We previously discussed the context of Corinth and its impact on the setting for Paul’s Corinthian letters, and while we made mention of the cultural diversity that drove deep divisions into the people of God, we hinted at another problem glaring at us from the pages of 1 Corinthians. With Corinth being a centerpiece of goddess worship, particularly with the worship of goddesses like Aphrodite and Artemis, sexual immorality ran rampant in Corinth in a way that was unique to most of the rest of the empire.
Consider the following passages:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that even pagans do not tolerate: A man is sleeping with his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have gone into mourning and have put out of your fellowship the man who has been doing this? For my part, even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. As one who is present with you in this way, I have already passed judgment in the name of our Lord Jesus on the one who has been doing this. (5:1–3)
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.
Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (6:15–20)
Paul then goes on to quite a teaching about marriage in 1 Corinthians 7. I know that for me, as a young person, this was one of the most confusing passages in the Text. Did God not want us to get married? Was married a “second-best” plan for God’s people? It certainly can read that way, but knowing more about the context of Corinth has helped me put everything in its appropriate place (at least within my mind). You might remember when we talked about the Narrative as a whole, we said that Paul’s letters need to be read in context, because he was trying to help each of those churches live out the message of Jesus within their own unique setting. In the context of Corinth, Paul is inviting them to tell a different story with their lives. In a world obsessed with sex, Paul invites the people of God to consider a testimony of abstinence. Paul is not making a declaration of biblical morality, which explains why there are so many qualifying statements [“I give this command (not I, but the Lord)…”, etc.] and suggestions, as opposed to imperative commands (which Paul loves to use elsewhere).
But this isn’t the only issue of compromise the church in Corinth is struggling with. We also mentioned that Corinth brought an incredible amount of vocational diversity. In the Roman Empire, vocations were tied to a system of “guilds.” To understand an ancient Roman guild, I always picture the brotherhood of a fraternity combined with the commitment of a labor union. These guilds were vocational factions that provided a system of brotherhood and camaraderie. They looked out for each other.
The problem with this system, besides the fact that it only fostered more division, is that each guild also worshipped one of the Roman gods. The “guild feasts” of the first century were, almost without exception, filled with drunken debauchery and sexual immorality. These events, held regularly, revolved around intense amounts of drinking and feasting around ceremonial (pagan) foods. With this in mind, we can hear these words:
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?(10:14–22)
These same feasts also created quite the ethical dilemma. They would often have leftover meat from the celebration. This meat would be sold at a discount meat market within the agora. Could these earlier believers buy this discounted meat? It had been sacrificed to idols! Into this, Paul speaks many words of wisdom:
So then, about eating food sacrificed to idols: We know that “An idol is nothing at all in the world” and that “There is no God but one.” 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 all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.
But not everyone possesses this knowledge. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (8:4–9)
A proper understanding of the context of Corinth helps us interpret this book more accurately. It’s safe to say that these Corinthians had a very hard task living in the midst of the culture of Corinth. They had many challenges that may speak into our own culture (just like our previous conversation).
But how is this body supposed to move forward? How can they deal with this division and idolatry that seeks to tear the mission of God apart?
It is to this end that Paul closes his letter.