That Corinthian Problem
The Long Reach of an Infamous First-Century Church
by Robert Hart
The disarray, foolishness, and sin that St. Paul addressed when writing his first extant epistle to the Church in Corinth have worked to our benefit, for they gave rise to teaching in the Scriptures that has been needed throughout the subsequent history of the Church, and that we need today. As the selling of Joseph into Egypt was used by God to save Israel from famine, so can anything be used by God for good. This is one aspect of Providence. Thus, we see how the sins and foolishness of the Church in Corinth were used by God through Paul to give us salutary words of Holy Scripture.
It takes effort to understand this epistle. The difficulty we have in seeing what St. Paul was addressing comes from the familiarity we have, on the one hand, with some of the external issues affected by the Corinthian foolishness, and, on the other, with their supernatural and mystical gifts, the manifestation of which was equally affected by their faults. This is puzzling: How can what is good and holy be so sinfully practiced?
“Paul,” begins the apostle,
This apparently upbeat and positive opening does not seem to fit everything that follows.
The essential problem in Corinth is, for many, difficult to discern, even by intense reading of the epistle, for one major reason. We have a bias that blinds us to the reality that the same people who “come behind in no gift” (which means equally that they possess every grace) of the Holy Spirit can be, at the same time, “carnal, babes in Christ.” The same people who have gifts to work miracles and to prophesy, can, at the same time, be guilty of creating and perpetuating sinful divisions within the Body of Christ. The same people who truly discern spirits, and are able to test and know which spirits are not of God, can at the same time be proud to have a notorious fornicator among them, allowing him to receive the Communion of Christ’s Body and Blood along with all the rest.
The alarming fact we must glean from this epistle is that neither mystical and supernatural gifts nor orthodox doctrine were enough to keep the Corinthian Christians from being carnal, childish, divisive, and utterly selfish. And, indeed, selfishness is the most apparent symptom of their carnality, addressed over and over again in several places. But, by Providence, it was that very selfishness that gave the occasion for St. Paul to write his most famous passage, the chapter on charity (chapter 13).
Gifts & Ministers of Gifts
We must define the term charisma. The word can be translated as “gifts” or “graces.” It encompasses more than simply the “spectacular” gifts (as some term them), but includes all of the gifts of the Holy Spirit mentioned in Scripture, including the sacraments themselves. The word charismata (the plural form) includes the “institutional gifts” later explained in the pastoral epistles of Paul to Titus and Timothy, as truth unfolded and as doctrine was developed within the apostolic age.
Those pastoral epistles, written years later, would reveal a pattern consistent with apostolic succession, as Paul wrote of laying his hands on Timothy, and as he directed both Timothy and Titus concerning standards for the men they would, in turn, ordain. At the time of the writing of his First Epistle to the Corinthians, that order is not yet apparent, but the basic doctrine of gifts and callings is already evident as a foundation.
It is necessary also to consider that within that larger grouping of gifts are all of the things called gifts by St. Paul in his epistles, along with scenes described by St. Luke in the Book of Acts. The words of Christ himself teach us that no gift, no matter how impressive it may appear to be, is an indication that the minister of that gift is holy.
The words of the old Anglican Article XXVI apply:
This was always understood within the Church, and rejection of this teaching was an element essential to the heresy of the Donatists. (More than twenty years ago, when I was serving as a church organist, a curate who was very popular in that congregation was arrested, and eventually convicted, of notorious crimes involving young boys. Several people there were concerned about the baptism of their children, wanting to know if it had been valid; others, if they had really received Communion from his hand over the years. To an informed mind, aware of the teaching of the Church, those questions would not have arisen.)
No Clue to Character
That fact is relevant to solving the apparent mystery: The apparently less spectacular gifts of the charismata, such as the regular administration of Holy Communion, do not indicate that the minister is truly a holy and godly man. But the same is true of the spectacular and overtly supernatural gifts. Gifts of the Holy Spirit, whether “spectacular” or “institutional,” whether astounding or seemingly normal, say nothing about the minister’s character.
Eventually, the false prophet might teach error, or perhaps he may never teach error. He may be able to say all of those things our Lord has predicted, and more. He may be among those who say, quite truly, “Have we not prophesied in thy name?” But in the end, this will not save him. The sheep’s clothing will have come off, exposing the wolf beneath.
Although the Corinthians were not accused of being wolves, that is, false prophets, they were corrected sternly for being carnal, selfish, and chaotic. Nonetheless, St. Paul told them that they came behind in no gift, and that each of them was called to sainthood. This is not self-contradictory at all. It demonstrates two things: (1) God’s work does not depend on man’s worthiness, and (2) it is right, as well as the practice of hope, to place before the eyes of carnal people their calling to become holy.
Those who actually have allowed various charismatic expressions into the context of liturgy have long treated chapter 14 as a kind of Robert’s Rules of Order regarding how and when to exercise these gifts, while others are sure that Paul was contemptuous of the very gifts he himself had identified as coming from the Holy Spirit (an impossibility). But the overall text of the epistle shows that his words about the gifts of the Holy Spirit were not centered on the gifts themselves, but rather on the same problem he was addressing from the very first chapter.
I will glean from places in this epistle that seem to repeat a very noticeable refrain.
Although Paul places before the church in Corinth, at the start of his letter, his high estimation of their gifts, their knowledge and understanding, and their faith, stating his confidence that God will hold them by his grace and sanctify them according to the common vocation of all Christians (“called saints”), he quickly changes his tone. He admonishes them, chastises and rebukes them, for being divided. Somehow, they had developed into parties, and had claimed to be followers of various apostles.
Interestingly, those who said, “I am of Christ” are rebuked with the others. Their pretense to moral and spiritual superiority did not fool the apostle: They, too, were just as partisan, just as carnal, and perhaps a little worse, as they might have thanked God that they were not as other men are.
Learned & Carnal
Despite this outward display of chaos and division, these same people, the Christians in Corinth, came behind in no gift. The “foolish Corinthians” were enriched by God in all utterance and all knowledge. They were both orthodox and learned. Indeed, the problem in Corinth was not scriptural illiteracy, theological ignorance, or false doctrine. They were very knowledgeable.
Indeed, look at chapter 8:
Yes, they knew the right doctrine about idols. Their knowledge and their orthodoxy were not questioned by the apostle. However, their lack of charity was rebuked in the clearest of terms. Why, for such learned people, should it have been necessary to write these words in the same chapter?
How, in their knowledge so enriched, with their utterances so gifted, did they miss this obvious point? How could they have been so blind to the simple rule of putting the needs of their brothers and sisters ahead of their own desires? They were orthodox. They were learned. They were gifted. They were also carnal.
Selfish & Self-Indulgent
Look, too, at how they approached the Supper of the Lord, from the eleventh chapter:
The evidence from this text is that the Agape feast was connected somehow to the Eucharist in this very early period, perhaps even coming before in imitation of the Last Supper. How correctly or not we may be able to sort out the facts of history, it is clear that even as they approached the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ, they were selfish. Their actions indicated that even in this they were carnal.
It is this same theme, that of selfishness, that truly dominates the most “Charismatic” portions of chapters 12–14. The Corinthians’ treatment of the Lord’s Supper, each one looking after himself and no one else, came from the same selfishness we see here, as they treat various gifts of the Holy Spirit in a completely self-indulgent manner, with no regard for each other’s needs. In Chapter 12, Paul has mentioned various gifts known to operate among them, all of which he affirms.
In this Trinitarian passage he identifies the working of the Spirit, of the Lord and of God. He never even hints that any of these manifestations might have come from any lower source.
Rather, he goes on to explain to them that these gifts have been given so that each member of the Body of Christ may help others in the same Body. The text is not about tongues, or prophecy or miracles. It is about the Body of Christ, and the care each member should have for all the rest, and that the rest should have for even one member who suffers. He mentions the gifts as another way of saying to them the same thing he has been saying all along. He speaks to them about the unity that ought to overcome partisanship, and the care for others that, as in the eighth chapter, should be placed ahead of their own desires, even their own perceived needs.
Edification & Charity
This is why he writes about tongues and prophecy in the fourteenth chapter.
Already, back in chapter 12, he has identified both tongues and prophecy as coming from “the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will.” Here, however, he appears to exalt one of these above the other. But it is not that the gift of prophecy is exalted above that of tongues; it is that serving the needs of others is placed above serving one’s own needs. He is teaching them not to be selfish anymore, and simply using this example as yet another way to say it.
The beautiful chapter 13, about charity, comes between these chapters as part of the same long text extending back deeper into this letter. That beautiful chapter was a rebuke, meant not to inspire but to correct. It was written not to move with poetic sublimity, but to admonish with prophetic indignation. It was a fire lit to melt their frozen, unloving, selfish hearts. Those hearts had taken good and holy things, the very gifts of God, and used them for selfish ends.
These words were not addressed to holy men and women crowned with the virtues, but to carnal, selfish, partisan, squabbling babes. They teach what should have been clear and obvious, especially to those who come behind in no gift, those who are in everything enriched by the Lord, in all utterance, and in all knowledge.
The Corinthian problem was simple: They possessed all things richly, but had not charity. When I consider this, I must confess that Christ came to save Corinthians, of whom I am chief.
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“That Corinthian Problem” first appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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