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 the church 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 succeeding generations.
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 that church was intended to prevent the afore mentioned 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 this paper.
1. Culture - “The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular, social, ethnic, or age group.”
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 specially liked].”
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 I: 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 the Caesars.
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 divorce.
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 Corinth.
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 “effeminate” and “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 question.
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 Roman law.
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 decades before.
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 behavior.
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
These 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.
The church 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 and divorce.
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 sin 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, and people 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 it.”
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 century.
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 of worship. 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 pagan past.
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 the church 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 pantheism.
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. Self-worship 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 American culture
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 church. 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 political advantage.
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 the church. 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 Corinthian church.
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 world
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