John Piper has frequently made the observation, “the Bible is not a string of pearls, but a chain of linked thoughts.” This means that when we read a book of the Bible, we should not be digging for nuggets of truth divorced from the context. Rather, we need to read a book just like we read anything: holistically.
So, why focus on the themes of 1 Corinthians? Out of all the books of the Scripture, perhaps no singular book has had more teachings ripped out of context than 1 Corinthians (the “purgatory passage” of 1 Cor 3:11-15, marriage versus celibacy, head coverings, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, etcetera).
It is my thesis that if we can better understand 1 Corinthians thematically, we can then better exploit both the meaning, and value, of the pearls of wisdom within the text. We will see in the following that the central theme of the text is this: the Corinthian church needs to be reminded of orthodoxy and the correct practices that necessarily follow suit. Just as none of the correct doctrines are subject to change, the practices that Paul expects the Corinthians ought to follow are likewise timeless and not up for dispute as they are the logical consequence of correct doctrinal understandings.
Let’s see how this theme works itself out throughout the book:
1 Cor 1-4: Concerns over divisions. Paul begins the discussion in 1 Cor 1:10 when he says, “Now I exhort you…that you all agree and that there be no divisions among you.”
He makes the following argument for the exhortation:
- Paul gives thanks that he (generally) did not come to Corinth baptizing (1:11-17).
- Rather, he came simply preaching Christ and Him crucified so that the Corinthians’ confidence would not be placed in the impressiveness of the messenger, but the power of the Spirit in conversion through the Gospel (1:17-3:4).
- In light of this, we are to place no importance in the wisdom of men, but rather regard those who preach the Gospel as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mystery of God [i.e. the mystery of the resurrection]” (3:5-4:21).
- This section contains two brief, but related asides on how the preachers are judged in accordance with the quality of their teaching (3:9-17) and a reminder to live according to the pattern one may observe in Paul’s life (4:14-21).
1 Cor 5-6: Concerns over misapplying Paul’s previous letter. We can see that the Corinthians needed Timothy to come and “remind” them of Paul’s ways (1 Cor 4:17), because they appeared to ignore them. Instead, they opted for their own personal interpretations of Paul’s teachings divorced from the witness of his life, perhaps because they had a misplaced confidence in their own wisdom. As we will see, the remainder of the whole letter dwells upon this.
- In Chapter 5 the Corinthians, in a display of ignorance, misunderstood Paul’s previous letter which admonished them “not to associate with immoral people” (5:9). They presumed this meant not to associate with non-believers who were immoral. Apparently, they viewed this as a blank check to disregard despicable behavior inside their own church. However, Paul desired that they apply the “non-association” to believers, not to unbelievers. Because of this, Paul commands that they excommunicate a “so-called brother” who is fornicating with his stepmother.
- Chapter 6 is a continuation of the topic of judgment that ends the previous chapter (“Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges,” 5:12-13). Just as the Corinthians ought to be exercising their judgment against so-called brothers committing heinous sin within their own church, they should exercise judgement also in settling legal disputes among themselves (6:1-7). This is done in place of using legal avenues available to those outside the Church.
- Paul ends the chapter (6:8-20) seemingly correcting another teaching from his letter, that being the teaching of “all things are lawful for me” (1 Cor 6:12). Paul denounces antinomianism and makes clear that the immoral will not inherit eternal life. So being the case, the Corinthians cannot turn a blind eye to gross immorality without putting their salvation into jeopardy. The redeemed were “bought with a price” and with so great a salvation already accomplished the Corinthians are compelled to “glorify God” with their bodies (6:20).
1 Cor 7-14, 16: The “now concerning” passages. Having established in chapters 5 and 6 that the Corinthians have grossly misapplied his teachings from a previous letter pertaining to proper association and lawfulness, Paul directs his attention to concerns that pertain to questions addressed to Paul in a letter written by the Corinthian church themselves (“concerning the things about which you wrote,” 1 Cor 7:1).
- In Chapter 7, the Corinthians either asked a question pertaining to the idea, or made the assertion that, “it is good for a man not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7:1). Paul affirms this principle is true, calling celibacy “better” than marriage (7:38, see also 7:6). However, his main point is that most men and women are not capable of living by the teaching in 7:1 and so they should marry, taking special care to mutually satisfy each other’s sexual desires.
- In Chapters 8 through 10, Paul seeks to correct a misunderstanding that the Corinthians had pertaining to their boast that “we all have knowledge” (8:1). The knowledge spoken of here is that of all foods, including meat dedicated to idols, can be eaten without a crisis of conscience. Paul affirms this initially asserting that this is true and that idols themselves are inanimate objects that cannot receive sacrifices (8:7). While he might have commanded the Corinthians to stop the practice of eating such meats simply because the Church had decided against the practice (Acts 15), he does not adopt this logic. Rather, he compels them to not eat such meat for the sakes of both fellow brothers without such a mature “knowledge” (see also Rom 14) and unbelievers observing Christian behavior. Paul concludes the topic on the same note in 10:23-11:1.
- In Chapter 9, Paul uses the example of his life as a demonstration of how he does not use such “knowledge” in order to press “rights” of his. He has the right to both food and drink (9:4), a wife (9:5), and income for his preaching (9:7-18). Yet, he happily forgoes things that he knows are not bad in of themselves, because it edifies the men he tries to be “all things” to (1 Cor 9:22).
- The beginning of Chapter 10 (verses 1 through 22) is properly best read as a large aside meant to bolster his argument against eating meat sacrificed to idols. The reason this is so is that Paul, in part, abandons the rationale of his earlier argument (that we forgo what we are free to enjoy for the sake of others.)
- First, he quotes the Scripture as against the practice of eating meat dedicated to idols. The implication is that though right wisdom would lead one to know that idols are nothing, in practice eating and drinking (10:7) has historically led to idol worship. He identifies this as a common temptation experienced both by the ancient Israelites as well as Christians in his day (10:11-13).
- Second, he then argues that Christians cannot both partake in Christ’s flesh and blood in the Lord’s Table, and the “cup” and “table of demons” (1 Cor 10:21). He warns that those who eat meat sacrificed to idols literally become “sharers in demons” (1 Cor 10:20). While on first glance this seems impossible being that “there is no such thing as an idol” (1 Cor 8:4), it would seem that idols become real when, through eating and drinking, Christians are tempted to idolize them. Such worship is fitting only to Christ, which is why His flesh and blood in the Eucharist is used as a counter-example.
- In Chapter 11 Paul “praises” the Corinthians in that “you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11:2). Judging from the Corinthians’ track record in chapters 5 though 15 which merited Paul sending Timothy to “remind” (1 Cor 4:17) them of what he taught, the plain implication is that Paul is being sarcastic (as he was also in 4:8).* Clearly, the Corinthians were not applying properly the “traditions” that Paul had taught them.
- The Corinthians failed to apply what Paul taught pertaining to head-covering (and non-covering) regulations and to conduct themselves appropriately during the Lord’s Supper.
- In the former, the Corinthians lacked an understanding as to why covering was practiced (to portray submission between men and women, and Christ to God).**
- In the latter they did not properly understand the metaphysical oneness of the Church. This is betrayed by the fact that the Corinthians did not share their meals and were factionalized. Because of this, “when you meet together, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper” (1 Cor 11:20).
- The connection between chapters 10 and 11 is somewhat tenuous, as Paul does not introduce the topics as something that related to the letter the Corinthians wrote to him. It is probable that Paul viewed the Corinthians’ inability to properly follow traditions as caused by the issue of “knowledge” introduced in chapter 8. After all, the knowledge that all things are permissible, when misunderstood, can lead Christians to ignore practices such as head covering and lead to selfishness within the church. Paul ends the chapter simply scolding the Corinthians to wait for one another in their eating.
- Being that he resumes the topic (from chapters 8 and 9) of Christians edifying one another in chapters 12-14, he probably likewise viewed the problems in chapter 11 as arising from the Corinthians not seeking to edify one another, but rather to press their “rights” which their “knowledge” of Christian freedom entitles them to. This theme, if interpreted this way, would connect chapters 8 through 14 as a whole.
*In 11:17 (“But in giving this instruction, I do not praise you”) may be an indication that the Corinthians held to the head covering regulations properly, but not those pertaining to the Lord’s Supper. Presently, I do not favor this interpretation.
There is no indication that the Corinthians did not know how “to do” the Lord’s Supper. Paul criticizes them for a lack of unity in what appears to be a “love feast” (see Jude 12). This lack of unity detracts from the very meaning of the Lord’s Supper in that Christ said, “this is My body, which is for you.” Christ gave Himself for His Church, yet the Corinthians cannot give food to one another in their love feast. It is a mockery of a love feast, and such a mindset should be scandalous among Christians who partake in the Lord’s body and blood to remember what He did. For, how can we remember what Christ done by betraying His memory? And so, Paul is correcting the Corinthians, not for doing the Lord’s Supper wrong, but for not knowing the significance of the Lord’s Supper as proved by their lack of regard for one another.
What is the significance of this? Just as the Corinthians appear ignorant of the rationale for the Lord’s Supper, they were likewise ignorant of the rationale behind head coverings. This is why the majority of 11:3-16 is about rationale and not the practice itself.
**In closing, it is not immediately clear whether the Corinthians failed to cover/uncover properly, or that they did not portray the submission that their coverings (and lack thereof) were meant to portray. Perhaps they were inconsistent in the former because they lacked the latter. Clearly, the Corinthians had to be doing something wrong with head coverings in that Paul in 11:16 had to be so terse in asserting that the issue was not up for dispute. In whichever case, the Corinthians were failing to uphold the traditions as handed down to them properly, because they did not understand their significance. If they understood their significance, they would have avoided applying the traditions wrongly. In the same way, they misapplied Paul’s teachings on association with immoral brothers and lawfulness.
In other words, Paul is not saying, “If you know why we have the Lord’s Supper/head coverings, you do not have to do them.” Rather, he is saying that, “Because the Lord’s Supper and head coverings are significant because of X, Y, and Z, this is why we do them and conduct ourselves this way.” If the Lord’s Supper and head coverings were optional, the force of Paul’s argument is compromised.
- Chapters 12 through 14 speak of the issue of tongues (i.e. different languages) versus other spiritual gifts. It is not clear whether the Corinthians’ letter even brought up the issue of tongues specifically (12:4-7 would indicate their questions were a lot more general). Nevertheless, just as Paul had received word of their improper church discipline (chapter 5), their lawsuits (chapter 6), immoralities (chapters 7-10), and impropriety in worship (chapter 11) he had also received word that the worship in Corinth was disharmonious due to the misuse of the gift of tongues. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to use their spiritual gifts to build one another up (for that is why God gave them gifts) and to worship God in an orderly way. The reason they should do so is because spiritual gifts are given to edify the Church and God is not a God of disorder.
Chapter 15: Reiterating the Gospel. Paul now closes his letter with his final, and most important concern: some Corinthians started doubting the physical resurrection and whether Christ Himself was raised (15:12, 15:35). This would later blossom into Gnostic teaching and it was probably the chief problem of the Corinthian church.
- Paul was sending Timothy to remind the Corinthians of his teachings on several matters, but the Gospel itself must have been on the forefront of his mind as salvation and damnation hang in the balance.
- He tells the Corinthians that he is reminding them about the Gospel “I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you” (1 Cor 15:1-2).
- The fact that the Corinthians needed such a reminder is particularly shameful, as Paul lived with and taught them for one year and six months (Acts 18:11)!
Chapter 16: The collection and closing remarks. Paul ends the letter likely referencing a question the Corinthians had about the collection (“Now concerning the collection for the saints,” 1 Cor 16:1). He also gives instructions to the Corinthians to show hospitality to, and sit under the teaching of, several men (including Timothy, the household of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus).The Corinthians are to “be in subjection to such men…because they have supplied what was lacking on your part” (1 Cor 16:7-8). What were the Corinthians lacking? Probably a mature understanding of Christian practices and doctrines. It is important to note that Paul has mostly dwelt upon orthopraxy (chapters 5-14) as compared to orthodoxy (chapter 15).
In Closing. Now that we know 1 Corinthians holistically, what important lessons should we be applying to ourselves? Obviously, we should avoid factions, but not for the reasons we often think of. Because we are converted by the Gospel and the workings of the Holy Spirit, we have no reason to boast of our own, or a favorite teacher’s, wisdom. Further, the most obvious teaching of the letter is that correct doctrines demand correct practices. If we do not correctly understand the reason for why we do X, Y, or Z, then it stands to reason that we won’t correctly carry out X, Y, or Z. From the preceding, we may also glean that correct practices do not change, so Christians are compelled to exercise discipline within the Church, avoid immoralities, wear/not wear head coverings (depending upon gender), have orderly worship, and etcetera.