Thursday, January 1, 2009

Paul, Corinth, and Us

corinth It is widely acknowledged that the parallels between first century Corinth and twenty-first century Western society are remarkable.  Let me share with you a few thoughts that will likely appear in my next edition of "In the Shadow of the Cross".

First century Corinth was a relatively new city, having been founded as a Roman colony in 44 B.C after the old city of Corinth has been totally destroyed in an earthquake a century earlier.  A metropolitan seaport, Corinth was intellectually alert, materially prosperous, culturally varied and religiously diverse.  Individualism was greatly valued and fiercely defended.  It was primarily a freedman town, ex-slaves who were aggressive, hard-working, upwardly mobile, financially successful and proud of their accomplishment.  They tended to be exploitive, ruthless and willing to take great risks. There were no elite or nobility in the city.  No code of conduct on how to behave oneself with one's wealth or in pursuit of it.  Power, possessions and pride were valuable to these Corinthians.  To rise in society was the overall goal of the Corinthian; boasting and self-display was the means of achieving that goal, and personal glory and power the reward of having achieving it.

Paul's relationship with the Corinthians was a difficult one.  His letters to them are very personal.  Paul stayed in Corinth for approximately eighteen months (a remarkably long time for him to be in any one place).  His time there was one of relative peace and calm.  When the Jews in Corinth rejected the gospel and Paul refocused his ministry to the Gentiles they did not raise up a riot as their counterparts had in other cities.  The only one case of persecution in Acts 18:12-18 is so mild in comparison to others, that Paul did not even feel compelled to leave for the safety of others.  We read that "he stayed for many days afterwards" (Acts 18:19). 

While 2 Corinthians 1:6 does refer to the Corinthians patiently enduring suffering, it seems apparent to me that the persecution facing believers in Corinth was considerably less than in other places.   Perhaps this may be in part due to the multicultural nature of the city which would have worked against organizing religiously intolerant mobs.  There were some Jews in the Corinthian community but there is little in Paul's letters to the church there that suggests a Jewish background.  Since most of the converts seem to have been Gentiles, the Jewish religious leaders (whose counterparts had instigated much of the opposition to Paul in other cities) may have felt that Paul was little threat to them. Or perhaps the number of Jews in Corinth were insufficient to mount an effective resistance.  Whatever the reason, the church was established there with little effective resistance.

Perhaps this relative lack of resistance to the gospel and its messengers is one of the reasons why the Corinthian Christians had such a difficulty understanding the role of suffering and persecution in the life of the follower of Jesus.

Given the Corinthian's pursuit of power, wealth and glory, it is inevitable that these would have been issues that the Christians there would have struggled with as well.  Humility was not viewed as a virtue; suffering and self-sacrifice were scorned.  Poverty would have been seen as a curse, even if done in the service of God.

To make matters worse, after Paul left Corinth, other preachers and teachers either arrived in the city or rose up from their own midst who had little regard for Paul and his teachings.  Indeed, what they taught agreed with Corinthian values completely; God's work is to be marked with power, prosperity, and pride.   Among other things, they maintained that Paul's sufferings were proof that he was not a true apostle or messenger of God.  To them, God's work was done in strength and power, not in weakness or suffering. 

The Corinthians were critical of Paul and his ministry in four areas:

1. His boasting: Boasting of one's accomplishments was of great value to the people of Corinth.   To project one's status was vital.  People paraded their wealth before others. Posted signs in public places declaring their latest accomplishments.  To be ignored or unknown was a great disgrace.  Personal glory became an ideal to be chased after.  When Paul denounced such boasting as taking the glory away from God and refuses to boast in any of his accomplishments but will only boast about those things which show how weak he is without the Lord, the Corinthians cannot understand this and they despise him for his weakness.  How can this man be great when he is so weak? Sacrificing for others is not noble, in their eyes. It is foolish.

2. His physical presence: Not only that, but they also disapproved of his physical presence.  He is weak (2 Cor. 10:10).  What is meant here is probably not so much his health or physical condition, but the way in which he treats the Corinthians; he is gentle, meek, rather than assertive and pushy.  He urges them to do the right thing, rather than bullies them.  This was not the way a true leader acts, according to Corinthian culture. A true leader is one who leads through intimidation and strength.  But Paul was committed to leading like Jesus; in servanthood, gentleness and meekness, not in power and force.

3. His speech: The Corinthians were also unimpressed with Paul's verbal skills.  In Corinthian society, public speakers were often not highly trained.  Speeches were not carefully thought through or reasoned, but geared for one purpose; to get an emotional response.  They were designed to appeal to popular tastes, to gain applause from the audience or a hearty "Bravo!" "Marvelous!" 

Some have mistakenly thought that Paul, when talking about wisdom in 1 & 2 Corinthians is speaking against worldly wisdom or intellectualism.  Not at all!  Intellectualism was not valued by the Corinthians!  That was part of the problem!  The content of a sermon meant very little just so long as it stirred the heart! People wanted to be amused by sermons, taken aback and overwhelmed by what was said.  Public preachers specialized in delivering sermons that shocked, speaking on sensational topics and powerful deliveries that would verbally assault the audience.  A good sermon was one that overwhelmed you with the power of its delivery more than with its content. How you said it became as or more important than what you said. There was little interest in doctrine in Corinth. People wanted to know about the power of the gods more than what they were like.

And so here comes Paul, presenting a well-reasoned, quiet message about the love of God and what God has done through the person of Jesus Christ.  He speaks from the wisdom of God rather than the wisdom of man which its emphasis on the sensational.  He relies on the power of the Spirit to change hearts rather than on the power of his words. Not very impressive - from a Corinthian perspective.

4. His support: The fourth way that Paul confounded the Corinthians was the way in which he had his financial needs met.  The Corinthians want to pay him for his services and Paul refuses to accept it.  He prefers to be self-supporting.  Paul knew that he was under divine constraint in relation to how he conducted his ministry.  In 1 Corinthians 9:15-18, he makes it clear that he would rather die than receive remuneration for his labour in the gospel.  To Paul, being self-sufficient was a matter of obedience of God.  If he could work, he needed to do so.  Otherwise, he was being disobedient to the Lord. This, however, bothers the Corinthians.  They see him as being poorer than they are and that reflects badly on them in society.  The stigma of a needy religious leader would have been impossible for them to appreciate, which is exactly why Paul does it.

In all four of these areas, Paul adopts a position entirely contrary to the prevailing culture in his desire to live out his ministry in a way that is consistent with his message of the cross.  In Corinth, we find a worldview in antithesis to the worldview of the cross and the suffering of Christ and His followers.  To the Corinthians, Paul must interpret his sufferings in such a way that they understand that God's methodology of the cross is to be the methodology of all who follow Christ.  This is how God wins His greatest victories; in weakness, not in demonstrations of power and strength.


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