The patient way that the apostle Paul dealt with the problems that had arisen in the Church at Corinth gives us an example that can guide us when we think we perceive problems in the Church. His humility shows us the attitude that we, too, should manifest, and his ongoing forbearance gives us an inkling of the time-span over which we also might need to remain patient.
The Starting Assumption
(Note: all Biblical quotations below are from the NET Bible, © 1996-2005 Biblical Studies Press).
Consider Paul’s words that follow immediately after his opening salutation in 1 Corinthians:
I always thank my God for you because of the grace of God that was given to you in Christ Jesus. For you were made rich in every way in him, in all your speech and in every kind of knowledge –just as the testimony about Christ has been confirmed among you – so that you do not lack any spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor. 1:4-9)
Paul is about to enter into a long struggle to correct errors of doctrine and practice that had crept into the Corinthian Church, but he does so from the premise that the Corinthians are true believers in whom the Holy Spirit is working, and that God Himself is committed to enabling them to stand firm. Paul of course personally knows the people of Corinth, but I am convinced from his whole process with the Corinthians that he would have acted in the same with a Church whose people he knew only by reputation.
There is another factor, too, that would have been part of Paul’s understanding from the beginning, even though he does not put it into words until the closing chapters of 2 Corinthians:
…[some] people are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness… (2 Cor. 11:13-15)
As is clear from reading the whole of 2 Corinthians 11, Paul does not mean that everyone who is swayed into adopting a pernicious doctrine is him or herself a false apostle. There is a battle for souls going on, during which even some of the saints may be temporarily deceived. The right response is not to excommunicate forthwith every holder of the wrong doctrine but – to the degree that God has laid a responsibility on you – to fight for their soul, even at considerable cost to yourself.
How the Assumption is Played Out
1) Divisions Around Particular Leaders (1 Cor. Chapters 1-4)
Paul describes the error (chapter 1:10-12), then over the next 3½ chapters delivers teaching that aims to call the Corinthians back to their foundation in Christ. He Intermixes reproof with the teaching, and chapter 4 ends with a stern warning, but even there the warning is tempered with love (4:14), and as the saga continues to unfold we discover that Paul will again and again postpone the exercise of Apostolic discipline, hoping instead that the message will get through and those in error will come to their senses.
2) A Heinous Moral Error (1 Cor. 5)
Here, the issue is black-and-white. It is not that the Corinthians have been misled by the spirit of the times, they have run ahead of that spirit and condoned a relationship that even the world around them thinks is scandalous. Paul gives no latitude here; the Corinthian Church is called upon to act immediately and decisively. As usual, Paul couples his injunction with teaching that turns the readers’ eyes back to Christ: “Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. So then, let us celebrate the festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of vice and evil, but with the bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.”
As we will see over again, Paul’s nouthetic method is not to say, “What you are doing is disgusting – stop it.” Instead he says, in effect, “Please, please see how badly your action injures Christ and harms his body, the Church.” Indeed, if someone refuses to see and does not repent excommunication must happen, but Paul’s first desire is always that we should see.
3) Legal Disputes and Fraudulent Behaviour (1 Cor. 6:1-11)
Much needs to be said about this passage because of the relevance of its final paragraph to the present controversy – so much that I will not try to do so here. I will come back to it in a later posting.
In the meantime, I appeal to readers on both sides of the controversy not to prejudge what I might say!
4) Another Moral Error (1 Cor. 6:12-20)
Here Paul deals with a misunderstanding of what our freedom in Christ means. Yet again, Paul tries to direct his reader’s thoughts to their relationship with Christ, and their debt to Him:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that anyone who is united with a prostitute is one body with her? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But the one united with the Lord is one spirit with him. Flee sexual immorality! “Every sin a person commits is outside of the body” – but the immoral person sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price. Therefore glorify God with your body.
5) Meat Offered to Idols (1 Cor. Chapters 8-10)
Paul approaches this divisive problem in two ways. He does does not challenge the freedom, as such, that Christians have to eat meat that has been offered to idols, a freedom that some in Corinth had clearly grasped and some had not. The first lesson that Paul teaches, therefore, is that we must use such freedoms – if we use them at all – in a way that does no harm to the wider body of Christ: “…by your knowledge the weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed. If you sin against your brothers or sisters in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”
Chapter 9 gives us an example of this principle in action, in Paul’s refusal to require financial support from his churches, even though as an apostle to do so he had every right to do so.
Having given in chapters 8 and 9 one important reason for the Corinthians to change their behaviour, Paul then in chapter 10 gives an even more sobering one, in case any in Corinth are tempted to extrapolate their freedom into liberty even to be present at pagan rites:
So then, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I am speaking to thoughtful people. Consider what I say. Is not the cup of blessing that we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread that we break a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all share the one bread. Look at the people of Israel. Are not those who eat the sacrifices partners in the altar? Am I saying that idols or food sacrificed to them amount to anything? No, I mean that what the pagans sacrifice is to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot take part in the table of the Lord and the table of demons.
6) Selfish Divisions at the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-33)
I will bypass the first part of chapter 11 because of the disagreement that exists about how it applies in the modern church. The message of the second part, though, is clear: “Now when you come together at the same place, you are not really eating the Lord’s Supper. For when it is time to eat, everyone proceeds with his own supper. One is hungry and another becomes drunk,” and, “the one who eats and drinks without careful regard for the body eats and drinks judgment against himself.”
Paul’s corrective is yet again to turn his readers’ attention to the fundamentals, this time to the solemn meaning of the sacrament, so that, “whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.”
7) Jealousies About Spiritual Gifts (1 Cor. Chapters 12-14)
In chapters 12 and 14 Paul gives teaching that is aimed to correct the Corinthians’ understanding of the function and purpose of the different gifts. In those two chapters, he repeatedly directs the readers’ attention to their part in the body of Christ and their responsibility to it, for example: “God has blended together the body, giving greater honor to the lesser member, so that there may be no division in the body, but the members may have mutual concern for one another.” (12:24-25) and “Since you are eager for manifestations of the Spirit, seek to abound in order to strengthen the church” (14:12). In those chapters he gives teaching that addresses the specific issue, but he places them either side of what we know as chapter 13, where he gives even more profound instruction; exhortation that is applicable to every eventuality that the Corinthians – or any believer – might meet in their life.
8) Denial of the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15)
Here, Paul gives teaching that contradicts the error and couples it with a firm reproof: ‘Do not be deceived: “Bad company corrupts good morals.” Sober up as you should, and stop sinning! For some have no knowledge of God – I say this to your shame!’ (15:33-34), Nevertheless, he does not demand excommunication of those holding the errant belief. It is evident that he intends to allow time for the readers, even those whose faulty belief and immoral behaviour demonstrate the paucity of their knowledge of God, to reflect on the teaching he has given and mend their belief and their actions.
Do you see a common thread here in the way Paul has approached all of these problems? We are not islands unto ourselves; as believers in Christ, every step that we take and every word that we speak and every sentence we write must be done in an awareness of our relationship and Christ and our interconnectedness with every other believer in His body, the Church. He does not seek mere “tick the right boxes” obedience from his readers; he wants to see them transformed by the renewing of their minds.
Paul dispatched this letter, full of such wise counsel so lovingly framed, and it was not received well. In Part II of this essay, I hope to explore what we can learn from Paul’s actions as he dealt with the ongoing recalcitrance of the Corinthian Church.