Unintelligible Worship – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with misuse of spiritual gifts which led to divisions between self-described spiritual and the unspiritual people in the church. Their worship was no longer devoted to fellowship between people of every social class (male and female, slave and free). Even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual. Whatever is happening, it is so disruptive a visitor would not just think the behavior of the church was strange, they might confuse it with pagan rituals and completely miss the Gospel.

Paul describes their worship as childish (14:20). Maturity has been a theme throughout the letter, but now Paul applies the congregation’s immaturity to their worship. Like factions or other issues of maturity in the letter, likely the problems with worship are related to social class distinctions.

It is likely people in the congregation believed ecstatic gifts were a sign of spirituality and therefore the more one prophesied or spoke in tongues, the more spiritual he is. This is the way the non-Christian Greek would have understood the ecstatic gifts. The contrast between childish and adult thinking is consistent with Paul’s encouragement to seek the “greater gifts” in chapter 13. It is inappropriate to “think as a child,” whether this is in the context of factions in the church, eating and drinking, lawsuits, etc.

Paul’s concern is for the outsider who needs to hear the Gospel (14:24-25). This is likely a Gentile who knows nothing about the gifts of the Spirit and would misunderstand what ecstatic speech is.

What would a Greek think about tongues or prophecy? Ben Witherington suggests prophecy would be naturally associated with the Delphic oracle, while tongues would have been associated with ecstatic speech among the followers of Dionysus (Community and Conflict, 276-9). In either case, a person visiting the congregation would hear the chaotic worship at Corinth and assume individuals in the church were possessed of spirits like an oracle. The Delphic oracle is only one example of ecstatic speech in the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 16, for example, Paul casts a demon from a slave girl who was used as an oracle in Philippi, she has the “spirit of Python.”

Worship or Katy Perry?

Paul’s problem with the congregation the same as earlier sections of the letter. They are once again failing to separate themselves from the world and therefore are not reaching the world. Their worship is indistinguishable from these commonly known practices and therefore has really ceased to do any good at all. For Paul, five intelligible words would be preferred to ecstatic speech! Witherington also points out that religious rites in the ancient world were usually done in silence, with nothing but a flute player to cover up ambient noise. As worship began, the phrase favete linguis was used – “check your tongue”!

While Paul is not necessarily calling for the Corinthians to sit in silence. There is a need for intelligibly and orderliness in worship. Far from being a sign of spiritual status, the gifts are just that, a gracious gift by God to be used for the building-up of the church. The elite of the church assume that they are better than others because they have been given this gift.

What would an outsider think if they heard ecstatic speech after a banquet which included good food and wine? The natural assumption is the cult of Dionysus. This is a disaster for the church, since the cult was almost always outlawed and looked down upon by “polite society.”

With respect to prophecy, it is possible the Corinthians understood the role of a prophet as an oracle, like that found at Delphi. In general, the oracle was asked specific questions, and gave cryptic yet clear answers. Witherington reports the oracle might be asked about religious or political matters, but these would not really be the concern of the Christian congregation. Rather, they would ask domestic questions: questions about career, marriage, or possibly even practice. There are a number of slogans in 1 Corinthians, “Everything is permitted” (10:23) or “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). It is possible these are answers which were given through an alleged spirit of prophecy, in response to questions from the congregation.

Remember that the last half of this letter is a series of questions and answers. It is possible that the church is putting questions to Paul that they have already put to their own prophets! Perhaps this is the reason Paul quote these statements and then argues against them.

If these observations are even close to the mark, then this is another case of the Corinthian church failing to fully apply the Christ to the conversion of the pagan practices. Paul has to deal carefully with these people since he wants to encourage the use of spiritual gifts, but he must discourage behavior which is still “pagan.”

I really do not want to wade into the turbulent waters of the practice of tongues in contemporary worship since that distracts from Paul’s point. But if Paul is saying Christian worship ought to look different than the world, there is an equally disturbing application here. At what point does contemporary (American, evangelical) worship look and feel like “the world”?

  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and a country music concert, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and classical music performance, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a sermon and a pep-talk from a life coach, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?

Worship (in whatever form it takes) ought to draw people to the Gospel rather than drive them away.

Sex and Wealth in 1 Corinthians 5

Paul states the sin in the church at Corinth is so bad even the Romans would consider it wrong. (See this post on Corinth as “Sin City”.) Why is the immoral man committing a sin like this? Most scholars think money is the main issue. Perhaps the wife was from a wealthy and prestigious family and she is trying to divorce his father. The younger man is attempting to keep any money or property in the family as long as possible.

A second more remote possibility is the man is exercising his freedom in Christ. It appears some early Christians believed they were free from the Law, so in order to demonstrate that freedom, they “sinned that grace may abound.” It is possible the young man was trying to prove his freedom from the Law by breaking a very strong taboo and engaging in an ongoing affair with this step-mother.

Carol and GregSo why has the man not been arrested and charged with the crime everyone seems to know about? In order to prosecute, the husband would have to sue for divorce. If this was an arranged marriage between wealthy families, there would have been complications in setting the marriage aside.

Bruce Winter points out only the husband has the right to prosecute in this case. There is a sixty-day period for him to do this after which someone else could potentially bring charges. Perhaps the exclusive period has not expired when Paul is writing, or maybe there is no one that is “wronged” by the relationship and it is being passed over because of the man’s position and power.

Additionally, if the husband was not a believer the church didn’t have any sway with him to get him to press charges and exile his son. Because the penalty included loss of property, perhaps the man was not willing to prosecute and possibly forfeit some of his own property.

If this suggestion is correct, then there are two strands of culture that the church is struggling with, the sexual sin and the favoring of the rich in the courts. Paul wants to deal with the sinful man within the church itself rather than dragging this ugly situation into the public courts. This has the potential to create an unfortunate principle that Christians who have grave sins ought to be tried in an church-court and not by the government, making it possible for some crimes to be covered up by the church. But this was not Paul’s intent at all! Ironically he is not trying to cover up the sin but deal with it in a public and open way.

How does this idea of dealing with sin “in house” work in a contemporary context? I am not advocating ecclesiastical courts nor should people who have broken the “law of the land” find refuge in the church.But there is a need for local churches to deal with some issues like a family. But this has caused huge problems when a church tries to cover up a legal and moral issue by dealing with it “in house.” (I am thinking of sex-abuse by church staff or priest, etc.) Based on his reaction to the young man in an incestuous relationship here in 1 Corinthians 5, I am certain Paul would have dealt with a pastor who is a sexual predator harshly. “Hand him over to Satan” may very well refer to handing his man to the civil authorities and let him face the full penalty of the law. In a modern context, no church should be sheltering a sexual predator; they ought to be handed over to the state and prosecuted as sex crimes.

But for issues like petty insults and personal disagreements, Paul does not want these brought to the law courts. If your brother in Christ gossips about you and harms your reputation, you should not sue him for slander. Deal with that kind of an issue inside the church.

How do we draw appropriate application between the first century and the twenty-first century with respect to church discipline? Does the modern church offer more grace and mercy to the wealthy members of the community and treat the poor harshly? In many cases, the modern church is quite like the Corinth of the first century.

Drive Out the Sinner! 1 Corinthians 5:4-5

Paul’s solution is simple to the problem the young man having an incestuous affair with his step mother: expel/purge the sinful man from the congregation (5:4-5). As far as Paul is concerned, the man already stands condemned. Don Garland points out the perfect tense verb (κέκρικα) implies Paul has already made a judgment and his decision still stands when they read this letter (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 157). Does the verb imply Paul already told them to expel the man and they were resisting this decision?

Love the SinnerPaul alludes to Deuteronomy 22:24 in his command to “purge the man from your midst.” Purge (Heb. בער, LXX ἐξαίρω) refers to driving something away, usually some sort of evil or sin (it is used in Deuteronomy nine times and in Isa 30:22 for “driving away” idols). Exodus 22:4 uses the same Hebrew word for driving someone’s animal from your vineyard and in 2 Chronicles 19:3 it refers to getting rid of idols before seeking God. Paul has the same idea in mind here: “exclude the man from the church.”

This is an example of church discipline, since the church is to gather to expel the young man from the church. But the way Paul describes this discipline is shocking: “hand the man over to Satan.” Since is the prince of this world, to hand someone over to Satan means “outside of the church.” Does this simply mean “kick him out of the church”” Or is Paul “revoking his salvation? The purpose cannot be a loss of salvation since the point of handing him over to Satan is remedial: that his soul might be saved on the day of the Lord.

But Paul also uses Passover language in this chapter. If someone was kicked out of the house during the first Passover, they would not be “under the blood of the Lamb” and therefore in danger from the Destroyer. If the immoral man is kicked out of the church (a family), he will be in the world without the protection of the blood of the Lamb, Jesus.

By becoming a Christian the young man already was on the “fringes of society as a religious misfit” (Garland, 1 Corinthians). If he were then expelled from the Christian community, it might be impossible for him to return to the pagan world he rejected. As Garland puts it, “expelled Christians in this era could find themselves in social limbo—neither fish nor fowl.”

The goal of this action is “the destruction of his flesh.” The Pauline use of σάρξ (sarx) is quite regular and usually means the sinful nature, although it is possible to use the word for physical body. It is possible Paul has in mind physical death, that the immoral man would suffer from a physical illness leading to his death. Garland examines this argument and ultimately rejects it. But there is some precedence for a sinner “being struck dead.” Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead for lying to the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1–11). Later in 1 Corinthians Paul says some members of the congregation have died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:30).

The noun ὄλεθρος does refer to physical death in the Septuagint (Exod 12:23; Josh 3:10; 7:25; Jer 2:30). In 1 Corinthians 10:10 Paul uses a related word ὀλοθρευτής, the Destroyer, a destroying angel who renders God’s judgment in the wilderness. More importantly is the use of the word in Exodus 12:23, the angel who destroyed the Egyptians at the first Passover. It would not be surprising for a Second Temple period Jewish thinker like Paul to see the man as sent into a demon-haunted world where he will suffer terrible things.

love-the-sinner

Others think Paul is talking about some sort of penance for his sin. The individual will be handed over to Satan for physical torment that will result in his repentance and a rejection of the particular offense. This remedial punishment may have in mind Job 2, where God hands Job over to Satan for a period of time (although I would disagree Job must suffer some some kind of purgatory like suffering because of his sin).

Whatever the phrase means, the point is the same: the man committing this sin must be expelled from the congregation by the whole congregation, for the good of the congregation.

Here is the real problem: is this a principle for dealing with church discipline, and if so, how do we apply that principle to contemporary church practice? This does not seem like a “love the sinner, hate the sin” situation. The sin Paul is dealing with is extreme and will destabilize the Christian community to the extent the sinner must be expelled.

Leaders are Servants and Stewards – 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

In 1 Corinthians 4, Paul calls himself and Apollos “stewards” who have been entrusted with the most important thing imaginable, the “mysteries of God.” Like a fund manager, he is to protect God’s investment but also work to ensure a return on God’s investment.

Jesus, CEO

No.

But as Gordon Fee points out, God seeks stewards who are faithful. They are not chosen due to their “not eloquence, nor wisdom (nor ‘initiative,’ nor ‘success’—our standard requirements).” Those who have been entrusted with the Gospel are to humbly servant the master and seek his glory and honor alone. The leaders of the Corinthian church are failing in just this regard, they are seeking their own honor rather than the one who has called them.

Paul and Apollos have been entrusted with the mysteries of God (4:1-2). A steward in this context is a servant entrusted with a task, a commission. Paul uses a slightly different word for servant in 4:1 than in 3:5 (ὑπηρέτης vs. διάκονος), but there is likely no difference in meaning. In both cases the servant is subordinate to a master and serves by doing the will of that master.

A steward (οἰκονόμος) is a manager or administrator. This could be a servant put in charge of a household (Joseph, for example, or the servants in Jesus parable in Luke 16). It can refer to a city official, such as a public treasurer, the word used to describe Erastus in Rom 16:23. An administrator is charged with a task (manage a city’s money, for example). In the LXX, the word translates Hebrew words of civil administrators (1 Kings 4:6, 16:9, Isa 36:3, 22, 37:2, etc., cf., eight occurrences in Josephus with the same sense).

The content of this deposit is the “mysteries of God.” Rather than a huge sum of money to invest and protect, Paul is a servant of God’s revelation. Mystery is typically something that must be revealed to be known, a secret hidden until the time is right. This is not something guess-able, but rather a revelation of something new and previous unknown.

In order to be a successful steward, they must be “found faithful.” If the steward is a money manager for a city, they have to protect the money entrusted to them and invest it in a way that returns a profit. Paul and Apollos are therefore accountable for their management of the mysteries of God. The preaching of the Gospel will naturally expand the body of Christ, and there are some strategies Paul might use to preach the Gospel in ways that are more likely to bear fruit. He goes first to the synagogue, for example, since that is where he will find people who already know the Scripture and may be looking forward to the coming of the Messiah, as well as some God-Fearing Gentiles who are interested in the Jewish God. When he was in Athens, he went to Mars Hill, a place where people enjoy discussing new ideas and debating philosophy. His goal was to go to the location where he would have the best chance getting an audience for the Gospel.

If Paul describes Apollos and himself as servants and stewards, then certainly the leaders of the church at Corinth are servants as well! Verse 6a Paul says that the things he has applied to himself and Apollos are applicable to all Christian leaders at every level, from a nursery worker to the long-time elder to the Lead pastor.

For Paul, the right attitude of a Church leader should be: “This is God’s church and I am just taking care of this for a while.”

What are some specific ways this servant-attitude can transform how the local church does ministry?

Co-Workers in God’s Service – 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

In 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul argues God has inverted the thinking of the world by choosing the foolish to humble the wise; by choosing the weak to humble the strong. The one who is in Christ has the Spirit of God and the Mind of Christ and ought to be thinking differently than the world, especially when it comes to leadership within the Church.

Unlike Greek and Roman philosophers, the Christian should not to think of themselves as a disciple of any teacher or leader, nor should a leader think they are developing prestige or honor by attracting many followers. In contrast to the way the world things, the one who is in Christ ought to think of themselves as co-workers busy at work in God’s service.

Paul is primarily addressing the leaders of the church. This is in fact the longest discussion of the relationship of church leaders to their congregations in the New Testament (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 142). The leaders of the church at Corinth are not like leaders in the Roman world who are adored and honored. The leaders of the Christian communities are co-workers in God’s service.If they think of themselves as worthy of higher honors and adoration, then they are not fit to be God’s co-workers. This has far-reaching implications for contemporary Christian leadership throughout the world. Too many Christian leaders assume they are due some special honor from their congregations or demand respect beyond that of a humble servant.

Divisions over leadership are immature (3:1-4 ). The church at Corinth are not maturing like they should have, they are not “spiritual” yet, they are still “fleshly.” Spiritual (πνευματικός) refers to a person who has the Holy Spirit, someone who is led by the Spirit of God. “People of the flesh” (σάρκινος) refers to the fact they are still thinking as they did before they came to faith in Christ. The noun refers to physical human attributes, often the weakness of human flesh (contrasted with spiritual life, Rom 7:14, 2 Cor 1:12).

The irony is that the church at Corinth made the most use of the gifts tongues and prophecy of the Spirit in the New Testament (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 109). It is possible members of the church thought of themselves as “spiritual” because the manifestation of the Spirit characterized their worship. They are not spiritual simply because they have those spiritual gifts.

Baby Eating MeatIn this section, Paul uses the metaphor of caring for a child. When he was with the church, he fed them milk, since that was appropriate for a child. But as a child matures they are ready for solid food. Paul’s point here is the church is not progressing toward maturity in a normal way, they are spiritual stunted and still need “milk not solid food.”

Everyone has an idea what the “meat” is as opposed to the “milk.” Usually it is “the hard doctrines I understand but you do not because am more spiritual than you are.” First, this cannot be a “secret doctrine” Paul holds back until people are more mature. There is no secret or hidden teaching Christianity holds back until people can handle it. 1 Corinthians 2 made this point very clear, the secret mysteries of God have already been revealed!

Second, Paul’s point is not that there is a mix of spiritual and unspiritual in the church at Corinth. The whole church is immature and infantile in their thinking because they have these divisions. It is not that Apollos their teacher is highly advanced spiritually and the others are lagging behind. Because there are divisions, the whole church is not growing properly.

Third, Paul is not exhorting the “slow people” to catch up, but the whole church to come together in unity and grow spiritually. He is not pointing fingers at individuals in the church that are bringing the average down, he is saying the local manifestation of the Body of Christ at Corinth is stunted and not growing properly. The whole Body has to grow, not just a part.

This view of church leadership has the potential to transform the way a local church does ministry. In fact, there are many examples of selfless leaders humbly serving their congregations. How could Paul’s vision for the Corinthian change the way churches function? How does the milk.meat metaphor work when applied to church leadership in a modern context? Is “meat” always “hard doctrine”? Should we only ordain people to ministry who properly understand Calvinism?

The Gospel is “God’s Foolishness” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

By using the death of Jesus on the Cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (v. 20). Where is the wise, scribe, the debater of this age? These three questions call on the highest educated (and potentially most arrogant) people in the Greek or Jewish world. There is a tone of derision: God has made your most educated look foolish when he saved people through the folly of the Cross.

God did not choose to save those who are perishing in a way that might be expected, by using a method the intelligent of the world would have given their approval. Rather, he chose to use the foolishness of the Cross. In other words, “God’s actions make the worldly-wise look like blundering fools” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 63).

Execution by crucifixion was the most shameful death possible. If the Romans executed someone by crucifixion, they were guilty of the very worst of crimes and suffered such dishonor that it might even be shameful to admit you knew the person, let alone think they were your savior.

Romans Crucifying Their Enemies

Paul begins this paragraph with the observation “Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jewish “demand for a sign” refers to some sign from heaven which confirms a person is approved by God. If someone claimed to be the messiah, then Pharisees might demand they do some sort of sign, as they did Jesus. If Jesus could give them a sign to convince them he was the messiah, then perhaps they would believe. The point of the apostolic signs such as Peter healing a lame man in Acts 3 was to show the messianic age has begun.

A Greek would be far more likely to believe a well-constructed, logic argument in favor of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul teaches in Ephesus, for example, he argues persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah; Apollos also persuades people from the Scripture through logical arguments (Acts 18).

The Messiah crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and a god who is executed as a criminal is foolishness to the Greek. Many Jews expected some sort of Messiah, but no one really expected a Messiah who would be executed by the Romans. The Gentiles were to fall under the judgment of the Messiah! He was to rule over a reunited Israel like an idealized David, no one expected him to die in the most shameful way possible. Peter response to Peter in Mark 8 is an indication that even Jesus’ followers misunderstood what the messiah would do in Jerusalem.

A “stumbling-block” is something that causes you to stumble (obviously), but Paul is using it as a metaphor. The cross is the thing that causes the Jewish person to not accept Jesus as the messiah and savior. They might like Jesus’ teaching, his way of handling the Law, his views about the kingdom of God, his rejection of oral tradition, etc. But most Jews would have a hard time accepting a messiah who was unjustly executed by the High Priest!

To the Greek or Roman thinker, it is not impossible for a god to appear to be flesh and live among humans for a time. Perhaps the more intellectual Greeks disbelieved the stories of Zeus or Hermes appearing as men, but it was at least possible. But it was impossible for a god to be harmed by humans, let alone be executed as the worst of criminals!

God chose to use the most foolish thing imaginable in the first century, the Cross, to save those who are perishing. God has always used the unexpected person to achieve his goals so that it is clear he has done it not human wisdom or skills (David as the youngest son, defeats Goliath, etc.)  What God did through Jesus is to turn the world “upside down,” an idea Paul will return to throughout this letter.

The world sees the world one way, the Christian sees it much differently.

The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul shows the heart of his message was that God sent his son into the word to die on the Cross in order to provide atonement for sin. To a Jew, Greek or Roman living in the first century, almost every word of this familiar summary of the Gospel would be radical, strange, or even foolish. A god cannot die, and he certainly would not die by crucifixion. What God did through Jesus runs counter to both Jewish and Gentile expectations about how gods are supposed to behave, or what the God of the Hebrew Bible does. The Gospel has some awkward facts, the object of our worship was executed as a criminal of the worst kind! In fact, he intentionally allowed himself to be destroyed in the most shameful way possible.

Jesus on the CrossPaul does not shy away from these inconvenient facts of the Gospel in order to gain more converts because God has chosen foolish things in order to make foolish the wisdom of this world. The Gospel is not the sort of thing a religious person would have invented in the first century.

The Cross divides all of humanity into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who “are being saved.” Perishing (ἀπόλλυμι) is a strong word chosen to highlight the present judgment of those who have rejected the Cross.  The word used in the Septuagint for a sacrifice that is completely consumed in fire (Lev 7:10, for example). It is used for God’s judgment of the unrighteous (Sodom, Gen 18:24, several times). Psalm 2:12 used the verb for God’s destruction of the nations that have challenged the Lord’s anointed. The verb is in the present tense, indicating these people are under God’s judgment now because of their rejection of the cross.

Paul describes himself and his readers as “those who are being saved,” emphasizing the presentness of salvation. The verb is again in the present tense, all people are either (at this moment) either in need of salvation because they reject the Cross or being saved by the power of the Cross.

This division in humanity is based on the reaction to the Cross. The Cross is foolish to the ones who are perishing. Two related nouns (μωρία, 1:18 and μωρός, 1:27) refer to some idea that is senseless to believe, perhaps with the sense of ridiculous (the earth is hollow and lizard people are controlling our thoughts; a child telling a story about fairy tale creatures to a genius scientist, etc.) To believe in something foolish is a waste of time, since it cannot possibly be true.

Why is the Cross foolishness? In the Greco-Roman world, self-sacrifice was not considered a virtue. The idea a person might willingly shame themselves by voluntarily sacrificing themselves on a Cross is unthinkable and so radically offensive no rational person could believe it.

To those who are being saved, the Cross is the power of God. A death on the Cross was such an offensive and shameful death that it would have been shocking for Paul call it the “power of God for salvation.”  D. A. Carson suggested the analogy of someone today claiming the Holocaust was “the power of God” (The Cross and the Christian Message, 12). No one in the world today would say the Holocaust is “the power of God.” Such a statement would be a jarring and offensive statement. Anyone making that sort of claim would not just be laughed at, but vilified and persecuted for such a claim.

Yet this is what Paul claims, because God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise. He quotes Isaiah 29:14, a saying embedded in a context of the judgment on Judah for worship with their lips but not their heart (29:13); since their hearts are not right they are about to face God’s judgment. The Corinthians may have heard this as a pronouncement on the wise of this age (which is true), but since the object of God’s wrath in Isaiah Judah, it is possible Paul’s point here is that the church is also going to be silence because of their foolishness!

How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? Some American evangelical Christians like to use apologetics to present faith in Jesus as rational and reasonable to a rational mind. Others try to use secular culture to present the Gospel in a way which appeals to the modern, or post-modern mind (those “Mars Hill” ministries, for example). Would Paul have created a rational argument for the prove the need of the violent death of Jesus on the Cross? Would he have hosted a poetry slam in one of his churches for people to express their repressed feelings about religion? How can we “embrace the foolishness” and still reach our culture?