When the church doesn’t do “Christian”: pastoral care case by case in First Corinthians

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

From looking at Paul’s most carefully and tightly argued letter, we turn to one that is almost a ragbag of collected problems, First Corinthians. These problems are either ones that the Corinthians have written to Paul about, or ones he has heard of from others. Here, even more than usual, we are aware as readers that we only have half a conversation.

The lectionary leaves out most of the passages in the middle of the letter where Paul is seeking to legislate for the community: issues of incest (ch. 5), settling community disputes (ch 6), provisions for marriage, celibacy and divorce (ch 7), and eating food offered to idols (ch 8). One of the losses in this is that we miss the details of how an early (probably largely Gentile) Christian church faces the problems of reimagining Jewish community organization.

What happens when you transplant Jewish tradition into Greek soil without the framework of Torah to shape it? What does following the example of the rural Palestinian Jew Jesus look like for an urban Greek coming from traditional Greek or Roman religion and culture? These questions lie behind the whole of the letter, but are particularly acute in the disputes the lectionary omits.

Roman Corinth’s Fountain of Peirene. Via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike most of us who preach and teach today, aware of our own failings, Paul (never a modest man) is confident in putting himself forward as an example: “To Jews I behaved like a Jew, to win Jews; that is, to win those under the law I behaved as if under the law, though not myself subject to the law. 21 To win those outside that law, I behaved as if outside the law, though not myself outside God’s law, but subject to the law of Christ. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. To them all I have become everything in turn, so that in one way or another I may save some.” (1 Cor 9:20-22 REB). People looking to imitate Paul must sometimes have got mightily confused about which Paul they were meant to be imitating.

Another significant feature of 1 Corinthians is that it shows us a far more traditional Paul than his other letters do. Paul is often presented – and sometimes presents himself – as a lone radical challenging the more conventional church of Peter and James. Here he is concerned to show he is of one mind with the whole church. He is a fellow worker with Peter, called by his Aramaic nickname Cephas,1 and Apollos (1 Cor 3). Paul quotes gospel tradition at least three times: on divorce (1 Cor 7:10 see e.g. Mark 10:1-12), on the mission of the disciples (1 Cor 9:14 see Luke 10:7) and on the institution of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:23-26 see Luke 22:17-20).2

Paul also roots his exposition of the resurrection in chapter 15 in one of the earliest creeds, summarizing also the testimony of others to the resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7), before appending his own. Finally, at a point where he suspects he is losing the argument about how women should dress and style their hair while praying, he appeals to the universal (he claims) practice of the church, the first known example of what is now called the sensus fidelium – the “sense of the faithful”. You can almost hear the exasperation as he exclaims: “But if someone wants to argue about this, we don’t have such a custom, nor do God’s churches” (1 Cor 11:16 CEB).

The sections of the letter that are used the most in the lectionary are chapters 1, 12 and 15. We will look at those in a moment after a glance at the most famous chapter, his meditation on love. In the Sunday lectionary, 1 Cor 13 is read only on the 4th Sunday of Ordinary Time (Epiphany 4), Year C, but is regularly used on other occasions, especially weddings. It is worth noting that in context, it is the centrepiece of several chapters talking about the proper conduct of worship, and particularly those who are competitive about the hospitality, gifts and talents they bring to the common assembly. Love is Paul’s antidote to practicing church as a competition between its members for power and status.

The preceding chapter (12) has been read through on the preceding two Sundays, focusing first on the differing gifts each have received through the Spirit, and then on how church is meant to function as a body functions, with each part, each gift, needing the other for completeness. A section of this chapter is also read on Pentecost in Year A, a reminder that for Paul the church is a community that works through the Spirit’s energizing, but that the supreme fruit of the Spirit, love, is a far surer guide to discerning the Spirit’s work than any particular gift that an individual contributes to the community.

The first chapter of the letter shows Paul rooting everything he says in the paradox of the crucified Messiah.3 This is where he now finds God’s wisdom, a turning upside down of Roman values. The cross contradicts the values of competition, a constant seeking to come out of any argument, business transaction, lawsuit, competition or fight as top dog. Rome had elevated the pursuit of honour and glory through such practices into an art form. The cross subverts this way of life, and as an apostle of the crucified Christ Paul makes his humble service, and the poverty in which he chooses to operate, into a badge of honour.4

At the other end of the letter, the fifteenth chapter sets out Paul’s most detailed exposition of the resurrection. Apart from readings on Easter Day (and at funerals), it also provides the epistle for the 5th – 7th Sundays of Ordinary Time (the Sundays before Lent when there are more than two in the Anglican Calendar) in Year C. Paul sets out an understanding of the resurrection which embraces a transformation of the physical: the bodies we have now are constituted of flesh and blood; the bodies we will have will be constituted of spirit.

He rules out any understanding of resurrection that looks like resuscitation of a corpse. He equally rules out any understanding which reduces resurrection to nothing but present day spiritual experience. In part, he is trying to find a language to talk about something which cannot be fully put into words.5

Where we tend to use language of “the soul” to mean our continuing identity, Paul uses the language of “soul” to mean the life-force, or breath – as in the saying “while I have breath in my body”. Our present bodies are given life by “soul”, our future bodies will be given life by the Spirit. Our present bodies are made of the stuff of this creation, mortal flesh and blood. Our future bodies will be made of some other appropriate stuff, whatever the equivalent of flesh and blood is in a renewed creation.

It is all rather confusing in the detail, but clear in the overall conviction. Christ has defeated death, and will complete his victory when the creation, and our bodies, are alike transformed into something new: something that belongs to the immortal and eternal realm of God’s future, and able fully to experience God’s presence. What matters most is that we live out our existence in the here and now, knowing that this is how the human story will end, in ways that direct our lives towards that ending, and in faithfulness to the one who has “revealed the resurrection by rising to new life.”6


  1. Both Peter and Cephas are names based respectively on the Greek and Aramaic words for rock, petra and kepha
  2. This last reading is of course set for Maundy Thursday and Corpus Christi.
  3. See the introduction to Paul in this post.
  4. This argument climaxes in chapter 4, which provides readings for the feasts of SS Matthias and Bartholomew.
  5. Paul seems to be almost re-inventing language here, perhaps to counteract the language the Corinthians are using. For him, soul, psyche, is the opposite of spirit, pneuma. He also uses the adjectives from both of these words: “soulish” (psychikos) and spiritual (pneumatikos). Translators have always struggled with psychikos – usually going for some variant of “physical” or “natural”. It means the opposite of whatever “spiritual” means.
    “Spiritual” here, I think, means something like, “belonging to the age in which the Spirit lives fully in all creation”, so its opposite, “physical” or “natural” means the world in which the eternal Spirit is a stranger, and life is transient, destined for death. In both worlds, for Paul, living beings have bodies, so he can talk of a “physical” or “natural” body in this world, and a “spiritual” body in the next. This strange use of Paul’s language is one reason why language of a “physical” resurrection rather than a “bodily” resurrection creates problems in contemporary discussions.
  6. Anglican Eucharistic Prayer B. The equivalent in the preface to the new Roman Eucharistic Prayer 2 is “to break the bonds of death and manifest the resurrection.”

One thought on “When the church doesn’t do “Christian”: pastoral care case by case in First Corinthians

  1. Pingback: Paul's angriest letter: Galatians – Liturgica

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