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. What are the main themes of 1 Corinthians?
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 more details, see What Went Wrong at Corinth?
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.