Saturday, February 16, 2008

An Introduction to a Dysfunctional Church

INTRODUCTION (Read 1 Cor. 1:1-31)

Welcome to the ancient city of Corinth, the Las Vegas, the New York City, the Los Angeles, or the Seattle of the ancient world. If you can imagine a city rife with a plethora of different ethnic and socioeconomic groups as well as being full of the common sins of prostitution, selfishness, sexual immorality, idolatry, drunkenness, revelry, and just about any other culturally diverse and sinful excess you can imagine, then you have just described Corinth. Given what we read in the New Testament, the church of Corinth mirrored the culture of Corinth.[1] In 1st Corinthians, Paul the apostle has already received a letter from the Corinthian church by the hands of Stephanas, Fortunatas, and Achaicus and even some of Chloe’s household had told him about the problems in the church there and the measures they had undertaken in trying to solve them.[2] And so, writing from Ephesus in the Spring, sometime between of 53-55 A.D., Paul responds to them in his letter (16:8).[3] He writes to what is a predominately Gentile community, most of which were from poor families, although there were probably several wealthy families in the Corinthian church. Though there was a Christian church in Corinth, it is clear that there was still too much of Corinth in these Christians, which caused the display of a number of sinful behaviors that required radical spiritual surgery that was designed to remove the malignancy without killing the patient. This means that Paul has to deal with many practical problems related to a lack of sanctification rooted in poor doctrine. That is what Paul is attempting to do in this letter.[4]

Paul’s goal in writing 1st Corinthians is twofold: (1) He wants to reassert his apostolic authority in a situation where it has been compromised and (2) since he is an apostle, he must convince them that their behavior and theology needs to be in line with his own apostolic teaching just as he had previously taught them (1 Cor. 4:16-17). In 1st Corinthians, there are no outside opponents such as with the Judaizers and proto-gnostics that plagued the other assemblies Paul wrote to. Rather, Paul says that the internal strife that riddled the Corinthian church and the disagreement with his own teaching had come from within (i.e., “some among you” 15:12 cf. 4:18). The rival factions in the Corinthian church probably developed when the wealthy patrons in the house churches that provided support for apostolic workers began disputing amongst themselves about the validity or lack thereof of different apostolic workers such as Apollos, Cephas, and Paul (cf. 1:10-12).

When the anti-Pauline factions and patrons in the church began to see a need to “examine” Paul because he refused to accept their financial support, this created even more suspicion of Paul’s ministry as a legitimate apostle of Christ. After all, would a man who possessed the message of divine wisdom [i.e., the Greek concept of sophia = Greek concept of “wisdom”] be performing manual labor with his own hands? (cf. 9:1-19; 4:12; Acts 18:3) The internal tensions amongst the various factions within the church and the anti-Pauline factions that were against Paul created a bad situation overall because the relationship between Paul and the Corinthian church as a whole was deteriorating. However, in spite of all of this, they were still communicating with Him by letter. Nevertheless, Paul has to contradict their position at almost every turn in this letter and he has to do so because they question his apostolic authority. They have been wondering if he’s really a prophet of God or if he’s truly a spiritual man sent by the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 14:37 and 2nd Corinthians). They were repelled by Paul’s supposed lack of oratorical skills and so, since some of them had already begun to question his authority, they therefore thought that they had the necessary wisdom to move on to more mature teachings from real prophets and real apostles who possessed true divine wisdom (cf. 2:6; 3:1; 1:17; 2:1-5).

Of course, for all their supposed superior “wisdom” and “knowledge”, they mixed pagan philosophies with biblical Christianity and so created a faulty view of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; a view which led to a licentious church because they believed that the ordinances gave them some type of spiritual security blanket wherein one’s behavior in this life has little or no bearing upon one’s spiritual condition (10:1-5). This type of thinking, combined with abundant spiritual gifts created people who were boastful, prideful, and arrogant (4:6, 18; 5:2, 6). Their theological errors were rooted in a lifetime of immersion into Hellenistic dualism, which is the philosophical view of both the cosmos and the human person that says that salvation is seen as an escape or “getting away” from the world and the body. This explains why they were seeking “wisdom” and “knowledge”, it shows why they had an over-spiritualized view of the ordinances, and explains why “some” denied the physical, tomb-emptying resurrection of the dead at the end of history (1:22; 15:12). They believed they were experiencing a kind of ultimate, transcendent spirituality in which they lived on a higher spiritual plane above the merely material existence of the present age.

It is important that we understand the significant and weighty issues that Paul tackles in his first letter to the Corinthians because it provides many lessons for the modern church. Negatively, the mixture of the secular and pagan character of ancient Corinth, the lone-ranger individualism that rears its ugly head in the selfish display of the Corinthians’ spiritual gifts, the arrogance the underlies their motives for questioning Paul’s apostolic authority, the cultural accommodation of the gospel to their society followed with its subsequent compromise, and many other issues belabored in this letter are but mirrors of what occurs in evangelical churches today. Positively, the need for discipleship modeled after the weakness of Christ (4:9-13), the importance of love as the chief characteristic of the believer (13:1-13), the need to expose sexual immorality for what it is (5:1-13; 6:12-20), the importance and permanence of marriage (7:1-40), and the importance of edification being the goal of gathered, Christian worship are all things that have relevance for us today. With that in mind, let us look at verses 1-3 under the following two points.

I. A Salty Salutation (vv. 1-2).

II. A Savior-Mediated Grace and Peace (v. 3).


I. A Salty Salutation (vv. 1-2).

Paul’s letter begins in the typical Greco-Roman manner which always included a three-fold salutation including the name of the writer, the addressee, and the greeting. Following these three things there would generally be a thanksgiving and prayer to the gods. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians follows this standard form but he goes on to make the all important difference in that his letter is distinctively graced by a Christian salutation.

Verse 1: Paul, called as an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother,” It is important to understand that Paul emphasizes from the beginning that he has been called as an apostle of Jesus Christ in accordance with God’s sovereign will. Many Corinthian Christians, being at odds with their founder, were judging Paul (4:1-5) and examining the validity of his apostleship (9:1-23). (1) Since the church is questioning his qualifications, he begins his letter by asserting that his apostleship is by a divine “call” and this vocation is God’s will for his life. (2) Paul then emphasizes that the readers can be confident that his call to be an apostle is of divine origin because it was based upon God’s prior choice of him which he indicates to the readers when he says “by the will of God”. The fact that Paul’s ministry as an apostle didn’t come from his own choice but by God’s sovereign will is a teaching that Paul applies not only to his own apostolic call (Gal. 1:4), but to the entire package of salvation itself (Eph. 1:3-11). (3) Paul affirms that he is not just an apostle, but that he is an “apostle of Jesus Christ”. Thus, he’s indicating that not only does he operate with a God-given authority, but also in a practical one, namely, that of being a church planter/missionary (cf. 1:17 “sent” and 15:5-7 where more than just the 12 were considered apostles). We are not exactly sure who “Sosthenes our brother” is. If he is the Sosthenes mentioned in Acts 18:7, the ruler of the synagogue who was beaten in the presence of Gallio, then he would have now become a believer and a fellow companion of Paul. Nevertheless, we just can’t be sure exactly who he was other than to know that he was a fellow Christian by which whose name being included in the introduction would have for some reason given more weight to Paul’s letter when the Corinthians read it the first time. That was all said to say that Paul begins immediately defending his apostleship right from the very first verse of this letter.

Verse 2: To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours: . .” It is important to notice that Paul does not address the parties, factions, or even the elders of the church (cf. Phil. 1:1; 4:3 to see how he does it differently). Instead, he addresses the whole church because the whole church is involved in creating the problems and the whole church should be involved in fixing the problems. Paul goes on to say that the Corinthians “have been sanctified in Christ Jesus” which speaks of them being set aside by God for holiness, a holiness that shows forth discernable behavioral differences which was particularly important for this church since their “higher wisdom” and “spirituality” had been divorced from an outward ethical purity and righteousness (cf. 1 Thess. 4:3; 5:23). So, Paul is getting after their behavior from the start. [S]aints by calling” means that they were God’s holy people. And so, just as Paul was an apostle by divine calling, so the Corinthian believers were God’s holy people by divine calling, and as such they should have been reflecting His character and not the character of the city they were from. In too many ways they looked too much like Corinth than they did God’s holy people in Corinth. [W]ith all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours” is an early and gentle jab from Paul designed to remind them that they are not selfish and prideful individualists, but instead they are part of the larger spiritual body of all who call on the name of Jesus throughout the entire world. [T]heir Lord and ours:” Because the church at Corinth calls on the name of the Lord of all the churches, they are to also let the Lord of the all the churches have His way in their church. Paul is already laying the groundwork for addressing their behavior and attitudes.

Questions for reflection: (1) Since elders/pastors/overseers and evangelists cannot claim apostleship today like Paul, how can they prove that the message they preach is authoritative and worthy of heeding? In other words, how do you judge the credibility of a person’s ministry? (2) How does Paul’s calling as an apostle relate to our calling unto salvation? (3) Since Paul appealed to the whole church of Corinth and not any single person or spiritual leaders, what can we learn about how we should go about handling the problems that arise in our own church today? (4) Why would Paul appeal to the sanctification of the Corinthians and how is that relevant to us today? (5a) Why is religious individualism so popular in our post-modern culture? (5b) What can we do to avoid the problem of “Lone Ranger Christianity”?

II. A Savior-Mediated Grace and Peace (v. 3).

Verse 3: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul changes the standard secular Greco-Roman greeting from the general “Greetings” (Gk. chairein) to “Grace to you” and adds the traditional Jewish blessing of “peace.” (Heb. Shalom) Verse three sums up Paul’s rich theological teaching on how God saves people by summing it all up in one word: grace. In Paul’s teaching, nothing is deserved and nothing can be achieved because it’s all of grace. The sum total of those benefits as they are experienced by the recipients of God’s grace is found in the word peace, which means “well-being, wholeness, good welfare.” Both the grace and the peace come from God the Father and Jesus, the One who purchased the grace. In conclusion, it’s important to note that there is a Jesus-centered emphasis in this entire salutation. Notice that Paul is an apostle “of Jesus Christ”, the Corinthians “have been sanctified in Christ Jesus”, believers throughout the world were designated as those who “call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” and grace and peace from God the Father is brought about through our mediator “the Lord Jesus Christ”.

Questions for reflection: (1) What one word captures Paul’s theological teaching on salvation? (2) How does Paul define grace in Romans 11:6 and how does that apply to the rebellious Corinthians in the context of verse 3? (3) Since Paul begins the introduction of his letter with a Savior-mediated blessing of grace and peace for the Corinthians, what can we learn from this about how we should go about handling the problems that arise in our own church? (4) How are grace and peace properly mixed together with necessary rebuke and confrontation [Gal. 6:1-2]? (5) Why do Christians have such a difficult time lovingly and gently confronting fellow believers who are in sin? (6) How is our understanding of what it means to be “loving and gentle” usually informed by our politically correct culture that seeks tolerance at all costs?


In this teaching, we have seen that though Paul’s divinely ordained apostolic credentials were called into question by the very church he founded, he was able to gracefully begin the process of defending himself and rebuking the individualism, pride, and arrogance of the Corinthians in the first three verses. In doing so, he lays the groundwork for dealing with their factiousness, rebellion, and worldliness, and gives us a great example of how to address these types of issues directly, yet gently and most of all gracefully.

[1] Acts 18:1-8; 1 Cor. 1:10-17; 16:15-17; Rom. 16:23.

[2] 1 Corinthians 16:15-17; 1:11.

[3] It is important to note that this is Paul’s third dealing with the Corinthians. The first was in Acts 18 (ca. A.D. 49-51); the second was a couple of years later when in Ephesus, Paul wrote a previous letter to the Corinthians church as is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9. It is also important to note that the reason why most conservative scholars date Paul’s writing of 1st Corinthians between 53-55 A.D. is because they are unsure as to what year he left Corinth (Acts 18:18) and exactly how long he stayed at Ephesus.

[4] Cf. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 1987), 4. Although I do not agree with everything Fee says, his commentary on 1st Corinthians is one of the best modern evangelical commentaries on this epistle and as a result I will be using it throughout our study.

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