The Corinthians sure get lots of screen time in the Bible, but just who were they? And why does Paul spend so much time writing letters to their little neck of the woods?
Ancient Corinth was a lovely little town, which was located in the southern part of Greece on the Isthmus of Corinth. The city was surrounded by water and was snuggled up about halfway between Athens and Sparta. As you might have figured from all the pen-palling, it was one of the happening places to be in the first century.
See, Corinth was pretty cosmopolitan at the time (for a place that didn't have flushing toilets, that is):
So Paul hits Corinth and establishes a church pretty quickly. It was really the perfect place to evangelize. Because people were always coming and going, Paul didn't stick out as an outsider. He could set up shop in town, earn some money, and spend all his free moments trying to convert the townspeople to Christianity. The fact that Corinthians either traveled or came into contact with travelers on a regular basis meant the good news of Jesus could spread far and wide (source). Easy peesy, right?
Not quite. The Corinthians struggled with a lot of issues in their church.
The Corinthians get a bad wrap for being a bunch of ancient sinners and sex freaks. Paul frequently takes them to task for their immoral ways and for condoning sin in their midst. The word "Corinthian" would even come to mean, "given to licentious and profligate luxury" because of them. Yowza. "It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife" (1 Corinthians 5:1). A guy is living with his stepmom and no one is freaking out. Ah!
What terrible, awful, no good Christians! Poor Paul has his hands full with these guys! Or does he…?
The Corinthians get a bad wrap because of the things Paul writes to them about, but that doesn't mean they were any worse than any other group of people in history.
Don't forget, these are the same folks who write to Paul to say, "It is well for a man not to touch a woman" (1 Corinthians 7:1), so they can't be that wild and crazy, right? It's clear they're not totally a lost cause because Paul repeatedly praises his little troop, brags about them, and generally just talks up all their good qualities throughout the ancient world: "I often boast about you; I have great pride in you; I am filled with consolation" (2 Corinthians 7:4)—Paul is one proud papa.
He also acknowledges that, even though they fall short sometimes, they're always willing to patch things up with him:
Your grief led to repentance […] For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter. (2 Corinthians 7:9, 11)
When it comes to sin, it looks like the Corinthians aren't very Corinthian. Sure, sometimes they stray from the path (or at least Paul says they do), but they get back on it in the end. That's why God invented forgiveness, right?
So if it wasn't hideous sinning and general debauchery that were causing all the issues in town, what was?
Social class was a big issue in Corinth. The church there would have been made up of lots of middle- and lower-income people with a few Richie Riches, too (1 Corinthians 1:26). Like it usually goes, the wealthy folks were the ones who set the tone in the community and generally ran the show (source). The poor were not so thrilled with this.
The biggest problem this caused was with the celebration of communion:
When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord's supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you! […] So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation. (1 Corinthians 11:20-22, 33-24)
So the rich guys think communion means a lavish feast for them and nothing for others. And Paul is majorly annoyed by this snubbing of the less fortunate. Possibly our favorite line in the whole letter is the sassy, "Do you not have homes to eat and drink in?" Zing.
Paul stresses over and over again that it doesn't matter where you come from—"For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free" (1 Corinthians 12.13). Christians are equal and that means they need to be treating each other equally. Yes, it would have been super awkward for the wealthy owner of a bronze empire to sit in the same room as a slave, but, hey, that's what Jesus would do.
Speaking of Jews and Greeks, different religious backgrounds played a part in some of the tensions, too. Sure, once they decided to live a life in Christ, everyone was a Christian, but what the heck did this mean? Some new Christians came from a Jewish background and would have been influenced by Jewish scripture, thought, and social norms. They also tried repeatedly to get everyone to eat gefilte fish with no luck at all.
Paul encourages these Jewish-Christians not to cling too tightly to the old way of doing things. No, you don't have to follow every single letter of Jewish law. No, being circumcised isn't a requirement for Christian life: "Circumcision is nothing, and uncircumcision is nothing; but obeying the commandments of God is everything" (1 Corinthians 7:19). Penises everywhere, rejoice!
The former pagans of the group, too, would have also been subtly influenced by their decades-long worship of Greek and Roman gods. Paul says of these guys, "You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak" (1 Corinthians 12:2). Assuming they still socialized with other non-Christians, it would have made it pretty hard to avoid all this idol worship as a whole (source).
So what should a Christian who's invited to the home of a non-believer do? Can he or she eat meat that's been sacrificed to non-God gods? Sure, because those gods don't even exist! Or else they're demons (sorry, Roman gods). But, you have to remember:
It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:7)
In other words, Paul thinks that some of the Corinthians haven't exactly thrown off their idol-worshiping ways… and he'd like everyone to be a little more cautious.
Some of the Corinthians also seemed to have some very Greek ideas about the body floating around in their heads. They saw their baptisms as rebirth. They were made into new spiritual people (source). And spiritual people don't have to worry about what happens to their actual bodies, right?
There's also the whole discussion of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15), which some of these Greek-influenced Christians seem to doubt. Why would God raise up our boring, mortal bodies into Heaven? Yuck! Besides, who wants to have stretch marks and weird birthmarks in Heaven?
Sure, the Corinthians had issues, but didn't everyone? Paul writes to all the churches he founded answering questions and solving their problems. The Corinthians are no different from all the other folks in the Bible. They just need a little religion to set them straight.