Mark D. Roberts

Mark D. Roberts

Corinthian Individualism and Paul’s Response

Part 3 of series: The Church as the Body of Christ
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So far in this series on the church as the body of Christ, I’ve examined the behavior of the very first Christians in Acts 2. As soon as they put their faith in Christ as the Messiah and Savior, they gathered with others who shared their faith. The Christian life was, for the first believers, something to be experienced in community.
Americans, on the contrary, often visualize and experience the Christian life as a private, individual matter. We are free to get together with other believers if we wish, but this should never be required of Christians. Not surprisingly, we’re very good at projecting our American individualism into our understanding and practice of following Jesus.
Yet we Americans are not the first Christians to try to blend Christianity with cultural individualism. In fact, we are very much like some other Christians we read about in the New Testament: the Corinthians.
The apostle Paul planted a church in Corinth, a major city in southern Greece. After spending a year and a half in this location, his travels took him elsewhere. But Paul continued to receive reports about his Corinthian church, reports that distressed him greatly. Those new Christians were doing what comes naturally, adapting their Christian life to the values of their own culture. In the process they were losing touch with the intimate fellowship that ought to characterize Christian living.
Because Paul could not travel to Corinth right away to set things aright, he wrote a letter we know as 1 Corinthians. His introduction highlights themes to be developed throughout the letter, especially the importance of fellowship: “We are writing to the church of God in Corinth, you who have been called by God to be his own holy people” (1 Cor 1:2). Paul describes this calling in another way a few verses later: “God is faithful, through whom you were called into the intimate fellowship [koinonia] of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9, my translation).
This fellowship, both with Christ and with his people, was threatened by the individualistic attitudes of the Corinthians. “As long as I get my religious jolt every now and then, that’s all that really matters,” they were saying. One man believed his Christian freedom gave him the right to live in a sexual relationship with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1), no matter what the social consequences. Others sought to enhance or defend their honor by suing their fellow Christians in secular court, bringing shame to the church (1 Cor 6:1-8). (Sound familiar???) Others thought it was just fine for them to eat meat served in pagan temples, even if their behavior was hurting other church members (1 Cor 8). When the church gathered for a common meal, during which they would celebrate the Lord’s Supper, wealthier church members ate elaborate meals while poorer members went hungry (1 Cor 11:17-34). Some of the Corinthians took pride in their spiritual prowess, their supposed mystical experiences, putting down others who were lacking such spiritual demonstrations (1 Cor 12-14). All in all, the Corinthian Christians exemplified the kind of “me first” Christianity that runs rampant in America today.
Before we condemn the Corinthians for their self-centeredness, however, we should remember two things. First, they were simply buying into the individualism and pride of their own culture. Corinth was unique among Roman cities for the opportunities it afforded to individuals for economic, and therefore social, advancement. Whereas in most of the Roman Empire, where one’s socio-economic position at death was predetermined by one’s birth, in Corinth a person could get ahead with plenty of business acumen and public boasting. Even as we tend to shape our Christianity according to the mold of our culture, so did the Corinthian believers. The Christian life was another context for individual freedom and popular success.
This observation points to the second factor we should remember before blaming the Corinthians. We Americans are in so many ways just like them! Not only do we let our culture warp our Christianity, but also we tend to echo the “It’s all fine as long as I get mine” individualism of Roman Corinth. The man who communes with God so well on the golf course doesn’t even think that his absence from church has a negative effect on others. And, frankly, he really doesn’t care as long as he is tight with God. The same is true with the woman who listens to praise music on her iPod and podcasts sermons from her favorite preachers, but never bothers to go to church in person. The New York Times story hits the nail on the head: “Missed Church? Download It to Your IPod,” except that it’s becoming increasingly common for Christians to choose downloading over church. (Photo: Check out this promotional campaign by a church in New Zealand.)
Certainly not everyone in the Corinthian church demonstrated the self-centeredness we have been noticing. Some were hurt by the behavior of their spiritual brothers and sisters. Some even considered themselves unimportant to the church, since they could claim no spiritual distinction. Whereas some bragged about how much they did for the community, others accepted their own worthlessness.
None of this was acceptable to Paul. So he had to come up with a way of helping the Corinthian Christians understand what the Christian life was really all about, and how much it was a matter of sharing life together. In order to illustrate this perspective, Paul described the church as the body of Christ. I’ll get into this in more detail next time.

  • SEP

    What a perfect topic for you to have taken up after the denominational mess. I have a number of friends who have forgotten the value of koininia and think a sermon on their ipods is sufficient to maintain a close relationship with Jesus. Though my PC(USA) church is about to leave the denomination, I am attending a membership class this Saturday with the intention of joining because I value this body of believers and being connected and accountable to them. Thanks for reminding me why the connection is so important.

  • Mariam

    I have reflected lately how little 1 Cor 8 is part of our life in the PC(USA). It was, I believe, at one time the rationale for not serving wine in church, even at Communion, to avoid causing an alcoholic “to stumble.” Isn’t the persistent pushing of the Gay Agenda throughout worship, church ministries, and assemblies not only wrong, but at the very least, offensive to many believers? Apparently liberals think that conservatives are “weak” in their faith with their prescriptive reading of the Scriptures about sexuality, but shouldn’t they respect the consciences of their fellow Christians enough not to be “in your face” about their advocacy? Do they consider it, for example, a potential “stumbling block” to other believers when church members are encouraged to participate in gay “pride” parades (the problem here is actually more with “pride” than “gay”)? Do these verses ever enter into the discussions of the gay advocacy groups? Or is everything about being a “civil rights” movement rather than part of a larger fellowship? I think I have answered my own question.

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    I’m not sure I can respond without sounding like I’m “on the side” of those who you argue against, which isn’t really the case. But there’s something about the way in which you argue that troubles me.
    I could make a case for Jesus’ strong response to the money changes and those selling doves at the temple (Matthew 21: 12-13), and say that he was being offensive to those Jewish believers whose faith was “weak.” Obviously, few would argue that Jesus shouldn’t have responded so strongly against something that was clearly against God’s will, but I could make that case nonetheless. Indeed, many who have argued the strongest against homosexual ordination have done so on the grounds of it being “clearly against God’s will.”
    Those who argue FOR homosexual ordination tend to do on similar grounds, however. They believe that the Bible doesn’t mean quite what those of us against ordination think it does when it comes to sexual ethics (NOTE: I want to be clear here. I do not accuse them of throwing out the Bible, or verses they disagree with. It’s a difference–a fundamental difference–in interpretation. But not a rejection of Scripture itself). But they DO see the Bible’s strong message of God’s position siding with those who have been oppressed, and believe that they have much to argue against those who (in their eyes) have been committing this oppression.
    This may not characterize ALL so-called “liberals,” but I think it probably does characterize a good many of them.
    There are some serious differences of interpretation here. Serious enough that I’m not sure the denomination can (or perhaps even should) survive them without division. But let’s not be so quick to accuse those we disagree with of things that they may not actually be guilty of.

  • Gene

    Mariam, I agree 100% with your comments and with the questions you are asking. And I hope other Christians will respect your observations and your right to freely state them without apology.

  • Mariam

    Okay, but I think it is helpful to remember that Jesus is God and we are not. (There are downsides to the WWJD movement!). That’s why Paul was talking to “us” at Corinth.

  • Mark Baker-Wright

    No disagreement there (that Jesus is God and we’re not), but I don’t see that this would detract from my desire to treat opponents fairly.

  • Lydia

    In your desire to treat opponents fairly, perhaps you think Paul should have organized an Adulters’ Pride Parade for the man who was sleeping with his stepmother.

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