By Robert F. Turner
“Twenty,” “Fifty,” “One hundred” years ago (often depending on the age of the speaker) “the church was pure in doctrine and life, and all brethren knew the Bible by heart.” Or, “In Campbell’s day the ideal church was restored in faith and practice.” Or even, “In the church at Jerusalem,” “In the first century, there were no hypocrites, and all brethren loved one another.” These statements can not be proven by Bible or secular history. The church in Jerusalem had members like Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5: If), and Paul rebuked Peter and others for hypocrisy (Gal. 2:11f). The first century church, apostles and all, were people just like people today. Some were truth loving, dedicated, followers of Christ, whose sins were but proof of the weakness of the flesh, and who “prayed without ceasing” for forgiveness, and strength to do better. Others, the greater part in some cases, had been converted to Christ, but dedication waned in the “long haul,” and worldliness took over.
In an introduction to First Corinthians, Pulpit Commentary says this letter “entirely dissipates the dream that the apostolic Church was in an exceptional condition of holiness of life or purity of doctrine.” It is an open window into the real local church; and describes a condition that exists in principle today. The picture of an ideal congregation, as taught by the Scriptures, is largely developed from negatives. We learn what is right, by observing apostolic corrections of wrongs; and the church in Corinth was a prime source for such lessons. There were some who had a party spirit, some condoned an incestuous man; and there were brothers who went to law with brothers. Fornication was a major problem, there were marriage difficulties, meat offered to idols was an “issue,” and apparently there was need for teaching on preacher support. Worship was hampered by unruly women, misuse of the Lord’s Supper, and the abuse of spiritual gifts. And the depth of doctrinal error was reached by those who denied the resurrection.
Yet Paul addressed these people as “the church of God. . . ” “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Did he condone their condition? Oh no! But he held forth hope for them. “I thank my God always on your behalf, for the grace of God which is given you by Jesus Christ; that in every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterances, and in all knowledge; even as the testimony of Christ was confirmed in you: so that ye come behind in no gift; waiting for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall also confirm you unto the end, that ye may be blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:4f). I wonder if maybe he recounted their blessings as a prelude to questioning what they had done with such advantages.
Paul says he must speak unto them as unto “carnal” (3:1). It is difficult to think of saints as carnal, for the carnal mind is enmity against God (Rom. 8:6-7). However, all who are in the flesh retain fleshly appetites, and are carnal to the extent fleshly desires are allowed to overrule the better inclinations of the heart (spirit). Paul said he himself was “carnal” when he did what he would not: i.e., acted contrary to principles he fully approved (Rom. 7:14f). That was why he was so thankful for the mercies in Christ (7:24f). Paul called the Corinthians “babes in Christ,” indicating they were not without hope. Their hope was, of course, in changing their ways and turning to Christ for forgiveness. They were brethren in error, or carnal ones who needed to develop spiritually; and that is exactly what we find in local churches today. Brethren may pray, “We do what we should not, and leave undone what we should do,” and they can point to Corinth for precedent – but not for justification.
On the first reading of 1 Corinthians it seems a disjointed series of poorly related subjects, with no central theme. But read it again, and again, and you may discern a common note in Paul’s reply to these diverse matters. The party spirit is countered with the oneness and preeminence of Christ (1:13). Paul and Apollos are but ministers by whom they believed, but God gave the increase (3:6). “Let no man glory in men. . . ye are Christ’s” (3:21f). The incestuous man, so flagrant a sinner as to warrant no indecision, was to be disclaimed “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:4). “Christ our Passover” can countenance no such leaven (5:7). Going to law with a brother is scorned with, “Do you know that the saints shall judge the world?” (6:2) Whatever that means, it argues “from the grand and celestial to earthly commonplace. ” Christian nobility is compromised in civil wrangling.
Fornication was evidently a persistent evil, which Paul answers by saying “ye were bought with a price” (the cross), and your very body belongs to Him (6:15f). Those with problems of marriage and/or celibacy are told, think not selfishly, but of saving your mate’s soul (7:16). In whatever state you are called, let your chief concern be to “abide with God” (7:24). And, there is more to life than marriage, sorrow, joy, worldly possessions. This world will pass -think of pleasing the Lord (7:29f). On the “issue” of meats offered to idols, “to us there is but one God . . . and one Lord” (8:6); but freedom must be tempered by concern for the weak. Christ died for them also (8:9f). Preacher support is affirmed, but on a basis of humble dedication to the Lord (9:14-23).
Public worship of the Corinthians was disturbed and corrupted by unruly women (with their disregard for propriety in dress and speaking); so Paul calls for a recognition in every way, of God as the ultimate “head” (11:3; 12:33,40). Misuse of the Lord’s Supper boils down to a selfish, ungodly attitude versus spiritual communion with the Lord and remembrance of Him (11:24f). Abuse of spiritual gifts came from pride in unearned gifts of God, who set members in the body “as it pleased Him” (12:18). Those parts which seem to be feeble are necessary (v. 22); and, “there should be no schism in the body” (v. 25), for “Ye are the body of Christ” (v. 27). Then comes that marvelous panegyric on “love” (1 Cor. 13). Love “envieth not, vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up.” Without this selfless, sacrificing love, all the gifts are nothing. Faith to remove mountains is nothing, apart from this love.
As it is apparent these admonitions were especially needed in Corinth, we are not surprised to see degeneration there respecting the very basic doctrine of resurrection. Paul’s answer is, again, the word of the Cross. “If Christ be not risen” all else is vain. Our victory is in the resurrected Lord, and in Him alone (15:14,57). Reviewing these different and sometimes seemingly unrelated problems, we are struck with the uniformity of their solution: Divine sacrificing love for the souls of men, which manifested itself upon the cross; and which we must truly believe, seek to imbibe, and to practice. It must have been as hard to “sell” in those days as it is today; and yet, it is the world’s only hope. The problems themselves are not as unrelated as a casual reading would lead one to think. 1 Corinthians is “the epistle of the cross in its social application,” or simply, the cross in our everyday life.
There are Corinthian churches today, where members are more concerned with material things and self-serving goals than in going to Heaven. The “cross” is “foolishness” to their ears, even though they may not openly admit it. We can only hope that those who see the problems may maintain the loving concern and inspired remedy of the Apostle Paul. Shunning placebos of excellent speech and worldly wisdom, we pray “Christ crucified” will be presented by humble servants, content to see God’s power do its work. Be not deceived. Our victory is in Christ, or there is no victory.
Guardian of Truth XXX: 4, pp. 103, 109
February 20, 1986