Main Themes of 1 Corinthians

Paul established the church at Corinth in Acts 18. When Paul arrives in Corinth he meets Aquilla and Priscilla, Jews who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. Paul’s initial ministry is in the agora, working at a tentmaker.  Paul describes his initial efforts in the city as “in weakness and great fear” (1 Cor 2:3), since he was persecuted in Philippi, Thessalonica and nearly so in Berea. As usual, Paul attends synagogue meetings in the city and argues Jesus is the Messiah.  This ministry is more successful when Silas and Timothy finally arrive, allowing him to devote himself to preaching. Although he faced some opposition from the synagogue, the Lord comforted Paul in a dream, telling him there were many in the city who will respond to the Gospel (Acts 18:9-11). After Paul spends 18 months in the city, he visits Ephesus before returning to Jerusalem for a short time. When he returned to Ephesus he heard of the problems in the church at Corinth and wrote a series of letters to the church.

First Corinthians is made up of a series of issues arising from a report delivered to Paul from the household of Chloe as well as responses to a letter from the church asking about several questions about faith and practice. The report seems to have been confirmed by others since Paul takes the problems seriously, dealing with them in chapters 1-6.  Paul’s responses to the questions are covered in chapters 7-16 (“now about the matters you wrote about,” 7:1).

In chapters 1-6 Paul deals with the reported problems in the church. He deals with division over leadership (ch. 1-4), boasting over a sexually immoral man in the church (5:1-12), lawsuits among believers (6:1-11), and sexual immorality (6:12-20).  These difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices. In 1 Corinthians 3:3 Paul says the church is “still worldly,” essentially they are still thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God.

In chapters 7-16 Paul deals with questions from the church on marriage (ch. 7), food sacrificed to idols and Christian freedom (8:1-11:16), the Lord’s Supper 11:17-34), spiritual gifts (ch. 12-14), the resurrection (ch. 15) and the collection (16:1-4). Like the troubles reported to Paul, many of these issue are related to living out their new Christian faith in a Roman world. Although the matter of food sacrificed to idols seems obscure to the modern reader, Paul devotes as much as three chapters to the issue because participation in banquets at temples was such a common practice in Roman Corinth. Potentially the church is turning the Lord’s Supper into a Roman-style banquet, something which extremely dangerous from Paul’s perspective (11:17, 27-32).

Bruce Winter suggested that after Paul left Corinth the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their culture and social relationships (After Paul Left Corinth, Eerdmans, 2001). Corinthian culture was a thoroughly Roman worldview and there was enormous pressure to conform to the cultural expectations of a first century Roman city.

For example, the city hosted yearly festivals in honor of the imperial cult. Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously. Even if one was not a Roman citizen, loyalty to the Empire was important

In addition, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth. There is evidence when the games were celebrated the president of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens. In 1 Corinthians 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat. Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right or freedom to attend.  Can a Christian really participate in a meal dedicated to a god and the Empire as a follower of Christ?

First Corinthians is therefore about how to live as the people of God, the body of Christ, and the temple of the Holy Spirit in a world which is overwhelming non-Christian. It is not the case the Corinthian church is facing persecution, but they do struggle to let Christ transform the way they think about their culture. For this reason, the letter of 1 Corinthians is one of the most applicable letters in the New Testament.

4 thoughts on “Main Themes of 1 Corinthians

  1. The Corinthian church members struggled to live in the body of Christ in a world that was very non-Christian. Paul was worried that Corinthians had “fallen into the trap of allowing the gospel to be clouded by a zealous attachment to a personality whose rhetorical prowess they favor” (Longenecker, 118). Cultural conflicts are a consistent issue for believers in Pauline literature. The relationship between culture and Christianity is discussed in chapter fifteen of Acts and other books from the Bible. Gentile converts were not required to follow the Jewish laws, but the polytheistic lifestyle of their culture proved challenging. The ways of society “had permeated the corporate structures of Corinthian Christian communities” (Longenecker, 118). To Paul, scripture came first and the culture was second (1 Corinthians 9:19-24). The gentiles and Jews were not required to do without their culture as long as the gospel was not compromised because of it. When Paul told the Jewish apostles that he was not requiring the gentiles to practice certain laws of the Torah, such as circumcision, they supported it (Acts 2:9). Circumcision was part of the Jewish law and it was required for some who joined the faith at the time. Paul changed one of the cultural expectations for Gentiles who believed Christianity. Paul’s response to the cultural pressure is that a person is made right “with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law” (Galatians 2:16). This is an example of a cultural expectation that conflicted with the current Christian beliefs.

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  2. You pose the question “Can a Christian really participate in a meal dedicated to a god and the Empire as a follower of Christ?” I can definitely understand the struggle. It is the classic church argument, In the world but not of it. At what point are you supporting a sin? Can you attend a same sex wedding? Be their photographer? Perform the ceremony? Where is the line drawn? For the believers in Corinth, their was confusion on what was all right for them to participate in. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 9:22 “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” His focus is on what he can do to share with them the Gospel. Not how it looks, not how comfortable it makes him, but how it furthers his cause to share Christ.

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  3. Longenecker does talk about how in Corinth, they were still very deeply ingrained in their own culture — so much so that it was difficult for them to get their heads out of a steadfast quest for honor. Their priorities at the time may have been a bit skewed, hence why there was the need for Paul’s address. But it’s important to note here that Paul writes from a compassionate point of view that it’s sometimes hard to get our heads out of our niche, even when it comes to giving our culture over to Christ as well. There IS this cultural breach that Paul is trying to write to. It’s as you say — 1 Corinthians is an address on how to live as people of God, as believers. Something very real that our society faces today is that sometimes people who claim to be believers don’t necessarily behave in accordance to that, which is a reminder that we are all prone to sin. It’s in our nature. Sometimes we live of the world instead of in it, and sometimes it’s the other way around.

    Something to especially appreciate from 1 Corinthians that Paul is addressing in the context of living like a child of God, remembering that sometimes we do not always behave as a believer ought to, is when Paul addresses the steadfastness of Love in 1 Corinthians 13. I think that when Paul is addressing the difficulty that Corinth is having in conforming to Christianity’s principles, this is one of the more horizontal ways he delivers his message. When all else fails, even in difficulty, love is the most true and “eternal”.

    As a book overall, 1 Corinthians is a picture for how to continue our lives as believers, even when we struggle to conform to that lifestyle — it’s a problem the Corinthians faced, and one we still face as individuals from time to time today.

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