Jesus, yes! The church, no!” This slogan was popular among young people in the ’60s. They definitely could have said that in Corinth back in A.D. 56, because the local church there was a messed up church. Unfortunately, the problems did not stay within the church family; they were known by the unbelievers outside the church.
How did this happen? The members of the church permitted the sins of the city to get into the local assembly. Corinth was the original “sin city, filled with every kind of vice and worldly pleasure. The lowest cut down would be to call someone “a Corinthian.” People would know what you were talking about.
Corinth was also a proud, philosophical city, with many itinerant teachers promoting their speculations. This philosophical approach was applied to the Gospel by some members of the church, and this fostered division. The congregation was made up of different “schools of thought” instead of being united behind the Gospel message.
The Christians in Corinth were struggling with their environment. Surrounded by corruption and every conceivable sin, they felt the pressure to adapt. They knew they were free in Christ, but what did this freedom mean? How should they view idols or sexuality? What should they do about marriage, women in the church, and the gifts of the Spirit? These were more than theoretical questions—the church was being undermined by immorality and spiritual immaturity. The believers’ faith was being tried in the crucible of immoral Corinth, and some of them were failing the test.
Paul heard of their struggles and wrote this letter to address their problems, heal their divisions, and answer their questions. Paul confronted them with their sin and their need for corrective action and clear commitment to Christ.
Geographically, Corinth was at a crossroads. It was located on an isthmus that connects northern Greece—where Athens is—with southern Greece—which was called Achaia. So if you wanted to travel from the southern part of Greece to the northern part, you had to travel through Corinth. If you wanted to travel north to south, you traveled through Corinth. Julius Caesar was right because all roads in the area led to and through Corinth. There are bodies of water on both sides of this strip of land on which Corinth sat but it was so treacherous sailing around it that often ships would stop at Corinth—and the captain would hire slaves to put the ship on a skid and move it on land the four-mile trek across from one body of water to the other.
Even though it was expensive to take your ship overland, it actually saved lives and time. This of course benefited Corinth because sailors and merchants were in town longer. Not only was Corinth a port—ships literally rolled through its streets, it also became a very rich city with products from all over the world flooding its markets—things like: Arabian balsam wood, Phoenician dates, Libyan ivory, Babylonian carpets, and Lycaonian wool. One scholar referred to it as “the Vanity fair of the ancient world.” With all this commerce flowing through its streets it is no wonder that the leaders of the city were wealthy merchants who worshiped money.
Corinth was also home to the Isthmian Games—athletic contests that were second only to the Olympics. But Corinth was primarily known—not for its commerce or for these athletic games—but for its sin. People who came to gamble on the Isthmian games stayed and indulged their every appetite. Like our Las Vegas, Corinth became a mecca of sexuality. In fact, the leading “religion” of that city promoted prostitution. Corinth had a temple that was the center of worship for the goddess Aphrodite. And in the evening, the temple would have thousands of sacred priestesses, who were actually prostitutes, flood into the streets of Corinth to sell their bodies to business travelers—to sailors, to tourists, to athletes, to residents, to just anybody who wanted a so-called “religious experience” in Corinth.
We could describe it as “temptation on steroids” because there was so much immorality there. The Greeks actually coined a term from the name of this city. To “Corinthianize” something was to make it sexually charged, to make it sexually immoral, sexually unrestrained. For a woman to be referred to as “Corinthian” was the same as being called a loose woman.
With all this in mind, picture Paul entering the city alone to start a church. What an unlikely place to do that—what a challenge that was. The same is true today, the job we are called to do as a local church is usually not easy. Following our Head as a local body means we seek and save the lost—and that is often a difficult thing to do because the lost can be difficult themselves and are often found in difficult places. The fact is God calls us to the “Corinths” of the world. He calls us to join Him in seeking out the people who don’t know Him. He calls us to follow Paul’s example and enter into difficult places—difficult conversations—He calls us to love difficult people. Think about that for a moment—where or who is your “Corinth?” Is it a family member who rejects God? Is it a workplace filled with co-workers who embrace sinful behaviors? Is it a neighbor? Where is your “Corinth?”
Like many Christians today, the Corinthian believers had great difficulty in not mimicking the unbelieving and corrupt society around them. They wanted to be in God’s kingdom while keeping one foot in the kingdom of this world. They wanted to have the blessings of the new life but hang on to the pleasures of the old. They wanted to have what they thought was the best of both worlds, but Paul plainly warned them that that was not possible.
Paul heard of their struggles and wrote this letter to address their problems, heal their divisions, and answer their questions. Paul confronted them with their sin and their need for corrective action and clear commitment to Christ. Paul gives us a Christian approach to problem solving. He analyzed the problem thoroughly to uncover the underlying issue and then highlighted the biblical values that should guide our actions.
To me it’s comforting that our churches today face many of the same problems that the New Testament church faced. We are still messed up, yet we have a choice. Which will we choose? To be Divided or United, to indulge in Sexual Immorality or choose Purity, to be a Good Influence or a Bad Influence, to be Drunk or Reverent to be Selfish or Serving, to be Apathetic or Loving?
I hope that you can join us for our series, Messed Up Church from 1 Corinthians.