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.

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