1 Corinthians 11

Chapter eleven contains two sections which do not necessarily relate to one another but seem to continue either the list of questions that Paul was answering or some issues that needed clarification and instruction. The first section deals with the propriety of women in church gatherings (1 Corinthians 11:2-16), something Paul could “praise” them for. This is a difficult section, which has resulted in a variety of interpretations, but the key is found in 1 Corinthians 11:3, showing that there is a proper order and authority of things. Like the Father is Christ’s functional “head” without any thought of superiority, so man is women’s “head” without insinuating that women are inferior. However (as he will demonstrate again in chapter 14), Paul expected a level of order in the church gatherings. Specifically, this was displayed by the head coverings the women were to wear. One major difficulty is in determining whether these were cultural issues limited to Corinth or the first century or whether they are timeless principles still applicable today. Another question has to do with the nature of the head covering, whether it required an external covering, like a shawl, or if it could refer simply to her hair. The comment “because of the angels” in 1 Corinthians 11:10 has also confounded scholars throughout the centuries, but it may have a connection to Ephesians 2-3, where Paul wrote that the Church is observed by angels to demonstrate God’s wisdom.

Although it is impossible to conclusively resolve the debate here, it seems likely that the issue is connected to the abuse of freedoms the Corinthians displayed in the previous chapters, so Paul was correcting their loose attitudes of respect to their husbands, particularly in their public worship services. If this were simply a cultural issue, then a modern comparison may be a woman taking her husband’s last name rather than keeping her maiden name. 1

The second section is in regard to something that Paul could not “praise” them for, namely, their decorum when they attended their love feasts in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper celebrations (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). He could not praise them because their factions were on full display during these times, rather than the unity in Christ that should have been obvious. One example was that some did not wait for the whole congregation to be present before they began. They would have eaten their fill before others arrived, leaving them hungry.

Paul used this opportunity to remind them of the sacred importance of the celebration, that he received these instructions directly from Christ, and that it is a proclamation of his death on our behalf. In fact, their abuse of this ordinance had caused some of them to become physically ill and others even to die. This is one of at least a half-dozen passages teaching that physical death is a potential judgment on decidedly unrepentant believers. To not fall under God’s judgment, Paul wrote, they (and we) should closely examine themselves before participating in the celebration. He had other things to tell them, as well, that he would hold onto until he arrived.

Notes:

  1. I have taught this for several years as a modern application of Paul’s general rule of a wife acknowledging her husband’s “headship,” and Constable seems to consider it one possible application as well.

1 Corinthians 10

Chapter ten approaches Paul’s discussion of freedoms from a different perspective. To this point it has been about not flaunting legitimate freedoms. In this chapter, Paul speaks of extending freedoms to areas in which we are not free. Using the Jewish Exodus generation as an example, Paul showed they had experienced all of God’s blessings (freedoms), yet they wanted more (1 Corinthians 10:1-6). Paul wrote that we can look to them as examples, considering that the judgments God placed on them was because they went after evil desires, things they were not free to have or do.

1 Corinthians 10:7-10 lists four “nots” that Paul commanded the Corinthians: 1) “do not be idolaters”; 2) “let us not be immoral”; 3) “let us not put Christ to the test”; and 4) “do not complain.” The Israelites were judged for each of these things, and we are not free to engage in them either. In fact, it is when we think, in pride, that we are exercising our freedoms that we are most likely to fall (1 Corinthians 10:12-13). On the other hand, we should not be so fearful about situations that may be tempting, that we do nothing at all. God will help us through any temptation, whether those just listed or any others.

It seems that a particular situation they faced had to do with attending feasts to pagan gods rather than just purchasing meat in the market (1 Corinthians 10:14-22). The mature believers knew there was nothing wrong with the food and no such false gods, so they participated in these feasts and had a good meal. However, the weaker, immature believers considered this to make them “partners with demons.” Paul told them all to refrain from such feasts, because it was tantamount to the Israelites testing God in the wilderness, trying to participate with both demons and God, which must not be. Eating food sacrificed to an idol was one thing; joining in a feast celebrating these demonic gods was not a freedom they could exercise.

He concluded this chapter with a few final principles about our freedoms (1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1). First, not all freedoms are beneficial to ourselves or others, and the ultimate principle is still love. Second, enjoy everything with a clean conscience, because “the earth and its abundance are the Lord’s.” Third, enjoy a meal with a clean conscience, unless a weaker believer is present and clearly concerned about it. Fourth, in all things, work to glorify God and not intentionally offend anyone (Jews, Gentiles, or believers). Fifth, imitate Paul and Jesus who both lived for the spiritual benefit of those around them.

1 Corinthians 9

Chapter nine continues the teaching on Christian freedom, expanding out from the initial question about food dedicated to idols. In order to expound on that more, Paul demonstrated how he treated others. There should have been no question as to whether or not Paul was an apostle, which meant he should have full access to the freedoms we have in Christ (1 Corinthians 9:1-3).

When he was asked about how to live out his freedoms, he pointed to his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:4-12a). As an apostle, he had the right to have a wife and minister alongside her. As an apostle, he had the right to be financially supported by the people he had pointed to Christ and the churches he started. The other apostles did that, and he had those rights as well. In fact, it made no sense that his spiritual children should not take care of his financial needs, and he gave a series of illustrations to prove it.

As he showed in chapter eight, however, the question is not one of rights and freedoms but love. The fact that he had those rights did not mean that he forced them on others. In fact, in many cases he did not exercise his rights, “so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:12b-18). Paul chose to forego his rights and freedoms, because he had been charged (and may have been accused even in Corinth) of being like the traveling charlatans, snake-oil salesmen, who deceitfully sold their wares then left town. Because of his itinerant ministry, Paul chose to not take funds from the places he was preaching, so that when he left town, the new believers would not feel taken advantage of, thereby hurting the gospel ministry.

Broadly speaking, then, Paul chose to use his freedoms to make the most of the opportunities, depending on whom he was ministering to (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). Rather than flaunting his freedoms, he chose to limit them for the benefit of those around him. This is what he meant when he wrote several years earlier, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use freedom as an opportunity to indulge your flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:13).

Ultimately, he refused to let his personal desires control him (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). Doing so could disqualify him from future ministry. Instead, he controlled his desires. Even though it was uncomfortable or restrictive sometimes, it was better that people came to know Jesus than that Paul maintained his personal freedoms and rights.

1 Corinthians 8

Chapter eight started a new broad topic with several different parts: freedoms available to believers. The Corinthians’ first question had to do with meat that had been sacrificed to idols in the pagan temples. However, before answering that, Paul made a quick detour. When seeing someone else do something we think is wrong or questionable, we are prone to say, “They don’t know better.” Regarding this issue, though, Paul wrote that knowledge was not the issue; in fact, knowledge could be misused (1 Corinthians 8:1-3). The issue was not knowledge but brotherly love.

It seems that he had taught them on this subject already, so he knew what they knew (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). They knew that “an idol in this world is nothing,” and they knew that “there is no God but one.” Because of this, food that had been offered to idols (representing various false gods) should mean nothing to these believers in the only true God.

The problem was that not everyone was aware that these idols were nothing (1 Corinthians 8:7-13), including some of their fellow believers who had come out of these pagan religions. They may have even been the ones who asked the question: Is food offered to idols fit for a Christian? For some former pagans, eating this food would defile their conscience, as if they were worshiping those false gods again. They genuinely thought they were sinning against the true God by enjoying food that had been dedicated to a false god. For this reason, Paul encouraged the believers to refrain from eating this food if a fellow believer might cause himself to sin by participating with them.

This is why the issue was really about brotherly love not knowledge of the truth. For Paul, there were many things that he would rather not do – even though they were perfectly fine – if participating in them would cause a fellow Christian to sin against God, even in his conscience.

1 Corinthians 7

Chapter seven introduces a new section of this letter in which Paul answered some specific questions from the church – marriage, divorce, and remarriage (ch. 7); Christian freedom (ch. 8-10); spiritual gifts (ch. 12-14); and the resurrection of the dead (ch. 15).

Regarding marriage and sexuality, Paul made four specific clarifications. First, sexual relations are to be maintained as a normal part of a Christian marriage, and this is the limit of sexual activity for a Christian (1 Corinthians 7:1-7). Within marriage, sex is not to be used as a way to manipulate one’s spouse, but each spouse is to consider his or her body the other’s. If a couple is to go without sex for a long period of time, it should be by mutual consent with a plan to resume as soon as possible. 1 He did note that this was a personal concession of his. It seems he was not married and thought celibacy to be a perfectly good option (and possibly even a spiritual gift).

Second, for Christians who are not married, Paul recommended that they remain unmarried like he was (1 Corinthians 7:8-9). However, if they simply could not contain their sexual desires, then they should get married, so they would not fall into sexual sin.

Third, for Christians who are married, Paul had nothing more to say than what Jesus had already taught, namely, they should remain married and not get divorced (1 Corinthians 7:10-11). The occasion of adultery was Jesus’ sole exception (Matthew 19:9). If a Christian couple were to divorce (except because of unfaithfulness), they must remain unmarried or be reconciled to each other.

Fourth, in the case of a mixed marriage between a believer and an unbeliever, Paul was more lenient in matters of divorce and remarriage (1 Corinthians 7:12-16). His one rule was that the believer should not file for divorce. However, if the unbeliever files, the believer is to let the unbeliever go, and then the believer is free to remarry. 2 The reason that the believer should not leave is because of the testimony he or she can have with the unbelieving spouse and children (see also 1 Peter 3:1-6).

The problem is that marriage is a lifetime commitment, often entered into too young and immature. Over time, people think the grass is greener somewhere else, so they look for reasons to escape. Paul said that should not be. With the few exceptions just mentioned, believers should remain in whatever state they find themselves (1 Corinthians 7:17-24).

Because of the expected persecution that was coming, Paul thought it wise to avoid marriage altogether (1 Corinthians 7:25-40). This is not because he disliked marriage (as he is often charged) but because marriage takes commitment and time, both of which could be used to further the Church if people did not marry. However, for those who choose to marry, they should do so knowing that would become their top priority. At the end he also mentioned that widows are free to remarry as well, as long as they do so “in the Lord.”

Notes:

  1. Paul’s mention of prayer shows that this is can be considered a type of fasting. However, medical issues and other reasons may also require periods without sexual activity.
  2. While this sounds as if it should be simple, divorce cases almost never are. I have written at length about this in my book, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage: Fresh Help and Hope from the Bible (Xulon Press, 2007).

1 Corinthians 6

Chapter six addresses three more issues that are all particularly relevant for the modern church. First, Paul taught how believers are to handle conflict with each other (1 Corinthians 6:1-8). It seems that the Corinthian believers were dragging each other to court to settle their differences. While this seems natural (especially today), the apostle said that unbelievers had no business arbitrating disputes between believers. According to 1 Corinthians 2:15, spiritual people should be able to discern all things, so Paul stipulated that the elders of the church (who should be spiritual people) should take care of the disagreements between congregation members. Paul claimed that it is actually better to lose an argument than for two believers to sue each other in a secular court. 1

Second, Paul addressed the issue of sanctification, the maturing process that God intends for all believers to go through (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). Not only can unrighteous people not understand spiritual matters, they will have no inheritance in the Messianic Kingdom that is awaiting believers. 2 Any believer should be able to look at his past (or potential) life and say, “God saved me from this.” The list of sins given are all lifestyle sins, i.e., habitual sins that control one’s life. Even as depraved as some of these are, they are no match for God’s cleansing power in a believer’s life. Paul did not allow anyone to say, “That’s just the way I am.”

Third, Paul addressed sexual sin specifically (1 Corinthians 6:12-20). Even though Christians are not under the Mosaic Law, we cannot engage in just anything we want. One of Israel’s greatest downfalls was sexual sin. It was pervasive among the pagan cultures, leading to some of Israel’s great defeats, and it continues to pervade modern culture, affecting the church in the same way. Paul reminded the Corinthians that, as the Body of Christ, engaging in sexual sin has the same effect as Christ hiring a prostitute. How could we do that? We must remember that we have already be purchased (redeemed) to be used by God, for God, and his own Holy Spirit indwells us to keep us from sin and help us glorify God.

Notes:

  1. Part of the issue with this today is that there are multiple local churches in a city. Corinth had one church with elders leading and ruling over all the believers there. Even still, disputes between believers in different churches today could be addressed by the elders of both churches, if those churches practice biblical church government.
  2. Believers can lose reward in the Millennial Kingdom based on how we live in this life, but unbelievers have no entrance to the Kingdom at all or reward to lose.

1 Corinthians 5

Chapter five contains some of the harshest words from Paul in any of his inspired letters. The reason had to do with a situation he found appalling: a Christian man was having an affair with his step-mother (1 Corinthians 5:1-5). Not only was this something that the surrounding pagan culture would apparently not even consider, rather than exercising discipline, the congregation actually applauded it! Paul was quick with his verdict. If they had not done anything about it by the time he arrived, Paul was excommunicate the man himself.

Although the congregation must have thought that they were showing their “tolerance” and “inclusiveness,” Paul used an analogy of bread and yeast (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). Like a tiny bit of yeast permeates the entire loaf of bread, so even a little sin can permeate a church, and this was not just a little sin. At the Passover, the Jews eat unleavened bread. Since Jesus was the ultimate Passover sacrifice, how could they tolerate any sin at all in their midst?

In an earlier letter Paul had told them to not associate with immoral people (1 Corinthians 5:9-13). They took this to mean they should keep away the immoral people outside the church but still love everyone and everything inside the congregation. Paul had to correct their thinking. It is impossible to dissociate with all immoral people, because we still have to function in this world. Instead, his command was with regard to those inside the church. Contrary to modern opinion, a congregation is to be in the business of “judging” each other, to help keep each other right before God. Blatantly unrepentant people are to be removed from the congregation until they repent.