Thoughts on 1 Cor

The first letter to the Corinthians contains two popularly-known texts: its paean on love in chapter 13, and its analogy of the body with many parts in chapter 12. (Interestingly, both these texts owe a certain debt to the common rhetoric of the time: praises of particular virtues were a common Stoic theme, and the analogy of the body for a community was a common trope of the time.) It contains two texts that are historically significant: the earliest surviving creed (15:3-5) and institution narrative of the Lord’s Supper (11:23-25). The warnings against misuse of the Lord’s Supper are important liturgical texts in some Protestant traditions that repeat these texts and leave the question of communion up to the recipient’s conscience, rather than stating explicit rules about who may and may not commune.

In its section on church order, it includes two texts that are problematic for women in the church (head covering, don’t speak). The discussion of eating meat offered to idols in chapter 8 is a foundational text for the doctrine of scandal in the Roman Catholic church, and the discussion of the proper uses of Christian freedom has also been influential, similar to the related text in Galatians.

The deprecation of glossolalia compared to other gifts, and the censure of those who treat it as some kind of special status marker, is a challenge to the Charismatic and Pentecostal movements today. The warning against treating those who have higher social or spiritual status as if they are superior to the rest of the community could arguably be considered relevant today for discussions of the proper relationship between laity and clergy, especially bishops; so could Paul’s discussion of how he chose not to exercise his rights in order to be a more effective teacher in the community.

Corinth was a thriving seaport city with the reputation for immorality common to such cities, to the point that “Corinthian” was a colloquial term meaning libertine. Paul founded the church in Corinth on his second missionary journey, according to Acts, and apparently wrote at least four letters to the church, of which this is the second. (The first did not survive; some scholars speculate that 2 Cor is a composite of the other two.) The occasion for this letter is the report, from several sources (who were “Chloe’s people”??), of factionalism to the point that the church in Corinth has become unrecognizable as a community of Christ in several important ways. Paul writes to chastise the Corinthians for these errors, to persuade them that they are indeed errors and explain the correct path, and to respond to several specific, practical questions that had come up in the community. One might describe the letter as an early document on faith and order.

The source and nature of the problems in Corinth that had doctrinal implications were that the Corinthians had apparently not been fully formed into their new identity as Christians, and so were susceptible to distortions of the gospel that were resonant with their previous pre-Christian practices. The factionalism of identifying with a particular baptizer, teacher, or preacher rather than with Christ resembles the common patron-client social pattern of the time. The problem with the celebration of the Lord’s Supper was that it had become just another dinner party, with the associated excesses and status displays. The overvaluing of certain spiritual gifts and their possessors, the denial of the resurrection of the body, and the moral indifference to sexual behavior were all consistent with the Greco-Roman worldview in which spirit was far superior to matter, and the soul was temporarily trapped in a material shell whose needs for food and sex were purely physical and therefore had no moral or spiritual significance.

Partisanship, status separations at the eucharist, and overvaluing the most dramatic spiritual gifts are all disorders of right relationship, and this is the context of chapter 13: love, specifically Christian self-giving love, is the ground of Christian relationship and therefore the remedy for these disorders. Paul’s use of the body as an analogy for the community also quietly counters the disdain for the body and sexuality, particularly in his comments about covering the less honorable parts in order to give them more honor.

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One Response to Thoughts on 1 Cor

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Healy’s “By the Working of the Holy Spirit”: The Crisis of Authority in the Christian Churches | Gaudete Theology

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