I recently completed a study of 1 Corinthians in my daily Bible reading. I would like to share six ways in which my theology was bolstered and corrected by the text.
My Faith Depends on God’s Call (1:22-24)
My understanding of God’s salvific call was strengthened. “Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom” (1:22). “Greeks” encompasses the entire Gentile world. In contrast to what unbelievers want, we preach Christ crucified (v.23a). Christ is a stumbling block to Jews – as if the crucified carpenter from Nazareth was actually God? “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (Jn 1:46). Christ is also foolishness to Greeks – to suggest that a Jewish man’s crucifixion has any relevance to my life? The gospel proves to be the supreme universally unaccepted message. Who are the ones that actually respond positively? “But to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). God’s calling for salvation does not simply search for a difference, it makes a difference.
A Test for Apostleship (4:9-13)
Some groups who profess to be Christian actually claim to have apostles in their churches. The traditional Christian understanding has been that the apostles died in the first century and no more have since been given to the church. I believe that 1 Corinthians 4:9 could be one test of apostleship: “For, I think, God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death; because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men.” If a man claims to be an apostle yet lives a life of relative ease in this world, we can point to this passage as proof that the profession is false. Is he both hungry and thirsty, poorly clothed, roughly treated, and homeless (v.11)? Does he toil physically, bless when reviled, endure when persecuted, conciliate when slandered (v.12-13a)? Is he scum in the eyes of the world, the dregs of all things (v.13b)? If not, he is an imposter.
Church Discipline is Vital (5:1-13)
A man in the Corinthian church was engaged in sexual immorality with his father’s wife (5:1). Paul’s bottom-line instruction was to “remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (v.13). His reason, however, was not for judgment (as Paul wrote in Romans 14:10-13, “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God…therefore let us not judge one another anymore”) but salvation. First, releasing the unrepentant man would encourage him towards repentance and thus life: “I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor 5:5). Second, releasing the unrepentant man would keep the congregation safe from unrepentant habits: “Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened” (v.7). Third, drawing from John 15:1-9, a healthy, obedient local church most clearly glorifies God in its holiness.
Marriage Principles in Persecution (7:25-38)
This passage further developed my theology of marriage. I understand “in view of the present distress” (v.26) as referring to a time of hardship and persecution in the church. In such a time, “it is good for a man to remain as he is” (cf. v.32-35). Paul leaves marriage in persecution ultimately in the hands of an individual’s conscience (ex. vv.36-38) but encourages us against it. This context is important to understand. It means that Paul is not setting singleness as a universal ideal above marriage. The joining of man and woman should still be the normative goal of every individual (i.e. only to be unpursued if celibacy is clearly gifted [v.7]).
Vocational Ministers Should Be Paid (9:14)
Asking for a salary in vocational ministry can be uncomfortable. Is it appropriate for a pastor to speak frankly with a congregation about his salary? Paul clears the minister’s conscience: “The Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel” (9:14). A shepherd’s salary is mirrored by Israel’s payment to the Levites for their service (v.13). “Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?” (v.7). Paul clearly did not preach the gospel for money (vv.17-18), but he likewise did not advocate that the church be built wholly on lay-ministers.
Communion is a Sign of Grace (10:1-5; 11:26-27)
The Israelites ate and drank from the blessings of God in the wilderness (10:1-4), but “with most of them God was not well-pleased” (v.5). Though they partook in signs of God’s grace, they craved evil things and sought idols (vv.6-7). Clearly, we cannot mistake signs of grace with grace itself (cf. Rom 9:1-5). Paul applies this broader principle to the Communion table. When we take the Lord’s Supper, we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes (1 Cor 11:26). The Lord’s Supper cannot be a means of grace, because some who partake in it remain guilty (v.27). God’s grace remains the ultimate ground for salvation, and within that, faith for justification. Our time together with the bread and wine (vv.23-26) should be a reminder of the gospel promise extended to us all, yet it should not be taken as a means by which we are saved.