To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people… (1 Corinthians 1:2, NIV)
The Bible scholar J.B.Phillips famously described his experience as he translated the New Testament letters: …again and again the writer felt rather like an electrician rewiring and ancient house without being able to ‘turn the mains off’.
In preaching the first two chapters of Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, I have felt the same, as I’ve been startled by the Apostle’s concerns and their 21st-century relevance. Some discoveries:
1. Paul strikingly calls the group of people he’s writing to in Corinth the church of God (1:2). This may not surprise us – but it should! For the word translated church is the normal Greek word for a gathering or assembly. If you visited the church in Corinth, you’d have found a very unimpressive collection of people – Paul tells us so himself (1:26) – and yet, here was a group of people specially belonging to the Creator of all!
2. This amazing status is something the Corinthians themselves were apt to forget. I say this because the Apostle feels the need to use the expression church(es) of God no fewer than six times in his letters to Corinth (out of only eight times in the New Testament as a whole). In 3:16 he says, Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives among you? They are forgetting whose they are!
3. What happens if a church forgets that? It adopts the values of the world around it. That this is a problem in Corinth is also obvious from Paul’s opening words, in which he reminds them that they are sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be [God’s] holy people. Much of the first half of the letter is concerned with how to live distinctively as His people in pagan Corinth, in areas as diverse as sexual ethics, relationships within the church and living in a city full of idol temples. They were not doing very well – and the reason can be traced back to failing to realise who they belonged to.
4. The idea of being God’s distinct people echoes the language used in the Old Testament to describe Israel. I happen to have been reading Deuteronomy while reading 1 Corinthians, and have been struck by both books’ shared concern that God’s people are not paganised by the surrounding culture. In both books, strong action is urged to maintain their distinctiveness for God (see for instance, 1 Corinthians chapter 5).
5. The fact that they are the church of God underlies much of Paul’s argument in the first four chapters. For God’s church is built God’s way. The Corinthians had imported their city’s assumption that one built numbers by having impressive speakers preach an impressive message. But this is not how God builds His church. Rather, it is built by the preaching of an apparently weak and foolish message, of Christ crucified (which, in their desire to impress, they are in potentially fatal danger of omitting). You can build a crowd in all sorts of ways, but only by preaching Christ crucified will what results be the church of God. Otherwise it will be the assembly of the unconverted.
Memo to 21st century UK churches: remember who you belong to, and live accordingly!