It is unfortunate that churches often take on the divisive character of our world today. Our Lord Jesus desires that we be unified around His stated priorities for the church He promised to build.
Division exists in churches for many reasons. Strident individualism fueled by antiauthoritarian dispositions is a main concern in churches dotting the landscape of the United States. We accommodate the divisive political culture around us. We treat religion just like we treat politics. Rather than taking the place of a submissive learner before the feet of Jesus, we raise the banner of our favored brand of theology victoriously over the heaps of people we’ve disputed and defeated.
Our churches vacillate between stifling legalism in certain camps and licentious liberty in others. Our churches are filled with people struggling with sexual immorality made readily available through technology and immodest talk and dress. We have allowed the world to redefine marriage. Denominations once faithful are ordaining homosexual pastors.
We might conclude all of this is new territory for the church. But just a few years after Paul wrote to a church he planted a few decades after the ascension of Christ, he addresses these difficulties and many more. Problems in churches today are not new. They are the same problems which stymied the first century church in Corinth.
Strident individualism and antiauthoritarianism? Paul struggled with Corinth because that though he was their biggest problem. The church rejected apostolic authority. If that can happen, what hope does the 21st Century pastor have?
If Corinth readily rejected Paul, they would have no problem rejecting his God-breathed theology. They would lose the true gospel for a false gospel.
The Corinthian believers thought they were spiritual, but they doubted Paul was. We learn in 1 Corinthians that these believers experience the power of the Holy Spirit in outward, visible ways not experienced today. The Corinthians thought that their unique giftedness put them on par with the angels. This is how they defined spirituality. The Corinthians saw themselves as spiritual even as the angels are spiritual. Three phrases in the letter divide it into three major sections.
- “If anyone among you seems to be wise” (3.18)
- “If anyone thinks he knows” (8.2)
- “If anyone thinks himself to be …spiritual” (14.37)
There are three key concepts in these phrases: wisdom, knowledge, and spirituality. All three are misunderstood and consequently misapplied by the Corinthians.
The Corinthian believers are so blinded by their arrogance that they tolerate gross sexual immorality described in chapter five. They were deeply affected by Greek philosophy and dualism. Prevailing Greek philosophy taught that the physical, material world was bad and the spiritual, non-material world was good. Believers in Corinth adapted this thinking to Christianity in varying degrees. Their novel theology led them toward self-deception. Once they think they have arrived and are beyond the Apostle Paul, he confronts them about glaring weaknesses that demonstrated otherwise.
Paul had an accurate self-image. He saw himself as hungry, thirsty, poorly clothed, beaten, and homeless. This is the way it is for those who identify with Christ. That is so hard for us. We don’t like the narrow way confining us to a life of suffering. We like to see ourselves as already full, rich, and reigning as kings. Paul gently prods us back to the narrow way through the apparent contrast between the Corinthian lifestyle and his own.
We struggle for the same reasons the Corinthians struggled. We accommodate the world around us. This world affects us even as the Greek city of Corinth affected these 1st Century believers.
We call it the Church at Corinth. As I understand it, many house churches existed within the city. It seems that wealthy patrons helped to support these churches. Blocks of house churches seem to favor certain preachers and teachers. They divide into various factions and gloat about them. The well-to-do being to abuse the poor and struggling, even making a mockery out of the Lord’s Table.
Paul will turn his attention to the conduct within the Corinthian church. He offers a corrective for them. By doing this, Paul runs the risk of being finally rejected by them. But Paul’s faithful stewardship and responsibility is before God not men.