1 Corinthians, Chapter-by-Chapter

I wrote another post applying 1 Corinthians to the divisions and differences among Christian groups. I recognize my thesis could be a little controversial, so I wanted to show my work with this survey of the letter to show Paul’s thought on these issues.

The letter is to a church divided, so it’s interesting the Paul begins by grounding them in what unifies them. They are sanctified, exist “in Christ”, are called to be saints, and call on the name of Christ as Lord. (1:1-9). But he pretty quickly gets into the divisions themselves (1:10-17).

He’ll eventually tell us what this gospel is, but first he teaches us how to think about it. Repeatedly, Paul hits hard one main idea: you can’t think about the gospel or Christianity in the same way that you think about other sets of ideas or beliefs. When you do that, Christianity is just going to look like foolishness (1:18-2:16).

But still, Paul never challenges the divisions themselves. He does not seem to think that differing views on even important issues is a challenge to Christianity or “the gospel”, which he puts in a different category than other parts of life and faith. (Ch. 3).

The problem is not what these Christians are believing, but how they are believing it and how that gets translated in their actions and worship.

Throughout the book, he talks about various issues and tells this community that different people can think different things, and it’s fine, as long as they follow the apostle’s example and live out of humility and an ethos of spiritual abundance rather scarcity (Ch. 4).

Of course, it’s not a total free-for-all, and some things are clearly sin and wrong. There is a difference between the freedom of Christian conscience and reflectively following base human appetites, whether that’s sex (Ch. 5), money (6:1-11), or power (6.12-20).

But after the boundaries, he spends the the rest of the letter hitting different issues where people disagree and, once more, he doesn’t pick a side! He says that different Christians can act differently according to their consciences and there’s no issue, as long as you do it in love and in light of the gospel.

He’ll say it’s fine if you get married–or not (Ch. 7). If you feel weird eating food that was previously used in idol worship, that’s fine, don’t eat it; but if you feel comfortable, go ahead and do it (Ch. 8).

There is an interlude where Paul talks about how he embodies this ethos (Ch. 9). There are many things that are within Paul’s “rights” to do–it wouldn’t be a sin for him to do it or not. But still he chooses things that may go against his preferences because of his commitment to the gospel.

He emphasizes that this freedom of conscience is not the same as just going along with your whims and personal tastes (Ch. 10). That’s what Israel did and it led them astray. Instead, Paul tells us to keep focused on God’s glory above all. You may have to deny yourself to follow your conscience and the gospel.

Paul then returns to freedom and limits, but applies it to the worship service (Ch. 11). There is some complicated stuff on gender in the church which I can’t get into now, but the whole chapter is less about limiting people’s options, and more about stressing that freedom and worship must be done with the right foundations: God’s lordship over all and God’s gift of the Eucharist.

I know Chapter 11 on its own seems limiting, but flipping to Chapter 12 shows Paul’s real angle. Chapter 11 is about the starting place and goal of worship, and Chapter 12 is about the freedom and diversity that can be healthily enjoyed and exercised after those other priorities are right.

Paul talks about the multitude of different gifts and wirings within the faith, and concludes with the famous body parts analogy for the church, and how each part is substantively different, though an essential part of the whole.

I think this goes not only for gifts and roles in the church, but back to those factions mentioned earlier in the book (and, by extension, different Christian traditions and denominations). Each of those separate parts of the church are a different part of the body of Christ–and that’s all fine and well!

But what marks the relationship between those different parts of the Church? Love (Ch. 13)! That keeps “difference” from turning into “division”. Which also gets reflected in the worship service (Ch. 14). Sometimes, love during worship will look like saying and doing less than you would otherwise want or be allowed to do.

Then we get to Chapter 15. Paul first reminds us we never graduate from the gospel. This is the core and center of Christianity and nothing is as powerful or essential as this. This gospel is what brings us to Jesus, keeps us with Jesus, and is what continues to bring us salvation.

The rest of the chapter is the most profound celebration of the Resurrection in the Bible. Paul stresses its importance, to the point that if it didn’t happen, we should just leave religious belief altogether because there is nothing left for us.

It really is a stunning chapter that everything else has been building to. He ends it by saying that the Resurrection does not only unite us in the midst of difference, but that it gives us the energy to hold the difficult tension that comes from maintaining such difference rather than just splitting up or rejecting other members of the body.

And then Chapter 16 is the usual Pauline letter conclusion with some church business, greetings, and instructions.

See other Marginalia here. Read more about the series here.


One thought on “1 Corinthians, Chapter-by-Chapter

  1. Pingback: Christianities: A Roadblock to Faith? | the long way home

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