The first epistle to the Corinthians
1 Corinthians follows the typical epistolary structure. The first chapter contains sender, recipient, greeting, and encouragement. In the last chapter, Paul discusses his future plans to visit, gives personal greetings, and writes a benediction in his own handwriting (like a signature).
In the main part of the epistle, Paul addresses various reports he has heard about the church in Corinth, and answers questions the church had apparently asked him. There are quite a number of issues, and the apostle has to be firm with some of the members of the church. This epistle gives us an impression of the difficulties of implementing a Christian worldview and lifestyle in a pagan, Hellenistic environment.
The first issue Paul mentions is the divisiveness in the church. “Each one of you says: ‘I follow Paul’, ‘I follow Apollos’, ‘I follow Cephas’, or ‘I follow Christ’.” (1:10-12) Paul does not want cliques and fan clubs, but a single church following Jesus Christ, and respecting the apostles of Christ.
Apparently, Paul was not a great speaker (in the eyes of the sophisticated Corinthians). But his strength lay not in rhetoric but in Holy-Spirit power. Paul is happy to be a “fool” in the eyes of Hellenists: “the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of people”.
At the heart of several problems in Corinth lies an attitude of antinomianism (“against the law”). Some of the Christians had the motto: “Everything is permissible.” (1 Cor 6:12; 10:23) They were promiscuous, involved in prostitution (1 Cor 6) and incest (1 Cor 5), and believed that Christians were free to do so. They joined pagan worship rituals and looked down on Christians who abstained from food offered to idols.
One of their arguments was that the human body was unimportant; it is the soul that matters. Paul opposes this. He points out that God will resurrect the body also. Moreover, we have our bodies now to serve and honor God; our bodies are “temples”. Becoming “one flesh” with a prostitute certainly does not qualify.
Another argument was that idols are non-existing deities. Paul agrees, but adds that God’s jealousy is real. He does not want other things (even non-existing things) to receive his worship. Finally, Paul points out that Christians must reckon with the consciences of others.
Sexuality and marriage
Other Corinthians believed that marriage and sexuality were inferior, and that Christians should do without (celibacy). “It is good for a man not to be involved with a woman.” (7:1) Paul disagrees: a married woman should not deny her spouse her body, even if he is an unbeliever. There is no need for Christians to divorce their unbelieving spouse.
Paul recommends that people remain “in the state in which they were called”: married, single, master, slave, etc. His argument is that all these social structures will not last (7:29). The new, eternal life Christians have transcends the categories of this world.
The Christians were accustomed to having fellowship meals (also called agape, “love (meal)”). During these meals they celebrated the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper, breaking bread and drinking wine. They celebrated their oneness in Jesus Christ and used the meal to feed the poor among them.
In Corinth, much was wrong at the fellowship meals. The congregation was split into cliques, likely based on social status. There was no true care or sharing. The rich engaged in excessive eating and drinking.
Paul responds firmly that this behavior invites God’s curse and judgments. (He even points at sickness and death in the church.) Christians must be careful when celebrating the Eucharist: “examine yourself”. If you partake of the meal, you must recognize that you are part of the “body of Christ.”
The charismata or “spiritual gifts” were unusual abilities such as prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues. (“Tongues”, or glossolalia, was likely the ability to speak the gospel in a different human language.) The Corinthians were very focused on these gifts and competed for the most exotic ones. This led to disorderly and self-centered worship.
Paul rebukes this in 1 Cor 12-14. He tells them that Christian love (agape) is more important, more desirable, than any of the charismata. The goal should be to help and edify one another. Charismata that help you but not others should be kept private. Paul also mentions that speaking in tongues is a sign for unbelievers; in the church he wants to see meaningful prophecy, and in good order.
In later Christianity the question arose whether these charismata lasted beyond the apostolic age. Many traditional Protestants are cessationists, believing that the miraculous signs are no longer common (see 1 Cor 13:8). Pentecostals (“charismatics”) are continuationists, believing that the charismata continue today. Some Pentecostals make speaking in tongues, healing, etc. central elements of their worship services.