Sunday, February 11, 2024

Thought Flow in 1 Corinthians 1-4

“There are some things in them that are hard to understand …”

Paul could be a difficult writer. Peter says as much, while affirming that the Holy Spirit carried along his fellow apostle throughout the authorial process.

It’s all too easy to point to examples in Paul’s epistles. The run-on sentences. The apparent digressions and rabbit trails. The practical instruction that turns out to be theology as well, and operates on two levels. It’s not exactly Christianity 101, but this is how God chose to reveal the mystery of Christ and the mystery of his church to the world. Who are we to say he should have done it differently?

The Importance of Thought Flow

Two Fridays ago in our weekly instalment of Too Hot to Handle, IC and I discussed the importance of following the thought flow of the writers of scripture. This week, I have been putting together some ideas for our Sunday Bible study on 1 Corinthians, and I figured I should practice what we have been preaching.

Unlike some of Paul’s shorter letters, 1 Corinthians takes in a number of diverse topics based at least in part on questions posed by the Christians in Corinth: marriage, engagement, whether to eat food offered to idols, spiritual gifts and giving. Other topics addressed appear to be in response to the needs Paul perceived in that local church: tolerance of sexual immorality, church discipline, idolatry, women’s headcoverings, church order, the supremacy of love, the resurrection and so on. Each of these discrete topics, naturally, has its own self-contained thought flow.

Trying to Connect the Dots

But before we come to the topical portion of 1 Corinthians, Paul opens with four chapters in which his thought flow is much more difficult to analyze. The main theme seems to be an appeal for unity of thought (“that you be united in the same mind and in the same judgment”). The surface problem is sectarianism (“I follow Paul” or “I follow Apollos”), an affliction that may be at its worst in our present era. What is denominationalism if not a modern manifestation of precisely the same divisive spirit that exalts one man over another?

Paul’s appeal for unity begins immediately after his introduction and expression of thanksgiving in 1:10-17. He picks up the theme again at the beginning of chapter 3, and concludes in 4:6. The fact that we can trace the theme of sectarianism through four chapters suggests Paul’s main point here is the need for likemindedness in this area of the Christian walk, and that is what makes the thought flow of the entire section so perplexing. Either the sections in between his appeals for unity are mere digressions — which, if we have read Paul much, we must admit is a real possibility — or else they form the substance of his argument for not rallying to the flags of particular personalities.

One must admit it is difficult — at least initially — to connect the dots between the evils of division around personalities and the series of apparently unrelated topics with which Paul punctuates his appeals for unity. These include: (1) the apparent folly of the cross, (2) the weakness and trembling in which Paul originally presented his gospel in Corinth, (3) the difference between the natural man and the spiritual man, (4) the process by which Christ’s church is built, and (5) the role of the apostle as servant and steward of the mysteries of God.

How exactly does all that hang together? Would we still have a coherent argument if we viewed the apparent digressions as parenthetical?

Sectarianism, and a Deeper Misunderstanding

In chapter 4, Paul reveals that using himself and Apollos as examples of prophets and teachers around which the Corinthians were congregating in a sectarian spirit was more illustrative of the general trend than strictly literal. (“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers”.) In fact, it may well be that few in Corinth would have boasted of being in the Pauline camp. We see hard evidence of this in a more extensive treatise on Paul’s apostleship in 2 Corinthians 10 through 13, thought by many to have been written as little as two years after his first letter, in which Paul refers repeatedly to “false apostles” and “super-apostles” who had made inroads in Corinth at the expense of Paul and the gospel he preached. These counterfeits sought to replace the him in the hearts of the Corinthians, preaching “another Jesus” and “a different gospel”. It is a dead certainty these men were already present in Corinth, establishing their little spiritual fiefdoms among the people of God even as the apostle wrote his first letter, but their poisonous qualities had yet to fully manifest themselves.

So then, sectarianism was a problem in Corinth and remains a problem today, but it’s only a symptom of a deeper problem. The real, underlying danger is the tendency among God’s people to evaluate men and their ministries by standards that are not the least bit godly — charisma, a powerful presence, eloquence and worldly wisdom — and to look up to these men in ways that are both profoundly unhealthy and quite unsustainable. When such a man is inevitably revealed as a corrupt phony and his ministry as a scam, immature saints stumble and sometimes abandon their profession of faith entirely. It’s bad when false teachers exploit the people of God, but the problem only arises because the sheep are conditioned to think wrongly about how the Lord Jesus is building his church and what he values in service. Powerful personalities and platform pyrotechnics are absolutely the least of it, and this is what, I think, Paul is at pains to show his readers.

The Spirit in Action

I believe what we have in the first four chapters of Corinthians is Paul’s appeal for united thinking about how God builds his church. How does he do it? Just the same way he proposes to reunite Israel under its Messiah in a future day: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.”

So what does that Spirit look like in action? Well, not a bit like the “super-apostles”. His strategy is all but inscrutable:

i. It Looks Like Foolishness (1:18-31)

“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing,” Paul begins. The man on that cross begins his human life in a manger, grows to manhood in the least prestigious part of Israel, wanders the country rejected and hated by the Powers That Be with nowhere to lay his head, and dies in ignominy. The message presents itself unadorned with flowery speeches, pyrotechnics or sophistry. It offers itself not to the elite, sophisticated or powerful, but to the weak, despised and ignoble.

Who would choose to make a career out of teaching that? The only way to introduce power, prestige or financial success into such a calling would be to change the message. An honest presentation of this gospel will not appeal to the cream of society.

ii. It Looks Like Weakness (2:1-5)

When the Holy Spirit is at work, don’t expect to find him in a stadium with a microphone, a slick suit and blow-dried hair. Paul didn’t come to Corinth, he writes, with lofty speech or wisdom. He came in weakness and trembling. When Christianity’s big spokesman came to Corinth for the first time, he came alone, worked as a tentmaker and shared his message once a week in the synagogues, where it was most likely to be vigorously opposed. He was hopelessly outnumbered, baptized few, showed no overwhelming personal presence, and left town after being hauled before a local tribunal by his fellow Jews. But for a year and six months, many “believed and were baptized”, despite a presentation that had little in common with men’s expectations. God was working near-invisibly for his own glory.

iii. It Looks Like a Secret (2:6-15)

Paul writes that the wisdom of God is “hidden and secret”. The natural person does not accept it. He cannot understand it because it is spiritually discerned. It belongs to the “little flock” who have passed through the “narrow gate”, not to the “rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away”. No wonder the false teachers have to make up their own gospel and their own Christ; they can’t understand the one that Paul presented. He was too mysterious.

iv. It Looks Like a Team Effort (3:1-18)

“He who plants and he who waters are one,” writes Paul. There are no superstars on this team; just a bunch of role-players getting the job done together. “I laid a foundation,” he says, “and someone else is building upon it.” This is how it should be, and if they were building rightly, 1 Corinthians would be a much shorter letter. When the Spirit is working, he uses all kinds of people according to their gifting. No one ought to be perceived as more important or prominent than anyone else. Paul relentlessly downplays his own contribution and magnifies that of others.

Servants and Stewards

Chapter 4 completes his argument with the revelation that a true shepherd of God’s flock is not a super-apostle; he is a servant and steward. Paul reminds them that he too will be judged by God just as they will. Then he goes on to tell them what to expect from real leaders: they will be weak, thirsty, poorly dressed, homeless, hard working, persecuted, reviled and slandered. This is the life of an apostle; not glory and acclaim, but following the path of the Lord Jesus. This is how you know the Spirit of God is at work, and this is why putting preachers on pedestals is such a bad idea. Division is bad enough in itself, but division that results from a complete failure to understand how Christ is building his church and what he values about it is arguably worse.

That’s what was at stake in Corinth, and that’s why Paul spends four chapters on it.

What do you think? Am I forcing a structure on the passage that isn’t there? Is Paul simply going down rabbit holes one after another, then popping back up to remind the Corinthians to be united and don’t play Follow-the-Leader?

Or maybe — just maybe — is there more going on here?

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