Discord in the Early Church: Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians

Notes on Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians: Paul’s Call for Order and Love

In Paul’s first epistle to the small, fledgling Church in Corinth, his reason for writing the letter concerns infighting within the church. A house of “Chloe” has informed Paul that there is major disagreement within the church in Corinth. The tone of the first letter expresses frustration. Paul asks the Corinthians to be “perfectly united of mind and thought” (1:10) because some of them follow different leaders: Paul or Apollos, or Cephas, or Christ.

He begs the people of Corinth to look to God’s “wisdom” rather than the Jews who obsessively look for a lawgiver, and the Greeks who look for “wisdom” (an allusion to the tensions between philosophy and theology). He reminds the people that they are not of noble birth nor of power nor prestige, for God chose the “weak” things in the world to raise up and “shame” the strong.

Paul’s purpose with the letter is to present human wisdom as inferior to the superior wisdom and power of God/Jesus/the Holy Spirit. What is God’s wisdom? Paul declares God’s wisdom to be a hidden “mystery” but “revealed” by the Spirit and the mind of the Jesus, the “Christ.” Paul employs the people not to follow the ways of the world, and to reject following a particular human being like “Paul” or “Apollos” and instead see the messenger as a planter of a seed, while God provides the true water for growth. According to Paul, human pursuit of wisdom is foolish and thus he instructs the Corinthians not to follow the ways of the world.

How does Paul see the followers of “the way”? He says they are “servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the mysteries of God has revealed to us” (4:1). According to Paul, divine revelation supersedes knowledge and wisdom.

In the letter, Paul announces that he has sent his relative Timothy to help the people of Corinth in their faith so that they may imitate Paul in his faith. For the “kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power” (4:20). Paul yearns for power.

Paul addresses a claim that one among the people of Corinth is sleeping with his father’s wife, which Paul condemns and asks the church to banish this incestuous person. He commands the people to keep the purity of their bodies.

Regarding married life, another topic about which the people of Corinth had questions, Paul says a man and a woman should submit to one another “mutually” and to those who remain unmarried (like Paul) it is better that they control their sexual passions. Paul wishes that they all could be like him (7:7). Paul quite clearly presents an inflated image of himself, though he addresses them as equals, or “brothers and sisters” (adelphoi in Greek). And he offers these injunctions not as “commandments” but as “concessions.” Modern law does not come in the form of commandments.

Paul praises the unmarried life, because an unmarried man can focus on the concerns of the Lord while a married man must focus on the needs of this world, and this world is passing away each day while the “kingdom of heaven” is nigh (7:25-40). It is preferable not to be married (thus Paul rejects the ways of the world entirely). For him, politics is less desirable than a life of asceticism.

Regarding the question of offering food to idols, Paul condemns this activity, as humans are neither better nor worse with or without food, for God is not swayed one way or the other. This is a fascinating exposition and continuation of Jesus’s claim that ‘man does not live by bread alone.’

Paul then justifies himself as an apostle, as well as his need to reap funding from the new Church in Corinth so that he may share in the gospel’s “blessings.” Paul says he is seeking not the good in himself, but rather the good of the “many.” He then offers a fascinating exposition of the Torah, which is reinterpreted as a warning sign for the coming of Christ. Theology must constantly revise and reinterpret earlier literature in order to remain vital.

Regarding the question of whether or not women should have their heads covered, Paul says “judge for yourselves” (11:13).

Paul replaces Plato’s idea of the body politic (the comparison in the Republic between the single human body and the city) with the body politic of the church in Christ, each church and each person doing their part. Thus he closes his fiery letter to the Corinthians with a message of love, for them to unite in their separate gifts and beliefs in order to love one another. What is love? Paul famously declares the following:

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (13:4-7)

In this way, Paul uncovers one of the pieces required for Plato’s city to exist: love, which is patience, kindness, brotherliness, protective, and trusting, and it is unfaltering. Moreso than political philosophy, perhaps theology comes to light as the teacher of the people, a necessary requirement for the body politic. For Paul, in the end when all things pass away from this world, three things remain: faith, hope, and love. If all the cities of the world collapse, faith, hope, and love wi remain. Speaking to the Corinthians, Paul says the greatest of these is love. A political body of people, united rather than divided, cannot stand without love. It is important that he makes these claims about love in a political context to resolve the Corinthians’ inner turmoil.

Then, Paul discusses people who speak in tongues, as this gift is a sign from the Spirit and must be interpreted correctly, so long as it is fitting and orderly. People are drawn to these strange elemental mysteries.

Paul offers a kind of metaphorical teaching of resurrection: as Adam was the first man, a man of dust, so the second man will be of spirit, not of this world. He will not be of the earth.

Lastly Paul, ever the politician, concludes with restrictions on the Corinthians as with the Galatians: to not hold collection when he arrives so that it will not appear to come to him. He wants to attain funding without appearing to be greedy. He closes with some other pleasantries and a request to treat his relative, Timothy, well when he arrives in Corinth. And he also that they treat the house of Stephanas with respect, as these were the first converts in Achaia. Paul appears to have written the letter from Asia, and Aquilla and Priscilla send their best.

Notes on Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians: Paul’s Suffering and His Authority Over the Church

In Paul’s second letter to Corinth he references another letter he sent (one which is now lost).

In Chapter 2, Paul praises the new Church’s role – a bringer of a “new covenant” (which was veiled by Moses, as opposed to the “new covenant” which has torn down the veil) and also the bringer of aroma to the people, to some this aroma brings death, and to others it brings life. New religions bring death as well as life. Paul urges the people of Corinth to love one another, echoing his earlier letter to Corinth. He calls on them to focus on what is “unseen” because what is “seen” is transitory.

Paul praises Corinth and the Macedonian Churches, and he encourages Corinth to pursue the “grace in giving” -by taking up a collection. Again, Paul is focused on finances. He announces that he is sending Titus to take up the collection, so Paul encourages Corinth to welcome Titus and give generously to his coffers.

After encouraging philanthropy for the Church, Paul offers a defense of his ministry as not a politics of “this world” (Chapter 10). He cautions the people against false apostles, and he tells them about his many times being whipped, imprisoned, cast at sea, cold, and hungry, and so on. On top of all his sufferings, Paul faces daily pressures from the churches which are competing for attention. He describes a “thorn” (12:7) in his side, placed there by Satan, and he asked God three times to remove it but God said his grace was enough. Thus Paul praises “weaknesses.” He finds strength in his weakness -thus completing he emphasizes the moral inversion of classical antiquity, as Nietzsche claims. What is Paul’s “thorn?” Perhaps it is a metaphor for Paul’s lust for power, money, or his sinful appetites.

At any rate, Paul prepares the Corinthians for his third visit, and he hopes that they will be pure and without gossip, slander, and other forms of impurity in the church. Paul closes his letter by reminding the Corinthians that he comes in order to use his authority, sometimes harshly, as his authority comes from God. Paul views himself, rather than Peter, as the successor to Jesus.

For this reading I used the King James Version of the Bible.

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