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First Corinthians: Paul’s insistence that we really must grow up

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 03, 2019 | In Scripture Series

St. Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians show the epistolary form to great advantage. Paul is writing to a community he knows and addressing their actual specific spiritual needs. We did not feel the full force of this in his Letter to the Romans, which was a community Paul did not yet know personally. Thus Romans was written primarily as a theological disquisition on salvation as it pertains to Jews and Gentiles. But he knows the Corinthians and writes accordingly. In an essay we are concerned with covering a topic fully and well. But in a personal letter? Well, watch out!

I divide First Corinthians into three parts, though each part offers important connections to the other two. In the first part, Paul rebukes and warns the Corinthians for their worldly Christianity. In the second, he offers spiritual advice on matters that could easily be genuinely perplexing. And in the third, he teaches them about spiritual gifts, including the charismatic gifts, but in a way that sheds further light on what is really the main point throughout: The Corinthians wear their Christianity like spoiled children, and it is time to grow up.

Worldly dissension

What Paul discerns in the Corinthian Catholic community is a party spirit, a worldly spirit. Given the divisions in the Church today, we are wise to discern, with Paul, the difference between spiritual and worldly responses. For their part, the Corinthians were excessively proud of which party they belonged to: “‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’…. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:12-13). Paul goes on to explain that Christ is the Wisdom of God, and God destroys the wisdom of the wise and the cleverness of the clever (v.19). And so he says:

Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?...For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. [1:20-25]

He goes on to explain that he “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2) and to insist that true wisdom does not come from the world but from the Spirit. Indeed, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (v.14). Such, Paul indicates, are too many of the Corinthians. Therefore, he goes on in chapter 3 to speak directly against the dissension within the Church in Corinth.

One of the most interesting passages in this chapter is Paul’s statement that we must all build as best we can on the one foundation, which is Christ, but that there is better and worse building. Therefore, all who build must be tested by fire, to see what endures and what is purged away. Thus Paul speaks of what we now call Purgatory:

Each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day [of judgment] will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. [3:13-15]

In other words, “Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God” (vv.18-19). In chapter 4, then, Paul laments the honor in which the Corinthians hold themselves while the apostles suffer for the gospel, and so he begins to enumerate and condemn their sins—which read like a catalogue of our own: Sexual immorality, fraternization with sinners out of respect for persons, lawsuits among believers in the secular courts, and the enslavement of the body in all manner of vice when the body should be used to glorify God.

It is of particular interest that Paul insists the Corinthians should have nothing to do with judging unbelievers, but rather they must refuse to support or even associate with “any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one…. Is it not those inside the Church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. ‘Drive out the wicked person from among you’” (5:11-13).

Spiritual counsels

Next Paul takes up difficult topics relating to spiritual perfection, reflecting especially on the need to be holy in the state of life in which one finds himself, and on the advisability of marriage in various circumstances (chapter 7). He considers the rights and responsibilities of an apostle (chapter 8), and explains the difference between having certain rights and insisting upon them if it is better for the souls in one’s care not to do so (as with the right to material support) (chapter 9).

He goes on to draw warnings from the history of Israel, so that the Corinthians can learn to see, in their own situation, what a close relationship with God entails. Much of this has to do with avoiding the worship of idols, which was still part of the fabric of life in Paul’s day, and often socially expected. It is here that Paul makes the important distinction between what is lawful for someone and what is good for others. In chapter 10, for example, we learn that a Christian can never worship an idol, yet a Christian who understands that idols are nothing can in principle eat meat sold in the market from animals that had been sacrificed to idols. But if someone else, with a weaker understanding, would be scandalized by this, that freedom should not be exercised, because in all things the Christian must act not to justify his own puffed up knowledge or insist upon his spiritual rights, but to build up the body of Christ.

In chapter 11, Paul discusses the use of head coverings in Church, insisting that men should pray with heads uncovered and women with heads covered, and he speaks very sternly against the Corinthian practice of having a general dinner prior to the celebration of the Eucharist, in which some have good food and others no food at all, “and one is hungry and another is drunk”:

What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the Church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I commend you in this? No, I will not. [11:22]

There follows the famous passage (vv. 23-26) in which Paul recounts the institution of the Eucharist by Christ Himself at the Last Supper, and the equally famous passage about not profaning the body and blood of the Lord through unworthy reception of it—“for anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (11:29).

It is not necessary to review Paul’s spiritual recommendations in detail, as they can be easily read. What is more interesting, perhaps, is to notice that there are several levels of teaching involved in these chapters, from passing on the deposit of faith concerning the institution of the Eucharist to personal recommendations based on Paul’s best human (but not apostolic) judgment. For example, in one place Paul says, “I give charge, not I but the Lord” (7:10) and in another, “I say, not the Lord, that…” (7:12). And in the passage about head coverings for women (clearly a disciplinary matter), he does not say that this is from the Lord, but appeals to their own common recognition of the proprieties for the differences between men and women, and simply affirms that this is the custom recognized in all the churches.

Many topics are discussed in the letter, based on whatever was going on in the Corinthian Catholic community at the time, and one must read with care to discern the difference between what Paul proclaims as revealed; what is a firm discipline or custom (perhaps based at least partly on appropriate cultural factors and a common cultural sensibility); and also what is required, what is recommended as best or most perfect, and what is merely Paul’s considered opinion—the best guidance he can offer in a particular case.

Spiritual gifts

Chapters 12 though 15 provide Paul’s beautiful teaching on the various spiritual gifts, including the charismatic gifts. Most readers will be familiar with it. He uses the analogy of the body, in which each part has a different function but all serve the whole, to apply the same principle to spiritual gifts, which are distributed differently but are all for the good of the Church. Thus, no one should be envious of another’s gifts, nor should he be discontented because he is called to serve in one way and not in another. For “the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you” (12:21), and so on.

It also is in this section that Paul offers his famous passage on love as the greatest of all the gifts, to which all must be subordinated: “If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. Love is patient…. Love bears all things…. So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (chapter 13, entire). I cover this marvelous discourse lightly only because everyone knows this passage.

But what we learn from the entire discussion of spiritual gifts is that they are valuable only insofar as they are used to build up the body of Christ through love. For this reason, and since specific instruction about the charismatic gifts is important to avoid both confusion and pride, Paul makes the point that the gift of tongues does not build up the Church unless there is someone to interpret, and so it is the least of the gifts. Moreover, the gifts must always be used in an orderly manner for the good of the assembly: “Let all things be done for edification…. For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” (cf. 14:26-33).

Paul also speaks fairly sternly about the use of the gift of prophecy, indicating that what he has said about the proper control of prophetic speech comes from the Lord: “If any one thinks he is a prophet, or spiritual, he should acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord. If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized” (14:37-38). Thus even prophets and “the spiritual” are under the authority of the Church.

In another sense, the greatest spiritual gift is the Resurrection of Christ, in that all who die in Christ will also experience the resurrection of their own bodies. Chapter 15 deals with the controversy that was apparently raging through Corinth concerning resurrection of the dead. It is in this chapter that Paul proclaims that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then “your faith is futile and you are still in your sins”. Moreover:

Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. [15:20-22]

He concludes the chapter with a beautiful reflection on our risen bodies:

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed…. Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain. [15:51-58, but read the entire chapter]

Reflecting on these spiritual realities after all Paul has told the Corinthians about their shortcomings as worldly Christians, it is no wonder that he exclaims:

If the dead are not raised, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” Do not be deceived: “Bad company ruins good morals.” Come to your right mind, and sin no more. For some have no knowledge of God. I say this to your shame. [15:32-34]

As I mentioned at the outset, all parts of the letter are connected to Paul’s purpose of saying what the Catholic community in Corinth needs to hear: Instead of taking pride in their particular party lines and affiliations and religious practices, they must get over themselves and their worldly sins. As I put it in the introduction, they need to spiritually grow up. The letter concludes, as Paul’s letters often do, with a comment about contributions for other churches, his travel plans, and his final exhortation and greetings. But the central message is one that all of us—including all of us who are proud of our affiliations in the culture wars and the Church wars—need to hear, and to hear again.

New Testament Series:
Previous: The mystery letter of St. Paul to the Romans
Next: St. Paul tries everything in Second Corinthians

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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