You can read earlier posts in this series by clicking on the links below:
When discussing Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, we must recognize that Paul did not merely write to address one single issue, but several. Corinth had asked several very valid questions of Paul. There were also some concerns about which Paul wanted them to know there was no question, because the answer was so clear. There were also reports that were brought to Paul about matters on which the Corinthian church was settled, but they had settled on the wrong side. In the following article, we will address several of these concerns, because many of them are still concerns for us today. Given the theme of our series, we will primarily be dealing with those concerns that touch the issue of public theology and, sadly, we will not have time to address all of the issues as thoroughly as we might desire.
To the Saints
First, let us recognize the endearment that Paul assigns to this church. He calls them saints: “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling,” (1Cor. 1:2a; NASB). Yes, this church had some major failings. However, he recognizes that they are beloved of God and, even as an apostle, he does not have the right to rail against Christ’s bride. He will go on to rebuke her, but he desires that she see that his rebukes come from a heart of love, not self-righteousness.
Furthermore, he does not write to Corinthian unbelievers out of a desire to offer a defense of the faith and attempt to validate those unbelievers’ objections to the Corinthian church’s errors. When Paul sees that the actions of the church are enabling the world in their blasphemy of God, he addresses the church. Never does he side with the world in condemning the bride of Christ.
Before addressing the Corinthians’ error of being “puffed up” in knowledge, notice his prayer on their behalf:
“I thank my God always concerning you for the grace of God which was given to yu by Christ Jesus, that you were enriched in everything by Him in all utterance and all knowledge,” (vv. 4-5; NKJV).
Paul does not desire that the Christians in Corinth be ignorant of the truths of the faith. Rather, he thanks God regularly for the fact that they have been enriched in their knowledge of Him. Oftentimes, Christians will read 1 Corinthians, and they think there is something virtuous about remaining blissfully ignorant about the truths of God.
What these Christians do not realize is that it is the not the acquiring of knowledge Paul argues is improper for Christians. The error is found in the fact that the Corinthians were misapplying their knowledge. They were acquiring knowledge for the sake of winning arguments, or perhaps for the sake of looking good in front of their friends (1Cor. 8:1), but they were not acquiring it for the sake of growing in their worship of God.
As we acquire greater and greater amounts of knowledge, we should do so for the sake of growing closer to the God of all truth. We will address the Christian’s relationship to knowledge in more detail when we get to our study of the book of Colossians, but Christians should want to grow in knowledge. The more we know about our faith, the more we know about the God we claim to love. The more we know about our faith, the more we know about the neighbors we claim to love.
Love and Marriage
In fact, love is perhaps the defining issue in the first six chapters of book of 1 Corinthians. Paul spends an entire chapter focused on the superiority of love over any other gift we receive from God (chapter 13). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the Corinthians’ selfish motives for acquiring knowledge and presuming themselves to be worldly wise (chapters 1-2). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the factionalism that was prevalent in the church at Corinth (3-4). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the license the Corinthian church gave to unrepentant so-called brothers in their midst (5). Paul contrasts true, godly love with the practice of taking fellow church members into secular law court (6).
For our discussion of public theology, it is important at this juncture to stop here and take note of two things. First, Paul tells us not to judge outsiders. In this context, he does not mean that we do not hold political leaders—especially political leaders claiming to be Christian—to a high standard. What he means is, in regard to church life, we are not to allow open, unrepentant sinners to go around claiming to be so-called brothers (1Cor. 5:9-13). Thus, when a man claims to be a Presbyterian and brags about sleeping with married women, or a woman claims to be a Methodist and openly supports women’s supposed right to murder their children, church leaders have no right to publicly affirm their Christian profession. In doing so, these church leaders make themselves accomplices in the sins of these candidates and the resulting blasphemy of an ever watching world.
Second, it is important for the church to police itself in matters of sin and offense. We do not take our in-house disputes before unbelieving magistrates. If a matter occurs in the local church, the local church is to handle it locally. If the local church, for whatever reason, is unable to judge the matter properly, that is why we have associations. Under special circumstances, a local church may call upon local church elders within its association to serve as officiators over local church tribunals. In these instances, though, Baptist polity requires that we recognize that these associating elders are serving as consultants to the church, not as an authority over the church.
In chapter seven, Paul addresses questions raised in the church of Corinth in regard to married people, single people, widows, and widowers. The gist of this chapter, as it relates to our study, is that Christian singles ought to marry other Christian singles, married people—saved or not—ought to remain married except in the case of abandonment, if you are single and able to remain single without burning (there is an interesting debate on this word, but we will not cover that here), stay single and devote your time to God in ways that married people are not able and, if a married person’s spouse dies, he / she is free to remarry. Seeing as marriage is a picture of Christ and the church to a lost and dying world, it truly is deserving of a full chapter. One of the most important things to which Christians must commit in order to properly engage the culture for Christ is a biblical affirmation and a biblical practice of marriage.
In chapters 8-10, Paul uses their question about meat sacrificed to idols to address a whole host of issues regarding Christian liberty. When discussing Christian liberty, the same questions always seem to arise: “What can we do?” “What can’t we do?” “Where are the boundaries?” Paul answers some similar questions in chapters 8-10: “Can we eat meat sacrificed to idols if we don’t recognize those idols as real?” “Can we eat it in a pagan temple?” “Can church leaders marry?” “Should church leaders be make their living from the church?” Paul affirms that Christians are free in all of these, except assembling with pagans to partake of their idolatrous meals. He says Christians are free, but that our freedom comes with the responsibility to love our weaker brothers.
Now, we must note here that Paul does not mean that we ought to refrain from the practice of our liberty in Christ so as not to offend mature brothers. There are seminary professors, pastors, and even seminary presidents who will tell us that we ought not to enjoy our liberty in Christ so that we might appease their ill-informed consciences. These men are supposed to be church leaders, and yet they would have us treat them like weaker brothers so that they might control our actions. Brothers, if the Lord has freed your conscience in a matter, walk in that freedom. Only, do not use your liberty in such a way as to offend or entice new converts to disobey their consciences.
In chapter 10, Paul warns against using our liberty for the sake of license and indulgence rather than a means to glorify God, and he uses Israel as an example. Christians do have liberty but, if we abuse that liberty, we can shipwreck our faith. Israel had liberty to eat, drink, and play. They had plenty of reason to do so, having been freed from their bondage in Egypt. However, they sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play without any thought to the glory of the God who had just delivered them out of Egypt. Their liberty had become license and, before long, they found themselves worshipping at the feet of a golden calf. Christians must likewise be careful in the use of our liberty, lest we run the same course as the generation that died in the desert.