Can factions find unity?
June 29 — 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; July 6 — 1 Corinthians 6:12-20
The Apostle Paul did not write to you and me. When we read his epistles, we are reading other people’s mail. Each letter was directed toward a specific assembly, or group of small house churches, in a particular city in the Roman Empire between A.D. 50 and 60. Each letter is different because the issues in each location vary.
However, the problems Paul faced as he planted these assemblies were similar enough that the churches preserved his letters and shared them with each other. Thus we read other people’s mail nearly 2,000 years later. It is a great gift. Unlike the Gospels, written several decades after Jesus’ lifetime, these letters are primary documents from the time period. Paul writes through struggle and anxiety — trying to preserve tiny islands of Jesus-believers in a sea of polytheism.
Around A.D. 50, Paul arrives in the bustling city of Corinth in Achaia (now part of Greece) after a failed attempt to preach in the city of Athens. For about 18 months, he shares a tentmaking shop with fellow Jews Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:1-2) and establishes house churches in the city. Then he and his companions leave Corinth to evangelize in Ephesus in Asia Minor (now western Turkey).
Did Paul leave too soon? Before long, two things happen that prod Paul to respond with a long letter. First, a house church leader named Chloe sends a couple of members across the Aegean Sea to Ephesus to report to Paul that the house churches of Corinth are falling apart. Factions have developed, each one following the teaching of a particular leader. One faction remains loyal to Paul; another prefers the eloquent Alexandrian Jew, Apollos (Acts 18:24). A third group, possibly more law-observant, follows Peter, and a fourth rejects all human leaders to follow the Messiah alone.
Never having known the earthly Jesus, many seem to identify with whoever baptized them. Paul uses the first six chapters in his letter to remind them of his basic theology and to deal with the contentious issues Chloe’s people have raised.
Is unity possible? Since we Mennonites have a history of splitting apart over both big and little issues, we can understand the problem. Unlike Mennos, however, these house churches are composed of different social classes — slaves, working-class people and a few householders who are wealthier and more educated and probably own slaves. As Paul starts tackling specifics, these social classes emerge through the issues of sexual behavior and lawsuits (5:1-6:20).
In our church contexts, where even same-sex monogamous relationships are questioned or rejected, it is hard to imagine the casual sexual behavior of these male converts from higher social classes. In Roman culture, wives are expected to remain faithful to their husbands, but men have no such obligation. Slaves have no rights, so both males and females from childhood on up are raped at will by their owners or are directly sold into prostitution. Can a slaveowner worship Christ together with persons he sexually abuses?
Our second text, 6:12-20, is addressed to these higher-class men. “All things are lawful for me,” they say, and sex is for bodily gratification just as food is meant for the stomach. But Paul argues otherwise. Discuss:
- How does Paul argue against sexual promiscuity? How does it relate to Jesus’s resurrection? Does Paul address the victims of sexual abuse?
- Paul does not require these men to be shunned, as he does the man living with his father’s wife in 5:1-5. Why not? What is the difference?
- Can you name parallel issues in our churches today?
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from teaching Bible at Messiah College in Pennsylvania. She co-authored Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (Herald, 2013), a study of 1 Corinthians for individuals and groups. See also her Bible study blog at eewc.com/retasreflections.
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