America and Corinth:
Churches Molded by Their Culture
has continuously struggled with many issues since its inception
in the first century. As the Gospel competed
for the hearts and souls of men in pagan societies, conflicts between Christianity and
the local forms of paganism were unavoidable. The
Roman world was a very sinful and polytheistic place, which would
inevitably serve as a breeding ground for hostility against the
Corinth was renowned for its abundant vices as well as its cultural and religious diversity. While
comparing America to first century Corinth is most unflattering for
America, definite moral and religious parallels between the two
entities are readily observable. Contemporary American Christian
communities and Christians in first century Corinth both have a history
of wrongly tolerating sin and
paganism within their midst while simultaneously refusing to tolerate their brothers in Christ; despite
the clear teachings of the Bible on all of these matters.
Preliminary Matters: A Brief History of Corinth
Greek Corinth was one of the wealthiest cities of antiquity.
Corinth’s location made it an ideal epicenter for commerce in
the ancient world. The city was located on the primary land
route between the East and the West, and it held control of two
prominent harbors; one facing Italy and the other facing
Asia. This prominent city was a melting pot of
people, religions, and morals. As trade increased and
Corinth’s wealth grew, the city developed a reputation for
its rampant sexual permissiveness. Corinth was the capital of
the Greek Achaean League, which resulted in a costly clash with Rome
during Rome’s rise to the status of monolithic
power. In 146 B.C. Corinth was conquered by a Roman consul
named Lucius Mummius who pillaged the city and returned to Rome with
the spoils of war. The once mighty Corinth was forced to lay dormant for 102 years.
After Julius Caesar rose to power as the dictator of Rome, he issued an
edict that called for the restoration of ancient cities.
Corinth was soon rebuilt, and the first Roman colonists arrived in 44
B.C. These colonists were primarily freedmen from
Rome who were considered only slightly more valuable than
slaves. Other settlers included Greeks, veteran Roman
soldiers, and Jews. Reestablishing Corinth allowed
Rome the opportunity to be rid of those at the lowest end of the
socioeconomic scale that overpopulated the capital city and frequently
caused trouble, while at the same time allowing these freedmen a chance
at a better life. Since Roman Corinth consisted largely of
lower class citizens, an aristocracy was not built into its
infrastructure. Before long, trade flourished in the once
vacated city, and successful merchants and businessmen soon found
themselves at the top of the social hierarchy in Corinth as wealth
became the primary basis of class distinction.
Scholars remain divided as to the major language of Roman
Corinth. While Latin was prominent at this time in the
Western portion of the empire, it is likely that Corinth and other
provinces in the East spoke Greek, as would be in keeping with their Hellenistic heritage.
Corinth was named the capital of the province of Achaia and quickly
rose to the place of the third most prominent city in the empire under
Rome and Alexandria. A major draw to the city besides its
abundant wealth was its sporting events. Corinth housed a
famous amphitheater featuring gladiators and exotic
animals. The most famous athletic event hosted by
Corinth was the Isthmian Games, the heritage of which extended back
into ancient Greece. These games were so historically founded
that while Corinth lay in ruin for a century, the games still continued
under the care of the Sicyonians. The games were held every
two years, and they brought considerably more traffic into the already
populous city. Perhaps Paul’s athletic imagery in
the Corinthian correspondence is an allusion to these sporting events.
The Corinthian correspondence is the primary text used to shed light on
the situation in first century Corinth. Very few scholars
deny Pauline authorship of the books of I and II Corinthians.
Acts 18 details Paul’s stay in Corinth as he founded its
first Christian church.
Paul’s initial visit lasted about eighteen months, and he left sometime during the spring of A.D.
52. The books of I and II Corinthians
were most likely written within a year of each other. Many
scholars believe that I Corinthians was written in A.D. 55, while
Donald Guthrie insists that the most widely held date is no earlier
than A.D. 57. Over the course of his ministry to
at Corinth, Paul is believed to have made three visits in person and penned four letters.
Paul authored I Corinthians after receiving alarming reports from
different groups associated with the church:
members of Chloe’s household and three church
emissaries named Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus. The chief
problems that Paul addressed in his epistle were: petty divisions
within the church,
sexual sins within the congregation, meat sacrificed
to idols, spiritual gifts, and a distorted view of the
Resurrection. While there was a significant Jewish
population in Corinth, the internal evidence of I Corinthians suggests
that the intended recipients of the epistle were Gentiles.
The key verse that leads to this conclusion is I Corinthians 6:9-11:
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 the
covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, shall inherit the
kingdom of God. And such were some of you.
Having a history of such licentious behavior prior to coming to Christ
clearly suggests a pagan background. Other key
indications as to the Gentile nature of Paul’s audience
include the fact that they attended temple feasts, they
willingly went before the Roman courts, they were eager to
fornicate with prostitutes, and they rejected the belief in a bodily resurrection.
Sadly, the Corinthian congregation was the first of many churches to
compromise their Christianity by partaking in the paganism that
prevailed in their given culture. They chose to tolerate,
even celebrate, the sins of their brothers and were quick to combine
their Christian beliefs with the pagan beliefs of their
neighbors. Not only did they readily accept the things that
God opposes, but they were also quick to forsake their brothers in
Christ on the basis of petty differences. These first
Christians can be expected to struggle with such a new and drastic
belief system after living within a community that had been pagan since
its inception. Their problems, however, were quickly
addressed by Paul, and his responses have served as a beacon to all
America has the unique place in history of being the first nation
founded upon Christian beliefs. Until the 1960s America
maintained much of its Christian heritage, but immorality and paganism
are now commonplace within this society. Like the
Corinthians, American Christians are frequently adapting their
Christianity to fit within the corrupted mold of its increasingly pagan
society. Sin, particularly sexual sin,
is prolific within the church
and all too frequently it is tolerated rather than
condemned. Christians also refuse to defend sound doctrine
for fear of being labeled “intolerant.”
They alter their core beliefs in the hopes of blending in with a
godless society. This refusal to defend what is true has
resulted in the emergence of numerous cults in addition to many
cowardly and uneducated Christians. Finally, the church
in America is an unnecessarily divided entity. Petty squabbles
have all-too-easily usurped the Great Commission and Christ’s
call to unity through love.
America does not have the excuses
that Corinth had for its conduct. Paul’s letter to
was intended to prevent the aforementioned behaviors from
erupting within a congregation, but the nature of sinful man is
consistent throughout all ages. Paul’s solutions to
these problems are simple to understand but difficult to
implement. Christians are not to tolerate sin
and paganism within their community of believers, and their love
for each other is to be evident through their conduct. A nation that refuses to
obey the will of the living God will invariably fall.
Rome’s fall has frequently been attributed to its moral
decline. If America does not repent of its ways,
perhaps it can expect to meet a similar fate.
Definition of Terms
As one explores present and ancient societies, terminology is
frequently used that can be unclear, especially if multiple definitions
exist for a given word. The following is a brief explanation
of the intended meanings of a few key words that will appear throughout
1. Culture - “The behaviors and
beliefs characteristic of a particular, social, ethnic, or age
2. Society - “A highly
structured system of human organization for large scale community
living that normally furnishes protection, continuity, security, and a
national identity for its members.”
3. Syncretism - “The attempted
reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices,
or parties, as in philosophy or religion.”
4. Tolerate - “to recognize and
respect [others’ beliefs, practices, etc.] without sharing
them,” and to bear or put up with [someone or something not
Of the four terms listed above “tolerate” is the
most difficult to understand as its definition has evolved in recent
decades. Postmodernism has adversely affected the meaning of
this word by imposing into its definition the claim that truth is
relative. The belief that there are as many truths as there
are people inevitably leads to the conclusion that all
“truth” is equally valid. People are now
entitled to create their own truth claims, and to deny credibility to
their arbitrary systems results in being labeled
“intolerant.” By this warped definition
of tolerance one is truly tolerant only when he accepts other
peoples’ truth claims to be as valid as his own regardless of
how selfish, cruel, and morally reprehensible they may
be. In this paper the word
“tolerate” should be understood by its classic
definition as offered by Webster; wherein one may disagree with the
person’s belief while still accepting (tolerating) the
person. Any uses of the word “tolerate”
intended to communicate its warped, Postmodern definition will be
referred to as the new tolerance.
CHAPTER 1: SEXUAL ABERRATIONS
All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.
All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by
anything...Yet the body is not for immorality, but for the Lord; and
the Lord is for the body. 1 Corinthians 6:12, 13b
Romans in the first century frequently looked back to the days of the
Roman Republic as a golden age in their empire’s
history. Troubles existed then, but they were perceived as
being less common and less severe. The Roman family structure
was solid, which strengthened every aspect of Roman society.
Children and wives were under the absolute authority of the head of the
house. Since the father figure had no equal under his roof,
all of those persons under his care were expected to submit
wholeheartedly to his supremacy. The society understood that
the assets of a married couple were the property of both the husband
and the wife. Wives were inherently faithful to their
husbands, as husbands had the authority to punish adulterous wives as
they saw fit. This social approach established stability
within the family unit, a stability that was lacking during the time of
This social hierarchy was known as the pater familias. Under
this system the father of a given household held absolute authority
over those in his care, namely: his wife, children, and
slaves. This authority included the right to put to death
those who did not please him, which proved ample motivation to convince
children and slaves to obey. Wives rarely cheated on their
husbands, as doing so would provoke the harshest penalties. Furthermore, a husband could
dismiss his wife on whatever grounds he chose and force her to return the keys to his
house. While this system did create stability, it
did little to encourage morality for those who held power.
The men at this time were overwhelmingly lecherous, as they themselves
had no equal, and therefore, no accountability. The society
had become accustomed to men having intercourse with slaves,
concubines, and prostitutes. A popular saying during this
time frame (and well in to the first century) was “Mistresses
we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of the
body, but wives to bear us legitimate children.” The writer Plutarch presumed
upon a man’s right to sleep with whomever he chose to the
extent that he told a future bride to anticipate possible adultery on
the part of her spouse, and he even offered arguments defending this
practice. Despite the relentless philandering of
Roman men and the fearful home environment the pater familias created,
this period was heralded as Rome’s golden age by the Romans of the first century.
At the outset of the time of the Caesars, Augustus noticed an abundant
moral decline among the Roman aristocracy. In addition to
declining morals, he also noticed that the birthrate among this class
was falling, which would inevitably result in fewer citizens and a
smaller military. In an effort to restore a sense of moral
order and to ensure a larger population among Rome’s wealthy,
Augustus instituted various marital laws. Under these laws
certain sexual unions (forms of incest, homosexuality, adultery
etc.) became serious, even capital offenses, as they would
invariably lower the birthrate and the quality of the succeeding
generation. Older men were not allowed to marry younger women
as the odds of procreating were greatly reduced. Postmenopausal women were discouraged from marrying
or fornicating with younger men hoping to elude marriage. These laws
were well intended, but in the end they were merely a type of reformed
paganism which inadvertently allowed sexual aberrations to run rampant throughout the empire.
Augustus’ laws were intended to strengthen marriage and
encourage procreation. One major way this was supposed to be
brought about was by giving large financial endowments to Roman matrons
who bore three or more children. The matron was then entitled
to own her own estate, and she was allowed to inherit land and money, a
privilege previously known only to the male figurehead. In
addition to owning land for the first time in Rome’s history,
the matron was allowed to pass on that inheritance to whomever she
chose in her family line. Another unprecedented
change was that Roman women were now allowed to keep their dowries,
even in the event of a divorce.
Augustus thereby strengthened the position of the women of Rome through
his legislation. This led to a more egalitarian atmosphere in the home;
a stark contrast to the prevailing system. Without men being
the clear figurehead within their homes, however, an understandable
degree of social chaos arose. Women were unaccustomed to this
newfound power and quickly pursued the things that men so readily
enjoyed. Women became interested in politics, education, the
arts, and even combat (in extreme cases). In
addition to taking on men’s pastimes, many women also began
to indulge in their vices including: drinking bouts, carousing, and
sexual license. Augustus, then, succeeded in
spreading out the sexual permissiveness to every member of the family
that was previously limited to the male figurehead.
The stable home and marriage associated with Rome’s golden
age quickly faded in light of the rising debauchery. Men
became impotent husbands and lax fathers. Wives explored the
pleasures previously known only to the dominant males, and they began
disdaining their husbands. More and more aristocratic
marriages were childless, and the children who were born were
frequently given license to do as they wished. Parental
control was further dissolved when parental consent was no longer
required for marriage. The foundation of any
society, the family, was deteriorating.
As might be expected in such a climate, adultery and divorce were
widespread. Those who instituted the laws intended to
strengthen marriage by encouraging fidelity all-to-frequently offered a
poor example to follow. Julius Caesar divorced
Pompeia on the mere grounds that “Caesar’s wife
must be above suspicion.”
Augustus, the self-proclaimed moral head of Rome, had experienced more
than one divorce. At age fifty-seven the revered
lawyer Cicero unabashedly abandoned the mother of his children despite
their thirty years together for a younger woman with greater financial
assets. At the other end of the social
spectrum, the laws protecting the woman’s dowry compelled
some men to stay with domineering wives who held sole control of the
couple’s finances. Antonines Seneca described the
infidelity and divorce of his time this way:
No woman need blush to break off her marriage since the most
illustrious ladies have adopted the practice of reckoning the year not
by the names of the consuls but by those of their husbands.
They divorce in order to remarry. They marry in order to
Such were the marital expectations throughout the Roman Empire during
the first and second centuries. At every level of society
sexual perversions abounded. Those at the upper end of the
social strata, however, had their failed marriages and destroyed homes
more well-documented for students of history than those of less social
standing. The denial of the moral law within always leads to
unhappiness, and the highest concentration of immorality in the Roman
Empire was undisputedly at Corinth. A brief examination of
the accepted societal views on various sexual practices is in order, as
this sheds light on the ungodliness to which the Christians at Corinth
were adapting their religious beliefs.
Roman Sexual Politics: Prostitution/Fornication
Greek Corinth had a reputation for sexual license, and that reputation
carried over into Roman Corinth. In ancient literature the
term “to Corinthianize” was a reference to
fornication, and the term “Corinthian girl” was
used to identify a prostitute.
In antiquity Corinth was reputed to house one thousand temple
prostitutes in the order of Aphrodite, though such a high number is
thought to be an exaggeration. Adultery,
prostitution, and fornication were all daily occurrences in the city of
In I Corinthians 6:9 Paul begins one of his many vice lists found
throughout the New Testament texts. At the outset of this
list (and many of the other lists) is the word povrnoi; here translated
as “fornicators.” This word originally
referred to both male and female prostitutes, but became synonymous
with fornicators and immoral persons. Over the course of time
this word became an all-inclusive term denoting any type of sexual
aberration including: homosexuality, promiscuity, and
pedophilia. The Hebrew equivalent in the Old
Testament was hnz which is used with reference to the Baal cults in
Israel’s past, and it is found in the laws proscribing sexual
relations between family members.
The wealthy persons throughout the Roman Empire believed themselves to
be above any absolute moral code of conduct. They were best
characterized as having the attitude that “all things are
permitted for me;” hence Paul’s use of that phrase
in I Corinthians 6:12. Other popular self-absorbed maxims
among those of high social standing were “look after
yourself,” “do good to yourself,” and
“look for advantage.” This
self-absorbed state of mind flourished among Rome’s elite,
which would invariably promote an atmosphere sexual permissiveness
without any perceived consequences.
Many traditions in Corinth were steeped in lewd sexual
behavior. One such custom was the toga virilis; an event that
marked a youth’s entrance into manhood. This rite
of passage was an eighteen-year-old man’s first experience of
what the older men of his society had been enjoying since their
eighteenth birthdays. The young man received his first
invitation to a dinner party that would involve strong drink, abundant
food, and prostitution, thereby satisfying every bodily craving in a
single sitting. The role of the prostitutes was to entertain
guests during the after dinner festivities. The toga virilis
was the society’s way of acknowledging a young
man’s ability to handle sexual advances in a city were sexual
license was the norm.
Many Bible commentators believe that the proper context of I
Corinthians 6:12-20 is in a brothel, but given the society in question
it could just as easily refer to a typical dinner party. This
interpretation seems to fit better as 6:12-20 never mentions a brother
proper, but prostitution is still occurring.
In this situation Paul addressed the misuse of Christian
freedom to indulge in acts contrary to the will of God. The
reality is that the individual participating in these perverse acts is
deceiving himself, as he is held captive by the very thing that he
believes is under his control. Paul argues without
reservation here that having intercourse with a prostitute is becoming
one flesh with her; a relationship that was only suitable between a man
and his wife as was established in
Genesis 2:24. Sexuality is in no way in opposition to the
will of God, but perverse, self-centered sexual experiences outside of
the bond of marriage are. Paul tells believers in I
Corinthians 6:19-20 that the bodies of Christians are the
Lord’s property, and no believer has the right to use
God’s possession in an unholy manner.
Abstinence within Marriage
Throughout the Bible little is mentioned on the subject of refraining
from sexual behavior within the context of marriage. Most of
what is written on the subject is found in I Corinthians
7:1-7. Two major groups existed within the Corinthian
community: those who indulged in every sexual debauchery that was
available and those who refused to partake of any sexual appetites
regardless of the context. This chapter begins with the
phrase, “it is good for a man not to touch a
woman;” an obvious reference to sexual activity.
While somewhat unclear, many Bible scholars believe that Paul is citing
the position held by the ascetics. This drastic
position rested upon a foundation of false
spirituality. Given the immediate context of
prostitution, it can be reasonably argued that some Corinthian men were
being denied sex within their marriages, so they were seeking it
wherever they could find it; namely the local prostitutes.
Verses three and four contradict the idea that Paul is a sexual prude
as he states that sex within marriage is a duty.
Another interesting insight in
this passage is Paul’s use of the word aJpostevrw, which he
used in 6:8-9 with reference to cheating someone
out of what they were due. Paul later clarifies
that abstinence within marriage is permitted for a short time with the
consent of both partners for the purpose of prayer.
While abstinence is not a perversion in the most common understanding
of the word, when it is done within marriage against the will of the
other partner it can be very destructive, especially as it increases
the probability of sexual temptation.
The Roman perceptions of homosexuality varied depending on the role the
male played in the sexual interaction as well as the citizenship of the
persons involved. Laws prohibiting male on male sexual acts
in the empire existed to protect Roman citizens. As Roman citizens were
more sacrosanct than other members of society, laws forbade Roman men
from being the sexual objects of non-Romans. Roman males,
however, could sodomize non-Roman males with impunity. In
some recorded instances, male slaves were purchased strictly for the
sexual pleasure of their Roman masters.
Romans viewed homosexual acts on the basis of what role one played
during intercourse. The man in the dominant, invasive
position (presumably a Roman citizen) brought upon himself no negative
social stigma. He was merely expressing his dominance, a key
element in Roman life. His sexual imposition upon
another man was simply viewed as one of many ways of asserting
superiority over something subordinate. The fact that he was
the initiator of the sexual contact, regardless of
the gender of the recipient, held his manliness intact, as it proved he
was not weak or able to be dominated.
The homosexual partner receiving the sexual act, however, was disdained
in Roman society. Such effeminate men were seen as being
unable to perform their manly duties and were thereby ostracized by the
Roman community. Frequently, they would further separate
themselves from the men of Rome by wearing their hair long, a trait
associated with barbarians. Such actions were
viewed as a denial of their masculinity, which made them reek of
weakness. Effeminate men were also the subjects of ridicule
in the public arena. In Latin poems and plays any homosexual
characters were always given Greek names.
All of the Latin words that have homosexual connotations have Greek
origins. This fact has caused some scholars to
suggest that the Romans did not advocate active homosexual behavior,
but the lack of social and legal ramifications for this activity
indicates that the Romans were largely indifferent to this
behavior. One term used for the active homosexual
male was a`rsenokoivth~ from the stem a[rshn meaning
“man.” The word would have been
understood to mean “male homosexual, pederast,” or
“sodomite.” It appears to be a
hybrid word combining a[rshn with the word koivth; a sexually
charged term meaning “bed.”
This was the male who initiated the sexual interaction.
The Latin word for the passive homosexual comes from the Greek word
malakiva meaning “weakness, softness,
sickness.” When meaning
“soft” this term was generally used with reference
to females; indicating the feminine characteristics of the men
involved. This is a slang use of this term as it
was traditionally used by the medical community to refer to physical
diseases and sicknesses in the body. Such strong
negative connotations prove that the Romans frowned upon any such male
behavior as they labeled it the same way they would a disease.
A proper distinction of these two terms for homosexual acts sheds light
on an exegesis of I Corinthians 6:9. This is one of many vice
lists found in the New Testament penned by the Apostle Paul, wherein
Paul lists the behaviors that will disqualify anyone from entering into
the Kingdom of God. The last two sins he lists are
“homosexual.” The corresponding Greek
nouns are malakiva and a`rsenokoivth~. The
significance of this distinction is that Paul explicitly condemns both
forms of homosexuality despite the distinction that was made in the
Roman mind. Should both terms not appear here, then it could
have been argued by Paul’s original hearers that only one
form of homosexuality was immoral. This is a clear example of
the uncompromising morality that God demands of his people regardless
of what the broader culture claims about the sinful practice in
As there were laws against homosexuality in the Roman Empire, so also
were there laws governing incest. Incest was particularly
looked down upon when it was committed in conjunction with the crime of
adultery; although charges of adultery could not be brought against a
spouse until after a divorce. Under Roman law those persons
deemed guilty of this crime (both the man and the woman) were typically
exiled, their citizenship was revoked, and their land was
repossessed. This crime was viewed seriously enough
to be omitted from a five-year statute of limitation commonly found in
In I Corinthians five Paul outlines a case of adultery and incest
existing between a man and his father’s wife. Such
an illicit sexual relationship was forbidden by both Roman and Jewish
law. Most commentators agree that the term
gunai`kav tou` patro;~ ”his father’s
wife” suggests that the woman in question was not the
man’s biological mother. Many scholars have
suggested that the man’s father was deceased, and the man was
sleeping with his father’s widow; an offense that would have
been treated more leniently assuming that the woman was not the
man’s mother. Paul’s harsh comments at
the outset of his discussion on this issue indicate the seriousness of
the offense in both Christian and pagan communities as he described
this type of immoral relationship as one that “does
not exist even among the Gentiles.” This
is an indication that the man’s father was still alive, and
was most likely still married to the woman. The issue is
further complicated in that the father was the only person who
initially had the right to bring the matter before the courts for the
first two months after the offense was discovered. After the
first two months, however, any citizen could file a claim.
This would get the broader, pagan community involved and heap unneeded
negative attention on the fledgling church.
Furthermore, not only is this an account of the combined offenses of incest and adultery
for which there was no leniency in Roman law, but this was the same
type of offense that prompted Augustus’ marriage laws only
In I Corinthians five Paul discusses the incestuous relationship within
the Corinthian community. The term e]cein
“to have” that appears in verse 1 is a euphemism
for sexual activity as this same word is also used in 7:2 to describe
sexual acts. When this verb is used in a sensual context, it
is describing a lengthy sexual liaison rather than an isolated
instance. Further support that this was an ongoing
relationship is the present infinitive form of the
verb. Paul’s condemnation falls entirely upon the man in this
situation. This shows that only the man involved was a member
of the Christian community, as women were more often recognized and
punished by both the Roman and Jewish communities for immoral sexual
What is most troubling about this episode is the Corinthian Christian
reaction to such sin
in their midst. Paul writes in verse two
that the proper response to any such behavior within the Christian
community should be grief. The Corinthians, however, were
arrogant. This lax attitude toward sin
is diametrically opposed to the proper attitude one should have after encountering a
holy God. Furthermore, the Corinthians may well be
seeking to justify immoral behavior under the guise of Christian
liberty. The Corinthians sought to excuse this
behavior under their misguided belief that all things were permissible
for them through the freedom found in Christ Jesus despite Old
Testament teachings and the contemporary pagan law.
In I Corinthians 4:21 (immediately preceding Paul’s
discussion on incest) Paul mentions the possibility of coming to the church
at Corinth “with a rod;” a tool used for
discipline. As the man involved was a professing Christian,
Paul asserted that it was the church’s
responsibility to deal with this situation by expelling the incestuous man from the
community. In verse twelve Paul uses the term ponhro;~
“wicked” with reference to the immoral man instead
of the expected porno~ “immoral person” or kakov~
“vice.” The use of the term ponhro;~ is
indicative of a person who wishes to corrupt others and lead them into
the same destruction he is facing.
Such a man should not be tolerated, as his obstinacy could lead to the
downfall of the whole community. Paul is
uncompromising in his judgment upon this man, as he ordered the
Corinthians “to deliver such a one to Satan for the
destruction of his flesh.” The reputation
of the Church should not be compromised for the bad decisions of an
individual. Paul forbade the Corinthians from even eating
with this man as accepting the individual in the context of a
meal was viewed as accepting the behavior of the individual in
question. Such action coming from within the church
was intended to save the soul of the one being punished by encouraging
repentance, while at the same time preserving the integrity of the church
in the eyes of the broader culture. The
Corinthians were not only tolerating sin
by a fellow Christian, they were tolerating a sin
that was frowned upon by the broader non-Christian community. In any society such perverse
behavior must be dealt with swiftly and completely to preserve the
integrity of the Gospel
and the reputation of Jesus Christ.
Other Sexual Aberrations: Pedophilia and Voyeurism
two types of sexual behavior are not addressed in the Corinthian
correspondence, but they both existed in the Roman Empire.
Therefore, one can safely assume that they existed in the Corinth,
Rome’s epicenter for depravity. Few specific
instances of voyeurism are recorded in the histories of Rome aside from
certain atrocities that occurred in the gladiatorial arenas.
One such instance, however, involved Tiberius Caesar after he left the
capital during the last days of his reign as absolute ruler.
He spent his remaining days in a remote location, and for entertainment
he had slaves perform lewd sexual acts in front of him. The
graphic artwork of the place told the unwitting participants what was
expected of them. Pedophilia existed in the Roman world, but as it was
a form of homosexuality there was no Latin term for it. A euphemism for
this practice was to use a boy “in Greek
fashion.” Many of the malakiva
were apparently younger men who would dress themselves as women for the
purpose of satisfying the erotic desires of older
men. Other children were not so fortunate as to
have a choice in the matter. Records show that some slave
traders sold children for just such purposes, while other men forced
their own children into prostitution. Fortunately,
the Bible never addresses this as being a problem within the Christian
community at any time during the first century.
Contemporary American Sexual Politics
Any casual observer of history should recognize the parallel between
the sexual norms of Ancient Rome and those contemporary
America. What was once thought to be unacceptable behavior
has resurfaced as commonplace. Perverse behaviors like
homosexuality, adultery, fornication, and voyeurism are considered to
be normal behaviors across the United States among members of all age
categories. Unfortunately, the church
has not been immune to this terrible influx of sinful practices.
The homosexual movement has had tremendous political backing in the
United States since the 1970s. This behavior was recognized
as abnormal by most U.S. citizens until homosexual rights groups took
their cause into the public square with claims of discrimination and
intolerance from the broader culture. These groups
successfully had homosexuality removed from the DSM II in 1973, thereby
normalizing their aberrant behavior within the psychological
community. Since that time the homosexual movement
has experienced tremendous success throughout the United States in
relaying the message that homosexual behavior is normal.
Those who would disagree with their immoral claims are labeled as
bigoted, intolerant gay-bashers.
has done little to combat this prevailing form of immorality
within the broader culture or within the Christian community.
Christians are becoming more comfortable with homosexual behavior to
the extent that some Christian churches have performed
“unions” between gay partners, and homosexual
seminary students have become licensed members of the
clergy. In the Episcopal Church an outspoken
homosexual bishop was confirmed, which resulted in a major church
split. Christians are losing the war against
homosexuality largely because too many Christians are afraid to take a
stand against an issue that has received so much acceptance in both the
Christian and non-Christian communities.
The people of the United States have increasingly become desensitized
to the prevalence of adultery and fornication. Many of
America’s teachers encourage sexual
experimentation before marriage rather than
abstinence. Those who preach abstinence are instantly
vilified as radicals or prudes. This atmosphere of sexual
experimentation has created catastrophic results within the most recent
generations of Americans. Sexually transmitted diseases have
run rampant throughout every demographic within the American
society. Within the last decade medical experts estimate that
one in every five Americans has acquired a sexually transmitted
disease. Pregnancies outside of wedlock are so high
that an estimated third of all births in the United States are
illegitimate. Teenage pregnancy is at an all-time
high. An estimated 75% of teenage pregnancies are the
responsibility of men over the age of eighteen preying on younger
women. Statistics have shown that the United States
has the highest divorce rate in the world. Sadly,
there is no significant difference between the Christian community and
the broader non-Christian culture with regard to acts of fornication
Voyeurism is an immoral epidemic in America. Hardcore
pornography has become so widespread that some studies actually show
that an estimated 100% of all eighteen-year-old American boys have had
exposure to it. This industry brings in $8.5-10 billion
annually, and there are more hits on pornography web sites than all
other sites combined. Sadly, the United States is
the largest manufacturer and distributor of hardcore pornography,
sending to every country in the world via the Internet.
As is the case with every sexual sin
in America, the Christian community is not immune to the prevalence of pornography.
Both laymen and pastors are directly affected by this plague on the
American society. Dr. Richard Land records an account of a church
staff member confiding his pornography addiction to his
pastor. The pastor’s response to this confession
was, ”Oh, I have the same problem. Don’t
worry about it.” Prominent Christians in
the media spotlight, like Kirk Franklin, have experienced this struggle
first hand and have had the courage to address the addictive nature of
this scourge. Other lesser known Christian men have
admitted to having problems with sexual temptation. A survey
of men attending Promise Keepers reveals that 62% of those attending
this yearly conference struggle with sexual temptations like pornography.
In recent years pedophilia in the church
has received a great deal of media attention. While it is not widespread throughout every
denomination, any legitimate claims to this practice hurt the entire
Christian community. Some 126 Catholic priests in the United
States have received accusations of this type of
behavior. This type of sin
in contemporary America carries with it the type of negative social
stigma that incest committed with adultery held in first century
Rome. The broader pagan culture in America is revolted by the
thought of a man taking advantage of a child sexually. It is
a sad day for Christendom when those living outside of the moral
guidelines established by God take the moral high ground in religious
controversies involving the leadership of the church.
The Bible’s Perspective on Human Sexuality
The people of God in America are doing a poor job of setting a godly
example for the rest of society with regard to sexual purity.
The Bible is very clear about God’s view of sexuality, and
any straying from His view of sex is always a sin.
Both the Old and New Testaments are consistent in their claims of proper sexual
expression. Paul’s call to godly sexual behavior to
the Corinthians should serve as a model to all succeeding generations
of Christians. Contemporary Christian teachers have done an
abysmal job of teaching God’s views on sexuality to the Christian community.
In Genesis 2:24 God revealed His intention for sexual
interaction. His model was to be between one man and one
woman for life. Any departure from that goes against the norm
established in the created order. It then follows that
adhering to God’s boundaries regarding sexuality keeps sex
good, while sexual expressions outside of the boundaries God created are harmful.
The Old Testament law is quick to proscribe sexual
perversions. Homosexuality is condemned as a capital offense
in Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13. Incest in its numerous forms is
also addressed as a capital crime in Leviticus 20 and Deuteronomy 22
and 27. Adultery is expressly forbidden in the Ten
Commandments, and the prostitution of both males and females
is found displeasing to the Lord. Such perverse
acts were believed to destroy the foundation of the family and
violators of any of these laws were to be punished swiftly
and completely for the sake of the integrity of the broader
community. Punishing transgressors of the law was
the only way to avoid bringing God’s wrath down upon people.
The New Testament echoes the ethical standards of the Old, and in many
cases amends the previous laws with moral clarifications.
Homosexually remains detestable to God as is revealed in Scripture
passages like Romans 1:27 and I Corinthians 6:9-11. Incest is
not to be tolerated according to I Corinthians 5:1-13.
Adultery is clarified in Matthew 5:28 as being a mental sin
and not just a physical transgression. Furthermore, prostitution and
fornication are expressly condemned by Paul in I Corinthians 6:12-20;
wherein Paul urges Christians to flee from sexual immorality as it is a
against one’s own body. Finally, pedophilia is
never expressly mentioned in the biblical texts, but few learned Bible
scholars would dispute that children are precious in the eyes of the
Lord. Mark 9:42 assures harsh punishment to anyone who would seek to do harm upon a child.
The people of God have long struggled with sexual sins. In
the Old and New Testaments and in contemporary societies
God’s people continually fall short of His perfect plan
regarding proper sexual boundaries. While it is true that God
loves people as they are, He also wants them to conform to
His standard of perfection. I Corinthians 6:9-11
shows Christians that God can forgive people of any sin,
with dishonorable pasts can still be useful in furthering the Kingdom
of God. From the Corinthian correspondence, Bible
students learn that Christians are able to resist any temptations they
face through the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s people have had the lines of sexual decency clearly
outlined in the Scriptures, therefore any true believer has no excuse
for sexually deviant behavior. Christians should view their
bodies as the possession of the Lord, and what belongs to the Lord
cannot be used disgracefully. God’s
standards for purity remain unchanged throughout all generations,
regardless of the perceptions of any broader pagan culture.
In conclusion, Paul asserts that the believer does experience freedom
in Christ Jesus, but “the Spirit does not free one
from the call to holiness in this age; it frees one for
CHAPTER 2: SYNCRETISM
For even if
there are so-called gods whether in heaven
or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, yet for us there is but one
God, the Father, from whom are all things, and we exist for Him; and
one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist for Him. 1 Corinthians 8:5-6
The early church
was bombarded with the degenerate morals of its pagan
neighbors as well as the religions that promoted them. The
Romans generally held to no single religious tradition. The
writer Celsus attests to the religious pluralism of Rome during his
lifetime with these comments:
I think that it makes no difference whether you call the Highest Being
Zeus or Zen or Adonis or Sabaoth, or Ammoun like the Egyptians, or
Pappaeus like the Scythians.
Rome was an empire rooted in polytheism, which allowed for the creation
and inclusion of numerous gods within their pantheon. During
the time of the Caesars, the emperor himself was esteemed as a
god. As Rome expanded, the religions of the conquered people
were gradually assimilated into the broader culture. Mystery
religions from the East or from Egypt became commonplace throughout the
empire. In addition to a vast array of religious traditions,
the Hellenistic influence that preceded Roman dominance insured the
survival of various Greek philosophies like Platonism, Stoicism, and
Epicureanism. The unlearned and inexperienced Christians at
Corinth frequently gave in to the various prevailing religions and
philosophies that reigned in the Roman society. Several
Scripture passages hint at doctrinal compromises made by the
Corinthian Christians in an attempt to alleviate the pressure applied
by their Roman neighbors. Paul is quick to rebuke this
congregation and urges them to correct their practice of
corrupting God’s Word. A brief evaluation
of the prevalent religions of first century Rome will enable Bible
students to see the parallels between the Christianity of Corinth and
the pervading pagan religions and philosophies.
The Roman Pantheon
Prior to the Greek conquest of the ancient world, and Rome’s
subsequent dominance, the inhabitants of Rome were simple folk whose
lives centered around agriculture, domestic chores, children, and
warfare. When an individual needed help in one of these areas
he would turn to the origin of supernatural power (numina) that
governed that sphere of existence. The greatest source of
numina was Jupiter, whose domain was the sky. The husband was
honor-bound to ensure that his family was in good standing with the
sources of numina that affected his everyday work, and the wife was
similarly charged with ensuring the sources of numina affecting
domestic life viewed her favorably. Each man hoped
for a blessing upon his manhood (or genius), and each woman sought
divine favor upon her inner vitality (or juno). As Rome
flourished as a Republic, then dominated the landscape as an empire,
this local cult became the official religion of the
people. This primitive scene of worship
later developed into the Roman pantheon.
As is true of many pagan religions, the early Romans believed that a
god was obligated to bestow blessings upon their followers who
performed their acts of worship
correctly. The rituals and even the
gods themselves were altered over time to conform to the ever-changing
Roman society. Initially, Romans eagerly sought to supplement
their religious traditions with those of other cultures.
Greek religious rites and myths found a place in the Roman pantheon as
both Greeks and Romans venerated many of the same aspects of the
created order. Roman priests performed the rites to their
respective gods with dry repetition whenever they were required to do
so. On the Roman calendar there were 104 days nationally
recognized for religious observance.
During the first century much of the zeal for the Roman gods of the
past had been extinguished. Roman provinces were littered
with temples to various gods that had fallen into a state of
disrepair. During the rule of Augustus, legislation was
passed which sought to reestablish the pantheon of antiquity, and the
temples of the gods were restored to their former
glory. This, however, did little to stir up fervor
for the religion of old. The gods of ancient Rome and Greece
would not satiate the religious appetite of the Romans in the first
Pausanius records twenty-six religious sites found in Roman
Corinth. Some of the more noteworthy temples were
those devoted to Poseidon, Aphrodite, and Asclepius. The
temple of Poseidon, god of the sea, was a prestigious
building, and it was most likely the center of religious activity
during the Isthmian games held biannually.
Aphrodite, goddess of love,
was the patron goddess of Corinth, and her temple reportedly housed prostitutes that would
fornicate as their act of worship.
The temple for Asclepius, the god of healing, also served as an important center for
religious activity in Corinth. Archeologists have discovered
sculptures of human body parts that were used in healing ceremonies;
including numerous replicas of the male genitalia. Given
Corinth’s reputation, it is believed that these devices were
presented to the god in an effort to remove sexually transmitted diseases.
The most significant religious site in all of Corinth was the Shrine of
Delphi. In ancient Greece this shrine was referred to as the
“womb” or “navel of the earth”
as it was believed to be the very locus of the cosmos. The
primary god venerated at this shrine was Apollo, but Dionysus also had
a significant following there. Both of these gods were
celebrated by the Greeks and later by the Romans with fervor and frequency.
Some of the most famous characteristics of this shrine were the
behavior of the priestesses and the atmosphere during worship.
The priestesses of Apollo were noted soothsayers and
diviners. The priestesses of Dionysus partook in wild
religious events that often involved sexual acts. Priestesses of
both orders also participated in what the Greeks called glw`ssalalia,
otherwise known as speaking in tongues. In pagan circles this
phenomena involved letting go of one’s inhibitions and being
possessed by the object one worshiped. After the possession
occurred, the person being “possessed” would lapse
into manic rages and speak in an ecstatic tongue.
The tongues of the pagan gods were always unintelligible.
In I Corinthians twelve through fourteen Paul addresses the proper use
and misapplication of spiritual gifts. The gift most abused
by the Corinthian Christians was speaking in tongues. In the
book of Acts, Luke defines this phenomenon with the terms glw`ssa
meaning “tongue, language, speech” and
dialekto~ which refers to the “language of a nation or a
region.” The word dialekto~ is always
used to designate an intelligible, spoken language.
Throughout the book of Acts, this activity is best interpreted as a
recognizable human language. In I Corinthians, however, Paul
only uses the term glw`ssa which carries religious connotations from
the pagan temples. As Paul does not further define his
terminology with the inclusion of dialekto~, many Bible students have
concluded the Paul is referring to something different
from the human languages spoken by the servants of God in the book of
Acts. Some Bible students believe that Paul only
uses the term glw`ssa to indicate that the pagan practice of
glw`ssalalia had effectively usurped its Christian counterpart found in
the gift of tongues during the worship
services at Corinth. If this is so, then it can be reasonably
assumed that the Corinthians were attempting to emulate the priests of
Apollo and Dionysus in their Christian worship.
Regardless of one’s position on the phenomenon of speaking in tongues as it
is found in Scripture, one cannot deny that the Corinthians were using
this gift improperly. If their form of employing this gift
was acceptable, then Paul would not have had to pen three chapters correcting their practices.
Additional support for pagan or demonic influence in the Christian worship
meetings at Corinth can be derived from I Corinthians 12:3
where Paul states that no one of God will say “Jesus is
accursed.” Many interpreters have understood this
verse to mean that the Corinthians were actually cursing Jesus while
exercising their gift of speaking in tongues. Other
authors have noted, however, that Jesus may in fact be the subject
rather than the object of the curses. A common practice in
many pagan circles was invoking the name of a god in an attempt to
place a curse upon a rival. The absence of the verb in this
case fits the pattern of religious curses employed by many pagan sects
during the first century. Either interpretation
suggests additional pagan influence within the church at Corinth.
The Imperial Cult
The deification of a ruler can be traced back as far as ancient
Egypt. The Roman model for this type of worship,
however, was taken from the Greeks and their idolization of Alexander the
Great. In 42 B.C. Julius Caesar was declared an
official deity by Octavian. After the battle of Actium,
Octavian capitalized on this familial tie to a deity and changed his
name to Augustus, meaning “semi-divine.” The tradition
was that the emperor’s genius was celebrated while he was
alive, but the title of god was not conferred to the ruler unto after
his death. This precedent was respected by most rulers with
the occasional exceptions like: Caligula, Nero and
Domitian. The cult was so pervasive that often the
family members of the emperor were included in the worship.
Mass popularity for the Imperial Cult ceased with the death of Nero and the succeeding military
coup. A dynasty that could be overthrown by the Roman
military was hardly divine in the minds of most Romans.
Under the various emperors different religious practices were banned
throughout the empire. Unruly religious groups like the
Bacchanalian movement were quickly suppressed. This group
operated under the maxim “consider nothing wrong”
and its initiates vowed to perform illegal and sexually perverse
acts. Under Tiberius and Claudius the Druid priests
were outlawed, and Christianity had to endure the wrath of more than
one emperor. Any religious tradition was tolerated
unless it threatened civil order, or unless the emperor simply did not
like it. Many emperors took personal offense at the
Christians’ refusal to call him kurio~
“Lord” which inevitably led to martyrdom on a
massive scale. Being considered divine by
one’s subjects proved advantageous by the Caesars, and many
of the emperors used this power to attack other religions.
The Imperial Cult eventually faded into little more than a means of
expressing loyalty to the empire.
There are no direct ties between the Corinthian epistles and the
Imperial Cult. Many authors have speculated, however, that
some of Paul’s discussions on meat sacrificed to idols deal
with this religious tradition. Tiberius reinstituted the
Isthmian Games in Corinth in honor of the royal family. Some
of the meat in question could have been offered at the temple of
Poseidon in accordance with these games. Given the
indifference most Romans felt for their pantheon, however, it seems
unlikely that Paul would have spent so much time addressing this issue
had this been the case. The major religions that enticed the
Romans of the first century were the mystery religions of the East.
The Mystery Religions
The religious climate of first century Rome was marked by apathy or
superstition. The atmosphere of peace and
prosperity allowed most Romans to view their own gods as being
inconsequential. Few citizens used their time in pursuing
academics, so intellectualism was crumbling. The religious system in place
did not offer adequate answers to man’s timeless
philosophical questions, and the rituals associated with the pantheon
were considered meaningless repetition. As their
own pantheon could not adequately satisfy the Romans’
religious desires, they were quick to turn to the religions of the
assimilated peoples that were scattered throughout the empire.
Many different religious traditions flourished in the first
century. Many people turned to astrology, divination, magic,
or the occult. Various forms of animal worship
also became commonplace. Romans were quick to turn to
the mystery religions of the East and the numerous gods originating
outside of Rome. Gods like Isis and Serapis traveled to Rome
from Egypt, and the god Mithras arrived from
Persia. With these new gods came a religious zeal
that greatly surpassed anything found in the earlier Roman religious
system. People of little or no social standing could be
initiated into one of these new religions and rise to a place of
prominence. This allowed even slaves to find a place of
importance outside of the social rules that esteemed the
elite. As might be expected, the Romans outside of
these religious practices were highly distrustful of their fellow
Romans who were so quick to offer devotion to these new gods.
Many of these mystery religions shared common
characteristics. They typically focused on the relationship
between man and god, and they often sought ways to unite the
two. These religions often promoted a sense of sin
accompanied by penance. Initiation rites were frequently
employed to mark one’s death to sin
and subsequent rebirth. Many of these religions also taught that a
savior was required to offer freedom from these
sins. These religions were very adaptable and were
quick to syncretize their doctrines of god with those of competing
religions in an effort to attract more adherents.
Many people were drawn to these new religions because of the
atmosphere. The environment was highly emotional, and those
within the religion often employed familial terminology to refer to one
another. The high priest was often the father and the other
male members were viewed as brothers. Many of these
religions delved in strange ceremonies that often intrigued the
Romans. Hedonistic orgies occurred at some of these
ceremonies, despite the fact that the government could fine
the worshipers for illicit sexual behavior. In some of the
more extreme sects, priests were required to castrate
themselves. The Romans felt that these excessive
and bizarre behaviors must have some enigmatic justification before the
divine, as this was such a stark contrast to the lack of zeal
identified with what they already knew.
Those people in prominent positions within the temples were the ones
who would lead the congregation in prayer or sacrifice during the times
The individual in charge of this function would
ceremoniously raise his toga over his head as part of the
ceremony. Some scholars have suggested that the Corinthians
were modeling their prayer times and prophecy meetings in this manner,
but the evidence is inconclusive. What is certain,
however, is that there were many bloody rites associated with the
mystery religions; including animal sacrifices and the
subsequent feasting on animal flesh.
In the Greco-Roman world sacrificing to the gods was
commonplace. The meals that followed these sacrifices were
important both for the worshipers as well as the deity in
question. The Greeks and Romans had three different views
regarding feasting on meat sacrificed to the gods. The
sacramental view claimed that the worshipers were eating the very flesh
of their deity, thereby adding his life to theirs.
The second approach was to view the meal as communal. This
was where the worshipers ate the meal with their deity. The meat offered to
the god was typically burned. The third view of the
feasts was the social view, which focused on the relationship between
the believers. The god was present as an observer, but he did
not participate in the meal directly. Given the situation at Corinth,
the social perspective most accurately fits the context of I
Corinthians chapters eight and ten.
In I Corinthians 8:10 Paul makes reference to Christians dining in a
pagan temple. Given the Romans’ indifference to the
gods of their own pantheon, the temples in question probably belonged
to the gods of some of the mystery religions. Fee argues that
the term eidwloquvto~ indicates that some Christians in Corinth were
not only dining in the temples, but they were actually participating in
the meals offered to the pagan gods. These
Christians were operating under their knowledge that there is only one
God, and since the meat offered to an idol is not offered to the true
God, then the meat in question is being offered to
nothing. Since an idol is nothing, idol worship
should not be a reason to refrain from eating something
good. This attitude further suggests that the
social perspective of the meat is the proper view.
The atmosphere at many of these temple feasts was unruly. The
worshipers expected a riotous environment, and complaints were made
only if the activities became uncontrollable. Many of these
feasts were characterized by drunkenness, wild dancing, and sexual
activities. Paul vehemently attacks Christians
attending pagan temples in I Corinthians 10:14-22. Some
scholars have suggested that Paul forbade temple attendance because of
the sexual perversions that often followed these gatherings.
Bible students are undecided as to the exact distinction that Paul is
making between the meat in chapter eight and the meat in chapter
ten. Some scholars have drawn attention to the sacramental
argument of 10:1-22 and the ethical argument in eight and
10:23-11:1. Others have suggested that Paul is
dealing with meat in the pagan temples in eight and 10:1-22, but he is
addressing meat purchased in the open market that originated from the
pagan temples in 10:23-11:1. Fortunately, the
conclusions drawn from these passages are fairly clear. A
Christian is not to use his freedom in Christ to partake in things that
would impair the conscience of his Christian brother. The
Corinthians with stronger consciences were acting on their knowledge of
idols with the assumption that those with weaker consciences were
obligated to get over their petty convictions. Paul counters
this type of selfish knowledge by stating that love
should dictate a Christian’s actions rather than knowledge. Those
Christians with stronger consciences were to let love
of the brother supersede any rights they might have in Christ, especially if the
weaker brother viewed such expressions of freedom as a return to his
Those Romans who were not particularly drawn to the old pantheon but
were not superstitious enough to turn to the mystery religions had
options available to them in the forms of various Greek
philosophies. Given Corinth’s rich Greek heritage
and its place of prominence in the Roman Empire, scholars agree that it
would have offered ideal conditions under which Greek
philosophy might thrive. Even Romans who were not
formally taught these philosophies would have been indoctrinated by the
large Greek influence at Corinth. The three most prominent
Greek philosophies that would have held great sway in Corinth during
the first century were: neoplatonism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism.
Platonism is characterized by the prevailing belief that this physical
world is but a shadowy reflection of a “transcendent
reality.” This emphasis on the spiritual
inevitably leads to a degraded view of the physical. Many
philosophers would later seek to justify hedonistic practices
founded upon Plato’s views of reality.
The soul was viewed as immortal, but the body was merely
temporal. As the body was destined to perish after this life
ended, many philosophers concluded that the actions performed by the
body were inconsequential. This type of thinking
paved the way for philosophies like Epicureanism which focused on
pleasure. Given Corinth’s reputation for
sexual permissiveness and Paul’s frequent chastisements to
the Corinthian Christians for indulging in this type of illicit behavior,
most Bible readers can see the heavy influence of
philosophies like Epicureanism and forms of neoplatonism amidst the Corinthians.
The single largest piece of evidence concerning neoplatonism among the
Corinthian Christians is found in I Corinthians 15. Any
belief that de-emphasizes the physical world inevitably finds itself at
odds with orthodox Christology. The docetic aspects of
neoplatonism are evidenced in the Corinthians’ misconception
of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. In I
Corinthians 15:12 Paul asserted that some influential persons in the
community were denying a resurrection of the dead.
Paul’s logic leads the Corinthians to consider the full-scale
ramifications of ascribing to such an erroneous doctrine.
Denying the reality of any resurrection of the dead also denounces the
reality of Christ’s Resurrection. It then follows
that if Christ has not risen from the dead, then Christians are placing
their faith in a powerless religion. The Resurrection of
Jesus Christ authenticates the Christian faith. A
Christian’s deliverance from sin
and his hope for the future rests on the reality of Christ’s Resurrection. If
the corrupted Corinthian logic prevailed, then there could be no hope
of freedom from sin,
and the dead who had placed their faith in Christ
were destined to perish with the rest of fallen humanity. A
denial of the resurrection would make Christianity a farce.
The false belief that the spirit world is superior to the physical one
is further challenged by Paul in I Corinthians 15:46,
“However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural; then
the spiritual.” This faulty anthropology which
denies a bodily resurrection in an attempt to elevate the spiritual
reeks of neoplatonism or some other docetic philosophy.
Many Bible scholars believe that the Corinthian Christians had an
“overrealized eschatology.” This is the
false belief that one is currently living out the fullness in Christ
that is in actuality only available after one’s
death. Many people at Corinth apparently viewed
themselves as pneumaticov~ “spiritual ones,” and
they adhered to the beliefs of neoplatonism. This might
explain passages like I Corinthians 7:1-7 and 11:2-16 wherein the
Corinthians seem to view themselves as being angelic rather than
human. This context might add historical perspective to such
passages as 7:1-7 where the congregants did not believe in the
necessity of sex at that time, and passages like 15:1-58 where some
Corinthians believe that they do not need a physical body at any future
time. The pneumatics would have wrongly viewed
their bodies as being unimportant when compared to their spirits.
An additional prominent Greek philosophy that would have thrived in
Corinth during the first century was Stoicism. This
philosophy is founded upon the belief that virtue is the greatest
good. Stoics were renowned for their absence of emotional
responses and their complete unconcern towards pleasure and
pain. Wealthy Romans, including Caesars Augustus
and Nero, employed Stoic advisors. Even those
persons who did not have philosophers in their service would have been
exposed to this way of thinking. Many Bible scholars have noted
Paul’s use of Stoic vocabulary in the Corinthian correspondence. Examples include:
the apostles as a ‘spectacle (4:9);’ the argument
from conscience 8:7); his [Paul’s] defense of his actions at
Corinth as one who is eleuqero~ (9:1,19); his advice to Christians to
live as though not married, not possessing, unattached to ephemeral
things so that they may be amerimno~ ‘without
care’(7:29-30); the description of the purpose of
Spirit-endowments as pro;~ to; sumfevron, ‘for the purpose of
profit’(12:7); the use of ‘ body’ imagery
(ch.12); and the argument from ‘nature’ (fuvsi~11:14).
Paul’s frequent employment of Stoic vocabulary further
suggests that his audience would have been acquainted with Stoic ideas.
Perhaps the most significant tenet of Stoicism that had penetrated the
Christian community at Corinth was the belief in the sofo~
“wise man.” The Stoic wise man was above
the common rabble to the extent that he was viewed as being equal with
god. Any man obtaining this degree of enlightenment had an
inherent right to do as he wished. This might explain
Paul’s emphasis on freedom and his inclusion of
phrases like, “All things are lawful for
me.” Sin was merely bad judgment, and the
only true sins were those committed against
oneself. Those persons with this mind-set
disregarded any sense of community. An individual with a weak
conscience was not given a second thought by a Stoic wise
man. If he is equal with god, can only sin
against himself, and can do as he wishes, then he is in no way responsible for how his
behavior is viewed by those of lesser standing. Ironically,
many of the Stoic wise men of the first century used this philosophy to
rationalize the pursuit of money, wealth, power, or sex; things about
which a true Stoic should feel indifferent.
Syncretism in American Christianity
Unlike Rome, America was founded upon Christian principles.
The syncretism of the Corinthian Christians was an attempt to melt back
into the broader culture out of which they had all
come. They had lived pagan lifestyles, possessed
pagan friends and family members, and did not want to be excluded by
the society that they had always known. The syncretism of
American Christians is different as it is exchanging the godliness that
has been known in this country for centuries for a pagan
substitute. That which is new and exciting is found to be
acceptable to many immature Christians regardless of its theological
substance. Many American Christians have become content in
having “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.”
America as a whole has greatly strayed from its Christian
heritage. Postmodernism is the reigning philosophy of the
day. This has resulted in a societal exaltation of the
individual, relativity, and a new perverted form of
tolerance. Instead of the singular recognition that
Christianity is the one true faith, pluralism has swept through the
nation. For those who wish to avoid any direct religious
affiliation, there is always the worship
of self in the form of secular humanism. As the overall landscape has changed, so also has
American Christianity changed in its wake. Many efforts have
been made to adjust Christianity’s major tenets to seem more
relevant and less offensive to an increasingly godless people.
American Christians have sought ways to compromise the Word of God to
adapt Christianity to the broader culture. In recent years
many Christians have interpreted the Bible through the lenses of
“Jungian psychology, linguistic philosophy, popular
sociology, and Marxist economics” in an attempt to justify
previously held theological convictions and appear more politically
correct. Furthermore, Christians are increasingly
ignorant regarding the contents of their Bibles.
Biblical morality has been supplanted by the relative morality
associated with self-indulgence. The church’s
ignorance, desire to seem relevant, human
orientation, and fear of being labeled intolerant has resulted in a church
that is barely differentiated from the increasingly pagan American culture.
Most American Christians are unfamiliar with the contents of their holy
book, but they are in tune with the ideals of the broader culture
through the ever-increasing hold the mass media has on the American
psyche. The church
has also become more media driven in its
attempts at outreach to the American populace. While media
outlets in and of themselves are not bad, such an orientation within
body caters to the American need to be
entertained. As Bible teaching is not entertaining by most
Americans’ standards, something additional must be done to
attract an audience. Churches have used such unorthodox means
as “slapstick, vaudeville, wrestling exhibitions, and even
mock striptease” to increase attendance.
It has gotten to the point where the content of the message is
inconsequential as long as church attendance is high.
While it is possible to adapt the means of communicating the Gospel
to different audiences, too often the content of the message is altered in
the process. Worldly philosophies, self-centeredness, and
inaccurate doctrine can be found to some degree in every Christian
denomination. There is a branch of the Charismatic
denomination called the Word of Faith Movement, however, that
has received a great deal of criticism from orthodox Christian scholars
for the extreme licenses their leaders have taken with the biblical
texts. This group also dominates many of the televised
Christian media outlets, which gives them mass appeal. Their
media power is unparalleled in Christian circles, and their influence
is tremendous. Many of this group’s leaders have
successfully sold themselves as the true representatives of
Christianity to the public. Their television shows have
successfully changed the way many American Christians perceive the
nature of God and His Word, much to the detriment of the true Gospel.
Many of the teachings espoused by the leaders of the Word of Faith
Movement echo doctrines taught by cult groups. The idea of
the word of faith comes from a misunderstanding of the word faith as it
is used throughout the Scriptures. According to many of this
group’s leaders, faith is a force which governs the
metaphysical laws of the physical world. God
Himself is supposedly bound by these laws and had to operate within
their confines to create the world. The
proper object of a Christian’s faith (Jesus Christ) is rarely
emphasized. Faith is instead used as little more
than a means to fulfill the desires of the individual exercising
faith. One’s belief has the power to alter
one’s circumstances. Christians can supposedly
capitalize on their faith to assure financial gain and to heal the
sick. The belief that one can manipulate the
supernatural into increased physical blessing resembles the mind-set of
most adherents to the Roman pantheon, wherein the god involved is
obligated to bless the worshiper if the ritual is done correctly.
The Word of Faith belief system can easily exalt man to the level of
deity. Certain Word of Faith teachers have even claimed that
man partakes of the very nature of God. As man is
deified, however, Christ is debased. Some Word of Faith
teachers have actually taught that Jesus became morally sinful, even
possessing a sinful nature. Word of Faith leaders
often come to such erroneous conclusions as they stress personal
intuition and discourage the implementation of human reason regarding
the spiritual realm. The glorification of man and
teachings that center on man’s mystical control over his
environment resemble teachings found in the New Age movement, Christian
Science, and the Unity School of Christianity. The belief
that sinful man can take on the divine nature is nothing short of
A casual reading of the biblical texts should be sufficient to dispel
some of the common faulty theology associated with the Word of Faith
Movement. The Bible never glorifies man. All men
are sinners and are in need of redemption. As man
was incapable of saving himself, God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die
as a perfect substitute for sinful man. Being made
in the image of God does not imply that divine power has been imputed
to men. Man cannot control his circumstances, because
ultimately it is God who is in control. Groups like
this would not rise to prominence so easily if more Christians would
spend more of their mental energies studying the Bible rather than
pursuing frivolous entertainments.
The Christian’s Call to Holiness
The people of God have always struggled with syncretism. In
the Old Testament the Hebrews had fallen back into the idol worship
of their neighbors, while God was giving Moses the Ten
Commandments. Idol worship
was an ever-present
reality for the Israelites during the monarchy.
Israel’s kings rarely eradicated the foreign people groups as
God decreed, so the Israelites took
foreign wives and with them came the worship
of pagan gods.
Every nation has its idols. In ancient times the idols were
often made of wood or stone. People offered sacrifices and
praises to these idols as though they were in fact gods.
While Westerners today are more inclined to science
rather than superstition, idolatry still thrives. Contemporary idols are
typically found in prevalent philosophies that contradict the Word of
God, but the most common idol of today is oneself. People are
not denying the existence of any god so much as they are subconsciously
asserting themselves into His proper place in their lives.
dominates the United States in forms too numerous to fathom.
In Exodus God decreed that His people “will have no other
gods before Me.” Syncretism is an
indirect attempt at discrediting God’s sovereignty.
Anytime syncretism has been practiced by God’s people
disastrous results have always ensued. God’s
statutes are meant to be obeyed, not changed to be less offensive to
the ungodly. The underlying assumption behind syncretism is
that the Word of God needs updating to make it more relevant to a given
society. God’s Word is timeless, inerrant, and
infallible, so it is not His Word that needs to change but the society
in which it is found. Christians are obligated to seek to
conform to the will of God rather than to the patterns of this world
that are destined for decay. God has never looked
favorably upon any form of idolatry, and Scripture possesses numerous
warnings against idolatry in both the Old and New Testaments. Conforming to
idolatry always leads to the judgment of God, and American Christians will bring
that judgment upon themselves if they continue to adapt God’s
message to the burgeoning paganism that characterizes the broader
CHAPTER 3 Divisions
Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that
you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made
complete in the same mind and in the same judgment. 1 Corinthians 1:10
The Christians at Corinth went to great lengths to incorporate the
morals and religious practices of their secular neighbors into their
daily lives, but they did very little to make accommodations for their
brothers in Christ. The church
in Corinth is noted as one of the most fragmented and immature churches in the first
century. This assembly was divided along the lines
of social status, gender, and moral authority. This was
manifested in the church
by vexatious lawsuits, the corrupting of the Lord’s Supper, and an encompassing spirit
of arrogance. Those chapters in the Corinthian correspondence
wherein a spirit of divisiveness is evident within the local church
should be viewed against the social backdrop of first century Rome, as
this might lend clarity to the nature of the divisiveness at Corinth as
well as Paul’s teachings as to the true nature of Christian unity.
The General Composition and Character of the Church at Corinth
By its very nature, Corinth was an extremely diverse city.
Numerous ethnic groups outside of the Romans proper found for
themselves a home in Roman Corinth including: Greeks, Jews, and
Orientals. This ethnic diversity is reflected in
the general composition of the church.
Among the seventeen proper names found throughout I Corinthians, eight of them are Latin: Aquila,
Fortunatus, Gaius, Lucius, Priscilla, Quartus, Titus Justus and
Tertius. Apollos is a Hellenistic Jew from
Alexandria, and Crispus was as important Jew who held a
prominent position in the synagogue. The names
Phoebe and Priscilla suggest a significant female presence within the
community as well. At the time I Corinthians was written,
scholars estimate that the church consisted of fifty members.
Many Bible scholars believe that the biggest overall division within
the Corinthian congregation was between the rich social elite and those
of no significant social standing. I Corinthians
1:26 indicates “that there were not many wise according to
the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble” within this local
This has led many Bible commentators to conclude that
the overall makeup of the congregation consisted of those of lesser
social status. Origen, however, used this same
passage to counter Celsus’s accusations that the church
primarily consisted of those at the lower end of the social strata by
showing that some church
members were, in fact, socially significant. Gerd Theissen has also noted that
while there may not have been many Christians among the higher classes
of society, there were at least some, and they were a powerful minority. With the
exception of any discrimination based on gender, all of the major
conflicts within the Corinthian church
can be viewed in light of this social distinction.
The Nature of Patronage
Many of those persons Paul mentioned by name in I Corinthians are
considered to be among the social elite, possibly even
patrons. The immoral man in chapter five is also
considered as one of significant social influence.
The patrons were the most influential Roman citizens in
Corinth. These men were socially savvy individuals who were
used to vying for power in the political arenas. They were
the members of society who would seek political office, own real
estate, flaunt their financial resources, and live lives of
luxury. Patrons possessed followers called clients,
and the greater the number of clients one possessed the greater his
influence was. Many scholars believe that Paul wrote I
Corinthians in an effort to regain the control that had been
usurped by the manipulative Roman patrons.
The followers of the patrons, the clients, took it upon themselves to
defend their respective patrons by attacking any opposing patrons and
their clients. The clients were Roman citizens who would escort
their patron through his daily routine. Like the patrons, the clients were unacquainted with
manual labor, as their lives revolved around the political gain of
their benefactor. Patrons were notoriously partial
in granting favor to their followers. It was common
practice for clients to seek assistance from their patron during times
of financial hardship. It may have been
Paul’s fear that different patrons were viewing the church
as an untapped resource for immediate political gain.
The Lord’s Supper
In the first century Christianity was not recognized by the Roman
government as an official religion independent from Judaism.
One of the many problems faced by the Christians of the time was
establishing a base for religious meetings. Given that there
were no church
buildings devoted to Christian gatherings, the church
congregations of the first century met in the houses of their fellow
Christians for corporate worship.
The most likely meeting place would be in the house of a wealthier member who could
accommodate numerous guests. The house of a patron was best
suited for this purpose. The typical patron would design his
home to display his own importance. These types of dwellings
often featured beautiful gardens, voluminous libraries, and large
spaces designed for political assemblies.
There were two areas set apart for meals. The triclinium was
reserved for important guests, and visitors here would recline as they
ate. A second room called the atrium was were the guests of
lesser social standing would sit and dine. Fine
dining in Corinth was usually accompanied by alcohol, gluttony, and
prostitution. Depending on the nature of the feast,
sometimes the guests would bring their own food. This type of
meal was referred to as a private dinner.
Wealthy Romans demanded superior treatment compared to what was offered
to the rest of the populace, and the royal treatment was especially
evident at mealtime. Patrons and their clients would often
eat their meals in the presence of others, or they would frequently
begin meals before other less important guests had
arrived. Patrons would often take the more
economical approach when feeding company and provide cheaper food for
the guests dining in the atrium. This was a political
maneuver on the part of the patron to show partiality to specific
clients in the hope of provoking the remaining clients to compete for
his favor. Offering larger and better portions of
food to the wealthier class was a common characteristic of feasting at
the pagan temples that quickly became commonplace in the homes of the
wealthy Romans. The Lord’s Supper as
presented in I Corinthians 11:17-34 resembles the private dining
experience one might encounter in any secular Corinthian home with the
exception of the absence of prostitutes.
Given the leisurely lifestyle of the wealthier members of Roman
society, the social elite could have arrived for the meal far earlier
than those among the working class. The text indicates that
some Corinthians were eating their fill and drinking to the point of
intoxication to the shame of their fellow
Christians. The rich guests assumed priority over
the poor guests and turned the Lord’s Supper into a means of
flaunting their political supremacy. The Corinthians were
notorious for their emphasis on the gifts of the Spirit and the
prestige that they associated with them. The arrogance of the
rich would have been fueled by the belief that as they were partaking
in the Lord’s Supper they were receiving an additional
portion of the Holy Spirit that was unavailable to those of lesser
reputation confined to the atrium. Some theologians
speculate that Paul may have been writing to the Corinthians during a
famine. This would explain the seriousness of not sharing
one’s food with a brother in need. The
insult would have been exacerbated by the dining accommodations as the
servants distributing the food to the guests in the triclinium would
have to first parade it through the atrium.
The Lord’s Supper was instituted by Jesus in an effort to
teach the disciples to see each other as brothers in the family of
God. In Corinth the Lord’s Supper had degenerated
into a social-political game that divided the congregation rather than
uniting it. Paul taught that Christians are to seek ways to
serve their brothers in Christ, not find ways to humiliate
them. The conversion of Stephanas records the
proper attitude that one of high standing should possess within the
Christian community. While his entire house would have been
devoted to acquiring political influence before his conversion,
Stephanas and his household disregarded their temporary political
status in the broader secular culture and became servants for the
Kingdom. Christians should seek to serve others rather than
be served and broadcast their self-importance at the expense of their brothers.
The legal system in Rome was known for its corruption.
Bribery was commonplace and wealthier Romans exploited that to their
political advantage. The right to even take cases
to court was reserved for the privileged classes.
The reasons one went to the civil courts in ancient Rome were:
to settle scores with political opponents, retaliation for breaching
relationships of trust and obligation, to take up the baton on behalf
of offended relatives and friends; to compete for a rung on the ladder
of the curses honorum of political posts in the city; jealousy of a
rising star, to undercut the powerful because of the disproportionate
influence in politeia; to retaliate against those who interfered with
one’s political aspirations; and to undermine a power base of
one’s clients by attacking them.
The legal cases were usually between citizens of equal social class,
but more powerful men often brought weaker adversaries to court to
display their superiority. These lawsuits centered
around attacking the character of the persons involved, which led to
great shame on the part of the losing party. Romans did not
go to court to seek justice; they went for revenge or for gaining a
In I Corinthians six Paul recounted the divisions that existed in the
Corinthian community as a result of these lawsuits.
Christians were taking matters before non-Christian judges in an effort
to gain a social advantage over their brothers in Christ. The
Corinthians knew that these courts did not exist for the purpose of
distributing impartial justice, but they desired social status enough
to compromise their relationships within the church.
As juries within a court case would take
sides between the plaintiff and the defendant, so would church
members be forced to choose sides between their fellow parishioners.
The winner of these court cases would often receive financial
compensation from the guilty party in addition to the added prestige
that accompanied a judicial victory.
The Corinthian Christians are noted for exhibiting poor judgment at
every possible opportunity. They did not rebuke the
incestuous man within their congregation in chapter five, but there are
implications that they were judging people outside of the Christian
community. In chapter six they continued displaying
bad judgment by taking fellow Christians to courts that excelled in
awarding political advantage instead of justice. Paul asks
them “Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who
will be able to decide between his
brethren?” Paul may have been indirectly
attacking the patrons in the first part of this verse as being
insufficiently wise as they had the power to serve as judges on trivial
matters to keep unnecessary cases from appearing before the major
courts. Paul’s use of the term
“brother” implies either a biological brother or a
formally adopted one. This phrasing is crucial here as the
Romans viewed lawsuits within one’s own family as
disgraceful. Christians should be prepared to
suffer wrong rather than defame a fellow Christian for social
reasons. Paul teaches that one’s status
in the family of God should override any other titles or social
privileges one might hold.
Divisions By Leaders
Throughout the first four chapters of I Corinthians, Paul mentions
specific factions that have erupted within the congregation.
The groups are distinguished by which Christian leader they claim to
follow. The general sentiment of the Corinthian church
was one of allegiance to Paul, though many people within the church
feared that he might not return to them. The specific
sects that arose rallied around Paul, Cephas, Apollos, and
Christ. Paul’s intention in writing
this letter did not include detailing the discrepancies between these
parties, so numerous theories have arisen as to the exact nature of the divisions.
Commentators are divided as to whether or not a specific Christ party
existed, but most scholars recognize the reality of varying
groups rallying under Peter, Apollos, and Paul. The inclusion
of Peter’s name in this list may indicate Peter’s
immediate proximity to Corinth, or it may suggest that the
major division within the church
was between Jews and Gentiles. The leader that receives the most
attention by Paul in this letter is Apollos. He was a Jew
from Alexandria who is described as anh;r lovgio~ “an
eloquent man” in Acts 18:24, but many scholars interpret this
to mean that he was more charismatic in personality rather than
substantive in theology. Given the
Corinthians’ obsession with prestige, Apollos would have been
a welcome addition to their congregation considering that Paul was
“unskilled in speech.”
Paul’s reference to jealousy and strife appear in the context
of his relationship to Apollos in I Corinthians 3:3-4.
The terminology that Paul uses to outline the nature of the divisions
that have erupted in the church
is laced with political innuendos. This may suggest that the rifts in the Christian
community were not theological but political in nature. In I
Corinthians 1:10 Paul employs the word scivsma to describe the state of
This word can literally refer to a rip in a
fabric, or it can be used analogically with reference to a separation
along political lines. The word e[ri~ in
1:11 refers to emotionally intense political disputes in classical
political accounts. In 3:3 the use of the word
zh`lo~ suggests the type of community discord that frequently leads to
war. Both the deliberate inclusion of political
terminology by Paul and the sustaining nature of the factions suggest a
possible power struggle between rival patrons within the church at Corinth.
The development of these rival groups within the Corinthian community
correlates with the relationship between the sophist philosophers and
their followers. Sophist philosophers were always competing
for new business clients and philosophical converts. Their
disciples were renowned for their extreme faithfulness to their
teachers. Oftentimes this zeal was expressed in degrading and
even violent ways. The disciples of one philosopher went to
great lengths to insult competing philosophers and their
followers. Attacks on an opponent’s character were
commonplace, which should come as no surprise since the philosophers
often took cases before the vindictive imperial courts. In certain instances the attacks
provoked bloodshed, and government mediation was
required. Viewing one’s Christian teacher
in this manner and attacking other Christian teachers like the
sophist’s disciples shows the tendency of the Corinthian
Christians to adapt to their pagan society. This type of
behavior emulates the behavior of many patrons and their clients, which
further evidences a struggle for political supremacy within the
These divisions arose in part out of a sense of commitment to
individual Christian teachers. In the mystery religions the
person who initiated someone into that religion’s ranks held
a place of prominence in the life of that initiate.
This would explain Paul’s comments in 1:14 about his lack of
participation in the baptizing of new Corinthian believers.
Paul never intended on gathering his personal group of followers when
he was planting churches. Proof of this is found in the
terminology he uses to describe his fellow Christians. He
never calls anyone his disciple. Paul always uses familial
language when addressing the churches he helped
establish. He frequently calls other Christians his
brothers, and in the case of the Corinthians he refers to
them in the way a father might look upon his children.
Paul emphasized the unity that must accompany Christian fellowship
throughout this epistle. He taught that the relationship
between the leaders of the church
had been distorted by the Corinthians. The most discordance is found in
Paul’s relationship with Apollos. In chapter three
Paul outlines their relationship and emphasizes the overall lack of
competition between them. Paul describes both himself and
Apollos in terms of their purpose in the Kingdom of God and does not
mention credentials or social standing. Ultimately, the role
that the servant plays is minuscule as it is God who grows and
strengthens the Christian community. The
Corinthians wrongly sought to align themselves with the most
prestigious, influential leaders in the church
in keeping with the methods employed by the sophists and the patrons. Paul,
however, comments that the true sign of an apostle is not his status in
the secular world but his sufferings for the Kingdom of
God. Paul had to urge the Corinthians to pursue
service for God’s Kingdom instead of secular political
status. He emphasized that both parishioners and teachers
alike were members of the same spiritual family.
Libertines vs. Ascetics
In the Roman society the elite class held to an arbitrary ethical
standard. The most privileged citizens often frowned upon
those who pursued moral probity. Paul’s
inclusion of the phrase “all things are lawful for
me” in 6:12 is most likely an attack on the mind-set of those
social elitists. Here one would be likely to find those who
considered themselves the Stoic wise men, who, ironically, oftentimes
exhibited behavior that resembled that of the
Epicureans. Paul’s vocabulary suggests
that the Corinthians viewed themselves as pneumatikoiv
“spiritual men” and tevleioi
“mature.” Those Christians of
lesser rank were considered yucikoiv “natural
man.” Since these socially privileged
Christians received partial treatment in every other aspect of their
lives, it would seem natural that they would expect an elevated role in
their religious environment. Church to these Christians was
largely a social commitment that did little to curb their sinful
appetites. This mind-set manifested itself in a
very libertine ethic among the elite Christians in the Corinthian community.
Paul frequently mentions the Corinthians’ arrogance which
characterized their community as a whole. They placed a great
deal of authority on human wisdom, which Paul contended was foolishness
when compared to God’s wisdom.
The wisdom of the world is inharmonious with the wisdom of
God. The Corinthians would boast in their own
leaders and in their perceived wisdom, and they presumed that their
wisdom was superior to the Lord’s. Their
arrogance was displayed with their assumption that their future was
secure regardless of their conduct. In being wise
they denied being under any moral law. The most
obvious way that this corrupted form of thinking was displayed in the church
was through the church’s
acceptance of pagan sexual norms in place of God’s standards of morality.
The clearest example of moral license is the immoral man in chapter
five. Many scholars accept that he was a man of significant
social standing, possibly even a patron. By the
Corinthians’ warped way of thinking, this man was merely
making use of his freedom in Christ and should therefore
parade his freedom before others in the form of sexual
license. Furthermore, the church
was proud of having such a one in their midst. This shows the
Corinthian Christians’ partiality to the elite class in
matters of both moral and criminal law.
Other Corinthian Christians erred on the opposite extreme regarding
sexual practices. Married women seemed to be particularly
drawn to this type of religious expression. Some women may
have been seeking to terminate their marriages under the pretext that
this would strengthen their connection to the
divine. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman religious
practices access to the divine was thought to be hindered when the
petitioner was active sexually. Paul even mentions
the acceptability of refraining from sex temporarily for the purpose of
prayer, but elsewhere he is clearly antagonistic to the
ascetic sexual ethic advocated by some Corinthian
women. Neither the ethic of license nor the ethic
of absolute denial was condoned by Paul.
Scholars have long noted the lack of opposition that the Corinthians
faced from their fellow countrymen. The Christians
that considered themselves pneumatikoi saw everyone else as yucikoi,
inferiors but not necessarily evil or ungodly. The church
at Corinth assumed a minor distinction from the rest of society without
attacking any of the heathen practices condoned by the unsaved
Romans. This could be because many of the Corinthians did not
view the church
as a moral authority. Perhaps their religious
meetings centered around experience rather than the teaching and
application of sound doctrine.
Several passages in the Corinthian correspondence suggest that the
Corinthians were accepted by their pagan neighbors. This is
most likely due to their acquiescence to the Roman worldview.
In I Corinthians 3:3 Paul accuses the Corinthians of “walking
like mere men.” The Corinthians were catering to
the secular morals of the broader society, which resulted in the
society’s deprivation of the true knowledge of
God. The Corinthians were asked to dine with their
unbelieving friends. There is also evidence that
their neighbors may attend their worship
meetings. One final proof that the Corinthians adapted to the broader culture is
their assumption that they would be treated in the courts in the same
manner as the non-Christians. Paul understands that
contact with the ungodly in unavoidable during this lifetime, but their
proximity to the unsaved should be used as an opportunity to further
God’s Kingdom instead of being viewed as a chance to
capitulate to their neighbor’s depraved morality.
Women in Corinth
The last obvious source of discord within the Corinthian church
involved the role of the women in the assembly. Corinthian
men were renowned for their infidelity, and the women were taught to
accept their husbands’ promiscuity as the norm. A
married woman was to condone her husband’s unfaithfulness as
well as his religious inclinations without
question. Some women in the upper classes, however,
grew tired of tolerating their husbands’ sexual
permissiveness, and they set out to enjoy the sexual pleasures that
were previously limited to males. Scholars suggest that the
women in I Corinthians seven and eleven were imitating these liberal Roman women.
In chapter eleven Paul initiates a discussion concerning the women in
Corinth who reportedly removed their veils during the times of worship.
These women were stirring up a great deal of
disorder during the worship
services. In chapter seven these same women were withholding sexual favors from their
husbands. The mentioning of a veil indicates that the women
in question were married. The veil was the wedding ring of ancient Rome.
The removal of the wedding veils in chapter eleven alarmed Paul,
because these women were committing a significant violation of
socially-accepted norms. The only married women at the time
who disregarded their marriage veils were the licentious Roman
matrons. Paul’s concern is most likely that the church’s
reputation will be compromised due to the
misrepresentation of the church’s
views of marriage as portrayed by these women. As several members of the
Corinthian congregation were undoubtedly wealthier than the other
members, some of the women in attendance may have been matrons
flaunting their newfound freedom in Christ. Given
the content of chapter seven it is unlikely that any of the women in
the immediate congregation were acting in the same manner as the
liberal Roman matrons, but Paul was concerned for the Gospel’s integrity.
Instead of acting like the promiscuous Roman women or the licentious
Corinthian men, these women were the instigators of the asceticism that
Paul discusses in chapter seven. They were erring on the
opposite extreme of most Corinthians. Scholars surmise that
the Corinthian women were combining Christianity with a form of
neoplatonism. The women were attempting to disregard their
gender considering it something merely physical, and thereby inferior,
to their spiritual person. Given the inferior
status that most of these women endured their entire lives, it is
possible that some of them may have viewed Christianity as a way of
bypassing the gender-induced limitations dictated by their
society. To the Corinthian women the absence of their veils
may have symbolized their new spiritual status in Christ.
Divisions in the American Church
Like the church
in Corinth, the church
in America is a fractured entity. As points of contention have mounted within the church,
so also have the number of denominations and church
splits to accommodate the various positions. Some rifts have erupted
over significant disagreements over doctrine and practice, while others
have developed over trivialities. The American church
has historically been divided over issues of race and gender roles, and
Christians are at both ends of the political spectrum.
Social-economic issues have also driven a wedge between American Christians.
Many of the church
and denominational splits of the past were the
result of significant doctrinal disagreement. In the
contemporary religious climate of America, a plethora of religious
practices abound. Thanks to the new form of
tolerance that pervades throughout this postmodern society, most
Christians are hesitant to stand up for truth and identify heresies as
they surface. Political correctness dictates that all
religious practices be considered equally legitimate regardless of
their absurdity or perverseness. Countless petty doctrinal
differences have come to the forefront of many Christians’
lives, and they express more zeal about these tertiary beliefs and
experiences that they have devoted little time to more significant
theological fields of study like Christology or soteriology.
One reason the church
is divided is due to a refusal of Christians to
compromise on those doctrines which carry little eternal significance.
As churches are disjointed over doctrinal issues, so also are they
disunited in moral practice. Numerous unsubstantiated
teachings have been ingrained in the minds of many American Christians,
and accompanying these views are behavior patterns that conflict with
the standards of morality dictated by God. As
was evidenced in chapter one, Christians are often adapting their
morals to the depravity that increasingly characterizes
America. Christians are torn over issues like
pornography, fornication, and divorce, as the norm for these things in
the American culture differs drastically from the Bible’s
teachings. Christians are even divided over homosexuality,
even though the Bible is abundantly clear that God does not find it
acceptable. For many American Christians the Bible
is not a moral arbiter, as a pleasurable lifestyle supersedes
God’s plan for humanity. The American church
does not represent the values that are clearly entrenched in the Word of God.
Aside from theological and moral issues, Christians disagree over
social and political matters. Perhaps the most obvious area
of disagreement on civil issues arises with capital
punishment. Those Christians that support executing criminals
use proof texts like Genesis 9:1-7 and Romans 13:1-5. Those
opposed to this practice call criminal executions barbaric and support
sparing the life of the offender. Warfare
is another divisive issue in the church.
Some Christians claim that the Bible teaches subordination to the government in
declaring war, while others claim that Christians should always be
pacifists. While difficult to comprehend, there are
even minority Christian groups that support abortion.
Disagreements over such issues rarely conclude with a heightened sense of brotherly affection.
For many years the church
has been split with regards to race and gender. Many white theologians in America’s past
wrongly sought to rationalize their racist perspectives through the
manipulation of the biblical texts. The most obvious of these
erroneous views have targeted the black population.
Many women have also felt dejected by the Christian
community. As certain theologians have sought to justify
racial enmity through the distortion of the Bible, so also have many
preached a gospel of sexism.
Many of the issues that divide the church
today would disappear if Christians would collectively base their values on the properly
interpreted Word of God rather than the discriminatory views of the
unsaved American populace. A significant number of the afore
mentioned divisions have resulted out of an uncompromising allegiance
to political and social agendas in place of God’s
statutes. It is not a society’s duty to make the
Bible relevant in its current setting, it is the job of Christians
within any given society to adapt to the norms prescribed by God rather
than those advocated by a godless majority.
True Christian Unity
Disunity among God’s people was a problem well before the church
at Roman Corinth was established. As the Israelites
absorbed their neighbors’ morals and gods, they were also a
self-divided people. The major distinction was initially
based on tribal ancestry. After Solomon, however, the kingdom
of Israel was spilt into Israel in the north and Judah in the
south. The ancient Israelites grew distrustful of
one another on political and religious matters to the extent that, on
occasion, warfare broke out between the tribes. The people of
God have always done a poor job of displaying their familial unity,
even when it was confined to people with a shared heritage.
Throughout Paul’s writings there are numerous pleas for unity
among the churches. In the Corinthian correspondence he
remarks to the absurdity of their splintered state with the question,
“Has Christ been divided?”
Despite the frequent and complex differences that arose in all of the
local churches, Christians were permanently united together by the
blood of Christ. They were all members of the family of
God. Paul asserts this most plainly in Galatians 3:28,
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor
free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in
Christ Jesus.” In Philippians 2:2 he tell
Christians to be “united in spirit, intent on one
purpose.” Although different societies may place
greater value on one’s gender, race, or social class, no such
distinctions are made in the Kingdom of God. Christians need
to learn that before they are male or female, black or white,
republican or democrat; they are Christians. Many believers
are more devoted to their quality of life than they are to the
furthering of God’s Kingdom. Christians need to
begin prioritizing and be willing to recognize that they are all
striving for the same goal instead of viewing one another as
competitors or even enemies. If Christians are loving one
another, then it will be displayed in their unity.
Perhaps the most sober call to Christian unity comes from the lips of
Jesus Christ Himself. While He prayed for His disciples just
before His crucifixion, Jesus is recorded as praying for the unity of
His disciples three different times. If the unity
of the church
was at the forefront of Christ’s mind moments
before He died for humanity, then it should be a priority of Christians
who are charged with spreading His message of hope to a lost and dying
While certain specifics may be contested, there is abundant evidence in
the Scriptural texts that suggests that the Corinthian Christians were
adapting their beliefs to the norms established by their secular
culture instead of relying on those standards commissioned by the Word
of God. The Corinthians were quick to revert to the sexual
practices of their unsaved neighbors to the extent that depravities
existed inside of the church
that were unheard of in the pagan
community. While the Corinthians were steeped in an historic
tradition of sexual impropriety, their abundant compromises on moral
issues evidences a lack submission to the Holy Spirit’s
guidance. They sought ways to rationalize their hedonistic
practices under the guise of Christianity liberty. They
failed to see the incompatibility of their neighbors’ morals
with the norms established in the Bible, because they had failed to
allow the Bible’s teachings to affect their lifestyle choices.
The Corinthian church
was quick to abandon its continence for
over-indulgence in the sexual arena, and the church
in America has followed its poor example. America has fallen from its high
moral standing on the global scene with the culture’s
acceptance of sexual perversions like: pornography, fornication, and
homosexuality. As these immoral sexual practices have become
an accepted component of the American culture, the church has made few
attempts to curb their influence in the broader culture or within the church
itself. Many professing Christians are consciously
living a licentious lifestyle. American Christians have come
to accept a theology that does not demand personal responsibility on
the part of the believer. Paul teaches that many Christians
once practiced such lifestyles in Corinth before their conversion to
Christianity, but he warns that those who continue in such lifestyles will not inherit the
Kingdom of God. Once a person has accepted the Gospel
of Jesus Christ he becomes a new creation. Through the guidance of the
Holy Spirit a Christian is capable of resisting the temptations that
once enslaved him. Christians in America need to
remember that self-control is a virtue instead of a vice and seek to
employ it in their daily lives with regard to proper sexual practices.
As the Corinthians accepted their neighbors’ depraved
morality, so also did they accept their religious traditions.
Many Scripture passages suggest that the Corinthians adulterated the Gospel
by incorporating pagan religious practices and Greek
philosophies into their theology and decision-making. The
Corinthian correspondence suggests that the Christians in Corinth
experienced little opposition from their neighbors. This is
presumably because they were too apprehensive to confront the
inaccurate beliefs of their friends and family members.
Like the Corinthians, American Christians continue the tradition of
being too cowardly to open defy wickedness and promote what is
good. For many Americans it is more important to be
inoffensive than it is to be biblically accurate. In a
culture that plays down offensive material, Christians have frequently
let their faith degrade into powerless gospel
in order to avoid insulting the unsaved. In the minds of many
American Christians one’s spiritual experiences have
superseded sound doctrine and moral practice as outlined in the
Bible. Christians have a greater fear of being labeled as
intolerant and culturally irrelevant than they do of God’s
judgment on sinful man. As the American culture has increased
in greed and laziness, some Christian theology has been altered to
reflect America’s less admirable values. Christians
are to watch their lives and their doctrine closely, so that
their faith might not be shaken by the numerous unsubstantiated attacks
made by the church’s many enemies.
The irony surrounding the Corinthian tolerance of immorality and pagan
religions is that while they tolerated these blatantly ungodly things
they refused to accept their brothers in Christ. Christians
were polarized on the basis of social privilege, gender, and
morality. The elite within the Corinthian society were
arrogant in their spirituality and shamed their brothers in Christ who
did not possess the same degree of social influence. The
wealthier class disregarded the biblical standard for morality as they
believed themselves to be above any moral authority.
Christianity at Corinth centered more around allegiance to human agents
and political victories rather than furthering the Kingdom of God.
America has followed the Corinthian tradition of tolerating evil and
rejecting good. American Christians are divided by political
ideology, moral authority, and theology. In the past there
have been several American theologians who sought to discriminate
against women and minority groups through the manipulation of the
biblical texts. Like the Corinthian Christians many American
Christians are arrogant in their sense of personal
spirituality. Many Christians have wrongly believed that the
evidence of the power in God in their lives is a euphoric experience or
a miraculous display of divine power. The
Bible clearly teaches that the evidence of one’s position in Christ is his loving attitude
toward his brothers in Christ in addition to a life devoted to the service of God.
Studying the social-historical context of the Corinthian correspondence
can enlighten Christians regarding the nature of their Gospel
message. One observation one might make deals with Hebrews
4:12a, “For the Word of God is living and active.” The Bible is a book perfect in content and
purpose. Its message transcends cultural boundaries, as its
saving messages has been accepted in diverse cultures
worldwide. As peoples’ lives have continuously been
changed by the “living and active” Word of God,
Christians should learn to have more faith in their Bible rather than
the tenets of their society. The Word of God will contradict
culturally accepted norms in any community, as every human society is
contaminated with sin.
Whenever a Christian has to choose between the established norms of his society and the Word of God, he
should without hesitation base his belief and conduct on the timeless Word of God.
Another major point of interest in dealing with the Corinthian epistles
is that Paul never advises members of the church
in Corinth to abandon their pagan city. Paul understood that interaction with lost
people was a necessary part of evangelism. The problem with
the Corinthian church,
however, was that the congregants habitually let the norms of their broader society dictate their priorities and their
behavior. Christians are to be salt and light in this
world. God’s people are called to live lives worthy
of the Gospel.
Proper Christian conduct is the best apologetic in a world interlaced with sin.
American Christians have come to a place where they fear rejection by the
secular pop-culture more than they fear the Lord who created all
cultures. Christians are ever seeking to ameliorate the
strife that always occurs when Christians behave differently from the
rest of the world, and they have grown unconcerned with removing the
enmity that exists between sinful man and a holy God.
American Christians would do well to heed the timeless warning to
God’s people found in James 4:4, “Therefore whoever
wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.”
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Russ Weber 2009