Acts 18 – What Went Wrong in Corinth?

The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century. (Was Corinth more sinful than other Roman cities? Click the link for my comments about that longstanding misunderstanding of history, as well as a followup comment from a read.) It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason. Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region.

In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138).

Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.

CorinthThe books of 1 and 2 Corinthians deal with a number of problems that arose after Paul left the city.  Why did Paul not deal with them as a part of his regular training of new believers and church leaders?  What happened in Corinth that brought these particular problems to the forefront only after Paul left the city?

The thesis of Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth is that after Paul left the city the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their Greco-Roman culture and social relationships.  Their culture was a thoroughly Roman world-view, but it was also a world-view in flux.

There were several de-stabilizing factors in first century Corinth.

First, the institution of yearly festivals in 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.

Second, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth, and there is evidence that when the games were celebrated the President of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens.  In 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat; the Greek word is “authority,” or perhaps “right” to eat.  Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right/freedom to participate in.  Can a Christian really participate in this meal as a follower of Christ?

Third, Winter cites evidence that there were three severe grain famines in the first century that effected Corinth.  There are ten inscriptions from Paul’s time that honor the “superintendent of the grain.”  This office had the power to manage grain sales in an effort to keep prices down and supply flowing.  This could involve a taxation system that paid for grain for the poor, or even a flooding of the market with grain in order to drive prices down.  Even rumors of famine were enough to cause riots and generally de-stabilize an economy.

Last, the most difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices.  In 1 Cor 3:3 Paul says that the church is “still worldly,” literally that they are thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God. The Christians in Corinth failed to see how the Roman world impacted their life in Christ.

Does this cultural background help us understand “what happened” in Corinth? Why did the church mis-handle so many of the challenges to their new faith in Christ?  Is the Corinthian experience much different than Christianity in the modern West?

Bibliography: Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).

26 thoughts on “Acts 18 – What Went Wrong in Corinth?

  1. There’s no way to say specifically why the church had such a hard time, but much like the culture we face today, the Corinthians were submerged in a city boiling over with fascinations that pulled them away from God and his desire for them in how they were supposed to live. In saying that the church was still “living worldly” reminds me of some churches that I have heard of who have strain away from Biblical truth and instruction, missing the mark for which Christ laid out for us and of which Paul was teaching and persuading them of in 18:5, 11. Paul serves as an example to us in the way that he encouraged and exhorted the Corinthians to follow Jesus (the Corinthian letters). Ministry to the body should be targeted at encouraging and exhorting fellow believers so that we are walking in the light and standing out from the rest of the world.

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  2. I did my geography study on Corinth and learned a lot about the culture and society. What I found interesting about Corinthian history is that it was destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Romans. A century later, Julius Caesar ordered reconstruction of the city and sent former slaves and veterans to live there. Those who returned to the desolated land were Roman, Italian, and Latin, along with others. They brought with them their culture and their gods. Paul had a number of religious practices to confront that were a lot more blatantly against Christianity than the subtle things Christians combat today. For a small example, temple prostitutes were so common adultery would have been a strange thing to try to speak against. Today adultery is a lot more subtle. The sex trade, pornography, and other sexual temptations are not even talked about in the many circumstances they do exist. It seems to me it would have been harder to speak out against what was obviously acceptable than to bring to light the destruction of practices that people already try to keep secret.

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  3. Honestly, having talked about Corinth more in class, the city does not seem more sinful than the other cities Paul visited throughout his life. For instance, I studied Ephesus both for the geography paper, but also a little in my research paper. Ephesus was hugely struggling with sin because of their rituals, holidays, and religion of worshipping Artemis. For Ephesus, it was mysticism and sorcery that led them astray much of the time, while for Corinth is was the culmination of a diverse set of worldviews. Looking at the different cities, Corinth seems to be the most diverse in their acceptance of and pursuit of different religions. Yes it was solely Roman in its religion, but like you’ve said they were eager to question and grapple with new ideas or different religious ideals. Your last point of the Roman cultural and social practices was probably the biggest reason for the fact that Corinth fell away when Paul left them. Thinking of our western culture, we are inundated with ideas, traditions, and philosophies. Most of the times these are all different and varied, so we too struggle to know what is right and wrong and to focus on things of God, rather than the things of the world. The Corinthian church mis-handled the challenges to their new faith because the were new believers and not yet accustomed or strong enough to stand up under the weight of so many pressures. Yet also, they seem to lend themselves to peer pressure, reminiscent of the Children of Israel–fickle in their minds and decisions. If one person does it, they all do it. We have a lot to learn from Corinth and the church that was developed and faltered there because the church in America is doing much the same thing–yes it may look different, but the heart of the issue remains the same. I can’t help, but think back to Colossians 3:1-3 where Paul tells the Colossians church to “set their minds on things above, not on earthly things.”

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    • Great job on your discussion post. I liked how you gave the example of Ephesus as well to further explain how Corinth struggled as a church just as much as any other area. Being that the places Paul started these church, for example in Ephesus and Corinth, were all areas that did not believe in the new Christian faith before this I do not think it is far off that their start-ups came with struggles. Michael Jordan is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time yet he was cut from his freshman high school team. This is simply because newer learned things in life are always going to be more difficult at first. However, one could make the point that the church in Corinthian was still not doing well after being started for a while. Paul started this church in Acts yet it is seen in 1 Corinthians that the church still struggled with pagan meals, prostitution, litigation, and otherworldly behavior. Being that the church had both Jews (1 Corinthians 7:18-19) and Gentiles (1 Corinthians 6:9-11) this could have been another reason the church struggled for as long as it did. We already know these two groups do not get along so now coming together as one in the new Christian faith could have been quite difficult.

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  4. The issues Christians struggled with in Corinth are often similar to experiences Christians struggle with today. In Corinth, believers in the risen Jesus as well as law abiding Jews had to make difficult decisions about how they would interact with the culture of the city. All of the festivals, banquets and celebrations would have involved idol worship and in some cases even involve things like prostitution. In our current culture, we are exposed to more modern forms of idol worship and equally as difficult topics as Christians. However, instructions from Paul in Romans 12:2 encourage to “…not conform to the patterns of this world”. These are obviously difficult instructions for times so saturated with things displeasing to God, however, the absence of this command and its effects can be seen all throughout our current culture as well as the culture in Corinth. Without some sort of separation, the culture and Christian beliefs begin to mix and lose the powerful message of Christ.

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  5. In the book Worldliness: Resisting The Seduction Of The Fallen World, C. J. Mahaney argues that worldliness is very dangerous for Christians today, just as it was for the people of Corinth. Mahaney states that “Worldliness, then,is a love for this fallen world. It’s loving the values and pursuits of the world that stand opposed to God. More specifically, it is to gratify and exalt oneself to the exclusion of God” (27). This love for the fallen world, which opposes God, is what can cause one to slip and fall, and cannot always see where one has fallen. 1 John 2:15 states “Do not love the world or things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him”. This verse states that we should not love the world, meaning the sins of the world, for one who treasures those above the Father is not with Him. This is what was happening to the people of Corinth and arguably to some of us today. Today we live “still worldly”, not realizing how our own culture here in America affects how we think and act, such as what we see on television, and the content in some of the popular music today.

    Bibliography

    Mahaney , C. J. . “Is this Verse In Your Bible?.” Worldliness: Resisting The Seduction Of The Fallen World. Wheaton,Illinois : Crossway Books, 2008. 15-35. Print.

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  6. It’s diffult for us to put ourselves in the shoes of early Christians sometimes. We take part in a “religion” that has been around for a while, with established traditions and norms and cultures. It’s difficult to imagine being a part of a brand new belief and trying to figure out how this now relates to the culture around you. Christianity, as a Gentile at least, was more “liberal” than Judaism, but there were some limitations, surely. I think many of Corinth’s problems arose from trying to find this balance between legalism and complete hedonism. Paul discusses things that are permissible versus profitable in his letters, but we have to keep in mind that this was all new to the Corinthians.

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  7. The situation in Corinth seems to be, in a sense, a pretty typical example of what can happen when young believers try to synthesize their cultural roots with their new found faith. One of the most commonly known vices of the Corinthian church was in regard to sexual sins, which was definitely a reflection of their culture. While Corinth may or may not have been significantly worse than the surrounding cities, the general attitude of the day would have promoted promiscuous behavior in the context of pagan temple worship. While we likely scoff and turn up our noses when we read accounts of prostitution among the believers in I Corinthians 6, we must keep in mind that their cultural mindset regarding prostitution was much different from ours. We might compare this to believers today who struggle to give up their favorite forms of entertainment because they are not glorifying to God or edifying to the body. Instead of asking what went wrong in Corinth, maybe we should be looking at Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church as the best method for counteracting syncretism: discipleship. By writing to them while they were still infants in Christ, Paul helped the believers at Corinth to grow up in their faith.

    “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.” (I Corinthians 3:6-7)

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  8. On another thought. What happened to the church in history after Paul left? I have trouble finding historical accounts after that period. Thanks if you can direct me on this.

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    • That is a good question, and I really do not have a good answer.

      I have at least two monographs on Ephesus after Paul (Treblico is excellent, taking the history up to Ignatius). But i am not aware of anything quite like that for Corinth. There is a collection of essays edited by Adams and Horrell, Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (WJKP, 2004). Some of these are very old essays (FC Bauer, for example), running up to the early 2000s. None intentionally go beyond the letters, although a few may touch on that era.

      I know that 1 Clement was written from Clement (as bishop of Rome) to Corinth, about the year 95. Perhaps a monograph on 1 Clement would have something.

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  9. It is hard to figure out specifically why the church in Corinth had such a hard time and struggled so much. However, I believe that two of the major factors is that there were so many people traveling in and out of the city and history of worshiping greek gods and goddesses. These kept pulling the church away from the truth of what Paul was trying to teach them. I feel like there are many christians even today that are struggling some of the same issues that the church of Corinth was. They struggle with being worldly. These christians may not even realize it but they are placing their own wants in front of Gods or placing things as idols within their lives. It is important as Christians to make sure that we are not living a life that is worldly and this chapter in Acts gives us a great example of how Paul handled being in a situation where an entire church was living worldly.

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  10. The title should be “What went right in Corinth”. The Corinthian church had many failures and challenges in the sanctification process. With Corinth being full of different trades men, the ideology would have been very diverse. People come into town from far off lands and bring their cult or religious ideas. These ideas get mixed in with the Greek gods and Roman cultic worshipers. When the gospel gets planted and received, there would have been many issues to arise. Essentially, the question is, how can a Christian interact with the world in Corinth? The influence of these other religions would have easily infiltrated the Christian doctrine. Furthermore, there would have been many things that were cultural to do in that city. Eating food given to idols, temple worship, sleeping with prostitutes in the temples, all of which were things that would have created challenges to be addressed. Paul, having stayed in Corinth for an 18 months and then leaves, would result in some big shoes to fill. Paul could give instruction, and correct the misunderstandings, and bad practices. In addition, Paul would have been able to make defenses to those who questioned the faith. When in his absence, the question would go unanswered, and issues that needed correction may have gone uncorrected. This is only speculation, but it would be logical since there are many different beliefs and influences that would have been pressing against the church.

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  11. Looking at the background culture of Corinth, one can better understand why the church had such a difficult time accepting the new faith in Jesus. I think one of the reasons is that Corinth was a well to do area. With their two seaports, Corinth was doing economically well. It is human nature to not need God when things are going good and I think that is the mindset Corinthians had. They were having fun with yearly festivals, the Isthmian games, public bath areas, etc. They had it good and that is why they more than likely did not want to give all of that up for the new Christian faith. Or they did not see their actions making any harmful changes so why not continue doing them? They did not seem to be hurting anyone. Either way, they easily backslide because they enjoyed what they had always previously done. This is a lot like western culture. Hearing about Jesus, we may accept it at first but then we do not want to give up our idols of television, money, and so forth. In our minds, we already have it so good why would we even need God? However, this is a scary mindset to hold because once our world comes crashing down, just like it always does, will God still be there, or will it be too late?

    I think another reason the church probably struggled was because a lot of Corinthians did not want to accept the new faith. After going to the synagogue each Sabbath, Jews still did not accept what Paul was saying and he eventually decided to turn to the Gentiles in hope that they would listen (Acts 17:6). After this Paul even needed to receive a vision from God to continue staying there otherwise due to the tremendous persecution Paul was going to leave (Acts 17:9-11). Paul was receiving persecution from Jews who were supposed to be Christians (Acts 17:12-13) . By no means could this have helped with the growth and strength of the church.

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  12. Corinth is typically noted to be full of sin. It was not a good place to live and often difficult to overcome temptations. I find it interesting that this is an economically stable city, and they say the root of all evil is the love of money. Other factors that lead to Corinth being a difficult place was famine issues and riots that would come from this. Corinth was a growing city with many visitors because of the festivals and the Isthmian Games. This type of entertainment brought about people looking for a good time and those looking for something to fill their happiness. People would travel here, and in hearing Paul’s message, could go back to their homes and share what they heard. People of Corinth also struggled with the idea of influences on their life and not always recognizing how one thing can affect another and how others view Christianity. I personally think knowing any context helps us understand the people and their choices and actions based on their environment. It is always a choice of how people choose to take a message and Paul could have preached until he was blue but they simply have to decide for themselves that they want to change and are willing to do something about it. No, it is not that different than the modern West. We have different issues we are facing but the problem still remains true. We have to desire change and be willing to act differently for others to see the difference in us and understand it is not of ourselves, but of Jesus changing our lives.

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  13. While many preachers and believers like to believe that it was the widespread immorality of the city that caused the Church of Corinth to struggle (as you point out in another blog, “Corinth as Sin City”), there are other reasons that point to why the church failed. Many of these, as you point out, are culturally based. Corinth held the Isthmian Games, yearly festivals, took the social practices of living in the Roman Empire very seriously. To be a true part of society in Corinth, participation in these practices and celebrations was very important. For many of the new Christians in Corinth, they did not see their acceptance into Christianity as requiring a rejection of their Roman culture. This culture, of course, was one focused on lustful and gluttonous actions and behaviors; something condemned in Christianity. In any case, perhaps the question we’re asking shouldn’t be “What went wrong in Corinth?” but rather, “How did more cities not have the same problems?” As you pointed out, the city of Corinth was not too different from other large cities in the Roman Empire. Cities like Ephesus had similar populations and cultures, yet maintained a growing and successful church that Corinth struggled to uphold. In many ways, the Corinthian church reveals to us the difficulty in transforming those in society into followers of Jesus.

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  14. I think these things are definitely at least part of the reason for the difficulty in the early church in Corinth. Upon conversion, though a person is made new in Christ, they still are themselves – they still are part of their own culture, they (typically) still do what they do and enjoy what they enjoy, and I’m sure this was no different for those in Corinth. Because immorality was so engrossed in the Corinthian culture, I’m sure it took a while for these people to fully ‘Christianize’, for lack of a better word. Furthermore, possibly part of the difficulty lies in how new the church was. Unlike today, the church back then didn’t necessarily fully develop an understanding of the scripture and what it meant to be a Christian. One example of this was how the other church in a different city were discussing if circumcision should be a requirement for salvation. These Corinthian believers could still have been figuring out what they should and shouldn’t be doing in the context of Christianity.

    As for the question, is this different for Christianity in the modern West, I would say, yes and no. As I mentioned, we have much excellent literature and teaching of what it means to be a Christian. Though this is somewhat arguable, we also have a Christian culture in the West. This influences our behavior and understanding, so when one converts to Christianity, they possibly already have some idea of what it means to be a Christian. That being said, the West is similar to the Corinthian church because we all have things that we need to get over after becoming a Christian. People are sinful. Though the particular sin may look different compared to the Corinthian church, it is still there and needs to be worked on.

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  15. it would seem that Paul had a good idea that was far more complicated then he thought it would be. the idea that if Christianity could survive in Corinth it could survive anywhere seems to have been very well tested by the Corinthians. as one of the first truly Gentile churches it would make sense that they would struggle the most with removing themselves from Roman practices that did not honor God. the Jews who converted had it easy as they already knew how to obey God they just had accepted Christ they had their own problems to work through but these problems were not pagan in nature. in many ways the Corinthians problem would be like a smoker deciding to stop smoking but struggiling because every day at work they were surrounded by people who still smoked. the temptation to revert back to smoking would be strong and much harder to ignore than if they worked in a smoke free environment. the fact that Corinth was so heavily Roman was the cause of the churches problems there as the city went on being Roman the change had happened with some people not all so the failing was in the Church’s ability to be in the world and not of it.

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  16. I think what’s interesting about the church of Corinth is how it relates to society today. You mentioned the Isthmian Games and other festivals, and how taking part in the festivities is seen as loyalty to Rome. Also, some of the more elite in the church had access to luxuries in food and such that they shouldn’t have been participating in. A lot of this has parallels to what we see in the West in America today.
    Many people think that being a good Christian means being loyal to their country, even when that country is going against their values. They also think that the government has the responsibility to keep Christian values. This loyalty to their country is admirable, but I fear it is misplaced often-times, with people placing their identity in their patriotism rather than in Christ. With the social stirrings that are happening now, it’s not exactly ideal to think that Christian ideals are at the forefront of the country’s interests and placing loyalty to country at the same level as loyalty to God is wrong. I do think the Corinthian church had more fear of punishment for not being loyal to Rome than modern Christians do to America, but I think the principle holds true. Some people identify being a good American as also being a good Christian, when, in reality, Christ comes first. You don’t have to be a patriot to follow God.

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  17. With a wide variety of accepted ideas, it seems that people in Corinth have the ability to act on any of their desires, much like our culture today. The city was full of market places, bathhouses, temples, festivals, and people. The ability to fulfill needs and wants was at anyone’s fingertips. Paul did not directly address many of these issues probably because he was dealing with is own culture and how to handle things like patronage within his ministry and work. I also think a part of why Paul did not address these things during his time had to do with God’s perfect timing. If he would have talked with people about these things, Luke would not have been there to write it down (Keener’s commentary talks about this lack of detail) and the letters would not have been as in depth. Those letters now provide a basis for how people should live in today’s world and what they need to do to change.

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  18. Corinth is talked about as one of the worst cities in Paul’s time as sexual immortally has swept the entire area. Now I’m not comparing Buddhism to Sexual immorality but because it was such an large part of Roman culture like Dr. Long said in the class lecture I can make this analogy. I remember hearing a Christian Missionary to Thailand once say that their biggest struggle is leaving their culture as to be Thai is to be Buddhist. To me, it seems as if to be a Roman citizen means to have these cultural preconceptions of sexual immorality. Most churches and other Ministry oriented programs today believe that the body of Christ should make an effort to help along side and encourage other believers to be lights into the world and expand the kingdom of God. The festivals of the culture definitely had impacts on how they lived their life and responded to the Gospel. As Bible scholars living in the 21st century, I truly believe Corinth can teach us a lot about how Corinth relates to our culture and society today. Yes we live in a country where sin is glorified and the truth is rejected but we also live in a culture/society that knows of God, and Jesus so in some ways our Western culture has a lot of differences.

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  19. What went wrong in Corinth? That is a very interesting question. I especially think that this is interesting, because Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half. People also wanted him to stay here. Corinth was an extremely sinful and they also made an attack on Paul. This is when Gallio was proconsul and the Jews united and attacked him. They then brought Paul before the tribunal and said that he was persuading people to worship God contrary to the law (Acts 18:13). I believe that in Corinth, Paul had a bunch of people turn against him. He was beaten. Not having the support of people can make it extremely tough.
    On the other hand, he did have the support of some people. They wanted him to stay, but he declined their request. He then moved on to Ephesus where he spent the longest he had ever spent in any place doing a missionary journey.
    Overall, I believe that the support was not fully there for Paul in Corinth. He did have some people, but it was a sinful city as well. He had the odds against him.

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  20. I think that there was a lot of division in Corinth that made the ministry very difficult for Paul to deal with. I think that he built something great and did good ministry to the point where he maintained a good ministry and system. However, on the other hand, Paul was mistreated so harshly in Corinth as well. I think the ultimate factor was that it was time for Paul to move on and to go do ministry elsewhere. Yes he was mistreated, but honestly that was part of the calling and he was mistreated in a lot of places. I think it’s interesting to evaluate everything that Paul had to go through in Corinth, and despite all of that, he was still able to do some really effective ministry.

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