The Church at Corinth by Edward Adams

Thanks to the apostle Paul’s extensive correspondence with the Corinthians, we are better informed about the church at Corinth than any other first-century church. In 1 Corinthians in particular, the apostle treats a wide range of issues affecting the community of believers, including divisiveness, litigation, food offered to idols, and class divisions at the communal meal. In so doing, he gives us an unparalleled, though hardly neutral, picture of the life of an early church.

The church at Corinth included some Jews (1Cor 7:18-19), but it was largely composed of Gentile converts (1Cor 6:9-11, 1Cor 8:7, 1Cor 12:2). Paul’s statement in 1Cor 1:26 makes clear that the majority of church members were socially humble (some were slaves: see 1Cor 7:21-23). Paul also implies that some members were wise, powerful, and even of noble birth (1Cor 1:26). The terms he uses had a fairly wide socioeconomic range and so do not necessarily point to the presence of the elite within the church, but they do indicate that a small number of congregants were somewhat more privileged than the others. Among this higher-status group was almost certainly Erastus, “the city treasurer,” who sends greetings from Corinth in Paul’s later letter to his community in Rome (Rom 16:23).

The social division signaled in 1Cor 1:26 may well have been a source of friction in the church. The division at the communal meal, which Paul describes in 1Cor 11:17-34, was probably a socioeconomic one, with poorer church members receiving a paltry amount of food, while the better-off gorged (see 1Cor 11:21, where “one goes hungry and another becomes drunk”).

The Corinthian church was a mixed-gender group. 1Cor 11:2-16 reveals that women were fully involved in church life, participating vocally in gatherings for worship by praying (aloud) and prophesying. Paul does not in this passage attempt to curtail such involvement (though see 1Cor 14:34-35, a passage some think was added to the text at a later date) but insists that women should pray and prophesy with their heads covered.

It is difficult to know the size of the Corinthian church at the time of this first letter. Scholarly estimates range from 40 to 150 persons. It is often assumed that when “the whole church” came together for worship (1Cor 14:23), it did so in a believer’s home, but Paul’s distinction between church and home in 1Cor 11:22 may suggest otherwise (compare 1Cor 11:34, 1Cor 14:34-35). The meeting place may have been a rented dining hall, a large garden, or some other venue.

The church at Corinth clearly suffered from internal tensions. 1Cor 1-4 reflects the problem of factionalism, where Paul identifies separate parties that claim alternate allegiances to him, Apollos (a Jewish Christian preacher), Peter (one of Jesus’ disciples), or Christ (according to their own understanding, not Paul’s). These parties may represent splits within the church leadership. A particularly divisive issue was food offered to idols. Some believed that they had “liberty” to eat whatever and wherever they wanted, while others considered eating food that had been sacrificed to idols sinful and dangerous.

Despite conflicts within the group, the Christians at Corinth enjoyed friendly relations with outsiders. Believers dined with nonbelievers (1Cor 10:27), and outsiders might have dropped in to a Christian meeting (1Cor 14:24-25). Christianity at Corinth thus does not appear to have been particularly sectarian or subversive. Indeed, the church at Corinth was much too cozy with the dominant culture for Paul’s liking. By engaging in litigation, patronizing prostitutes, and participating in pagan cultic meals, the Corinthians were conforming to the behavior patterns of the larger society. In this first letter, Paul urges them to foster a sense of being at odds with the world.

Although Paul is critical of the Corinthians throughout much of the letter, their form of Christianity was successful: a large congregation, lively worship, and secure and amicable relations with wider society.

Edward Adams, "Church at Corinth", n.p. [cited 22 Jul 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/places/related-articles/church-at-corinth

Contributors

Edward Adams

Edward Adams
Senior Lecturer, King's College London

Edward Adams is senior lecturer in New Testament Studies at King's College London. He is the author of numerous articles and several books, including Constructing the World: A Study in Paul's Cosmological Language (T&T Clark, 2000) and Parallel Lives of Jesus: Four Gospels, One Story (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011). He is also the coeditor, with David G. Horrell, of Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church (Westminster John Knox, 2004).

A group of people attending religious services, worshiping.

Evaluating its subject carefully, rigorously, and with minimal preconceptions. "Critical" religious scholarship contrasts with popular and sectarian studies.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

The act of relating a prophecy, or inspired message.

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

Of or relating to a composite picture of a person or group's location within society and class structures.

1Cor 7:18-19

18Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised ... View more

1Cor 6:9-11

9Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites,10thie ... View more

1Cor 8:7

7It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food off ... View more

1Cor 12:2

2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.

1Cor 1:26

26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

1Cor 7:21-23

21Were you a slave when called? Do not be concerned about it. Even if you can gain your freedom, make use of your present condition now more than ever.22For who ... View more

1Cor 1:26

26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

Rom 16:23

23Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

1Cor 1:26

26Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.

1Cor 11:17-34

Abuses at the Lord's Supper
17Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. ... View more

1Cor 11:21

21For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.

1Cor 11:2-16

Head Coverings
2I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.3But I want you to understand th ... View more

1Cor 14:34-35

34women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.35If there is anything they desir ... View more

1Cor 14:23

23If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your mind?

1Cor 11:22

22What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? ... View more

1Cor 11:34

34If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. About the other things I will give instructions when I c ... View more

1Cor 14:34-35

34women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.35If there is anything they desir ... View more

1Cor 1-4

Salutation
1Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes,2To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who a ... View more

1Cor 10:27

27If an unbeliever invites you to a meal and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience.

1Cor 14:24-25

24But if all prophesy, an unbeliever or outsider who enters is reproved by all and called to account by all.25After the secrets of the unbeliever's heart are di ... View more

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