I Corinthians - A Call to Unity and Peaceful Living
Condition of the Church
"Division." It is one of the ugliest words in Christian theology. Many centuries of disputes and storms of heartbreak and frustration have arisen because of this unfortunate phenomenon in the history of the Church. Although the Church is the Body of Christ, baptized by the Holy Spirit, human pride and the love of preeminence may still force wedges between the body's members. While St. Paul was in Ephesus on his third missionary journey, some brethren from Chloe's household1 in Corinth had gone to the Apostle with the most troubling news. The Church he had labored so abundantly to organize in Corinth was being torn apart by factions and rivalry.
There were four main opposition parties.2 The first rallied behind Apollos, St. Paul's co-worker at Corinth, who was known for his eloquence and ornate speeches.3 They stuck out their chests in pride at this philosophical teacher, and despised the unadorned language of St. Paul's preaching. For them, Christianity was an exercise in logical analysis and debate, rather than a simple call to carry one's cross.
The second group claimed the authority of St. Peter, or as they called him, Cephas. These were Jewish believers who were loyal to the more "Judaic" Christianity of Jerusalem. They preferred to see Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and prophets—a Jewish gospel—rather than as the Savior of the Gentiles and of the world—a pauline gospel. Thus, they rejected the apostleship of St. Paul, asserting that since St. Peter was leader of the Twelve, and was given the keys to the Kingdom, he was their only true apostle.
The third group were those Corinthians who had remained loyal to St. Paul—their original evangelist and father in the faith. But despite their loyalty, he was dismayed at the use of his name on their party's banners. "Was Paul crucified for you?" he asks in agitation, "Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?"4 No; he was rather pained by their loyalty if it was used to buttress their factionalism.
Finally, there was the party of Christ: those who repudiated all human authority and claimed to be direct disciples of Christ. This group was self-made and self-maintained according to their own interpretation of the Gospel; they were the forerunners of our non-denominational churches, which disown any allegiance to Orthodox, Catholic or even Protestant doctrine, and claim direct understanding of the Holy Bible apart from human authority. They believe their churches to be of all the most pure and original and so reserve for themselves the simple title of "Christians".
It is worthwhile to note here that one of the greatest virtues of the Coptic Church is her visible unity. Now, there is probably no Church without its occasional internal strife; but on the whole, as an outward organization and body, the Church of Egypt displays a remarkable oneness of mind and practice. Virtually we all are quite fond of our patriarch; every bishop is certainly devoted to him; and there is a general harmony between a Coptic bishop and his diocesan priests. And the people—who are the "essence" of the Church—show an admirable trust in the wisdom and authority of their kleros (clergy). Exceptions can be found everywhere, of course; but it is probably not too much to say that, at least in this one respect, our Church today excels the very Church founded by St. Paul in Corinth. We are not "better" then they were; but the peace of the Holy Spirit has been allowed to rest more upon us now then on Corinth 2000 years ago. Let us not, however; grow vainglorious: the Corinthian church has two glorious epistles written by the great apostle in their name. We have no apostolic scripture addressed "To the Copts".
The other great spiritual dilemma the Corinthian church was the struggle against was the sins of the flesh. The wavering band of converts at Corinth had just come out of a heathenism which displayed itself in the vilest and most degraded forms. Sexual impurity was woven into the fabric of society, as it has also today; Corinth's licentiousness had become so notorious that it passed into a verb: "to Corinthianize" meant to commit fornication. The struggle to remain pure while surrounded by every type of corruption was immensely hard; the old life with its sins doubtless came back to their minds to harass them over and over again. What is more, St. Paul had been away from them for three years now while in Ephesus; and the absence of his encouraging words and noble presence was an added burden to their toils.
The Corinthians were in desperate need of guidance. The apostle decided that it was time to write them a letter of encouragement.
The fist letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians is, by the testimony of many scholars and teachers, one of the greatest books in all of Scripture. It is astonishingly diverse; it covers topics ranging from church unity – ch.1, to heavenly wisdom – ch.2, to sexual integrity – ch.5, to marriage – ch.7, to spiritual gifts – ch.12, to those two chapters which sparkle like gems on Love – ch.13, and Resurrection – ch.15. The epistle naturally divides into two main parts.
The first part (chs 1–6) is St. Paul's response to the discouraging report of the state of the Church he received in Ephesus. He begins with the most alarming issue, their divisions, and grants them the unflattering label of spiritual "babies".5 "Is Christ's body broken into fragments?" he asks indignantly. "Was Paul hung on the cross for you? Or were any of you baptized into the name of Paul?"6 And with admirable humility he asserts that both Apollos and Paul were nothing but slaves in God's garden, whereas God was the true Gardener.7 To what point, then, was all this rivalry, when they were all under the same Lord? Later church history shows just how much human opinion likes to exalt one human name against another; and had St. Paul known the divisions that were to rack Christ's Church in later centuries, he might well have begged God to take his life from the earth.
Not only this, but they were puffed up in their knowledge! As a Greek city, they highly valued eloquence, high-sounding rhetoric, and logical debate. But of human wisdom St. Paul thought little. It had not led the world to God, but was rather "foolishness" is God's estimate.8 All their haughty wisdom had accomplished was factions and sin; it had built up the Corinthians no more than the conceited wisdom of our modern universities build up believers today. Therefore, he was determined to "know nothing" among them except Christ and His cross.9 There is a profound wisdom in the Cross, he says, yet it is "hidden" in a "mystery"10 and can be understood only if one has the Holy Spirit.11
He goes on to offer them an encouraging word (despite their failures), and to announce that they were already full, already rich in Christ.12 He has not given up on them but offers his rebukes for their warning.13 There was one crime in particular that evoked his utter abhorrence: a member of the Corinthian church was openly living an incestuous life with his step-mother; and such behavior was unheard of among the heathen!14 He judges that such a one ought to be excommunicated; yet not in a spirit of wrath, but in love, that the brother might learn his lesson and repent.15 Finally, he rebukes them for the shameful report that some of them were suing their brethren in the public courts. Did it make any sense that they, who would one day "judge" the world in spiritual matters, should ask the heathen to judge among them in petty matters? They ought rather to humbly accept each other's wrongs and forgive.16
The second half of the epistle (chs 7–15) is essentially a set of answers the apostle gives to a letter (now lost) sent to him from the Corinthian church. There were a number of questions that perplexed them; and due to their inability to arrive at any solutions, they decided to request his apostolic guidance. He says they "wrote to him"17 and every time the words Now concerning…appear they introduce a new question they had asked.
He begins in chapter 7 with celibacy and marriage; the chapter is remarkable for its careful and modest tone. He gives the Corinthians freedom to remain with their unbelieving spouses; freedom to remain celibate if they have the gift; and freedom to marry a virgin or widow if it will protect against fornication. Although he personally prefers celibacy, he lays no such rule upon them. The point of marriage or chastity is moral freedom, so let each person do what is best for his or her own edification.
He goes on with the question of eating meat that were offered to idols. After quoting (by means of refutation) their self-satisfied remark that they "all had knowledge",18 and reminding them once again that knowledge puffs up but love edifies, he proceeds to prove that the idol is nothing, and the Christian has liberty to eat anything found in the marketplace. Yet, if eating meat could cause a weak brother to stumble, St. Paul would no longer eat meat for as long as he lived.19
They had asked questions about spiritual gifts; but it was probably Chloe's household that broke to him the disquieting news that their church services had degenerated into scenes that were so noisy, so wild, so disorderly, that there were times when a heathen would drop in and say that they were all mad. Men would rise and utter torrents of gibberish which no human ear could understand; then two or three preachers would rise and compete for the congregation's attention.20 The entire Church was torn apart by this unseemly display of "spiritual gifts"; and they were desperate for the apostle's words on the subject. In essence, his reply is that all such problems would disappear once the Church realized its unity in Christ's body. There might be diversities of gifts and ministries, but all were subject to the same Holy Spirit.21 And he would rather speak half-of-ten helpful words, then one-thousand-times-ten nonsense words.22 Above all, he wanted them to remember the greatest spiritual gift, which he describes to them in a divine and most heavenly chapter on LOVE.23
The epistle concludes with St. Paul's near plans in the Church and a few words of encouragement. But beforehand he pauses, takes a long breath of the air which was for him so saturated with God's presence, and proceeds to form the most magnificent statement ever written on the cardinal doctrine of the Christian faith: the Resurrection. Some of the Corinthians had accepted the monstrous idea that there is no resurrection of the dead.24 But Christ, St. Paul says, is the embodiment of all humanity; and therefore His resurrection and our resurrection are bound together. If Christ is not risen, then neither will we; and thus the whole faith on which the Church stands will crumble. "But now Christ is risen from the dead," and after those memorable words, he explains that just as Adam was the death of all men, so Christ is the life of all;25 and he goes on to describe what type of "body" will rise.26If during the life of St. Paul, he was endlessly besieged by troubles and anxieties and was to be pitied for his suffering more than most men; yet it is his singular reward to have been so gifted and enlightened by the Holy Spirit to articulate so clearly the Christian doctrine which has become the hope of the world.