Gluttons and Drunks in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Drunken SatyrWhen he writes to the Corinthians, Paul must correct the church because of of their behavior at private banquets (6:12-20). The issue here is going to banquets given by the rich and elite of the city. There is a great deal of evidence concerning the types of things that went on at a Roman banquet of the first century from contemporary writers.

Bruce Winter gathers a number of references from Plutarch describing the combination of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual immorality that were a part of the “after-dinners” as he calls them. There was an association between gluttony and sexual excess, as is seen from the well known saying reported by Plutarch, “in well-gorged-bodies love (passions) reside.” The writer Athenaeus said that the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite) does not visit the poor, “in an empty body no love of the beautiful can reside.” Plutarch also said that in “intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameless debauch” (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 84).

These banquets would only have been attended by the rich elite of the city of Corinth. The poor were not invited, only those of some social standing. In Corinth there was a major city-wide banquet for all citizens celebrating the games. Not only would there have been pressure to attend these banquets on a social level, there was the added pressure of begin a good citizen of Corinth and of Rome.

These sorts of banquets are in the background of 1 Corinthians. Members of the church are not visiting brothels as we might think of it today. They are attending meals with the elite of Corinth, either hosted in the home of a wealthy patron of the city or in a temple. The practice was considered not only acceptable, but in some cases required for social mobility. If one wanted to gain the favor of a wealthy patron in order to advance a business plan, then attendance at a banquet hosted by the patron was a necessity.

Why would the Corinthian Christians think that they had a right to participate in these banquets? Paul seems to have taught them that Christians are to be separate from such activities, and the strong Jewish ethic of many of the founders would have argued against going to a temple, eating food sacrificed to idols, and participating in the “after-dinners.”

It appears at the very least that some Gentile converts to Christianity did not see this kind of activity as “sin.” As with most of the problems Paul treats in 1 Corinthians, the congregation was slow to de-paganize and think about these behaviors through the lens of their new faith. The practice of going to temples to share meals with the elite of Corinth was socially desirable for the wealthy (and “wanna-be” elite). Perhaps individuals in the church thought they had to do their civic duty by doing to the banquets (a virtue) and did not yet see the additional practices as a vice yet.

This is a very challenging point for contemporary church life. While I do not think that many evangelical Christians are participating in civic orgies, we do seem to tolerate immoral actions among those who are elite citizens (or think that they are elite). A very obvious application is attitudes towards people in public office. The ones who agree with our politics are held to a far less rigorous moral standard than those we disagree with. It does not take too long to think of many examples if this sort of thing.

What are the sorts of behaviors that are accepted (or forbidden) by local congregations in order to better fit into contemporary culture?

Lawsuits in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8). We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church. Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender. Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.

Frivolous LawsuitAs strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world. Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.) These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers. Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics. Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.) If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”: they are suing family members. Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club. A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers. The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens. He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration. Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context? At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger. This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.

2 Corinthians 12:19 – Building Up the Church

Building a Church

Building a Church

Looking back on everything he has written thus far, Paul says his defense of himself is really intended to “upbuild” (ESV) the church.  Paul considers his letter to be a legal defense against an attack coming from his opponents in Corinth. He describes it as an apology in the legal sense of the word (ἀπολογέομαι). Acts 24:10 uses the word for Paul’s legal defense before Felix, the Roman governor. Paul has been defending himself, but not for the purpose of winning the argument with the church and proving himself to have been in the right all along. His goal in this defense is to build up the church in Christ.

The word Paul uses is used for buildings or structures (οἰκοδομή), the ESV uses the odd word “upbuild” the NIV has “strengthening,” the KJV has “edifying.” Paul uses this metaphor frequently to refer to things that “build up” the church in contrast to tearing down the church (1 Cor 14:12, spiritual gifts, 14:16, orderly worship). In Romans 15:2 it refers to speech which “builds up” a neighbor.

Paul has used architectural metaphors in 1-2 Corinthians several times (the temple of the Holy Spirit, etc.) Sometimes to construct something new old things must be destroyed. Old structures need to be demolished and the ground needs to be properly prepared for a new structure to be built. Edification therefore requires Paul to occasionally knock down old ways of thinking (especially the pagan worldview of the Corinthian church) before he can build up the church to maturity.

Change EverythingIf the church felt they had been wronged by Paul or they were offended by his change in plans, it was because their suspicions about Paul were wrong or the accusations coming from the opponents were wrong. Paul’s defense in the last few chapters was to allay their fears so that their anger with Paul will no longer hinder their maturity in Christ. If Paul has hurt the church, it is because it as necessary to tear down their existing ways of thinking in order to replace those structures with a Christ-like world view.

This is a very difficult aspect of ministry to get right since most people in the church feel attacked if a pastor tries to deal with tough issues from the pulpit. I think Paul has it right, he preaches Christ crucified seeks to apply the death and resurrection to all aspects of life. In my experience, preaching through the text of the the Bible will raise issues in context churches need to hear.

To a large extent, any pastor who is leading a congregation needs to worry less about their reputation or legacy than the spiritual growth of their congregation. A pastor who is seeking to pad out a resume for the next (bigger and better) church has completely missed the point of being a servant of Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 12:14b-15 – Paul as Father

Paul has refused to accept gifts from the Corinthian church in order to avoid a patron/client relationship. Rather than patronage, Paul describes his relationship with Corinth as a parent and child (12:14b-15).

Roman FatherIn the Corinthian letters, Paul uses parent/child metaphors frequently, more than in any other of his letters. One reason for this is his desire to avoid patron/client language, but also because the family relationship reflects the body of Christ. If we are indeed new creations in Christ, then the image of brothers and sisters in Christ becomes the driving factor in our relationships with each other. Paul did not want to create a hierarchy in which he was the distant father figure who dispensed prestige and honor to his children, nor did he want the church to think Paul was a poor relative in need of assistance!

The children are not required to “save up” for their parents. This is not the daily needs of children, but rather the family responsibility for building wealth to pass down to the children. In a Greco-Roman context, family name and wealth was extremely important. The father was responsible for creating wealth and prestige for the family and the family name. This wealth and prestige could then be passed down to the children with they were mature enough to contribute to the honor of the family.

In fact, children were not able to contribute to the family honor until they were mature. Paul may be implying the role of the Corinthian church is to grow in maturity themselves! This is consistent with  how Paul’s correspondence with the Corinthians began, they were still immature and not able to move on to the “deeper things.” In 1 Cor 4:14-15 Paul describes himself as a father to the church, even if thy have many other teachers.

Within the metaphor, Paul is the patron/father figure who is doing everything he can to create an environment where the Corinthian children can grow to maturity and contribute to the family for themselves. Looking ahead to the next generation, they will “have children” and the church’s responsibility is to maintain and grow the wealth and honor of the family so they too can grow to maturity.

Paul is willing to spend everything he has for the church because he loves them as his dear children. Paul sees his relationship with the church in terms of a family in which he is like a parent and the church are children. He does not want to accept patronage from the church because it changes the relationship and would give the Corinthian church certain privileges over Paul.

This is a powerful image of the relationship of a pastor and congregation. While Paul does want churches to care for the needs of the people who serve in the church, his model for ministry is a caring parent who does everything to give the children want they need to succeed. Pastors who considered the local church their personal kingdom or use the church to enhance their own wealth and prestige have failed to follow the model Paul gives here in 2 Corinthians or the model of humble service demonstrated by Christ.

 

2 Corinthians 12:14–18 – The Problem with Patronage

Once of the main reasons Paul wrote 2 Corinthians is because he cancelled his plans to visit the church (1:15-2:4). Paul’s reasons for the change in plans was to spare the church. He was angry with them and knew the visit would be painful indeed. Instead of a visit, Paul wrote a “tearful letter” and sent Titus to deliver it to the church.

His change in plans contributed to a rift between Paul and the church. Although the letter and Titus’s visit seems to have settled the church, Paul’s absence gave and opportunity for opponents of Paul make serious accusations against him. These “super-apostles” claimed higher authority than Paul primarily because Paul was not a polished orator and was always suffering some sort of calamity. They may have accused Paul of trying to extort money from the church by means of a collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Paul is forced into a foolish exercise of boasting in this weakness (11:1-12:13). Having concluded his boasting, and putting the claims of the “super-apostles” into perspective, Paul finishes the letter by telling the Corinthians he will visit them for a third time.

Money BiblePaul’s intention is to travel back to Corinth for a third time, but he does not intend to be a burden to the church.  Paul did not accept support from the Corinthian church, and this seems to have been a source of some conflict with the congregation. He did accept financial support from Philippi, but directly refused support from Corinth. Paul has already said he does not intend to be a burden (2 Cor 11:9). The verb Paul uses (καταναρκάω) refers to being a “dead weight” so Paul might mean, “I do not want to take money from you if I am not going to work for it,” as if the church wanted to offer him a retainer fee for his services as an apostle!

The background here is the patron/client relationship in the Roman world. If the church gave Paul gifts, then Paul has an obligation to the church. They are his patron, and he is their client. Paul wants to avoid the perception of patronage, so he refuses to take money from the Corinthians.

If the Corinthian church gives Paul support, then they are his benefactors. They could potentially boast in their support of Paul in the way a Roman would boast in the any public benefaction. Since the Christians are not yet building churches, there is no way for a Gentile Christian to offer a gift to the church in a way that makes sense in their culture. If they were worshiping a particular god, they could offer to pay for a sacrifice or a new statue of the god or to improve the temple in some way. Naturally they would get “their name on the plaque” and everyone would know they had benefited the community in this way.

There is nothing a Roman Christian can do to show his generosity to the church other than to contribute to the needs of the poor, and that is something which would not bring honor to a person in a Roman context. Really the only thing the church could do is to support Paul as his patron, a relationship Paul does not want to encourage at all!

If this context is correct, then Paul’s refusal of patronage would be seen as a kind of insult, and likely a painful insult at that. If Paul is “their apostle” then he ought to be thrilled to receive a gift! Paul says he does not want their possessions, but a genuine relationship with them.

The difficulty for a contemporary reading of Paul’s relationship with Corinth is that Paul does encourage paying those who minister. If a church as the need for one or more full-time staff members, it is important for the church to pay them appropriately. But can the pastor/congregation relationship devolve into a patron/client relationship? If a pastor puts a paycheck before the spiritual needs of his congregation, then there is a serious problem with the relationship with the church.