worship, you can cooperate and not condemn Christ-followers who worship in another tradition. It means that the Bible is not our foundation but the risen Christ is our foundation. No matter which portions of Scripture you take literally or as metaphor or allegory, belief in Jesus is foundational. For those who are 'in Christ', there is no longer male or female. In these opening chapters, Paul shows his respect for women in Corinth: Chloe, a Corinth church host, Phoebe, a benefactor and overseer in nearby Cenchrae, and Prisca (Priscilla) a teacher and church planter who is now in Ephesus with Paul but was previously in Corinth. While it is foolish to the world, God overturns human hierarchies. Instead, God holds each of us, regardless of gender, accountable for using our spiritual gifts. We don't need to worry about whether the teaching comes from a man or woman because all wisdom comes from God.


  1. This is post 1 on 1 Corinthians, covering chapters 1-4.

  2. 1 Corinthians 5-7 discusses sex and morality in Corinth

  3. 1 Corinthians 8-10 discusses Christian freedom in Corinth.

  4. 1 Corinthians 11 discusses public worship in Corinth.

  5. 1 Corinthians 12-14 discusses Spiritual Gifts in Corinth.

  6. 1 Corinthians 15-16 discusses Christ's Resurrection, the Cornerstone of our Faith


Sources

  1. Miller, Stephen M. “1 Corinthians.” The Complete Guide to the Bible, Barbour, Uhrichsville, OH, 2007, pp. 386–393.



 

Elaine Ricker Kelly empowers women at home, church and society by advocating for equality for all people based on the Bible. She was an investment and insurance advisor for thirty years and has three grown daughters. Elaine R. Kelly lives near Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, with her husband and enjoys hiking, tennis, music, history and culture.

Books by Elaine Ricker Kelly:

Forgotten Followers from Broken to Bold  - biblical fiction offering hope and healing to anyone who feels forgotten, belittled, or out of place.

The Sword: A Fun Way to Engage in Healthy Debate on What the Bible Says About a Woman's Role - a non-fiction book of 104 flashcards with an objective, memorable look at the rationale for diverse views on gender roles.






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