“Be Perfectly Joined Together” (1 Corinthians 1-7) #BCCSundaySchool2019

Sometime ago–I won’t say where or when–I was in a ward that got swept up in parties where people were expected to buy stuff. The two brands I remember most were “Creative Memories” and “Pampered Chef”–and something about Chinese magnets that were supposed to realign your feng shui or some such thing. Lots of people were into these businesses, and, for a few months, it seemed that there was a “party” every week or so that doubled as a ward activity

Except that it didn’t. Only a certain kind of ward member got invited to these parties–specifically, ward members with disposable incomes. Or maybe these were the only people who accepted the invitations, which would also make sense. Since there was a lot of pressure to buy things at these social gatherings, those who could not afford to buy things would eventually take themselves out of the party pool rather than have to come, week after week, to display their poverty.

Anyway, the situation got bad enough that the bishop, from the pulpit, told people to knock it off, and pretty soon things went back to normal. But for three or four months, I got to catch a glimpse of how a seemingly good thing like inviting people in the ward to parties got transformed into a community-killing social separation between people with substantial disposable income and people without it.

I got to see, in other words, exactly what Paul was talking about in his first letter to the Corinthians.

If the Romans is the great Pauline letter about theology (and it most certainly is the great Pauline letter about theology), the First Corinthians is the great Pauline letter about community. It is an instruction manual for the ekklesia, or the religious community, and I am continually amazed at how little tweaking it takes to apply Paul’s advice to the Modern Church.

Before we launch into the text, let’s foreground two considerations that we should keep in mind while reading First Corinthians:

  • Even though First Corinthians is placed in the middle of the New Testament, it was actually one of the first texts written. It’s likely composition date of 53-55 CE would make it, chronologically, the third New Testament text, after the two letters to the Thessolonians. Keep in mind, then, that Paul was writing to a very young Church that did not have any other scriptural texts–the first of the Gospels was still ten years away. So this letter could well have been the only written Christian text that they had.
  • Corinth, a Greek City and an important port in the Roman Empire, was urban, multicultural, diverse, and a thousand miles or so away from Jerusalem. It had very little contact with the rest of the Church, and it was made up of new converts from all walks of life. Among the most important fault lines in the congregation were: Jews vs Greeks; brand new converts vs only sort-of-new converts; and, wealthy Christians vs poor Christians.
  • Paul’s letter is a direct response to a letter that he received “by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you” (1 Cor 1:11) We know very little about the woman named Chloe (though we know that it was definitely a woman’s name), but we can infer that she was both an important member of the community and a source that Paul trusted. Almost everything we know about the congregation in Corinth has to be inferred from Paul’s letter–which makes reading it sort of like listening to one side of a telephone conversation.

So, with all of that in mind, let’s look at the executive summary of Chloe’s letter that Paul gives is in 1 Cor 1:11: THAT THERE ARE CONTENTIONS AMONG YOU. Just about everything that Paul says in the letter can be traced back to this fact: the congregation of Corinth was not functioning as a community. It had become a place of divisions and hierarchies, which were being turned into spiritual principles. Paul addresses this right out of the gate:

Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I of Apollos; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were ye baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. (1:12-15)

It is possible (and I think it likely) that this division reflected the division between Jewish converts and pagan converts that is referenced so frequently in the Book of Acts. “Cephas,” or “Rock” is a reference to Peter, and, for some time at least, Peter and Paul represented, respectively, the two sides of the circumcision debate, or the argument over the question, “do non-Jews who convert to Christianity also have to practice Judaism.” It would make sense that this was an issue in Corinth too.


But more is going on here. Apollos was an early missionary, aligned with Paul, who baptized many of the Corinthians. But what appears to be happening here is that the Corinthians were ranking themselves and each other by who baptized them. Paul would have baptized only the very first Corinthians (Crispus and Giaus, he says). Those baptized by Apollo would have come later. It is very likely that–along with Jewish and non-Jewish converts–the Corinthians had divided along the lines of who had been Christians for the longest time.

But whatever the factions were, the important point is that factions existed in the Body of Christ, and Paul understood that this would eventually destroy the community that he set up. In one of the greatest rhetorical moves of the Bible, Paul attempts to bridge one (or more) of the gaps that seem to divide the community:

For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness; But unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty. (1:22-27)

Watch how Paul seeks to move beyond what was very likely the main fault line in the congregation: the division between religiously conservative Jews, who insisted that their traditions be observed; and philosophically sophisticated (and probably fairly liberal) Greeks, who insisted on using their reason to enhance their faith. One group likely saw the other group as dangerous and worldly, and the other group saw the first group as narrow, bigoted, and provincial. (Sound familiar?)

But Paul reminds them that they cannot use either “Jewish” or “Greek” as their primary identifier anymore. Christ is “a stumbling block” for the Jews and “foolishness” to the Greeks. The members of the Corinthian congregation have accepted Christ as their Redeemer, meaning they could no longer invoke either Jewish law or Greek philosophy to criticize each other. They had to focus on the values and beliefs that they shared and not the ideologies that defined them in other contexts. (Sound familiar?)

At the end of First Corinthians, Paul will deliver the magnificent sermon on the Body of Christ and the even magnificenter sermon on Charity, which are, appropriately, the most memorable passages in the letter. But these great sermons are part of a context that is part of the letter from the very beginning. The members of one of the first Christian congregations in the Roman Empire are too busy fighting with each other to build the Kingdom of God. Paul knew that this was a huge problem, and I suspect that he understood that it always would be.

Comments

  1. Funny the spending parties became a thing in your ward. They did in mine as well, but about 15 years ago. The bishop saw the danger early however and put a stop to them.
    I personally hated them. Talk about being quilted in buying something you do not want so “our friend Joanne can get her teapot”.

  2. I think I would have chosen another word than enhance to describe how the Greeks wished to incorporate their so-called knowledge and wisdom into their gospel covenants. Maybe modify the requirements of their faith. Enhance their standing in the community. Set themselves up as superior by elevating their worldly knowledge above the commandment to obtain charity.

  3. Well researched, thought-out and articulated essay. Thank you for taking the time to produce it. How desperately we need globally to think about shared values and common hopes and desires. For me Christ’s core teachings on love and the Golden Rule seem like something most all political and religious persuasions could get behind. And our church, as it continues to evolve could be that light that leads the way. But we have our own house to clean up first in what we teach and how we apply it.

  4. I love reading Paul, in part to note that the ancient church had so many problems that I see in the current church. While that could give rise to a defeatist mindset, to me it assured me that so many problems will always be with us, so just do your best to solve them and don’t get discouraged when they persist.

  5. “. . . they could no longer invoke either Jewish law or Greek philosophy to criticize each other. They had to focus on the values and beliefs that they shared and not the ideologies that defined them in other contexts.”

    This idea of not separating by ideology sometimes gets extrapolated to not identifying by truly distinguishing features. In the LDS practice this includes attempts to erase race and sexual orientation. As in Elder Bednar’s infamous “there are no homosexual members of the Church.”

    This is problematic. I do not believe Paul was interested in erasing real people.

  6. Regarding christiankimball’s comment, it seems to me that knowing where to draw the line on extraneous, divisive ideology is a problem that has no permanent solutions in the church. Cultural and political commitments, if they’re worth anything, must be informed to some extent by our faith, but our faith doesn’t dictate definite conclusions in these matters. That means we’ll always have people within the church opposed to each other on some cultural and political issues, and all sides will feel some religious justification for their commitments. On some issues it will be hard to see how, if at all, religious belief can be distinguished from political commitments. Because the salient cultural and political issues change over time, we might figure out today’s problem, only to find that our hard-earned wisdom is useless tomorrow.

    In the section of First Corinthians that Michael’s post covers, Paul emphasizes that Jewish and Greek Christians ought to recognize their common foundation in Jesus as the thing that unites them and transcends their differences. I believe, though, that this teaching is just a warm-up for a deeper and more powerful principle. In the second half of the epistle comes Paul’s teaching that faith, hope, and love are the only things that endure, and especially that love is the only reliable basis for a unified church. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (8:1) Belief in Jesus, or in the idea and doctrine of Jesus, is abstract enough that we can make it conform to what seems sensible to us. But love for living, breathing people, when we look them in the face, makes demands that we can’t so easily deny.

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