Paul first visited Corinth, a major city and seaport of Greece, around AD 50, and planted a church there. As usual he began preaching in the Synagogue, but was rejected there and moved to the nearby house of a Gentile convert called Titius Justus, which became the HQ of the new congregation. When in 51 AD the Jews tried to prosecute Paul, the new Roman consul ruled that the dispute was an internal Jewish matter, thus ensuring that the church, like the Synagogue, had the protection of the Roman authorities.
Although we only have two of them, there were actually three letters written to the Corinthian Christians: 1 Cor 5:9-11 speaks of a letter written previously. It seems also that the first four chapters of our 1 Corinthians were ready to dispatch when Paul received a further communication from the church, to which he replied in chapters 5 – 16. Our 2 Corinthians followed later.
The church was one which had some severe problems at its heart. Paul needs to address them on issues such as division and party spirit, Gnosticism, law-suits, immorality, family life, financial giving, the Eucharist, what love is all about, gifts of the Spirit, especially tongues and prophecy, and what happens when we die. The Corinthian church was one which did everything to extremes, from worship to incest. So it forms a pretty good agenda for any teaching series on Christian living today, in a society where many of the same issues remain hot topics.
1 Corinthians is the second letter from Paul which we have encountered on this journey, and we can immediately see a great contrast. In Romans he was setting out his stall, expounding the theology on which his preaching would be built if the church accepted him as their ‘missionary’. But here he is much more responsive to their agenda: several times we get the phrase ‘Now: about …’ they have clearly sent him a list of issues on which they want his opinions, and he goes through them systematically, dealing with each in turn.
The book is a rich store of purple passages. Chapter 13 on love, which you’ve heard at so many weddings, has nothing to do with marriage, as its context makes clear, and chapter 15 is well-used for funerals (and also the church crèche, which is dealt with in v 51). The teaching on the Body of Christ, which the church rediscovered in the 1970s, has revolutionised our lives, and of course the stuff on spiritual gifts has been used either to prove or disprove the appropriateness of charismatic renewal, depending on your point of view and interpretation. But there is much more in there which can still speak to us today, and which will reward further reading and study.
As (nearly) always Paul begins with heartfelt praise for the Christian community, its serious problems notwithstanding. Perhaps he gives us a glimpse of how God views his church today: horribly compromised, deeply divided, pretty ignorant, but on the way to glory, and providing a shining testimony to Christ. I sometimes wish I could see the church of which I am a proud part more as our Father sees it.
Image: “GR-korinth-bema-akrokorinth” by Bgabel at wikivoyage shared. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons