Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 1 Corinthians

Apostolic authority mediated by letter

Paul recognizes that the effectiveness of the apostles’ ministry depends on God, saying, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6). Yet he also believes that his ministry occupies a unique and honored place in the Corinthian church: “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel” (1 Corinthians 4:15). Paul further regards his own word as authoritative for the Corinthian church even in his absence. For example, he directs the church to recognize that he is with them in spirit and to carry out a judgment he has “already pronounced” against a member of the church (1 Corinthians 5:3-5).

The mind of Christ

Some of the Corinthians are taking pride in their superior knowledge. Paul turns the tables on this sense of superiority by claiming first that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:25) and later that knowledge of “the gifts bestowed on us by God” comes from the Holy Spirit, which is itself a gift from God (1 Corinthians 2:12). In this context, Paul writes, “We have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16). Elsewhere, Paul makes it clear that the mind of Christ is the disposition of one who embodies a concern for others by practicing humility and self-giving love (see Philippians 2:1-11).

Opinion in Paul’s letters

Paul’s teaching on divorce comes in the context of his response to questions that the Corinthians had about whether Christianity required abstinence from sex between spouses. Paul denies this and nonetheless counsels unmarried people and widows to stay unmarried. He also counsels married people to stay married. He differentiates his teaching on the subjects of divorce and ongoing marriage (1 Corinthians 7:10-13) into two categories: advice that comes from the Lord and advice that he is giving apart from any word of the Lord on the matter. The passage demonstrates that Paul himself did not understand all of his words to have the equal authority.

Paul’s view of women

Students of Paul’s letters disagree about whether Paul supported women as full participants in the church and in ministry. The evidence in 1 Corinthians is mixed. On the one hand, Paul nearly always speaks to both sexes when he is speaking to one, and mutual respect between the sexes is a persistent theme in the letter. See, for example, his directions about marriage and singleness in 1 Corinthians 7. When Paul does speak hierarchically of men and women in 1 Corinthians 11, even he seems uncomfortable with the direction his argument is going, and so he says, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man or man independent of woman” (1 Corinthians 11:11). On the other hand, 1 Corinthians 14:34-36 dictates that women remain silent during worship. Furthermore, when Paul reports the tradition he received about Christ’s resurrection (see 1 Corinthians 15:3-8), he fails to mention the presence of women at the tomb though they are the first witnesses to the resurrection in every other New Testament report of the event. Was the presence of women a detail of the story Paul did not know, or did he know it and choose not to report it? We cannot say. In any case, Paul was most likely neither an early feminist nor any more suspicious of women than we would expect any classically trained first-century Jewish Christian male to be.

Pollution of the body

Both with respect to individual bodies and with respect to the church as the body of Christ, Paul exhorts the Corinthians to guard against pollution. He argues that a Christian engaging in sexual activity with a prostitute joins the body of Christ to the body of the prostitute (1 Corinthians 6:15-18). Christians are to avoid eating meat that had been offered to idols since doing so may encourage other Christians, who still worry about the power of an idol, to take up the practice and thus defile their own consciences (1 Corinthians 8:7). He counsels women prophets to cover their heads, apparently because he believes that the angels might be drawn to the bodies of prophets in an ecstatic state (1 Corinthians 11:10). Paul is not repelled by the human body. In fact, he will argue forcefully in this letter for the resurrection of the body, against those who would prefer the language of a soul’s or spirit’s immortality to a body’s resurrection. He is, however, concerned that human bodies be kept apart from polluting influences.

Present-day relevance of occasional letters

All of Paul’s letters were inspired by particular occasions within the shared life of first-century believers in Christ. To read the letters in the New Testament is to read someone else’s mail. Does it make sense to expect these letters to have meaning and relevance for people who are hundreds of years away from the events and the cultural norms of the communities to which these letters were first addressed? First Corinthians focuses this question more vividly than some of Paul’s other writing since much of this letter is addressing particular questions put to Paul in a letter from the Corinthians. Reading 1 Corinthians requires us to decide how an apostle’s comments on issues like whether to eat meat that had been offered to idols, or how long someone’s hair should be, are authoritative, or even meaningful, for later Christian communities. Of course, such decisions have been part of reading Paul’s letters since the earliest addressees copied and shared the letters beyond their own communities. Over the centuries, Christians have recognized the contingent nature of Paul’s writing and nonetheless continued to read these letters to inform their life together.

Quotations from the Corinthians

It is not always clear at what point Paul is quoting those who disagree with him in Corinth, and whether-when he quotes them-he is agreeing with their position or not. At several points in the letter, Paul is probably quoting either the Corinthians’ letter to him or common phrases that he knows from them. These points are:
•    1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23 (“All things are lawful”)
•    1 Corinthians 6:13 (“Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food”)
•    1 Corinthians 7:1 (“It is well for a man not to touch a woman”)
•    1 Corinthians 8:1 (“All of us possess knowledge”)
•    1 Corinthians 8:4 (“No idol in the world really exists” and “there is no God but one”)
In most of these cases, Paul agrees with an element of the saying and then qualifies the statement or draws implications from it in ways that are different from what the Corinthians have meant by it.

The time is short

Much of Paul’s ethical advice in 1 Corinthians 6 and 7 grows out of his conviction that the time until Christ’s return to judgment is short. He counsels married and unmarried people to maintain their current status. He also counsels slaves not to work to earn their freedom, though they may “make the most of the opportunity” for freedom if it presents itself (1 Corinthians 7:21, NET translation). In Paul’s view, “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31), and a new form is emerging in which social institutions like marriage and slavery will not have any meaning in human life. Given that Christians continue to await the return of Christ to judgment, the premise of Paul’s argument at this point in the letter turned out not to be true, at least not as he expected.