1 Corinthians 5-11
Purpose: Paul’s intent in writing to the Corinthian church was to expose evil that persistently threatened to destroy true Christianity.
Author: Paul the Apostle
Date Written: About A.D. 55
Setting: Corinth was a large seaport city in southern Greece, and a major trade center. Its people were immoral and steeped in idolatry, but during Paul’s eighteen-month stay there (see Acts 18:11) he had won a number of converts. The Christian church in that city was primarily made up of Gentiles, who were led by Apollos after the departure of Paul. However, in the approximately three years since Paul had left, the spiritual condition of the church in Corinth had deteriorated. When some of the members wrote to Paul expressing their concern and asking a number of questions, the Apostle responded by writing the epistle of 1 Corinthians.
Key People: Paul, Timothy, members of Chloe’s household
Chapter 5 begins the second major division of Paul’s epistle. The Apostle knew it was imperative for the Corinthian converts to turn completely away from idolatry and the corruption so prevalent in their society. There had to be a clean break with the old sinful lifestyle, and the Corinthian believers had faltered at this point. The ethical and moral purity of some had degenerated, in at least one case to the level of public scandal.
Paul was very aware of the sensual and promiscuous practices in the Corinthian culture, but he also knew the Gospel deals completely with sin and that Christ had died to make men holy. Thus, he regarded any allowance of sin or opposition to a life of holiness as a perversion of the Gospel.
As in any congregation, the Corinthian believers were in varying stages of spiritual maturity. Some were solid in the faith, but many were “babes in Christ,” while others had been slow to abandon their pagan ways. They needed guidance, so in this portion of the letter, Paul addressed several practical issues of behavior, including immorality, the relationship between believers, specifics regarding marriage and adultery, spiritual liberty, and public worship.
In chapter 5, Paul addressed the immoral behavior that had been reported of one individual in the church, and the reprehensible neglect of those in authority who had failed to correct it. While Paul’s instruction regarding discipline showed concern for the offender, it also emphasized the necessity of protecting the church from the infiltration of sin. In the interest of maintaining purity, Paul commanded the believers “not to keep company” with the offender—a phrase which implies a close, habitual relationship. The purpose of the discipline was to motivate repentance and bring the offender back to God. His point was that church discipline is not negated by love, but rather is demanded by it.
Chapter 6 focuses on the settling of civil disputes between believers. The Corinthian church’s witness was being damaged by legal disputes between members, and Paul asserted that Christians should be able to settle differences between themselves rather than taking problems to the secular courts. The Jews at Corinth had permission from Rome to apply their own laws in handling Jewish affairs. As a matter of principle, a Jew would never take a Jewish problem to a Gentile court for a solution. Paul felt that the Corinthian brethren should conduct themselves likewise and settle differences according to precepts established by Christ himself.
Unfortunately, the Greek members of the Corinthian church enjoyed public debate. Skill in presenting arguments and winning a debate had become almost a form of entertainment, and ultimately had led some of the Corinthian brethren away from Christ’s teachings. Paul questioned, “Why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” Unbelievers watched the Early Church, as they do Christians today, to see if the followers of Christ lived the message they preached. Paul saw these forays into the secular legal system as detrimental to the Christian message.
The second section of chapter six, beginning with verse 12, again deals with immorality in the church. Paul reminded the believers that they had been washed and sanctified (or set apart for God), and as such, they were to glorify God in their bodies.
The statement in verse 12, “All things are lawful unto me,” reflected a common perspective of the culture—that the soul was good but the body was bad. This concept affected behavior in two ways. Some thought that since the body was bad, it should be denied even the most basic needs. The other and more popular approach was to gratify every appetite of the body, assuming that what the body did could not affect the soul. Paul taught that although the physical body someday would cease to exist, it was designed to bring glory to God, and as such, Christ was to be Lord over the total being of humanity.
Another immoral practice popular among the Grecian population was the use of temple prostitutes. Paul reminded the believers that there could be no union between a body that belonged to Christ and that of a harlot. Paul knew that temptations would come, so he concluded by telling them to “flee fornication.” They were not to underestimate the power of temptation, nor overestimate their abilities to resist.
Beginning with chapter seven, Paul began addressing specific questions that had been asked in the letter from the Corinthian church. The first questions apparently had to do with marriage and singleness. Because Paul was addressing concerns in a particular setting where prostitution and immorality were pervasive, this chapter must be understood in conjunction with what the rest of the Bible has to say on the topic.
From the beginning, God ordained that marriage is to take place between a single man and a single woman, and those two, once united in marriage, were to be united for life. In response to questions posed to him, Paul taught that sex is not sinful as long as it takes place within marriage. Single Christians could marry if that was God’s will for them. If a spouse left the marriage, Paul taught that the remaining spouse should not initiate a divorce. However, if a divorce took place, both individuals were to remain unmarried or reconcile their marriage if possible.
Continuing with his responses to specific questions, Paul explained that believers should stay in a Biblical marriage even if the marriage was with an unbeliever, noting that the children of such a marriage would be blessed by the fact that one parent was a follower of Christ. He reminded believers of their responsibility to model Christian behavior before their unbelieving mates, because such an example could lead to their spouse’s conversion. If the unbelieving spouse left the marriage, the believing spouse would not be condemned for the dissolution of the marriage, though no permission was given for remarriage.
Paul went on to give several examples illustrating that everyone should be content in all circumstances wherein they were called by God. By trusting God’s sovereignty to reign in their lives, they could serve God acceptably whether they were married or unmarried, circumcised or uncircumcised, slaves or free men.
Beginning with chapter 8, the Apostle began to show how the new faith of the Corinthian believers included responsibilities toward the Church as a whole, particularly with regard to the principle of spiritual liberty.
Paul started by addressing the subject of knowledge. Some members of the church apparently had built themselves up to be experts, but Paul pointed out that knowledge can lead to conceit, and that the first priority must be charity (love). True knowledge of God does not come through acquiring cognitive data, but rather by loving Him.
Next, Paul answered a question about eating meat that had been offered to idols. Meat was often brought to a butcher after it had been offered to idols, and then it was sold at a temple eatery or marketplace. Some wondered if it was right to consume this meat. Paul referred to the allowance to eat this meat as a “liberty,” or a lawful right. His response was based on two timeless principles that can help believers evaluate an action or make a decision: Is it Scripturally acceptable, and would it be a discouragement or stumbling block to someone else?
In reference to the first principle, Paul pointed out that idols to which the meat possibly had been offered were gods that did not really exist; therefore there was nothing wrong with the meat itself.
Paul’s advice relating to the second principle highlights the importance of love. Although eating meat offered to idols was not a sin, idol worship was, and for that reason, many chose not to eat meat at all. Paul exhorted the Corinthian believers to be mindful of those who were “weak” in the faith, or in an undeveloped state of intellectual understanding or spiritual maturity. His concluding statement was: “Wherefore I will eat no flesh while the world standeth,” showing that he was willing to forego his rights if exercising such a right would cause another person to stumble.
Having established the principles of liberty in Christ, Paul provided an illustration in chapter 9, using the example of his own life to prove that liberty is always subjected to a higher power.
His rhetorical question in verse 1, “Am I not free?” referenced the fact that he was not bound by the Jewish ceremonial law. Along with all believers, he had freedom within the limits of the moral and spiritual law of God.
In subsequent verses, Paul went on to substantiate his authority as an Apostle with a series of rhetorical questions which could only be answered with a clear yes. Then, in verses 15-22, he cited his own deportment in the ministry as an example of how Christian liberty should be exercised—with an emphasis on self-denying love. He concluded the chapter by expressing his desire to run the race well and obtain the prize, bringing out once more that although liberty existed, he voluntarily disciplined himself in order to achieve that goal.
Paul concluded his discussion of Christian liberty in chapter 10 by reminding the Corinthian church of errors made by the Children of Israel throughout their history. Using these examples, Paul charged the believers to beware of temptation and unbelief, to flee any practice that would move them toward idolatry, and to be guided by principles of thankfulness and expediency.
Paul was anxious to lead the Corinthian believers to maturity under grace. He made clear to them that the Christian life was not governed by legalism, but this did not justify lawlessness. He pointed them to the best example to follow: Jesus Christ, who was a model of supernatural love. Every act was to be judged by His standard.
In chapter 11, Paul addressed concerns related to public worship. The first sixteen verses deal with the practice of head covering. The point of Paul’s concern in this passage was submission. In Corinth, Grecian women took a head covering at marriage as a sign of their married state and an indication that they were under their husbands’ authority. Jewish women covered their heads at all times; to uncover their heads in public indicated they were morally loose. Some of the women in Corinth assumed that since Christianity made no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, servants and free, or males and females, they could remove their coverings.
Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that by creating man first and then woman, God had set forth an order and established roles for men and women. Christ is the head of the man and man is the head of the woman. This order does not imply inferiority but establishes a system for working together in which the unique and complementary characteristics of men and women strengthen their marriages and usability. This is a submission by choice, not force, just as serving God is a submission by choice. With regard to a woman covering her head, he declared that her long hair was sufficient.
In the culture of that day, for a man to wear a head covering while worshipping implied another authority had come between him and God. If a woman worshipped without her head covered, she indicated that she was not subjecting herself to her husband, and therefore not to God, either. This lack of subjection was not an inconsequential matter to Paul, or to God. So the Apostle set forth a principle: in any culture, God wants His people to submit to His authority and the order He has prescribed.
Paul also addressed the matter of hair length based on cultural perceptions. In Corinth, long hair on a man was thought to be an indicator of male prostitution. Female prostitutes cut their hair short or shaved their heads. Thus, the length of hair would have been important to a person’s witness as a follower of Jesus Christ. Each aspect of a believer’s life should bear out that he or she submits to and glorifies God. Anything that detracts from that witness should be avoided.
Beginning with verse 17, Paul took up the ordinance of communion. The sacred nature of this ordinance had been perverted in Corinth, and Paul denounced the errors which were occurring.
Prior to the actual Lord’s Supper, the Corinthian church held a fellowship feast. Paul was concerned because, although this feast was intended to enhance unity among the brethren, it actually was accentuating differences. The Corinthian believers were not eating together; the poor in their midst were not invited to participate in the fellowship dinner. In addition, some were dishonoring the occasion by getting drunk. This conduct was not in keeping with the unity and love which should characterize the church, nor was it a preparation for the Lord’s Supper which was to follow. The Apostle condemned these practices and encouraged the believers to correct the abuses.
Paul issued a warning regarding those who would partake “unworthily.” The word unworthily means “irreverently” and relates to the balancing of weights. The implication was that if a person participated in the observance of the Lord’s Supper with sin in his heart or in a casual and frivolous manner, he was not honoring, or balancing, the importance and sacredness of this memorial with an appropriate heart condition and behavior. Paul urged the believers to a personal examination to be sure they were living in a holy and self-disciplined manner, in subjection to spiritual authority, and in harmony with other believers.
Focus Verse: “Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.” (1 Corinthians 5:6-7)
Several years ago, I worked at the headquarters of a bank that had a large number of customers. The record of the customers’ banking transactions was maintained on a powerful central computer. Periodically, due to memory space limitations, it was necessary for us to remove old transaction information from our computer system. We called this process a “system purge.” Leaving the old information in the system caused the computer to respond slowly and created a potential for great problems, including the corruption of records or even a possible system crash.
Paul instructed the church at Corinth to purge pride, partiality, and immorality from their lives and their community of believers, just as the Children of Israel were instructed to purge yeast, or leaven (which was symbolic of sin), from their homes prior to partaking of the Passover meal. A careful search was made for any speck of leaven that had escaped scrutiny.
We, too, must keep our lives, homes, and churches free from anything that would contaminate us spiritually. Christ, our Passover sacrifice, has already paid the price for our freedom from sin by giving His own life. How could we then tolerate in our lives any of those elements for which our Savior paid such a tremendous price? Christ died to make us holy, not to leave us struggling in our sins. We should celebrate our deliverance from the bondage of sin with lives of sincerity and truth, just as Paul instructed the Corinthians.
Avoid a “system crash” in your spiritual life. Keep sin out!