In Paul's first letter to the Christians at Corinth we find him responding to quarrels within the church. There are apparently factions favoring Cephas (Peter) and Apollos as well as Paul. "Surely Christ has not been divided!" Paul asserts. "Jews demand signs, Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ nailed to the cross; and though this is an offense to Jews and folly to Gentiles, yet to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, he is the power of God and the wisdom of God." In speaking of "Jews" and "Greeks" we need to remember that Paul is referring to Jewish and Gentile Christians within the church. Paul counsels the Corinthians, "By God's act you are in Christ Jesus; God has made him our wisdom, and in him we have our righteousness, our holiness, our liberation." To his credit, Paul does not boast of his wisdom, or his righteousness, or his holiness, or his liberation, but only of the Lord. Paul claims not to know "anything but Jesus Christ — Christ nailed to the cross."
Paul refers to the secret purpose of God, which is revealed in scripture. He quotes a passage from the prophet Isaiah, and then argues that these same insights have been "revealed to us through the Spirit." Only "the Spirit of God knows what God is," and "this Spirit from God" has been given to those who are faithful. Paul speaks of the "gifts of God" that are known by "a spiritual person" who has "the mind of Christ." But he is wary of these spiritual gifts. With sarcasm he says to those opposing his teachings in Corinth, "How I wish you had indeed come into your kingdom; then you might share it with us!" Apparently, some of the Corinthians were claiming their spiritual gifts as a sign that the kingdom of God had already come.
Paul suggests that by knowing the mind of Christ those with faith know the mind of God. He refers to Isaiah 40:13 to support his argument, but he does not quote the verse accurately. Paul writes that scripture asks, "Who can know the mind of the Lord or be his counselor?” (In our English Bibles the Hebrew text using LORD is usually translated as Lord.) Yet, In English Bibles Isaiah 40:13 reads: "Who has directed the spirit of the LORD? What counselor stood at his side to instruct him?" In Isaiah (LORD) "Lord" clearly refers to God, and not to a king or other human “ ord." The passage has to do with the power of God surpassing all human knowledge. Paul ignores this distinction between the LORD God and the Lord Jesus Christ. For him, the mind of Christ is the mind of God.
Paul contrasts his own persecution with the fine life the Christians are leading in Corinth and warns them that they are wandering away from the gospel. He counsels them to follow his example and says he is sending Timothy, "a trustworthy Christian," to help them deal with false teachers and "certain persons who are filled with self-importance."
Paul also expresses concern about sexual immorality in the church at Corinth. He explains to the Corinthians that their bodies are "the temple of the indwelling Holy Spirit," which is "God's gift" to them. They are free in Christ from the requirements of the Jewish law, but they are not free to engage in immoral acts. "Make no mistake," he warns them. "No fornicator or idolater, no adulterer or sexual pervert, no thief, extortioner, drunkard, slanderer, or swindler will possess the kingdom of God." We may think it should have been unnecessary to spell this out, but perhaps in the church at Corinth such clarification was needed! Paul also chastises the Corinthians for going to the pagan courts to settle their differences with one another. He charges them to: "Root out the wrongdoer from your community."
To clarify further the responsibilities of the Corinthians, Paul responds to their questions about sex, marriage and divorce. Paul says it is good to abstain from sex and marriage (his own choice), and he suggests those who are unmarried should stay that way unless they are filled with desire. Anyone who is married, however, should recognize and respond to the rightful claims of his or her spouse for sex and respect. Moreover, those who are married should not divorce, unless one of them is not a Christian and demands it. But if a woman's husband dies, she is free to remarry someone else within the Christian community. Paul believes, however, she would be better off as an unmarried widow, because "the time we live in will not last long" and each person should seek to be "free from distraction" in their "devotion to the Lord."
Paul believes that the coming judgment is very near — if not within his own lifetime, then certainly within the lifetime of some of the members of the church at Corinth. In the gospel of Mark (13:30) and in the gospel of Matthew (24:34) Jesus also proclaims that the end will come within the lifetime of some of those who are listening to him. Anyone who claims that the New Testament is the literal or infallible word of God must disregard the fact that these predictions did not come true. Yet, the meaning of these statements is clear. At least some of those who wrote the New Testament thought the end was near. Paul affirmed this belief, and two of the gospel writers put the same teaching onto the lips of Jesus.
Paul accepts the argument of Gentile Christians that eating meat consecrated to a pagan idol is not wrong, if one does not believe in the idol. He urges, however, that those with this understanding guard against undermining the faith of others who are less discerning. If persons with greater insight sin against the weak among them, Paul says, they "sin against Christ." He reminds them that their ancestors in the faith, who were called by God, by passing through the Red Sea "received baptism into the fellowship of Moses." Yet, they put the Lord (LORD God) to the test, and "most of them were not accepted by God, for the wilderness was strewn with their corpses." Paul sees these events in the past "as a warning for us, upon whom the end of the ages has come." Therefore, he counsels the Corinthians: "You may eat or drink, or do anything else, provided it is all done to the glory of God; give no offence to Jews, or Greeks, or to the church of God."
Paul also advises the Christians at Corinth about worship. He goes on at some length about women keeping their heads covered, which suggests that women in the church were being allowed to worship without covering their heads. Surely all this talk about the length of the hair and whether or not the head should be covered in worship is not "the word of God" but merely an argument among first century Christians about what is socially acceptable behavior in public.
In addition, Paul is concerned because the Lord's Supper is becoming a time of division between the wealthy and less affluent members of the church and even an occasion for heavy drinking. To try to correct this bad behavior, Paul says he has handed on to them the tradition concerning the Lord's Supper that came to him "from the Lord himself."
"That on the night of his arrest the Lord Jesus took bread, and after giving thanks to God, broke it and said: 'This is my body, which is for you; do this in memory of me.' In the same way, he took the cup after supper, and said: 'This cup is the new covenant sealed by my blood. Whenever you drink it, do this in memory of me.' For every time you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord, until he comes." (1 Cor. 11:23-26)
The gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke each record a similar account. If these gospels had been circulating during the time of Paul, it seems he would have referred to one or more of them. Instead, Paul claims this tradition came directly to him from the Lord. Perhaps he means that the authority for the Lord's Supper was confirmed by his personal experience of the risen Christ. In any event the authors of the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke came to know of this tradition and included it in their gospel accounts — either because it is recorded in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth, or because they and Paul had access to a common source concerning this tradition.
Paul criticizes the Corinthians for turning the Lord's Supper into a feast in which those who arrive first get to eat and drink more than those who come later. It also appears that the Corinthian Christians are separating into Jewish and Gentile groups in order to eat different foods, perhaps because the Corinthian Christians are divided by the teachings of Peter (Cephas) and Apollos. Presumably Peter has instructed followers of Jesus to keep the Jewish dietary laws, whereas Apollos has taught freedom in Christ from these laws. Thus, a meal that represents the unity of the church has become a time of sectarian division. Paul harshly judges the Corinthian Christians for "offending against the body and blood of the Lord."
Similarly, there are problems with the way the Christians at Corinth are expressing manifestations of the Spirit. Paul acknowledges that there are various gifts of the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 12:8-10 he lists them, beginning with "wise speech" and ending with "the ability to interpret" tongues. Then he uses the metaphor of a body to argue that all these gifts are valid in so far as they contribute to the life of the community. In 1 Corinthians 12:28 he gives a reordered list of the gifts of the Spirit: "Within our community God has appointed in the first place apostles, in the second place prophets, thirdly teachers; then miracle-workers, then those who have gifts of healing, or ability to help others or power to guide them, or the gifts of tongues of various kinds." This second list clarifies that apostles, prophets, and teachers possess the most important gifts of the Spirit, and identifies speaking in tongues as the least important gift.
Clearly, speaking in tongues was not Paul's favorite gift of the Spirit, and those who had the gift of tongues were not necessarily in agreement with Paul about how the church should be ordered as the body of Christ. The church begins in Jerusalem, we are told in the Acts of the Apostles, with a miraculous experience of speaking in tongues. It is the church in Jerusalem that received this great gift of the Spirit, and surely the missionaries sent out by the Jerusalem church would be quick to use this astonishing gift to demonstrate their authority. Paul did not participate in this experience of the founding of the church, although he also claims to speak in tongues. Understandably, he wants to give less emphasis to such manifestations of the Spirit in order to strengthen the authority of the local church leaders to whom Paul has imparted the spiritual gifts of teaching and preaching — which he claims are of greatest importance.
Therefore, Paul urges the Corinthians to make love their goal, to be eager for the gifts of the Spirit, but to favor prophecy over speaking in tongues because "it is prophecy that builds up a Christian community." Those who speak in tongues should pray for the ability to interpret their speech, so that their gift might be used for the benefit of others. Women, however, are not to speak during meetings of the congregation. Because he feels he has to mention this, most likely women were speaking up in the meetings. They may even have been disagreeing with Paul's teachings and challenging his authority!
Finally, Paul reminds the Corinthians that the gospel proclaims the resurrection of Christ from the dead. He chastises members of the church in Corinth who say there is no resurrection of the dead. "For if the dead are not raised, it follows that Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, your faith has nothing to it and you are still in your old state of sin."
Paul asserts that Christ was "raised to life" as "the first fruits of the harvest of the dead." When Christ comes again, "those who belong to Christ" will also be "brought to life." No one will have his or her "perishable" or physical body restored, as such, but each will be raised as an "imperishable" or "spiritual" body. This is the good news that Paul proclaims: "we shall not all die, but we shall all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet-call. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will rise imperishable, and we shall be changed."
Paul concludes this letter with personal comments about his travels and the activities of other members of his mission. He passes on greetings from churches in Asia, which are located in what today is Turkey, and mentions Prisca and Aquila and the church that meets in their house. We also find references to Prisca and Aquila in Paul's letters to the Romans and in his second letter to Timothy. We see, therefore, that the churches being founded by Paul are based in houses and led by women as well as men. We also see that Paul can only suggest to some of his friends what they should do. Paul says he strongly urged Apollos to go to Corinth, but Apollos "was quite determined not to go at present." It seems that the associates of Paul are independent thinkers, who do not simply defer to Paul's authority.
The many differences among his followers and their delight in their own freedom "in Christ" may have led Paul to write the famous chapter 13 of his first letter to the Christians at Corinth. In this letter Paul extols the virtues of love. He acknowledges that all knowledge (presumably even his own) is partial, except for God's knowledge of us. Thus, we should not rely on our understanding but should put our trust in faith, hope and love, as these gifts of the Spirit, especially love, last forever.
This letter makes clear that there are many issues within the life of the church at Corinth causing division. The four gospels written after Paul's death support his counsel to the Corinthians. It is impossible to know whether or not the gospel writers had copies of Paul's letter to the Corinthians before them, as they wrote their narrative accounts. In order to confront similar problems, however, they wrote narratives that in many ways endorse Paul's teachings.
In the New Testament gospel Jesus directs his ministry resolutely toward the cross, knowing it is God's will. He eats with sinners, calls men away from their wives and families to be his disciples, does not marry, counsels against divorce, recognizes the faith of Gentiles who do not keep the Jewish law, brings women into his community and speaks and eats with them, but apparently sends out only men to minister in his name. In the gospel of Luke and in the Acts of the Apostles, the gift of tongues marks the beginning of the Christian community in Jerusalem, but it is Peter's teaching and then Paul's preaching that are acknowledged in Acts to have built up the life of the church.