Unity & Corinth Part 1: Background

We are products of the society we live in. What we are entertained by, what we wear, what we eat – these are all aspects that are influenced by society. This fact influences the Christians in Corinth, and that society shapes the church written to by Paul.

The City of Corinth

Corinth was a sea port and center of trade. Many classes and nationalities mingled there with great wealth and poverty existing side by side. Class envy was very apparent, complete with the crime and the tensions that are a part of this atmosphere. Amidst this, there was a fascination with wisdom and knowledge in the form of philosophy, and this led to an attitude of intellectual superiority. Eloquence was equated with wisdom – the art of rhetoric was highly valued.

This society was also fascinated with speaking in ecstatic tongues. Many of these “tongues” were gibberish (and this tradition has found its way into modern Christian tradition), and these tongues were considered to be prophetic and a gift from the gods. This fascination is carried over into the Corinth church.

Many of the church’s troubles in Corinth come from societal influence: social class differences and image consciousness (I Corinthians 7:18-23); selfishness, inflexibility, and a lack of forgiveness (I Corinthians 6:1-6, I Corinthians 8:8-12, I Corinthians 11:20-21); arrogance and elitism (I Corinthians 4:6 and many other verses in this book).

The Problem

The Corinth church thought they were spiritually minded because of their emphasis on wisdom and the spiritual gifts many had, but Paul asks “Don’t you know…?” ten times (I Corinthians 5:6, 6:2, etc.) He also speaks to those who “think they know” and who “think they are spiritual.” However, in chapter 3, Paul tells them they are truly carnal and not spiritual at all. Can this be said of us? Do we think we are spiritual when we are really carnal?

In I Corinthians 12:29-30, Paul asks if all members can claim all spiritual gifts. Do gifts denote spiritual completeness (I Corinthians 4:8-10) as these Christians seemed to believe? This is the danger – overestimating our spirituality – and this led to some deep troubles in the congregation.

  • Chapter 6:12-20 – Paul begins a point/counterpoint between the Corinthians’ letter to Paul and his response to those attitudes.
  • Chapter 8:4 – Paul deals with insensitivity toward conscience as a result of their own perceived wisdom.

These problems led to division in the congregation, and it would probably not be long before the church in Corinth just tore itself apart.

The tongues spoken of in the book of I Corinthians were really world languages, and these were languages that did not have to be learned – they were known by the power of God. In I Corinthians 12:4-6, Paul makes it clear that all gifts are equal. He continues this illustration by using the human body as example. One member cannot deny the usefulness of another.

Through chapter 12, Paul emphasizes oneness and sameness in the church (verses 4, 6, 11, 12, 13, & 14 among others) to avoid division within the body. It is a call to unity and cooperation, and their spiritual superiority blinded many of them to the problems they were creating within their own congregation. The body has to function in unity in order to function properly.

Paul concludes this chapter by describing a “more excellent way,” and that is where we will pick up our next lesson.

lesson by Tim Smelser