I have often been grateful that the New Testament church at Corinth had so many problems because I can’t imagine what it would be like not to have Paul’s letters to them in the New Testament. 1 Corinthians in particular is chock full of Paul addressing down to earth problems in a real community of faith. This letter has everything from church division to sexual immorality to doctrinal questions.
One of my main goals as a Bible teacher is for us to be aware of the extent to which we read our own culture and ways of thinking into the Bible. Certainly there are many places in 1 Corinthians where the specifics are quite distant from us (e.g., meat offered to idols). But so many of the issues might be a page out of your local church as well (one-up-manship, dissension, power plays). The problems seem to jump straight from their world to ours.
By our standards today, it was a relatively small church. We think it was about 40-50 people because Paul only refers to it as one church and it apparently could meet in the house of one of its wealthier members, Gaius (cf. Rom. 16:23). It’s possible, however, that even this group broke down into smaller groups that met together in different homes during the week. There were no church buildings at this time, so the size of a house or apartment limited the size a church could grow.
The church had a lot of power plays going on. Some thought they were smarter than the rest of the church and were causing crisis by what they thought they were free to do (cf. 3:18-20; 8:1-3). Some of these wise were taking others in the church to court, bringing shame to the Christian community in front of the world (cf. 6:1, 5). Those who had the gift of tongues seem to have looked down on those who did not (12:15-26) and were causing significant disorder in worship (14:39-40).
And there was unconfronted sexual immorality there-a man sleeping with his step-mother (5:1). Some have wondered whether the church leaders were hesitant to confront this man because he was a wealthy patron of the church. The rich-poor divide in the church was very real and probably even manifested itself in the Lord’s supper, which was more like a love feast at the time. The wealthy seemed to dine extravagantly at this meal, while some of the slaves in the church went away hungry (11:21).
Against the backdrop of its problems, however, is a clear indication of what a healthy church should look like. First, no matter how large a church grows, its parts need to love and get along with each other. The fundamental problem of the Corinthian church was disunity (cf. 1:10, 11:18). Some parts of the church thought they were more important to God than the others. They were cocky and self-centered.
The church belongs to everyone in the church. Leaders do have to lead, which can mean making decisions others don’t agree with. And some in the church are wiser than others. But you don’t have to devalue another believer when you disagree with him or her, and you can make a disagreeable decision in an agreeable way.
Similarly, you can exercise discernment without making someone else feel stupid. And you can submit yourself to the will of the body when you are outvoted, even though you are confident you are right. You can also be careful about harming the faith of others with the freedom your conscience feels to do things others do not. It’s not about what you can do or what you know, it’s about building up the body of Christ.
A second lesson is that sin can damage the whole church, not just the lone individual. Remember that this was a rather small community, a house church. For individuals to sleep with prostitutes (chap. 6) or with a step-mother (chap. 5) or to visit pagan temples (chaps. 8-10) had a profound effect on the community. On this level, it was important to address these individuals and even prevent them from participating in the church’s fellowship, because of their corrupting influence.
Perhaps the dynamics are a little different in a large church today. But hopefully a large church can be broken down into smaller cells and groups that are meeting together for more intimate fellowship and discipleship as well. When we get down to this level, it may still be the case that blatant sin corrupts deeply and can infect others as a consequence.
Like some Christians today, some in the Corinthian church tried to use their Christianity as an excuse to do unchristlike things. Is it possible that some wealthy women at Corinth wanted to use the fact that people will not be married in the kingdom as an excuse to divorce their husbands now (chap. 7)? Chapters 12-14 are perhaps Paul’s attempt to bring back down to earth some tongues speakers who thought they were thereby superior to others in the church who did not have that gift. In other words, some seem to have turned a gift from God into an excuse to be unloving toward others.
Finally, this was a church in need of discipleship, as all churches are. Paul takes out some time in 1 Corinthians not only to give them practical instruction on a number of crucial problems, but to clarify for them the nature of the resurrection (chap. 15). It stands as a reminder that for all the things we do as a church, it is ultimately about God and his coming kingdom. Petty squabbles and power plays fall in the end before the One who is all in all (15:28).