At long last I’m starting to catch up from the weather we’ve had here in southern Ontario in the past few weeks. It will take me a couple of posts to full catch up but here’s the first of two I hope to have done this week.
Finishing up Section 1 – Chapter 4
In this chapter Paul wraps up his discussion of the divisions within the Corinthian church by defining what Christian leadership really looks like and asserting his authority as the spiritual father of this church.
4:1-13 – What it really means to be an apostle
- Leaders in the church should always remember that they are servants of Jesus and stewards of things that ultimately belong to God.
- One of the issues is that some in Corinth think that Paul isn’t as impressive as some other Christian leaders (apostles) that they’ve met. In fact some have started to think they are spiritually superior to Paul.
- Paul reminds them that the real measure of a Christian leader is how much they resemble Jesus, which includes humility and a willingness to suffer and look shameful in eyes of the outside world.
4:14-21 – Respecting your spiritual father
- This is where Paul comes down the hardest. He’s hurt that many in the community he founded no longer respect him in favour of other leaders who seem more impressive (or members of the community who are now saying that they’re better than Paul as well). Paul reminds them that the example he’s given them is only what he’s learned from Jesus. Ultimately he’s not asking them to look to him, but look to Jesus.
- He also reminds them that his work among them might not have seemed impressive by secular standards but was marked by the power of the Holy Spirit. These other leaders might offer impressive talk, but they need to look closely and see if they are guided and empowered by the Spirit. Are these others bearing good fruit like healing, reconciliation, peace and renewed lives?
Section 2: Living With Integrity
The next major section of the letter covers chapters 5-7 and deals with the question of what it means to live lives of Christ-like integrity within the Christian community and larger world.
Chapter 5 – Inappropriate Behaviour and Community Standards
- While the main situation Paul is addressing has to do with sexual behaviour, it’s important to note that Paul isn’t just concerned with sex. Verse 9 illustrates the fact that there is a variety of sinful behaviour that negatively affects not just an individual but the broader Christian community.
- The situation that’s been brought to Paul’s attention is a man who is in a relationship with his step-mother.
- Aside from the negative affect this has on the individuals in question, Paul’s is particularly concerned with the affect this has on the whole Christian community in Corinth. First, this kind of behaviour is causing a scandal in the whole local community. This is behaviour isn’t just something other Christians see as wrong, it’s outrageous to everyone and is discrediting the church in the community. Secondly, tolerating or excusing this kind of behaviour threatens to mislead other members of the church about what life in Christ should be.
- This leads to the question of discipline within a Christian community. One challenge is that over time some Christian groups have practiced very heavy-handed forms of discipline (condemning and excluding people for the slightest mistakes), while others are more like this early church in accepting any and all behaviour.
- Paul here is trying to take a balanced approach, and what he teaches has a lot in common with what Jesus teaches in chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew.
- Discipline is carried out for significant behaviour that negatively affects the individual as well as the community of faith. It is also meant to bring the offender to repentance and a change of behaviour in hopes that they will eventually be able to rejoin the community. Such discipline should be carried out in love and humility, seeking the good of the individual and the community.
- Paul also says something quite significant in verses 9-13. So often Christians look around at people outside of the church and are quick to condemn people who don’t believe in God or Jesus’ teaching. Yet why should we expect non-Christians to behave in a Christian manner? The last people we should be judging are non-Christians! Our job is to share the good news of grace and mercy and help people live new lives once they know God through Jesus. And if we want to show the world a different way to live, a way of life that looks like Jesus, then we need to be sure that we are living it ourselves!
Chapter 6:1-11 – Handling Disputes as a Community
- Paul turns to another issue of integrity within the Corinthian church. While they are tolerating some kinds of bad behaviour, some are also quick to take other members of the church to court over other matters. Paul is concerned because a community that is based around God’s reconciling love in Jesus should be able to settle disputes on its own. If we are guided by God’s Spirit then we should be able to make good decisions.
- The other issue is that most secular courts then and now are based on an adversarial model that tends to further damage people and relationships in the interest of sorting out winners and losers. Yet Jesus taught that we should accept being wronged or hurt rather than do anything that hurts or wrongs someone else. There was also the contemporary issue that Roman courts were often unjust and tended to favour the rich and elite over the poor and humble.
- There are certainly situations today where churches should absolutely take matters to secular authorities, especially when there is abuse or other forms of criminal activity, but otherwise we should be able to resolve other disputes with fairness and grace ourselves. The last thing we should be doing is suing each other over anything.
Chapter 6:12-20 – Honouring God with our Bodies
- One of the underlying issues in Corinth behind both the tolerance of significant misbehaviour and other people suing each other is that some in the church were over spiritualizing their faith.
- It seems as if some thought that because all their sins were forgiven by Jesus, they could now do anything they wanted – hence the expression, ‘all things are lawful for me’ in verses 12. Some also seem to have thought that since their souls were saved and they had this new spiritual experience of Jesus, that what they did with their bodies wasn’t important. As they were now spiritual people, their bodies (and what they did with them) didn’t matter any more.
- Paul deals with this head on. He says that though we might be forgiven and free in Jesus new sins can still harm us (and others). He also adds that free people also shouldn’t willingly enslave themselves to harmful behaviour (sexual or otherwise) or attitudes (greed, selfishness or anger).
- Paul also stresses that our bodies do matter. In chapter 15 he’ll remind the Corinthians that Jesus was raised physically, which means that God cares about the physical and material as well as the spiritual. But here Paul also reminds them and us that when we become Christians we are spiritually united with Jesus and our bodies become a dwelling place for God’s Spirit. Therefore we should become more careful about how we live in the world and not less.
We’ve had a lot of great discussion in our Wednesday night sessions, so we have been going a little more slowly through the book than I had planned. In particular we spent a whole session just talking about chapter 7, which addresses the questions of marriage, divorce and singleness.
So that will be a post of its own, which I hope to have up in the next few days.