Sunday, December 8, 2013

Taking a short break during Advent and Christmas

I’ll be taking a short break from 1 Corinthians during the season of Advent and Christmas. Summaries of what we discuss can be found at my other blog.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(6) Food Offered to Idols, Revisited

Outline: 020-E3.6-Food Offered to Idols Revisited
Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1
Discussion Audio (1h22m)

Paul was a Liberal[1]

In this final section of the third essay, Paul returns to the original question posed to him by the believers in Corinth: “what about food offered to idols?” He has already made clear that Christians cannot participate in feasts that accompany pagan worship services. But what about “sacrificial meat” offered for purchase at marketplaces following pagan festivals? And what about banquets held in an unbeliever’s home to which a believer is invited? These are the loose ends that Paul ties up in today’s passage.

On the first question – meat offered for sale at the public marketplace – Paul writes that believers shouldn’t worry about its origins. All food and drink ultimately comes from God, not idols. Therefore, thank God and don’t concern yourself with whether or not the meat was offered to idols. Gordon Fee notes an interesting irony that Paul may or may not have intended in his use of Psalm 24:1 LXX:

But what Paul here does is full of irony toward his Jewish heritage, whether intended or not. The rabbis saw the text as the reason for thanking God for their food; but the food they thus blessed had been thoroughly "investigated" before the prayer. Paul now uses the text to justify eating all foods, even those forbidden by Jews, since God is the ultimate source of the food—even that sold in the macellum [marketplace]. For that reason it can be taken with thanksgiving. The clear implication is that nothing contaminates food as such along the way. Apart from his radical statements on circumcision, it is hard to imagine anything more un- Jewish in the apostle than this.[2]

Paul next responds to the second issue – what about food at an unbeliever’s’ home? He writes that the default position for the believer is to not question the food’s origins, to not concern one’s self about it, but to partake of it. He notes that he himself partakes of such foods.

But there is one caveat. It is found in the center of this ring composition. What is “someone” informs the believer that the meat is “sacrificial meat?” In that case, Paul writes that the believer should respect the warning and abstain from eating the meat.

But who precisely does Paul intend by “someone?” It has been interpreted as another believer also at this banquet, the pagan host, and an pagan guest. Gordon Fee argues, referring to original language and syntax, that the best fit is a pagan guest.[3] So the one situation in which a believer ought to refrain from consuming meat offered to idols outside of the pagan temple is when he or she is at a banquet hosted by an unbeliever and another unbelieving guest points it out “to be helpful.”

In our discussion, an interesting point was brought out that a “weak” Christian brother or sister should not be accompanying a stronger believer to such a banquet in the first place. This observation may not be present directly in the text, but it makes sense in the overall theme of mission that underlies this entire discussion. Paul had discussed earlier that it takes great discipline and effort to make one’s self effective for mission to outsiders (1 Cor. 9:19-27). In today’s passage, Paul wrote that everything should be done with “the other”[4] in mind (1 Cor. 10:24). For Paul, a place where Christians must voluntarily retrain exercise of freedom is in loving consideration of an unbeliever’s beliefs. Gordon Fee writes,

The clue lies in the meaning of "conscience," which is not to be understood as "a moral arbiter" but as "moral consciousness." The one who has pointed out the sacrificial origins of this meat to a Christian has done so out of a sense of moral obligation to the Christian, believing that Christians, like Jews, would not eat such food. So as not to offend that person, nor his/her moral expectations of Christians, and precisely because it is not a matter of Christian moral consciousness, one should forbear under these circumstances.[5]

But what about offending another Christian by one’s actions? Fee continues,

If this is the correct understanding of the text, then what Paul is not referring to is a fellow believer's conscience as restricting the actions of another, as is so often assumed [my emphasis]. The significance of this observation is that Paul does not allow any Christian to make food a matter of Christian concern; he does not even do that in Rom. 14, where he does allow people their differences in such matters.[6]

My broad summary of Essay Three (1 Cor. 8:1-11:1) is as follows:

  1. Consumption of sacrificial meat should not concern Christians, wherever it occurs, except…
    1. Eating as a part of idol worship is prohibited
    2. And when an unbeliever points out the sacrificial meat to you
  2. Don’t make eating and drinking a “test of Christian fellowship”
  3. In all things, keep mission to “the other” your foremost concern – as far as it is in your power, do nothing to offend them and do everything allowable to integrate with them, so that your actions and words will be seen as God’s glory and gospel

I return to the words of Gordon Fee as in his wrap up of this passage:

Despite this passage, the issue of personal freedom in matters that are adiaphora [nonessentials], and the limitation of freedom for the sake of others, continue to haunt the church. Usually the battle rages over what constitutes adiaphora. Conservatives on these issues simply fail to reckon with how "liberal" Paul's own view really is. Hence Paul is seldom heard for the sake of traditional regulations. On the other hand, the assertion of freedom to the hurt of others is not the biblical view either. However, in most contemporary settings the "offended" are not unbelievers or new Christians, but those who tend to confuse their own regulations with the eternal will of God.[7]

[1] “Open to new behavior or opinions and willing to discard traditional values… favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms.” Via Google search “define liberal.”

[2] New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 10:26.

[3] NICNT, entry for 1 Cor. 10:28b-29a.

[4] Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. Kenneth Bailey discusses why “the other” is a better translation than “neighbor” and how this term means those outside one’s own family, tribe, ethnicity, and religion. Kindle edition, locations 3328-3339.

[5] NICNT, entry for 1 Cor. 10:28b-29a.

[6] Ibid.

[7] NICNT, entry for 1 Cor. 11:1.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(5) No Identification in Mission

Outline: 019-E3.5-No Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22
Discussion Audio (54m)

What is Idolatry?

When we sit down to partake of Thanksgiving dinner, we in America don’t worry that somehow the turkey was first offered to idols to be blessed and think that somehow a demonic presence might have become a part of the flesh as a result. Or when we go to restaurants we don’t worry that in the front of the room is a altar where all the food is first offered to idols and blessed, the wait staff perform a ritual over them as we watch, and then they are cooked and offered to us.

This is the reality that was an everyday affair for the church in Corinth. This is the context to which Paul writes 1 Corinthians.

We have no way of truly identifying with the thoughts and emotions of the Corinthian believers. So it is easy to dismiss today’s passage as irrelevant to us. Or we reinterpret idolatry in a more general sense – which isn’t necessarily wrong, but I believe ends up missing Paul’s intent. For example, the consumerism, wealth, and preoccupation with material acquisitions during this time of year might lead to associating these things with idolatry of wealth. Idolatry can certainly be associated with wealth, but I don’t think this is a proper application of Paul’s words in our passage for today.

Paul affirms two spiritual realities: God’s and everything else. Paul’s words are directed against spiritual ideas, traditions, and practices that lead a person into communion with a spiritual reality that is opposed to God (which Paul describes as “communion with demons”). Here again the problem is that although most Christians still affirm two opposing spiritual realities, we really don’t live in an environment where reminders of these realities surround us.

The challenge for us is to find a way to bring home Paul’s message into our context without compromising his intent.

Throughout this third essay Paul’s concern has been around the issue of effectiveness in mission. He has written that the default position is to “become weak,” to become in need, and integrate into the community to become an incarnational missionary. He then wrote that some practices – those that are true to Christ and are reminders of his work – are appropriate to adopt and maintain, provided they do not become “magical” ends in themselves.

In today’s passage Paul writes about cultural practices that Christians ought never adopt. These are practices that are antithetical to the nature of Christ – his love, his compassion, grace, free-will, humility, faith. These are practices that if adopted by Christians and the church, will lead the community away from Christ and into the realm of “demons” – law over love, dogma over compassion, formulaic propositional “truths” over grace, manipulation and coercion over free-will, authoritarianism over humility, certainty over faith.

We might wish that Paul left a more concrete list of things to avoid, but he didn’t. No, what he left were principles by which we are left to judge for ourselves (v15) as we encounter our own questions about what practices to adopt and what to avoid. What will build up the community of Christ? What will destroy? What is motivated by love? What is motivated by self-interest?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(4) Partial Identification in Mission

Outline: 018-E3.4-Partial Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13
Discussion Audio (1h33m)

Sacraments are Reminders of Your Identity

If we are truly honest with ourselves, most (all?) of us would prefer a magical religion; a happily-ever-after, fairytale religion – a religion where a deity magically makes everything better and we are lifted out of all the trials and temptations of life. If we can’t have that, the next best religion is the kind where everything is prescribed: follow these exact steps and you can better the odds of blessings. We prefer religions that can do something for us.

Some of the Christians in Corinth seemed to hold to a magical view of Christian sacraments. They apparently thought that Baptism and Eucharist conferred some kind of divine warding against paganism and idolatry. Thus, they reasoned, it no longer mattered where and what they ate and drank, or whether or not they participated in some of the pagan temple rituals, as long as they continued to observe Christian sacraments. Not only that but they were trying to force this magical view as “Christian” upon others who had questions and reservations about this line of reasoning and action.

In today’s passage – 1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – Paul works through Hebrew history of the exodus to correct the errant view of sacraments. He writes, by analogy, how the Israelites were afforded experiencing the great sacraments of miraculous deliverance and provisions, yet most failed to respond in an appropriate manner to these sacramental signs. Paul writes that those in Corinth, because of their erroneous reasoning, are likewise in danger of failing to fulfill the purposes that God desires for and through them. Paul explains that the sacraments are not magic that provides benefits to those who participate in them, but rather, the sacraments are reminders of what God has done for them in the past and present reminders of who they are in Christ: the sacraments have no innate magic or even value. They are reminders that we are nothing apart from Christ.

We can easily turn our religious beliefs and traditions into magical wishes, or idolatry.

Jews thought of idolatry as a matter of worshiping the wrong gods, and therefore something that only Gentiles could do. Paul thought more deeply on the matter. He saw that idolatry was a disease of human freedom, found as widely among Jews as among Gentiles. Idolatry begins where faith begins, in the perception of human existence as contingent and needy. But whereas faith accepts such contingency as also a gift from a loving creator from whom both existence and worth derive, idolatry refuses a dependent relationship on God. It seeks to establish one's own existence and worth apart from the claim of God by effort and striving ("works '') of one's own.[1]

Whenever we look upon beliefs and traditions as somehow granting, or helping us to maintain, a right relationship (righteousness) with God, we turn religion into an idol whereby we try take control of how God relates to us and to other people; i.e., idolatry.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor. 10:13 ESV)

This is a text that is too frequently misunderstood and misapplied. Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians explains,

Dealt with in isolation from the passage in which it occurs, this verse is sometimes turned into a quasitheological philosophical explanation of human suffering, evil, and divine will. The statement is elaborate and does perhaps invite such exposition and speculation. Yet, one must see that this verse is not an isolated philosophical statement that purports to delineate intricate facets of life. Paul speaks to the Corinthians in context: They are arrogant, overly self-confident, believing themselves to be "standing firm." But, Paul says, "Watch out!" The Corinthians are not above the unpleasant complications of normal human existence, and facing that fact they have one hope: the faithfulness of God. God is trustworthy, and even if the situation seems impossible, nothing is beyond God's power and grace. When the Corinthians confront times of trouble they should not deny their susceptibility to temptation or trust their own superspirituality to see them through. Rather, they need to remember, to know, and to act on the one ultimate assurance that is their real security: God is faithful. The tendency to overread this verse is a temptation within itself, but despite the mysterious matters that it raises, the plain sense of the verse is a call to recognize and to trust God.[2]

When seen in context, verse 13 contains words of encouragement specifically in regards to the tension that Christians face when dealing with the question of how best to “become weak” and “identify fully” with those whom they are called to minister to. The text is not a blanket promise that Christians will never face any trials or temptations beyond their ability to cope.

What the text, in context, promises is that in mission work Christians will be given wisdom and strength to avoid succumbing to idolatry. The text does not promise that difficulties in making appropriate decisions will be magically removed. Rather the text implies that mission work will always involve difficult issues. The promise is that Christians will be “able to endure it” because God is faithful. This returns to the end of chapter 9 where Paul wrote about discipline: effective mission work requires great energy and discipline. In 10:13 Paul writes that God will reward those who discipline themselves for mission with the strength to sort out the tensions such work involves.

Christianity does not promise magic for us.
It promises the faithfulness of God and the strength to endure
so that Christians can be effective in their incarnational ministry
for others.

[1] Reading the New Testament Series: Romans, entry for Romans 3:9.

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 10:13.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(3) Full Identification in Mission

Outline: 017-E3.3-Full Identification
Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27
Discussion Audio (1h05m)

Flexibility requires enormous effort and discipline

In my experience, the passage for today – 1 Corinthians 9:19-27 – is frequently treated as two separate topics: 1) vv.19-22 dealing with how Christians need to adapt their behaviors and message to their audience; and 2) vv.23-27 dealing with how Christians need to discipline themselves so that they will receive the “prize” and not be “disqualified.”

The problem with looking at this passage as two separate topics is that v.23 begins, “I [Paul] do it all for the gospel…” Paul refers to his words regarding adaptation as the goal of his discipline. When seen this way, the commonly given interpretation of “prize” as heaven/eternal life/salvation no longer makes much sense.

Christians often have trouble with the first part as well. Paul seems a bit wishy-wash, an accommodationist. “Why can’t he be consistent in his behaviors?” we might ask. Or, “Why can’t he stick to his principles?” – if he really believes the Torah has no bearing on salvation and righteousness, why does he admit to kowtowing to the Jews?

The range of interpretations that has been suggested by commentators is remarkable, moving from an understanding of Paul as being totally selfless—perhaps in a psychologically unhealthy manner indicative of a loss of identity—to the contention that Paul was an opportunist in his dealings with potential converts. Careful reading of the text, however, indicates that such extreme interpretations are stereotyped, falling short of full comprehension of the subtlety of Paul's methods of mission and ministry.[1]

To put it in more contemporary terms, when he was among Jews he was kosher; when he was among Gentiles he was non-kosher—precisely because, as with circumcision, neither mattered to God (cf. 7:19; 8:8). But such conduct tends to matter a great deal to the religious—on either side!—so that inconsistency in such matters ranks among the greatest of evils… The difference, therefore, between his own behavior and that of his social companions is not in the behavior itself, which will be identical to the observer, but in the reasons for it. The latter abstain because they are “under the law”; it is a matter of religious obligation. Paul abstains because he loves those under the law and wants to win them to Christ. Despite appearances, the differences are as night and day.[2]

The first part of today’s passage is Paul’s defense of his approach to mission. He will go as far as he must to become “weak,” to participate in the incarnational mission pattern of Jesus, to be among the people, to identify with them. Paul will not serve from a position power.

D. T. Niles of Sri Lanka wrote, “To serve from a position of power is not true service but beneficence… We run schools, hospitals, orphanages, agricultural farms, etc. But what we do not adequately realize is that these institutions are not only avenues of Christian service but are also sources of secular strength. Because of them, we can offer patronage, control employment, and sometimes make money. The result is that the rest of the community learn to look on the Church with jealousy, sometimes with fear, and sometimes even with suspicion.[3]

The second part of today’s passage is actually Paul’s description of how he is able to work cross-culturally. It has nothing to do with personal salvation or his own eternal life. The “prize” is the progress of the gospel. Paul writes here of acquiring and maintaining skills and abilities that will allow him to become a part of each people group that he goes to. Paul writes of the tremendous effort, energy, and discipline that is required to work cross-culturally.

“Disqualification” is not a loss of salvation, eternal life, or heaven. It is about not being fit enough to participate in mission work that Paul was commissioned to do.

With the Isthmian Games sponsored by the city of Corinth, the citizens of that city could not help being fully aware of the time commitments and energy required to complete in those games. Paul builds on that awareness and tells his readers that the same level of discipline is required to cross cultural lines in the name of Christ…

Paul is not talking about ascetic disciplines, he is discussing the high commitment required if one is to successfully cross cultural barriers in the name of Christ. He is discussing mission

He warns his readers that the task of “all things to all people” takes enormous energy He is discussing the cost of crosscultural, incarnational mission

Language, culture, history, art, literature, politics, worldview, music, civil unrest and war—all must be experienced, comprehended and embraced if one is to effectively enter into another culture.[4]

According to this passage, the purpose of spiritual disciplines is not for yourself.

  1. Discipleship and spiritual disciplines aren’t about me. It’s not spiritual self-improvement to express gratitude, to keep in Jesus’ good graces, to prove that I really belong, or even to be a better evangelist and witness (at least not in the usual way of thinking about it).
  2. Spiritual disciplines are about learning and finding ways to partner with God’s Spirit in the work of the gospel that is already happening.
  3. Spiritual disciplines are less about an individual’s personal spiritual condition and more about how to benefit others.
  4. You don’t have to participate – you can be a spectator. Your salvation isn’t the issue. But you might lose out on the greater joy and satisfaction of going beyond the minimum call.
  5. Spiritual disciplines include more than just the usual prayer, Bible study, and church attendance. It can and should include learning about anthropology, psychology, sociology, history, literature, music, arts, language, mythology, sciences, pop culture, etc. Anything that will help you integrate better with the people you have been sent to.

Paul does not argue that he “must become all things to all people” so that the gospel can receive a hearing and be accepted. For him, God, through the gospel, was already at work across cultural lines and he wanted to become its partner. The gospel train was moving and he could jump on or get left behind.[5]

[1] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry in section 25 (1 Cor. 9:19-23).

[2] NICNT, 1 Cor. 9:20.

[3] Bailey, location 2995.

[4] Bailey, locations 3043, 3048, 3065, 3069.

[5] Bailey, location 3031.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(2) Paul’s Freedom and Responsibility

Outline: 016-E3.2-Paul and Freedom
Passage: 1 Corinthians 9:1-18
Discussion Audio (1h19m)

The Gospel is offensive because it is free, not transactional.

The Corinthian Christians looked upon Paul with askance, harboring doubts regarding his status as an apostle, because he refused to accept their support (patronage) and instead labored to support himself. In their cultural beliefs and traditions, teachers needed to free themselves from labor so they could have time to cultivate their minds. Teachers were expected to be clients of wealthy patrons. “You give us teaching; we support you.” That was the expected transactional relationship.

… There was no doubt friction between Paul and the Corinthians because he worked with his hands. For most Jewish believers this would not have been a problem… The rabbis supported themselves financially, often through some trade or skill. Indeed they were required to do so… On the other hand, for Christians with a Greek background things were different. Intellectuals were expected to be financially independent. Only with the leisure that comes from such independence was it possible to cultivate the mind. How could Greeks accept the intellectual and spiritual leadership of a tentmaker? [1]

But Paul refused patronage. Why?

First Corinthians 9:1-18 can be seen in two parts. In the first part Paul vigorously defends his status as an apostle and defends rights to which he is entitles as an apostle. Paul must first establish that he knows full well that he is entitled to the support of the Corinthian Christians. In the second part Paul vigorously defends his reasons for refusing patronage.

Paul's response to this is not first of all to defend his renunciation of his rights, but to establish that he has such rights. This must be done because they have questioned his authority altogether. From their point of view his activity would not have been the renunciation of assumed rights; rather, he must have worked with his hands because he lacked such rights. Since, therefore, he did not do as the others—accept patronage—he must not be a genuine apostle. [2]

One of the foundational problems Paul saw in the Corinthian church was that of freedom and rights. The Corinthians had a distorted view of Christian freedom. Not only did they appear to believe that this freedom meant they could do anything, they were flaunting it and imposing it on those who did not believe this way or were uncomfortable with this particular expression. In other words, some in the Corinthian church were (ironically) becoming enslaved to freedom. This is the point at which 1 Cor. 9:1-18 ties into the issue of food offered to idols that Paul had touched on in chapter 8.

Some of the Corinthian Christians had come to believe that accepting the gospel and its freedoms meant they were obligated to perform and behave in ways that would highlight their freedom and rights. They were still thinking in transactional terms.

By refusing patronage, Paul holds himself up as an example of genuine Christian freedom. He illustrates the transaction-free nature of the gospel through his actions.

Like the Corinthian Christians, we usually don’t have too much problem understanding and accepting that there is nothing we can do to merit God’s grace to us. But we often have a real problem in accepting that there is nothing God demands from us in return. (This is different from God desiring much from us.) There is nothing we can “do for God” for us to keep his grace.

This is why the gospel is so offensive. It is not so much the content of the gospel as it is its very nature. In the honor-shame culture in which this was written, to accept a gift without strings attached, without demand or expectation of reciprocation, was to suffer shame. The gospel is a stumbling block, it is shameful, because its recipients must acknowledge their shamefulness. There is no personal honor in accepting the gospel.

The parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee (Luke 18:9-14) brings home this point. In this parable Jesus says that the tax collector is the one who was justified. The tax collector receives God’s grace. He, unlike the Pharisee, offers no good deeds as an offering. The tax collector offers no promises of sacrifice, offerings, or to even change his ways. He only acknowledges the reality of his condition. That is all grace requires.

The Corinthians wanted to bring transaction back into the gospel so that it could be used as a means of gaining personal honor.

Paul would have none of that. He would not place himself back into the slavery of the honor-shame system. And he warned the Corinthians of the path they were on. Genuine Christian freedom is found in rejecting the relational systems of this world and allowing only Christ to have a claim on one’s life.

In one sense his "pay" is in fact to receive "no pay"! But in the present argument this nonpayment "payment" also gives him his apostolic "freedom" from all, so that he might the more freely make himself a slave to everyone (v. 19). Thus in terms of his own ministry, his "pay" turns out to be his total freedom from all merely human impositions on his ministry. [3]

Freedom found in giving up one’s personal rights.

[1] Bailey, location 2874.

[2] NICNT, introductory text for 1 Cor. 9:3-14.

[3] NICNT, entry for 1 Cor. 9:18.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Essay 3—Freedom and Responsibility—(1) Food Offered to Idols

Outline: 015-E3.1-Food Offered to Idols
Passage: 1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Discussion Audio (1h22m)

Love over knowledge – not love of knowledge

Paul continues to work through issues that were posed to him by the Corinthians. They want to know how to handle food that was offered to idols. This could be either 1) private sacrifices where part of the offered meat is eaten in the god’s temple, or 2) public sacrifices whose excess meat is sold in the public marketplace. Paul’s response covers 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. As with issues Paul addressed earlier in this letter, his primary concern is not about food but deeper issues where one of the symptoms happens to be conflict about appropriateness of eating food offered to idols.

True gnosis consists not in the accumulation of so much data,
nor even in the correctness of one's theology,
but in the fact that one has learned to live in love toward all.

The reader of this passage may find curious Paul’s initial digression away from the topic of food. It is this digression that gets at the heart of what Paul identifies as the root issue: the arrogance of possessing “knowledge” and the insistence on its free use at the expense of all other brothers and sisters. Not only were some in the Corinthian church insisting on their own personal freedoms, but, as in earlier issues in the letter, they were likely insisting that to be a “true Christian” everyone had to behave in a singular manner – in the present case, to eat food offered to idols, because the idols are not real.

Real freedom is being freed from the necessity to assert only,
or primarily, one's own rights.

Paul’s response is instructive for those of us in the modern West who place high value on knowledge and objective realities. Paul acknowledges the existence of objective realities, but he also writes that subjective realities are also very real, perhaps even more real, to people. Thus he writes in 8:5b, “as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords.’” When a Christian interacts with another brother or sister, s/he must take into account the subjective realities of the other party and adjust words and actions accordingly so as to not be the cause of someone turning away from God.

According to Paul, Christian ethics cannot be codified beyond “love one another.” And for Paul, “love” is the giving up of one’s own rights for the sake of others. Personal freedoms are subservient to “building up” the community of believers. For Christians, the priority is not “my rights” but “your well-being.” Paul brings his readers back to the cross of Christ as the prime example of Christian freedom in action.

The problem in the Corinthian church was not really about food offered to idols. It was placing knowledge above love, i.e., a love of knowledge rather than loving in order to know one another.

The real concern of the passage needs a regular hearing in the church. Personal behavior is dictated not by knowledge, freedom, or law, but by love for those within the community of faith. Everything one does that affects relationships within the body of Christ should have care for brothers and sisters as its primary motivation.3

1 Reading the New Testament Series, entry for 1 Cor. 8:1-13.

2 Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, introductory paragraph for section 1 Cor. 8:7-13.

3 New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, concluding paragraph for section 1 Cor. 8:1-13.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(4c) In Harmony With the Gospel

Outline: 014-E2.4c-In Harmony with the Gospel
Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:25ff
Discussion Audio (1h16m)

Don’t base doctrine on unclear text.

This final part of 1 Corinthians 7 is considered notoriously difficult to interpret and understand just what Paul had in mind.[1] Particularly in regards to verses 36-38, here are a few choice descriptions from a couple of commentaries:

These verses are remarkably obscure…[2]

“The literature is voluminous and unrewarding.”[3]

Generally this section is interpreted in two, broad ways: 1) It has general application to the broader Christian community; and 2) what is written is specific to the Corinthian situation and whatever principles we try to glean should be held tentatively. The weight of scholarship prefers the latter and that is the path I have chosen to take for our discussions.

This passage has been used to support the dichotomous positions of both the priority of marriage and the priority of celibacy in Christian life. On the one hand Paul appears to command singleness and celibacy as the “true spiritual way” while on the other hand Paul strongly affirms marriage.

This passage in particular, instead of being viewed as to our advantage, has often been burdensome for the young. But that is probably less Paul’s fault than or own… The irony of our present situation is that Paul insisted that his own preference, including his reasons for it, were not to be taken as a noose around anyone’s neck. Yet we have often allowed that very thing to happen. Roman Catholicism has insisted on celibacy for its clergy even though not all are gifted to be so; on the other hand, many Protestant groups will not ordain the single because marriage is the norm, and the single are not quite trusted.[4]

The specifics of why Paul wrote what he did is lost to us. Therefore we ought not be making definitive statements about what Paul intended. Throughout chapter seven, Paul himself is very tentative, making very few definitive statements. For most of what he writes, he wants his audience to understand that he is giving his opinion, not commands. He is not writing Scripture:

Does not Scripture say in fact that singleness is better than marriage? To which the answer is No. First of all, this reflects Paul’s own opinion (vv. 25 and 40), and he is concerned throughout that it not be taken as “Scripture,” that is, as some form of commandment or principle. It is an ad hoc answer in light of some “present distress.” But more importantly, vv. 36-38 are not a judgment on marriage or singleness per se at all, but on whether or not engaged couples in that setting should get married. Paul thinks it better for them if they do not; but he also makes it clear that marriage is a perfectly valid option. It has nothing to do with good and evil, or even with better or worse, but with good and better in the light of that situation. It is perhaps noteworthy that the entire discussion is carried on quite apart from one of the major considerations in our culture—love for one another. One can only guess what Paul might have said in a different setting.[5]

We have to read this last part of chapter seven in light of the entirety of Essay Two. The main issue Paul is writing against is the issue of spiritual arrogance – not sex, marriage, or immorality. Paul is writing against those who would contend that their way to spirituality is the only valid way. In particular he is writing against Platonic body-spirit (or soul) dualism. He is writing against the view that the body is evil, the spirit is good, and what one does in the body doesn’t matter because it will be destroyed. He is writing against the abuses that occur as a result of spiritual arrogance. He is writing against the culturally informed hierarchicalism and power structures that are infiltrating the Christian community. He writes against imposing one’s own preferences about spirituality upon another.

What Paul affirms is the spiritual gifting of every believer. He affirms that God does not consider gender, religion, ethnicity, or socio-economic status in calling his people to assignments and gifting them with all that is necessary to follow their calling and to fulfill their assignments. He affirms the equal spiritual value of both marrieds and singles. He affirms that each person ought to mind their own spiritual business and live the life they were gifted to live.

[1] See comments in New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle, under “3. About the ‘Virgins’ (7:25-40)”

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, 1 Cor. 7:36-38

[3] Bailey, applying to 1 Cor. 7:36-38 a quote by T. W. Manson; at location 2621

[4] NICNT, 1 Cor. 7:35

[5] NICNT, 1 Cor. 7:40

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(4b) In Harmony With the Gospel

Outline: 013-E2.4b-In Harmony with the Gospel
Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:10-24
Discussion Audio (1h08m)

Relationship status, ethnicity, religious status, and socio-economic status
are neither barrier nor excuse for carrying out
God's assignment for each believer.

“If only I…”

Apparently some Corinthians were saying this, or at least thinking it, when looking at their spiritual condition. There was an influential group within the Corinthian Christian community that was advocating asceticism as the only means to achieve genuine spirituality. As a result they were advocating divorce of marrieds (particularly if they could not practice celibacy), or that widows and widowers ought not remarry.

“If only I were single,
I could be more spiritual and serve God more appropriately.”

Paul wrote against this aberrant thinking and theology in the first nine verses of chapter 7. Within this same context he writes the next fifteen verses, 7:10-24. He discusses two pairs of two related topics.

  1. Marriage and divorce
    1. Married believers
    2. Marriages where one partner is a believer, the other is not
  2. Religious and socio-economic status
    1. Jew vs. Greek
    2. Slave vs. Free

In the first pair of topics, Paul sets the ideal: marriage is for life and believers ought not divorce. But it is vital to note that Paul does not forbid it. More importantly he recognizes the reality that divorces do happen. The crux to understanding this passage is to keep in mind the overall context of asceticism where one partner was advocating celibacy without the agreement of the other. It is not about the general issues of divorce and remarriage.

Our situation is usually made more complex because our concerns are often the precise opposite of theirs, which caused this to be written in the first place. They wanted to dissolve marriages; we want to know whether remarriage is permitted… Paul does not speak to the question of remarriage.[1]

“If only I had a believing partner,
I could devote more of my energies toward God…”

In the second half the the first pair Paul moves on to discuss the case of mixed-faith marriages where one partner is a believer and the other is pagan. The crux of interpreting this passage is the Jewish purity laws. The Corinthians believed that sexual relations with a pagan partner would turn the entire marriage unclean (defiled, unholy, in effect committing sexual immorality). As a result the same group advocating asceticism saw this as defiling the church and were likely encouraging divorces among such marriages. Paul saw things differently. He affirmed that in mixed-faith marriages, Christ’s holiness could not be overcome by paganism and that such marriages conferred holiness upon the entire family.

Through the believing partner, the marriage between a pagan and a Christian is withdrawn from the control of the powers of the world. In living together with the world, the “saints” are the stronger party. The decisive idea lies not in an ontological definition of the state of the non-Christian members of the family, but in the assertion that no alien power plays any part in the Christian’s dealing with them.[2]

An important principle Paul adds in this discussion is that Christian ideals are binding only to Christians. In this specific example, Paul places relational peace above the ideal of remaining married. Paul instructs believers that unbelievers are not bound by Christian ideals and standards. Paul tells believers that nonbelievers have a right to choose how they want to live. Christians do not have a right to force their ideals onto nonbelievers.

“If only our religious differences could be eliminated,
I could do so much more for God…”

The second section under discussion here introduces a puzzle. Why does Paul suddenly introduce the topics of religion and slavery in the middle of a large sequence dealing with marriage and sex? Scholars typically point to Galatians 3:28 in which Paul discusses the elimination of human-generated classifications of male/female, Greek/Jew, free/slave. Scholars believe Paul discusses religion and slavery here in 1 Corinthians for completeness and to broaden the discussion about the irrelevancy of human ideas of status when it comes to following God’s assignment and calling.

Paul first tackles the issue of religious differences. He uses circumcision as the ultimate illustration of religious distinctiveness that is utterly irrelevant to the Christian. What is critical to understand here is that Paul writes that it’s okay to follow Jewish traditions just as it is equally okay to not follow them (i.e., remain Greek). Religious differences do not prevent God from assigning (merizo – distributing) spiritual gifts to empower Christians to each follow their calling.

“If only I was more privileged, I could do so much more for God…”

Paul tackles slavery in the last part of today’s passage. Scholars are about equally divided when it comes to whether Paul was against slavery or not. There is good and reasonable evidence on both sides. Slavery is not the primary point of this passage. Rather it is about whether or not one can be a Christian, live spiritually, and carry out God’s assignment when a person is not free. Paul’s response is that indeed, even a slave with sometimes very limited freedom and means, can receive God’s assignment and has the power to carry it out. Having or not having privilege, means, or liberty has no bearing on whether or not a person can be fully spiritual and carry out God’s assignment for them.

What matters is faithfulness in remaining in God by being true to his call. God’s call is different for every Christian. One is not to burden another with a calling that is not for them. And one should not envy or seek a different calling than the one that was given. In other words, mind your own business and be true to who God called you to be.

[1] New International Commentary: New Testament, The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 7:16.

[2] Understanding the Bible Commentary: First Corinthians, entry for 1 Cor. 7:14, quoting Conzelmann.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(4a) In Harmony With the Gospel

Outline: 012-E2.4a-In Harmony with the Gospel
Passage: 1 Corinthians 7:1-9
Discussion Audio (39m)

Neither singleness or marriage represents the ideal spiritual condition.

Chapter 7 of the First Epistle is one that has been misread, misinterpreted, and misused by Christians from almost the very beginning of its history. It has been used to justify both singleness/celibacy and marriage as the supreme spiritual state for Christians. It has been used to allow and disallow divorce and remarriage. It has been used to support patriarchy.

Ironically, Paul wrote the words in this chapter to combat nearly the very same aberrant teachings that the Corinthian believers held in regards to sexual relations and associated issues.

The overarching theme of this chapter is:

“Do not seek a change in status.”[1]

Paul sees both singleness and marriage as charisma, spiritual gifts. Both are equally good. If a person is gifted with singleness, s/he should not envy marriage or feel guilty for not wanting marriage. If a person is gifted with marriage, s/he should not envy singleness or feel that somehow they would be “more spiritual” and be able to “devote more of their energies to God” if they were single. Churches and church members should not prioritize, idealize, or idolize either singleness or marriage as “more spiritual” than the other. Neither singleness or marriage should made to be a source of guilt and shame for any Christian. No Christian should stigmatize and shame another for their choice to either remain single or to become married.

In this passage, Paul affirms the goodness of marriage. Paul also affirms the goodness of remaining single. Paul affirms the equality of men and women. What Paul does is denounce asceticism. And Paul denounces relationships where authority between partners is unequal.

[1] New International Commentary: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 7:1-40.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(3) Joining the Body

Outline: 011-E2.3-Joining the Body
Passage: 1 Corinthians 6:13-20
Discussion Audio (1h19m)

Poor theology invites arrogance, irresponsibility, immorality, reducing people to mere objects whose existence is to satisfy one’s appetites and wants (use and abuse of others), and bringing shame upon the community.

In these verses (1 Cor. 6:13-20) Paul appears to be addressing the problem of sexual immorality – which he is in the most immediate sense, yet in a larger sense, he isn’t. Immorality is the most visible symptom of a larger issue Paul is trying to point the Corinthian Christian community towards:  multiple aspects of poor theology under which they are living.

Broadly speaking, these Corinthians believers have accepted the following errors.

  1. Over-realized eschatology. They assume the kingdom of God has fully come because they have the Spirit. As a result, they are incapable of sinful behavior.
  2. Greek dualistic philosophy. They have come to believe that the body is evil and only the spirit to be good. They have also accepted the immortality of the spirit/soul which comes directly from pagan roots. Because the body is evil and will be destroyed (and only the spirit survives), they are free to do anything with the body.
  3. Misinterpretation of “freedom in Christ”. They have come to accept freedom in Christ as individual liberty to do as they please, to please themselves, regardless of how it will affect another person or the community to which they belong.

Paul writes to correct these errors.

  1. The full manifestation of the kingdom is still in the future. Yes, Christians are saved (past) and have the Spirit and are united with God/Spirit/Christ (present), but sin and evil still affect the body. What one does in and with the body carries over into the resurrection (future).
  2. The body is not merely a physical shell. Paul takes the Jewish view and considers the body to be the whole person – physical and spirit. There is no separate entity identified as the soul, and particularly not one that is inherently immortal. The body is not evil, but it is good as evidenced by Jesus’ resurrection in a body.
  3. Freedom in Christ is not individual liberty to do as s/he pleases, but the freedom to live as responsible members of their community and to the greater society.

This passage needs to be heard again and again over against every encroachment of Hellenistic dualism that would negate the body in favor of the soul. God made us whole people; and in Christ he has redeemed us wholly. In the Christian view there is no dichotomy between body and spirit that either indulges the body because it is irrelevant or punishes it so as to purify the spirit. This pagan view of physical existence finds its way into Christian theology in a number of subtle ways, including the penchant on the part of some to "save souls" while caring little for people's material needs. The Christian creed, based on NT revelation, is not the immortality of the soul, but the resurrection of the body. That creed does not lead to crass materialism; rather, it affirms a holistic view of redemption that is predicated in part on the doctrine of creation—both the physical and spiritual orders are good because God created them—and in part on the doctrine of redemption, including the consummation—the whole fallen order, including the body, has been redeemed in Christ and awaits its final redemption.1

1Gordon Fee, New International Commentary, New Testament: The First Epistle, entry for 1 Cor. 6:19-20

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(2) Kingdom Ethics

Outline: 010-E2.2-Kingdom Ethics
Passage: 1 Corinthians 6:9-12
Discussion Audio (45m)

Don’t allow freedom to cancel itself out by becoming a slave to freedom.

The list of vices – two sets of five – appear like neon signs to many modern Christians who read these verses. Was the highlighting of vices Paul’s intent? Or was it something else altogether?

Two key points must be kept in mind. First, the vice lists (standard rhetorical form in moralizing literature of the time) are sandwiched between the phrase “[not] inherit the kingdom of God.” Second, it can be argued that the Corinthian believers had a wrong idea of the kingdom. Some of them held an over-realized eschatology (and/or possibly proto-Gnosticism) where what they did in the body no longer had any effect on their spiritual condition.

Paul is arguing that any behavior that indulges selfish desires and uses/abuses others does not belong in the kingdom of God. If the kingdom of God were indeed fully realized, these types of behavior would not be present.

… Watson (First Epistle, p. 56) makes the insightful observation that if there is a prevalent point between the items Paul has chosen to include in this listing, it is the common characteristic of "ruthless self- gratification, reckless of other people's rights." Such an attitude, which produces deplorable behaviors, is the ungodliness Paul is concerned to criticize; he is not aiming at ranking or rating sins.[1]

Rather than dwell on specifics of the vice lists, the point is that any kind of self-seeking is at odds with citizenship in the kingdom of God.

The middle portion of this set of verses (verse 11b) appears to be Paul’s emphasis. With these words Paul corrects the misguided theologies of some of the Corinthians by returning the emphasis of the Christian back to Jesus Christ, the Spirit, and God (the Father). Paul describes the present reality and identity of every Christian, the gifting for service through the Spirit, and the responsibility to live lives that bring honor to God.

These set of verses end with Paul returning to another way in which some of the Corinthians were expressing their misguided theology: “I am free from the law; therefore, I can do anything I want.” Rather than imposing new laws and regulations (hence the argument against using the vice lists as lists of “don’ts”) Paul redirects attention back to what genuine freedom looks like. First, genuine freedom is expressed in behavior that is helpful to others. Second, freedom is not an end to itself; i.e., freedom must not become an idol to which freedom itself is sacrificed.

When one loves God, all things are permissible; but when one loves God, one loves what He loves. This means love for all others, for they are loved by God; and conduct will be regulated by this love.[2]

[1] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry “Additional Notes” 1 Cor. 6:10.

[2] Anchor Yale Bible Commentaries: 1 Corinthians, Orr/Walther, p. 202; quoted by Bailey, location 2096

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Saints, or (Miserable) Sinners Saved by Grace?

If any group of Christians deserved to be called “sinners”, it ought to have been the Corinthian Christians. However, the Apostle Paul never—that’s right, never—uses the label “sinner” to identify any of them. How then does Paul identify and address them (emphasis mine)?

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:2, ESV)

To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: (2 Corinthians 1:1b, ESV)

This is in quite a contrast to many contemporary preaching and teaching that consistently tries to reinforce the idea that Christians are “sinners saved by grace” and similar phrases. In all cases, the implication is that the core identity of Christian is still “sinner” whose rottenness is just covered over by “Christ’s righteousness”. If that covering disappears or is taken off, what is revealed is what was there all along.

I believe anytime a preacher or teacher uses “sinner” to identify Christians, be it themselves or their audience, it is a false gospel message. It demeans the work of Christ. Not only that, it conveys the message that the power of the cross of Christ is/was not enough.

I used to accept this idea as true, that it was a statement of humility, that this kind of talk elevated the grace and power of God to save. Now I see it as a message, if not from the devil, then something very close to it. A message that cannot change the core identity of persons has no power at all. It is a false gospel.

Both Jesus and Paul are quite clear that “sinner” refers to those who have not yet experienced the redeeming and restoring power of God. Those who have, have had their core identities changed. They are no longer “sinner” but “saint”. This is the foundation of Paul’s appeals to the Corinthian believers: because they are no longer sinners, they really do have the power to behave in Christ-like ways. If Paul thought they were still sinners, he could not make that appeal—he would have written very different letters.  For both Jesus and Paul, a “sinner” is a slave to sin and has no power to do anything other than live out their condition. A “saint” is no longer a “sinner” and therefore has the power to choose to live the way of Christ.

None of this is to say that Christians, therefore, do not or cannot behave in ways that are sinful[1]. Far from it. Christians are saints who continue their struggle with their former habits resulting from sin. Saints are even free to choose to revert to their former ways (which is what Paul sees many of the Corinthians having done, and thus writing them a reminder and a warning, but even that choice does not change their identity!).

Some readers here may object on the grounds of a few passages that appear to identify Christians as “sinners”. These are primarily found in non-Pauline epistles (Hebrews, James), and one sentence found in 1 Timothy 1:15. A more comprehensive discussion of this overall topic that includes some of these texts can be found here: “Sinners” Who Are Forgiven or “Saints” Who Sin?—Robert Saucy

[1] I try to parse vocabulary here in a nuanced fashion. I define sin as being in a state of anti-God. Behaviors, actions, thoughts, etc. are not in themselves sin, but rather effects of the power of sin (c.f., Romans 1:18-2:11), i.e., sinfulness.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(1b) Three Roadblocks

Outline: 009-E2.1b-Three Roadblocks
Passage: 1 Corinthians 5:6b-6:8
Discussion Audio (1h25m)

The effectiveness of a Christian community’s mission is
directly affected by the quality of its relationships with those outside her.

Paul addresses three objections or excuses that the Corinthian Christians might raise toward his instructions to them.

The first excuse Paul anticipates is that the problems are a “small matter.” As far as Paul is concerned, there no problem is “small.” Just as leaven will eventually permeate an entire dough, a “small” problem will infect the entire community. The community must come together and do what it needs to do in order to remove itself of any “leaven.” The major issue is not any specific examples of problems, but rather, the result of allowing problems to spread: divisions and strife. A divided church community is powerless to perform its mission. A bickering church hold no appeal to those outside her. Paul must direct the church to come together and take action as a united community.

The second excuse Paul anticipates is that some among the community have wrong ideas about community and what freedom in Christ means. These seem to have an over-realized eschatology where they are already experiencing the full effects of salvation; i.e., the community of the saved is fully realized so they have no need to associate with those outside, and even more, there is danger with such associations; and, because salvation is fully realized, they can do whatever pleases them. The specific issue of immorality triggers Paul’s argument, but his main issue is with their misunderstandings around their responsibility to those within and without the community of faith. Their over-realized eschatology is compromising the church’s mission, and he must correct it.

The third excuse Paul anticipates is their lack of responsibility. There appears to have been a small, but powerful, faction within the Corinthian church. The other, larger group were unable or unwilling to directly confront the arrogant, powerful, and wealthy faction. Instead this larger group’s recourse (or at least some of them) was to take the problem to outside judges. The issue here isn’t about airing the community’s dirty laundry in public (most likely the public already knew quite well what was going on). The issue rather is that by doing so, the church community is admitting she is incapable of functioning as a responsible member of society. (Groups were expected to resolve problems amongst themselves.) The church would be shamed; she would lose honor. Not only that, but if the powerful group asserted that because freedom in Christ meant no responsibility to conform to societal norms and expectations, it would present the church as a direct threat to Roman rule. A church community that fails to perform as a good member of society has no power to perform her mission. Paul must remind her of her societal responsibilities.

The issue of a man’s sexual immorality in 5:1 triggers Paul’s three concerns in 5:6b-6:8. But immorality is not Paul’s primary concern. Paul’s primary interest is the church and her mission. Paul’s primary concern is that arrogance has given birth to a number of symptoms that are weakening and defeating the church and compromising her mission. Paul writes to bring attention to these issues and provide corrective guidance.

When this passage is read improperly (e.g., out of context, ignoring cultural norms, ignoring surrounding context), it gives rise to a number of misguided and harmful applications. First, churches can overly focus on sexual behaviors that are deemed “sin” when that was not Paul’s primary concern. Secondly, churches often miss the portion where Paul writes they are not arbiters of morality of those outside the church. Thirdly, the instruction to not bring matters to courts is misconstrued by churches and religious organizations and used as justification to cover-up misdeeds and criminal activity by members, volunteers, and employees, in the name of “protecting the organization’s reputation.” Doing any of these things goes directly against what Paul was trying to instruct in this very passage.

A community’s integrity in relationships within and without matter. They are the currency with which she gains a hearing among those not a part of her. Paul’s interest was to maintain the believing community’s honor so that her effectiveness for mission would not be compromised.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Essay 2—Men and Women in the Human Family—(1) Immorality and the Church

Outline: 008-E2.1-Immorality and the Church
Passage: 1 Corinthians 4:17-5:6a
Discussion Audio (1h26m)

Arrogance is the disease.
Immorality just happens to be one
symptom of arrogance
that Paul encounters in the Corinthian church

Although most English scholarship places the thought break between the first and second sections of 1 Corinthians at the ending verse of chapter 4, we follow Dr. Bailey’s rhetorical, historical, and literary analysis and begin the second essay with 4:17.

In many commonly held views of this epistle, Paul seems to be preoccupied with sex and immorality among the Corinthian church. Careful reading and interpretation show that this common view may actually be a misinterpretation and an overemphasis of something Paul indeed saw as a problem, but not the problem. Paul uses what he hears among the Corinthian Church as an example of something larger. A number of commentaries astutely note this observation. For example,

“As one sees through a careful, close reading of the text, Paul is upset because of the immorality in Corinth, but he treats that flamboyant phenomenon as a symptom of the true, deeper problem that he faces among the Corinthians, namely, their spiritual arrogance, which produces elitism or indifference that renders the congregation inactive and ineffective in living out God's will for their lives in this world.”[1]

For the modern Christian to use these texts then, as being primarily about sexual ethics places us in a dangerous position. The specific immorality that Paul condemns was certainly against Roman and Jewish laws and tradition, but in the modern West, legality of the practice differs from one jurisdiction to another. Thus some vital questions are raised in how modern Christians are to approach application of biblical text.

  • How much of what is considered ethical, moral, and legal are derived from cultural norms?
  • Does scripture prescribe/proscribe, or does it simply describe the way things were?
  • How can we determine when to apply specifics today, or to dismiss specifics and instead reach for deeper ethical considerations?

The purpose of laws regulating sexual practice and marriage in the ancient world were primarily for keeping clear legal heirs and lines of inheritance. The West, over the centuries, has assigned moral concepts to things in scripture whose existence was primarily legal, rather than moral or ethical in a universal sense.

Paul seeks to address the underlying disease: arrogance. It would appear that there was a small, vocal, powerful group within the Corinthian Church that flaunted and boasted about their supposed “spiritual freedom.” On the other side were those (larger in number) who saw the other group’s behavior as inappropriate but were afraid to do anything. Perhaps they were hoping that Paul or some other apostle would come and deal with the problem. Paul criticizes both groups. Both behaviors are equally bad, since both contribute to diminishing the true power that is found Jesus Christ.

Paul’s instruction is that churches must take responsibility for themselves to deal with issues that arise. By inference he states that he and the apostles do not hold any authority greater than that present in each gathering: the only Christian authority is found in “our Lord Jesus Christ.” Paul and the apostles will suggest and give counsel, but only the church can take action. Each member of the church has equal responsibility and authority to address and work out solutions to problems when they arise.

The counsel Paul provides is to throw the ____ (fool, idiot, or a stronger term) out of the spiritual body. The purpose is redemption. Based on our own culture we read “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” as some kind of punitive action where it is nothing of the sort. It is a metaphorical description of what Paul hopes to see happen when this man is shamed into repentance. Collectivism and shame/honor are so foreign to the Western mind that we too often fail to properly understand what Paul writes in this and other passages.

In a collectivist culture, the most important entity is the community—the family, the tribe or the country—and not the individual. Preserving the harmony of the community is everyone’s primary goal, and is perceived as much more important than the self-expression or self-fulfillment of the individual. A person’s identity comes not from distinguishing himself from the community, but in knowing and faithfully fulfilling his place… The highest goal and virtule in this sort of culture is supporting the community. This makes people happy (makarios).

Scripture is clear that when we become Christians, we become—permanently and spiritually—a part of the church. We become part of the family of God, with all the responsibilities and expectations that word connotes in the non-Western world. We don’t choose who else is a Christian with us. But we are committed to them, bound to them by the Spirit. And we are not free to dissociate our identities from them—mainly because once we are all in Christ, our own individual identities are no longer of primary importance.

Jesus viewed us—his church—as a collectivist community. He came to establish a people of God, over which he would reign as king. It is not really “me and Jesus.”[2]

For Paul there is no individual Christian or even individual congregations. All Christians and all churches exist as the universal church. In a mysterious way every Christian is spiritually connected to all others. What happens in one corner of the physical world does affect Christians on the other side of the globe.

Paul is unhappy with the whole of the Corinthian Church. He is displeased with the man who is violating legal codes and social taboos. He is displeased with the group that flaunts this as evidence that they are spiritually free and thus no longer bound by human traditions. And he is displeased with the silent majority that has failed to take action.

Paul appears to be of the mind that when the reputation of Christ is being tarnished, Christians must not remain silent, even if that means for a period of time it might result in strife and discord. The long term goals of Christ’s mission outweighs short term setbacks.

Christian unity is a foundational principle, but it cannot be achieved when one group arrogantly proclaims itself as true and silences everyone else. This is Paul’s primary concern in this section of 1 Corinthians.

[1] Understanding the Bible Commentary on 1 Corinthians, entry 13 for 1 Cor. 5:1-13.

[2] Misreading Scripture With Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understanding the Bible; E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien; Kindle edition, locations 1010, 1141, 1173.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pausing the series until May

This series will be on hiatus until May while I am taking a bit of time off. In the meantime, feel free to catch up on earlier discussions.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

[Crosspost] Sermon: Living the Easter Life

I posted this sermon, preached at the Presbyterian Church, at my other blog. The primary text is 1 Corinthians 4:11-13, 16.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Essay 1—Cross and Unity—(4) Unity Revisited, Part 2

Outline: E1.4-Unity Revisited-2
Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:18-4:16
Discussion Audio (1h54m)

Christianity is not about who “I follow” but who “We imitate”

This session discusses the closing of Paul’s first essay in his First Epistle to the Corinthians. Paul continues to focus on the cross of Christ event and applies its meaning as the solution to the problem of divisions.

At least some of the Corinthians had broken into factions, each looking to a different leader and placing him on a pedestal as above all the others. They thought they were doing the leaders a favor, but Paul writes that what in fact they are doing is attempting to elevate their own positions, using the leaders as weapons against one another. Paul denounces this anti-Christian behavior. Paul writes that ethical behavior must take priority over knowledge or doctrinal purity. When the question is on who is teaching a more pure gospel, it is not for him or anyone else to judge, but judgment is to be left to Christ. All who are faithful to their calling from Christ are building the temple of Christ. All who promote harmony in the community of believers are doing the work of building up. Any who foster strife, quarreling, and division are destroying the temple.

Paul writes that all teachers have something to contribute to the church. By claiming only one is worthy, or one is more worthy than others, Paul writes that the Corinthians are in fact rejecting God’s gifts.

The Corinthian error is an easy one to repeat… Our slogans take the form of "I am of the Presbyterians," or "of the Pentecostals," or "of the Roman Catholics." Or they might take ideological forms: "I am of the liberals," or "of the evangelicals," or "of the fundamentalists." And these are also used as weapons: "Oh, he's a fundamentalist, you know." Which means that we no longer need to listen to him, since his ideology has determined his overall value as a spokesman for God. It is hardly possible in a day like ours that one will not have denominational, theological, or ideological preferences. The difficulty lies in allowing that it might really be true that "all things are ours," including those whom we think God would do better to be without. But God is full of surprises; and he may choose to minister to us from the "strangest" of sources, if we were but more truly "in Christ" and therefore free in him to learn and to love.[1]

Paul writes that Christians are responsible to serve one another, but they are only accountable to God. The measure of evaluation is not what results have been achieved, but have they been faithful to God’s assignment. Paul’s employer is God, not the Corinthians. He serves the Corinthians, but he will not be dictated or influenced by their evaluations and criticisms.

In the concluding remarks on this first essay, Paul engages in strong irony and sarcasm to gain the Corinthian Christians’ attention. He repeats back to them statements they have made about themselves and infuses them with sarcastic irony. He then contrasts himself and his colleagues against what the Corinthians are saying about themselves.

Paul and the apostles live the way of the cross. The Corinthians (at least some of them) thought Paul’s way was weak and foolish. Paul cites scripture to show that his way is true and their way is false.

Paul describes his way as that of non-retaliation. He does not respond to violence and abuse in kind.

[Paul] knew what physical deprivation meant… His reward was often insult, persecution and slander; but Paul responded according to the irenic admonition of Jesus. The end result of all this was that the dirt scoured from the world was poured upon him and his apostolic co-laborers. They then acted as cleansing agents, taking to themselves hate, malice, and bitterness; and by absorbing this without violent or vengeful response, they took away those evils. Thus in a particular way they were carrying on the work of Christ.[2]

Paul’s final appeal is “imitate me.” He does not say “follow me” or “follow my teachings” or to follow anyone else’s teachings. It is “imitate me.” Christian discipleship is not all about gaining more knowledge, more book learning, more lectures, more sermons, but it is more about imitating Christians in our midst who have developed the character and display the glory of Christ.

What becomes transparent in this final appeal is that for Paul right thinking simply is not enough. The gospel must result in appropriate behavior as well.[3]

[1] New International Commentary on the New Testament, The First Epistle; entry on 1 Cor. 3:23.
[2] Orr/Walther, 1 Corinthians; quoted in Bailey, loc. 1748
[3] NICNT, 1 Cor. 4:14-21

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Review: Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes

The following is copied from my review posted on Goodreads.

Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 CorinthiansPaul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians by Kenneth E. Bailey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are plenty of other reviews that go in-depth, so I will limit my comments to a brief summary of my reaction and recommendation.

Dr. Bailey provides a perspective into interpreting 1 Corinthians that is different from most other commentaries. The rhetorical approach that sees the Hebrew rhetorical structure is valuable in uncovering meanings that may be missed or undeveloped in the typical linear reading of the epistle.

As some reviewers have noted, this book is much closer to a traditional commentary than some of his other works that focus far more on cultural background. At the same time Bailey provides cultural insights that are vital to interpretation that are often not found in other commentaries.

Bailey departs from the conservative, evangelical interpretations of several key topics in Christian doctrine. These include the role of women in the church, the theory/model of Christ's atonement, and the nature of the human soul/spirit. I believe Bailey presents his case expertly, using history, cultural studies, literature, and rhetoric to build his case for each. Will it convince everyone? Probably not. Yet the weight he lends is considerable simply by the weight of his background, expertise, and experience.

I emphatically recommend this commentary. It isn't something fro which one can directly create sermons, but used alongside more traditional commentaries and resources, it provides insight and understanding that cannot be found elsewhere. It fills in gaps that one encounters from more traditional studies. It helps the student see the epistle from a new perspective.

View all my reviews

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Paul does not teach substitutionary atonement

I realize this entry jumps far ahead into 1 Corinthians, but as it has to do with the past Easter weekend I felt I had to post this. The following is from Kenneth Bailey’s commentary on 1 Corinthians, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes. The excerpt is from the chapter on 1 Corinthians 15:1-20. Through it Dr. Bailey appears to affirm the Christus Victor model of the atonement.

Two works I recommend on further study of Christus Victor include Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement and Healing the Gospel: A Radical Vision for Grace, Justice, and the Cross.

Excerpts were taken from the Kindle edition of Bailey’s commentary, found at locations 5097 through 5121.

It is impossible to deal with this text without noting the work of the medieval theologian Anselm (b. A.D. 1033), who developed the widely influential substitutionary theory of the atonement… For Anselm "Christ died for our sins" meant that Christ was a substitute for sinful humankind. One of the major difficulties with this theory is that it has allowed the word for to take on commercial overtones. [Examples of commercial exchange of goods for payment]…

Anselm developed this theory in the eleventh century… How then did Christians for the first millennium become believers when they did not have the substitutionary theory of the atonement to help them understand the cross? The simple answer is, the early Christians did not need Anselm… [Reference to parable of good shepherd, Lk. 15:4-7.] The focus is on the rescue, not the penalty.

The father in the parable of the prodigal son thought only of his love for his son when he humiliated himself in public by running down the crowded village street to reconcile his son before the son reached the hostile village. As he ran he was offering a costly demonstration of unexpected love. He was not paying a debt…

In Luke 15, along with other parables and dramatic actions, Jesus was indeed interpreting his own cross. The father in the parable was able to reprocess anger into grace and offer a costly demonstration of unexpected love to his yet self-confident son. The son planned to “work and pay” for his sins. He thought the issue was the lost money, and surmised that if he could get job training he would one day be able to pay back everything that he had squandered. It was only when he saw the depth of his father's suffering love that he understood the depth of his sin, and only then could he accept to be found and restored by an act of pure grace.

"Christ died because of our sins" is the preferred (legitimate) Arabic translation of this text. Our sins caused his death. The grave danger in much popular reflection on the atonement relates to the introduction of a third party. The theory, in its simplest form, is as follows: God is angry over sin, and he could justly punish us. But Jesus enters the picture and takes the punishment for us. So far, so good. In this sense Jesus is rightly understood as a substitute for us. But is Jesus a third party? Is God the Father a separate God from God the Son?

To affirm for this view is to create a strong whiff of Zoroastrianism, where there is a good god (Ahura Mazdah), and an evil god (Ahriman), a god of light and a god of darkness. The believer's task is to serve the good god, who protects us from the evil god. But not so the New Testament. Paul writes, "God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us" (Rom 5:8). He also wrote, "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them" (2 Cor 5:19). There is no third party. God is the one who acts in Christ out of love to reconcile us to himself. There is no split in the heart of God, with God the Father opposing God the Son.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Essay 1—Cross and Unity—(4) Unity Revisited, Part 1

Outline: E1.4-Unity Revisited-1
Passage: 1 Corinthians 3:1-17
Discussion Audio (1h33m)

You – the church community – are the restoration of the Land and the Temple
promised to Israel by the prophets of old.

[Paul] was not de-Zioning the tradition; rather he was transforming it into a new form of Zionism that needed no particular geography and no special building.[1]

In this section of the letter, Paul crafts his argument around a radical thought: the Third Temple of Old Testament prophecies is fulfilled in the community of the faithful, the believers of Jesus Christ. The Second Temple in Jerusalem was still operating, going through its rituals and traditions. For Paul, however, the presence of God was no longer found in a physical temple located on a physical plot of land, but in the spiritual Temple of spiritual Israel. (No wonder many Jews in Jerusalem were upset with Paul and his teachings – see Acts.)

As children of the Enlightenment we have largely come to see the acquiring of truth as a head trip, and that a good mind and a willingness to work hard is all that is required to understand any form of truth, including theological truth. Paul disagrees.[2]

In the first part of the section under discussion, Paul returns to the problem of division and the Corinthian claims that they were “following” one named leader or another. As a result of their claims the church was undergoing division and strife, as each faction claimed they were better than the others.

Paul would have none of that. The truths of Christianity are not found through teachings alone. Dedication to teachings is not enough. Placing teachers on pedestals, holding up their teachings, and making the claim to follow them are not enough.

Paul sees ethical actions (orthopraxy), not intellectual orthodoxy, as the primary evidence of a genuine Christian life. By their quarreling and strife, the Corinthians demonstrate that they are not spiritual, in contrast to the claims they have made about themselves.

As Paul works through the closing arguments in this first essay, he introduces motifs that he will repeat in subsequent essays, and which he will bring to a climax in the Ode to Love in chapter 13.

Paul uses two parables—the parable of the farmer and field, and the parable of the builders and building—to illustrate the importance God places upon the community of believers, the Church. Paul declares that this new land and temple, placed on the foundation of Jesus Christ and being built up by his servants, is the eternal temple. God will protect this temple. Nothing will be allowed to destroy it. Anyone who works against it will be destroyed. Salvation is found, not by an individual devotion to God, but by choosing to enter into a relationship with God by becoming a part of his faithful community. (This thought is foreign to modern Western people where a “personal relationship with Jesus” is so often held as the key to salvation; but the concept of salvation through belonging to a community would have been perfectly normal and expected in Hebrew thought.)

The security of God's people is found not so much in their individuality ("if anyone destroys") as in their membership in the corporate people of God ("you are that temple"). God formed and God guards God's temple from destruction.[3]

[1] Bailey, loc. 1447
[2] Bailey, loc. 1378
[3] Understanding the Bible Commentary: 1 Corinthians, entry for 3:17

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Essay 1—Cross and Unity—(3) Wisdom Through Spirit

Outline: E1.3-Wisdom Through Spirit
Passage: 1 Corinthians 2:3-16
Discussion Audio (1h27m)

The Lord of glory was crucified for our glory.

The cross of Christ continues to be the center of Paul’s message. In this next section of his first essay, Paul writes that the Spirit of God is necessary for a person to comprehend the mystery of the wisdom and power of the cross. What is this mystery of the wisdom and power of the cross?

This mystery teaching of the Spirit is that “God decreed before the ages” (2:7) “the Lord of glory” (2:8) would be crucified “for our glory” (2:7). In other words the wisdom and power of the cross is its power to transform believers into Christ’s character.

Behind the Greek word doxa (glory) is the Hebrew word kabod (weight). In Middle Eastern culture, a "weighty" person (rajul thagil) has to do with wisdom, balance, stability, reliability, sound judgment, patience, impartiality, nobility and the like.[1]

It is this teaching that Paul believes he was called to preach. It is the only teaching that can unite peoples of different ethnicity, culture, socio-economic backgrounds, and religions. It is a teaching that requires both Reason (Logos) and Spirit (Pneuma) to comprehend fully.

Logic and reasoning are not enough. There is a component in the gift of grace that equips the believer to understand the things of God. Paul moves in a world that cannot be reconciled to the worldview of the Enlightenment.[2]

[1] Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes, location 1227

[2] Bailey, loc. 1323

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Essay 1—Cross and Unity—(2) Wisdom of the Cross—Part 2

Outline: E1.2-Wisdom of the Cross (2)
Passage: 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2
Discussion Audio (1h17m)

Isaiah, Pericles, Paul…

I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;

I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.[1]

We examine 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:2 once more; this time from the perspective of a Jewish audience and a Greek audience. We examine how Paul carefully utilizes rhetorical patterns from each audience and skillfully combines them into a single hymn of the cross. By literally (literally!) combining Hebrew and Greek thought, Paul illustrates how the church ought to be a community where diversity can come together in unity. Ethnic differences remain and are appreciated, but all are united around the cross of Christ.

… You must yourselves realize the power of Athens, and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then, when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honour in action that men were enabled to win all this… [2]

God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” [3]

Here are summary points (duplicated from the study outline):

  1. The cross is the center of Paul’s Christian theology. Not Jesus’ teachings or his ethics, but the cross. Jesus’ teachings and ethics are an outflow of the power demonstrated by the cross event.
  2. Paul responds to Jewish objections to the cross of Christ by appealing to Isaiah’s servant song: it is not a stumbling block; it is the greatest sign that could be given.
  3. Paul responds to Greek objections to the cross of Christ by structuring his words around an epitphios [funeral oratory] delivered by Pericles: it is wisdom, not foolishness, to those who believe.
  4. Paul affirms the use of well-crafted rhetoric and eloquence to deliver the gospel.
  5. Paul disavows that any human words or wisdom can add to the power of the cross.
  6. Paul warns against removing the cross from gospel proclamation, as that will remove the source of gospel power.
  7. Paul affirms that ethnic differences can (should) remain and be appreciated and celebrated, but that differences need not be cause for division.
  8. God sends, Paul came. God calls, and people believe. God is the agent of initiation. Human responsibility is to respond appropriately.

[1] Isaiah 50:5b-6 (ESV)

[2] Thucydides (c.460/455-c.399 BCE): Pericles' Funeral Oration from the Peloponnesian War (Book 2.34-46) at 

[3] 1 Corinthians 1:27-31 (ESV)