Paul founded the church in Corinth around AD 51 (Acts 18:1-11) during his second missionary journey but soon he started to hear about the constant bickering and the growing pagan traditions and cultures that were being adopted by the members. Towards the end of Paul’s Ministry in Ephesus (approx AD 54), Paul wrote letters to the church in Corinth in response to various allegations and accusations he had heard among the church members.
The fellowship of believers in the Corinthian church was imploding, as pride and arrogance among its ‘elite’ members was preventing the work of Christ in the church. Paul sought to address the issues that were cropping up in this chaotic church in Greece.
Context, Context, Context
Our modern bibles have managed to preserve only the second and fourth letters that Paul had written to the Corinthians. We do not know the contents of the first letter he mentions in 1 Corinthians 5:9 and the third letter in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4 and that robs us of the context in which the second and fourth were written. Many a time in his letter Paul is quoting something that was enquired of him which without the context we end up thinking as his own words.
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.1 Corinthians 10:23
The absence of quotes from some of our modern Bible translations makes us believe that Paul is not quoting someone but making a statement himself. Since we have only Paul’s response and do not have the letter the church of Corinth sent Paul asking these questions, we sometimes misunderstand Paul’s rhetorical and sarcastic statements to be his own belief system. Thus, context is everything in reading these letters and a basic understanding of the culture that prevailed during the time of its authorship is required.
The Complete Picture
Letters are meant to be read completely and not in parts by picking outlines from them, to make ‘inspiring’ refrigerator magnets. The problem with the New Testament letters for people is that it is much more approachable than the Old Testament historical accounts and often people turn to this part of the Bible, to look for one-liners that help them understand the chaotic nature of our communities.
On the contrary, that was never the intent of any of the New Testament authors as they were responding to questions and confusion in their respective church communities. Thus, the Apostolic Letters should not be read in pieces but to properly understand the author’s point of view, we should read them in their entirety.
The letters to the church in Corinth were a departure from the conventional letters addressing a predominantly Jewish audience. We must apply the learnings to our present-day context based on our culture and pagan traditions that surround us rather than try to address the pagan cultures of the ancient world.
Like the Lord’s supper which had the backdrop of the Jewish Passover remembering the Grace of God when He brought them out of slavery, was now turned into a remembrance of Jesus saving us from a similar fate. But the Church in Corinth had applied the Passover according to their understanding and treated the Lord’s supper as a feast (Acts 11:17-34). We should not apply the learnings from the Letters according to the pagan culture that surrounds us, but see it in its true essence and align our thoughts and actions with Jesus.
Jesus at the Center
Paul’s one solution to all the problems in the Church is keeping Jesus at the center of all the decision-making. Remember that Paul was not Jesus nor did he ever claimed to have all the answers. Like all the men in the Bible, he too had flaws and was striving hard each day to walk closer to God. Let us not take the advice that he gave to an ancient church and separate Jesus from his teachings and apply only his advice in our communities.
A church divorced from Jesus will end up with similar problems, with the leaders running around like headless chickens in trying to make sense of the chaos around them. Without the Love of Jesus in our hearts we can never truly be part of a community of Jesus but will always look to derive something that benefits us from our fellowships. Paul’s letters usually ended on this theme and having love for our brethren is the one thing from his letters that can be directly applied in our lives.
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love1 Corinthians 13:13