This is the second post in a series of posts on Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. As I work through this letter I am asking this question: What does it mean to be communities of faith in our diverse cultural contexts?
I like 1 Corinthians because it is earthy. The Corinthians had real problems and Paul offered real solutions to their problems. So, we see the Gospel at work. How the Gospel is at work is one of the things we want to discover as we read through the epistle. How did Paul apply Gospel truth into this Corinthian context so the Gospel worked where the people were really at?
Watching Paul in action in 1 Corinthians is pretty exciting. But, looking at the problems among the Corinthians is a bit like watching a soap opera. Life as a community had gotten a bit messy for the Corinthian believers.
Corinth was a central trade route in the Mediterranean world. It had been destroyed by Rome in 146BC but then rebuilt by veterans from the legions of Julius Caesar. By the time Paul visited Corinth, it had become a thriving commercial center and was predominantly Roman in its cultural orientation. Competition, patronage, consumerism, self-promotion, and success shaped the ethos of the city. Into this context came the Apostle Paul. In Acts 18:1-18 we read of Paul’s visit to Corinth. He stayed a year and a half there, teaching the Word among them.
Paul wrote the letter around 53 or 54 CE. The church at Corinth had developed a number of problems. The negative aspects of Corinthian culture had contributed to the development of these problems among the believers: 1) a drive toward competitiveness, self-achievement, and self-promotion; 2) an attitude of self-sufficiency, autonomy, and feeling entitled to indulge in certain freedoms; 3) a misguided understanding of what it meant to be spiritual; and 4) a tendency to value knowledge, wisdom, freedom and rights over and above love and respect for others.
Let’s watch Paul in action as he addresses these problems. We will start with the introduction, 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.
Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our (dear) brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
Remember, the driving question for us as we study each weeks is how does this letter shape the way we are a community of faith in this context?
As we read this passage- what grabbed your attention? I don’t know about you, but the first thing that jumped out at me is how many times Jesus name is mentioned. It is almost overdone. Jesus’ name or title is mentioned 9 times. Why is this?
I guess for Paul, without Jesus nothing he said or did made any sense. Remember how the Gentiles looked at their world? For the non-Jewish peoples around the Mediterranean World, history didn’t really exist. Life was just a circular motion. What went around came around, and what came around would come around again. But when they entered their new life in Christ, this way of seeing the world changed. History was moving forward. Jesus had come and he was coming again. And, for each one of these Corinthians, their particular life stories had been caught up into Jesus’ story. God had taken them and set them apart for his special purposes. This is what Paul meant when he wrote that they were sanctified in Christ Jesus. Having been sanctified, they were to align themselves with Jesus and cooperate with him so God accomplish his purposes through them. It is all rather exciting.
What I also notice is how Jesus is referred to. He is referred to as Lord and as Christ in verse 3. Paul culminates with this in verse 9: God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. These titles are loaded with meaning. Let’s just look at the title, Lord. The Romans thought that their emperors were divine and so Romans would refer to these emperors as Lord. Paul isn’t really trying to get into politics by using this word. It was the word all the churches used to speak of Jesus’ divinity. But when they did this they undermined the Roman worldview. By saying Jesus was Lord they were implying that Caesar wasn’t. And they all knew that one day every knee would bow and every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
But Lord had other meanings as well. When someone was a lord that someone needed to be obeyed. By calling Jesus Lord these Corinthians were acknowledging that they were no longer their own lords or masters. They were servants of him who called them and sanctified them.
However, Paul puts a bit of a different spin on what it meant to serve the living God. Being someone’s servant could be a scary thing. In the Greco-Roman world masters were often not very nice to their slaves. They exercised total control over the lives of their slaves. They also exercised a lot of control over the servants they paid. The exception to this was the few who were slaves of very powerful people and who were put in charge of a portion of these powerful people’s affairs. These slaves had a lot of freedom and they could also become very powerful. However, for the average slave this would have only been a dream.
Yet, notice how Paul contrasted the values and assumptions operational in the Greco-Roman world with what it meant to be in Christ.
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus, 5 that in every way you were enriched in him in all speech and all knowledge— 6 even as the testimony about Christ was confirmed among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift, as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ, 8 who will sustain you to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Being in a relationship with God in Christ was personally very enriching. Paul describes God the Father and the Lord Jesus as very generous and gracious: giving grace, peace, knowledge, spiritual gifts, and working to keep each one of them guiltless at the return of Christ. The Corinthian culture was shaped by patronage and exercising power over others. In these verses Paul turns the values of the Corinthian world upside down. God the Father and the Lord Jesus, the ones with power, actively served these Corinthians and blessed them in their daily lives. If God the Father and Jesus the Lord are like this then what were these Corinthians supposed to be like in their relationships with one another? If we follow God the Father and the Lord Jesus, and if they are like this, the ones with all power, then what are we supposed to be like in our relationships?
Let’s step back to verse 2. Paul writes that these Corinthians were called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. Why is Paul being so inclusive here? What was the culture of Corinth like? It was shaped by competition, patronage, consumerism, self-promotion, and success. So, Paul is turning on its head the Corinthian urge to put oneself or one’s group above others, to be elitist. Paul makes everyone equal. He tells the Corinthians that their call to be partakers in the purposes of God is shared by everyone else who calls on the name of the Lord.
The challenge we face in our diverse communities is discerning and cutting off the ugly head of elitism each time it surfaces.
One thing we haven’t talked about yet, and one that we probably didn’t even notice because we are so familiar with this epistle, is this: as we read the opening of this letter, how is it written? Do any of you write your letters or emails like this? No. Why? If you did people would think you have “gone over the edge.” Paul writes his letter like everyone else would have written a letter in that day. There was a standard pattern for letters that everyone followed. Letters in English have a certain pattern. Letters in French follow a different pattern. To ensure you get your message across you have to follow the expected pattern. For example, in the second language I speak you should open your letter with a lot of flowery statements about the person you are writing to and asking how they have been and by telling them how you have prayed for them and you expect that God will accept your prayers. If you don’t follow the expected pattern for letters then it is likely the recipients will get offended.
I remember when emails first came out. They were a godsend. I didn’t like writing letters. Letters had to be long, and newsy. I am a stereotypical male when it comes to letters. I don’t have anything to say. So, when emails came out, I was delivered. An email is short and sweet, right to the point.
However, when emailing began not everyone understood the cultural form of the email. I remember in particular that I would write emails to an old friend. The problem with this is that he shared his email address with his wife. His wife always got upset with my emails. She didn’t understand that emails as a cultural form were designed to be short and to the point. She had the expectation that emails were the same as letters. Now, twenty years later, after a lot of emailing, she understands. But at first, she didn’t. This caused problems. The only reason I sent my friend an email was to let him know that I was thinking about him. Each time I sent one I scored points with him but lost points with his wife.
So, Paul opens his letter by following the cultural format for writing letters. In addition, part of the culture was to open a letter on a positive note. Notice, that the overall tenor of these nine verses is very positive and upbeat. He doesn’t say anything negative.
What we see from this is that Paul adapted himself to his Greco-Roman world. He was not so countercultural that he was weird. Even though he adapted to cultural forms, he indirectly and intentionally subverted some of the assumptions and values that were shaping Corinthian church culture in the wrong way. What does Paul’s example here say to us as we work here? Does Paul’s example give us ideas on how we can represent God faithfully and be an agent of transformational change in our intercultural setting?
I would say that Paul’s example and the example of the email teach us that cultural forms are important. Adapting is important for us and it is important for our friends.
Why is it important for our friends: The more we adapt to cultural forms the more understandable our behaviors are and the easier it is for people to correctly interpret what we are doing. We fit into their schematic world. By adapting to culture we reduce the level of intercultural noise which in turn enables our colleagues and friends to focus on what is really important because they are not distracted by behaviors that are so foreign to them and easily misinterpreted.
Why is adapting to their culture important for us? When we do not adapt, it is so easy for us as outsiders to get distracted by the cultural noise of our friends. Due to the cultural noise their behaviors create, we tend to become focused with those cultural forms, rituals, symbols, and behaviors that we think are wrong. In contrast, when we adapt to their culture we release ourselves to focus on the assumptions and the values that are embedded within the culture that need addressing. We let our friends determine which forms need fixing and which don’t. And by adapting to our friends’ cultures, we enable them to direct their attention to what is important- their own assumptions and values.
How should this passage shape the way we live as a community of faith? I think this passage gives us four guidelines:
First, we should be people who are obsessed with Jesus because he is our all in all and is the only one who will make sense out of our world.
Second, God’s generosity, graciousness, and willingness to serve should shape the way we live and interact with one another.
Third, we should rise to the challenge to be inclusive. As international and interdenominational communities of faith we want to be inclusive of those with differing backgrounds. We not only allow diversity but we cherish it because we know that God has called and set apart all who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus.
Finally, the way Paul writes his letter teaches us that cultural forms are important. They make life understandable. By adapting to culture we reduce the level of intercultural noise which in turn enables our colleagues and friends and even ourselves to focus on what is really important. Paul never spoke against patronage. He just challenged the assumptions behind it. For Paul, a patron was to serve, not to be served. Finally, if we adapt our colleagues and friends can direct their attention to the assumptions and values because they are not distracted by our behaviors that appear so foreign and are so easily misinterpreted.
One Comment: Why I prefer to study the Bible exegetically
I prefer to study books of the Bible rather than go through themes of Scripture. Many churches in our passport countries tend to teach topically. Topical preaching can seem to be more exciting than working through a book of the Bible. Yet, there are a few reasons why I don’t like teaching topically or thematically. One reason is that Interservers are usually in international and interdenominational groups. The way themes are developed can be overly influenced by particular interpretive traditions. When we work through books we are released to look at all the counsel of God rather than the particular themes that are of particular interest to us or to our interpretive traditions. Second, and this is related to the first, when we look at the Scripture topically we can unknowingly interpret verses out of context. We tend to interpret Scripture the way we have heard it interpreted at our home churches, so we assume that this is what this verse or these verses teach. So, we are not necessarily aware that we are actually making the verses fit our interpretive traditions. Third, when we study books of the Bible we have an incredible opportunity to interact with the Word and try to find out what it actually says rather than what we have heard it say. Since we are often in interdenominational and international groups, we will likely hear interpretations that we may not have heard before. This is meant to encourage us to go out and talk about what we heard to see, like the Bereans in Acts, if these things are really so. As we dig deeper into the Word maybe what we heard is right, and maybe it isn’t. But what happens in the process is that we are getting to know the Word better. Hopefully, during this process each one of us is giving the Spirit an opportunity to take this Word and shape us and mold us more and more into the image of Jesus. Finally, we study books for one other reason. We assume that each one of us will have opportunities to study the Word with our friends. If we learn how to study through a book of the Bible together we will be more comfortable studying books with our friends. Studying a book rather than topics will help our friends learn how to read and better understand what they read. In addition, if our corporate study makes us more aware of how our passport cultures have shaped our understanding of Scripture, then we will be better able to discern what is biblical truth and what are culturally influenced applications of biblical truth. This discernment may enable us to allow our friends to make fresh applications, finding out how to apply the truths of Scripture to their own cultures.