The church at Corinth faced numerous problems because of the culture with which it had to contend. Corinth was an extremely immoral city. It was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia and was geographically located in such a place that it inevitably became a trade center of the ancient world. Because of this, people from all areas of the world and with different backgrounds and cultures moved to Corinth. "One factor which contributed to Corinth's deep dive into the cesspool of immorality was the stream of commerce pouring through the city. Located on the isthmus which joined mainland Greece to the southern peninsula, it was a major seaport town . . . . The waterfront anywhere in the world is always a tough neighborhood. Corinth teemed with sailors of all nationalities far from home. When they landed in Corinth they were looking for a good time. The pagan Corinthians were more than ready to provide them everything they were seeking."(1)
The culture in Corinth was sex-crazed. Corinth "had a reputation for commercial prosperity, but she was also a by-word for evil and immoral living. The very word korinthiazesthai, to live like a Corinthian, had become a part of the Greek language, and it meant to live with drunken and immoral debauchery."(2) In his work entitled Flesh and Spirit, Barclay described the immorality of the ancient Graeco-Roman world. Here are some of the quotations from ancient writers used by Barclay to describe the condition of the ancient world:
Demosthenes: "We keep mistresses for pleasure, concubines for the day-today needs of the body, but we have wives in order to produce children legitimately and to have a trustworthy guardian of our homes."
Seneca: "Roman women were married to be divorced and were divorced to be married." "Innonence is not rare, it is nonexistent."(3)
He went on to describe how prostitution was legalized and state brothels were opened with the profits from them being used to erect, temples to gods. Even Messalina, the wife of Claudius Caesar, slipped out of the royal palace at nights to serve in public brothels. Homosexuality, unnatural vice that it is, flourished as well; many of the high government officials openly practiced homosexuality. Nero married a castrated youth called Sporus and went in a marriage procession with him throughout the streets of Rome.
Even though the general morality of the Graeco Roman world was low, the morality at Corinth was below average. One evidence of this is the fact that the word korinthiazesthai had come to be associated with immorality. Another evidence of this fact was the presence of sacred temple prostitutes in Corinth. "Above the isthmus there towered the hill of Acropolis, and on it there stood the great temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. To that temple there were attached one thousand priestesses who were sacred prostitutes, and at evening time they descended from the Acropolis and plied their trade upon the streets of Corinth . . ."(4)
The emphasis on sex was one of the characteristics of Corinth; hence, to "corinthize" meant to be engaged in immorality. Since the Corinthian culture so greatly emphasized sexual immorality, that the church in that city had problems with fornication and adultery should not surprise us (cf. l Cor.5:1-3; 69-11,15-20).
Have you ever stopped to think what characteristics largely represent our American society? I was never very conscious of this until I read the newspaper accounts of the Communist takeover of South Viet Nam. The first thing the Communists wanted to do was to get rid of the vestiges of American culture. What did they get rid of? Cars, TV's, electrical appliances, etc. ? No! Rather, the vestiges of American culture in South Viet Nam of which they wanted to rid themselves were things such as mini-skirts, drugs, brothels and prostitutes!
That America has become nearly as sex-crazed as ancient Corinth is becoming more obvious every day. Merchants sell everything from cars to shaving cream to gasoline and oil through an appeal to sex. If this were not working, you can rest assured that another approach to selling their products would be used. Our televisions are showing an increasing number of movies which are recommended for mature audiences. Christianity Today recently reported the following:
"More than one mlllion teenagers --10 per cent of all girls 15 to 19 in the United States--become pregnant each year according to a study published by Family Planning Perspectives magazine. More than one-third of the births are to unmarried mothers, the report says, and nearly one-third of the pregnancies end in abortion. Meanwhile, Playboy notes in a survey of students at twenty colleges that virginity is claimed by only 26 per cent of the women students this year (compared to 49 per cent In 1970) and by 26 per cent of the males (up from 18 per cent)."(5)
The Dayton Journal-Herald similarly reported the following:
"Interesting Data: Did you know that babies born out of wedlock accounted for 51 percent of all births in Washington, D.C. last year?
"It marked the first time, the National Center for Health Statistics reports, that a major U.S. city has had more children born to women who were not married than to women who were.
"Nationwide, only about 13 percent of all births were illegitimate.
"However, In Dayton last year, 33.6 percent (1,127) of all births (3,352) were illegitimate, according to Connie Martin, supervisor of data processing for the Montgomery County Health District. That's an increase from the 31.9 percent illegitimate birth rate in 1974."
Yes, my brethren, more and more the phrase "to Americanize" will become associated with the ideas of graft, corruption, and especially immorality.
Christians and Culture
Many contemporary theologians are teaching that ethical rules fluctuate with the society. One such example of this theology is that of John A. T. Robinson, an Anglican bishop; he said,
"For nothing can of itself be labelled as `wrong: One cannot, for instance, start from the position `sex relations before marriage' or `divorce' are wrong and sinful in themselves. They may be in 99 cases or even 100 cases out of 100, but they are not intrinsically so, for the only intrinsic evil is lack of love."(6)
In a similar vein, Joseph Fletcher said,
"Is adultery wrong? . . . . One can only respond, 'I don't know. Maybe. Give me a case. Describe a real situation' . . . . What is to be done in any situation depends on the case, and the moral issue is, therefore, quite relative."?(7)
But are ethical commandments (or doctrinal beliefs, for that matter) relative?
If there were ever a situation in which ethical commandments were altered by the moral standards of the people, the situation at Corinth would have altered them. Yet, what did Paul teach Christians in Corinth? Did he say, "Since everyone else is engaging in pre- and extra-marital sexual relationships in your city, you can also engage in them with discretion"? Absolutely not! Instead, he wrote,
"It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father's wife.. And you have become arrogant, and have not mourned instead, in order that the one who had done this deed might he removed from your midst. For 1, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present. In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus" (1 Cor. 5:1-5).
"Or do you not know that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revflers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the kingdom of God" (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take away the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? May it never be! Or do you not know that the one who joins himself to a harlot is one body with her? For He says, 'The two will become one flesh.' But the one who joins himself to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee Immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body" (1 Cor. 6:15-18).
My brethren, sin is not determined by the ethical norms of society or by one's own personal conscience; sin is determined by God's word. Anything which violates God's word is sin, regardless of what society's attitude toward it might be. Therefore, we Christians must dare to be different! We must walk by God's commandments even when our contemporaries "are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excess of dissipation, and they malign you" ( 1 Pet. 4:4). God's word, and not man's ideas, should determine how we live.
Truth Magazine XXI: 6, pp. 83-85
1. C. Peter Wagner, Our Corinthian Contemporaries, pp. 20-21.
2. William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 3.
3. William Barclay, Flesh and Spirit, pp. 24-25.
4. Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, p. 3.
5. Christianity Today, XXI:3 (Nov. 5, 1976), p. 86.
6. John A. T. Robinson, Honest To God., p. 118.
7. Joseph Fletcher, Situation Ethics, pp. 142-143.