The Teachings, Part Four
Paul continues his teaching of the Corinthians.
Paul begins 1 Cor. 5 with an expression of incredulity that the people (note: all of them, not some governing body) have not disfellowshipped a man living in sin with his stepmother. And not only is the whole group to administer this discipline (not some elite inquisition behind closed doors), but Paul declares something many believers today say is impossible: to be in fellowship from a distance. Paul is with them in spirit, regardless of the fact that he is not with them physically. This is another rebuttal to the notion that a proper gathering of believers cannot happen outside the walls of a consecrated building. They all, as a group, are to "hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord." There's a lot of theology in that statement, but for our topic in this book the main point is that when someone needs to be excluded from fellowship, it isn't necessarily a declaration of that person being lost, and it is a decision that the whole congregation must agree to.
Then Paul gives the reason for such drastic action: to keep the fellowship pure. In stark contrast, today's "seeker sensitive" movement actively recruits the impure into fellowship, with predictable results. There is hardly a "church" today that would have enough backbone to carry out Paul's instructions to the Corinthians. But for all their faults, the Corinthians still knew the gospel and still had correct doctrine, and most of them were at least not practicing this grievous sin. But did Paul let any of their many faults keep them from having the right and duty to expel the man? No, and this highlights a very important principle: the people expelling the man were very backslidden, worldly, and immature! They were condoning this evil thing, yet Paul commands them to administer discipline. So much for the excuse that since all of us are sinners then we have no right to administer discipline. Paul is certainly lambasting the Corinthians for many things, but even the most immature congregation has to have some standards.
Another lesson learned from this chapter is that Paul had to clarify a misunderstanding, one that has long been a problem in Christianity. Many believers think that to be pure they must withdraw completely from the world, some even to the point of joining monasteries or the like. Many a believer has boasted of their outward purity, but what credit is it to be clean if you never leave your house? The truly pure are those who rub elbows with the world and yet still stay clean. Evidently the people thought Paul had taught them to stay cloistered. That is why in vs. 9-13 he explains where the line of fellowship is drawn, using the case of the man sinning with his stepmother as an illustration. And we would do well to heed this: "… you must not associate with any who claim to be fellow believers but are…". And he punctuates this command with the extent of this rule: do not even eat with such people. Sadly, I could name several prominent and approved leaders in Christendom who exhibit all the things on that list. Truly the wolves are guarding the sheep.
Paul moves on to a new topic in chapter six, that of legal disputes among believers. But we have to be careful not to miss what Paul is saying here. He is not saying that believers give up all their rights as citizens of their country, or he himself would not have used his Roman citizenship on several occasions (see Acts) when he was falsely accused or mistreated. He is undoubtedly talking now about internal disputes within the fellowship.1
Within that discussion Paul makes an important statement: that we believers will judge the world, and even angels! This matter of judging angels will be revisited later, but the point Paul is making here is that we must learn to judge our own disputes, at the very least as a matter of our witness. It would be better, Paul says, to be wronged on internal matters of the congregation, than to sue them and appeal to the ungodly for resolution. God will judge all of us eventually, so even if we do not get justice in this life we certainly will in the next. What is not taught in scripture is that God expects us to just continually absorb injustice at the hands of our spiritual siblings without His ever intending to make sure there is justice for the victims. While our actions have no bearing on our salvation, they are the topic of interest when we stand before God in judgment (what other reason is there for judgment, since our eternal destiny is already sealed?). There will be justice!
Paul is about to move into a broader discussion of sexual immorality, but first he makes a statement most people don't notice: after listing various sins, including homosexuality, he says "And that is what some of you were." So much for the claim that sexual perversion is inborn or unchangeable. The Corinthian congregation included former perverts, former idolaters, former adulterers, former thieves, the formerly greedy, former drunkards, former slanderers, and former swindlers. All are in the same list!2 And all "were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." These were the people charged with throwing out anyone who still practiced such things yet claimed to be saved.
Having put out several "fires", Paul now turns his attention in ch. seven to questions the people had asked about various issues, per verse 1: "Now for the matters you wrote about." This question and answer format will form the bulk of the letter, and is another part of the context we must be careful not to forget. We must also be careful how much we infer from how Paul answers, since we are effectively hearing only one side of a conversation— not simply a lecture. We've all seen comedies or heard jokes about the outrageous misunderstandings that can come from incomplete knowledge, but when such issues affect the Body of Christ it is no laughing matter.
Sometimes a translation, including the TNIV, will insert quotes into the text. But there were no quote marks in ancient Greek, so it really depends completely upon the opinion of the interpreter. However, in some cases there are small clues beyond obvious subject changes or statements he made elsewhere that can tell us when Paul is quoting someone else, which will turn out to be critical later on. The TNIV puts quotes here around "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman." But contextually, it could go either way, as a quote from the Corinthians or a statement by Paul. But the point I'd like to make here is that this is typically done quite inconsistently, since we will see where no quotes were used even when there is clear grammatical and contextual warrant for it.
Regardless of who said what was put in quotes in this case, vs. 3-6 contain an important statement: when it comes to authority (exousion, meaning "jurisdiction"), husbands and wives have it equally over each other's body. This cannot be over-emphasized in light of the current movement toward absolute rule of the husband over the wife. Paul explicitly states the mutuality of this authority; neither wields it over the other in greater force. And note once again this instance of a concession. As we learned in earlier chapters, God can and does make concessions to human weakness, without sanctioning such weakness. But even so, weakness or not, there is to be no "lording over" from one spouse to the other.
In the verses following Paul gives separate instructions to the single, but then he says "To the married I give this command from the Lord" (vs. 10). Why? Didn't he just talk about married couples in the first seven verses? Look at this particular context: it is about divorce, not the institution of marriage and whether any Christian should marry. More importantly, note the use of the singular article: A wife. Is he just referring to any wife, as we might do in English? Then how can we make sense of verse 12, which begins with "To the rest" and is still talking about married couples? Who are "the rest" if Paul is giving a command to all married couples in verses 10-11? From all those clues we can conclude that Paul does not mean all married couples in vs. 10-11, but a particular couple. After all, in vs. 8-9 he could have used the generic singular but didn't: "To the unmarried… them… they…". So he is telling a particular couple that God does not want the wife to leave, but if she does it anyway, she cannot remarry but can reconcile with her husband, and neither does God want the husband to divorce her. Remember this about the writing style of Paul, because it will come up again.
We see it in vs. 12-16, but first we need to address the matter of when Paul says "I, not the Lord" or the opposite. Is he saying that sometimes he is writing under the Spirit's inspiration but other times he is not? No, he is saying that sometimes he has direct verbal commands from God and other times he does not. All are inspired writings, but only some are verbatim from the very mouth of God. We can trust that all scripture has the authority of divine inspiration.
Again in that passage we see that Paul uses singular pronouns, but note this critical difference: it begins with "if any". That makes the use of singular pronouns applicable to the entire group being addressed. It is absent from vs. 10-11. What Paul is saying is that there are at least several couples in the Corinthian assembly that are considering divorce, and they are composed of one believing spouse and one unbelieving spouse. Paul is telling them that they can't divorce just because their spouse is an unbeliever. But on the other hand, as we see in vs. 15-16, Paul does not want them to stay together in strife just because the believer hopes their spouse will be saved. Many interpreters get this exactly backwards. Paul is not saying that they should stay together in misery because of the possibility of salvation! He is, in fact, saying that divorce between an unbeliever and a believer is permissible if they are unable to get along, going so far as to say that "The brother or sister [believer] is not bound in such circumstances." How much more clearly could Paul have put it than that, to say that Christians are not doomed to remain legally married to someone who has already divorced them mentally, spiritually, and emotionally?
Paul will return to more questions about marriage shortly, but in vs. 17-24 he digresses to touch on the issue of whether people should make a complete break from their jobs, marriages, etc. when they get saved. Here again we see compassion and freedom even in Paul's "prescriptions" (the literal meaning of the Greek word sometimes translated "rule" or "command"). And in this he tells us what God thinks of slavery: Christian slaves should watch for opportunities to become free, but not to rebel if no such opportunity presents itself. Yet at the same time a believer must not voluntarily enter into slavery. This has critical impact on the push to tell women they must make themselves slaves of their husbands, fathers, etc.! Some male supremacists argue that when a woman agrees to marry and takes vows to obey her husband, she cannot be considered a slave because she entered into it voluntarily. Paul is saying that this is not permissible for any believer! It is a false teaching to encourage Christian women to take vows of subservience to Christian men; it is in direct violation of scripture.
In the section about marriage not being forbidden but also not being the ideal state for believers (another strong rebuttal to those who insist that a Christian woman's highest calling is marriage and motherhood), note that the Christian man has exactly the same requirement to please his wife as the Christian woman does to please her husband. Again we see Paul teaching mutuality, not any chain of command. And as we learned before about God's practice of making concessions, we must not take Paul's discussion of whether a man should marry (or a father marry off his daughter, depending on the interpretation) as having significance in the use of masculine terminology, as if Paul is somehow sanctioning the perpetual social custom of men owning women! It would make him contradict his own teachings about mutuality.
The last two verses of ch. seven seem to be a separate little section, looking at the flow of the chapter. But here again we see the singular pronoun, and as with vs.10-11 there is nothing to tell us it is meant generically. And when we consider that under Judaism a woman was bound by the law to marry the brother of her deceased husband, we can interpret what Paul says here as that there is a Jewish believer whose husband is near death, and she needs to know whether she is still bound by the law to marry his brother. Paul teaches clearly that a believer whose spouse dies must only marry another believer, so if he hadn't also said that she is free to marry anyone she wishes, she would have been caught between two contradictory commands. Consistently with what he had been saying about marriage for believers, he repeats that it would be ideal for her to just remain single, again showing that marriage is not in fact the highest calling for a woman. I continually marvel at the ability of male supremacists to read these scriptures and still contradict them without the slightest twinge of conscience.
In chapter eight Paul moves to questions about diet. While the arguments he makes concerning symbolism and "eating at the table of idols" are not easy to grasp, I must limit my examination to that which pertains to the quest for what scripture says about power and control. The principle being taught here is that there is no such thing as a distinctly Christian diet, and there is no divine command against eating meat. But many believers do try to make divine laws out of such things anyway. And consistently with what he will write to the Romans (ch. 14), Paul teaches that we must consider the weak in faith above all. To issue decrees one way or the other is to trample on somebody's conscience, and that is a sin against Christ.
The subject of ch. nine is an abrupt shift to the matter of self-defense. Paul shows by example that there is nothing wrong with a believer answering charges made against them, even in terms that are sometimes sarcastic or crude. When some try to control the behavior of others beyond what is warranted by scripture, according to their own personal convictions, they effectively homogenize the Body and try to erase every individual personality. But there is no divinely-mandated Christian persona; there is no approved vocabulary, dress (beyond modesty and for both sexes), or any other kind of micromanagement. Neither extreme, from winking at sin to taking snipes at fellow believers over secondary issues, is Christian behavior.
Within that topic Paul makes some statements typically taken out of context to justify the demand of preachers for salaries. Verses 7-12a are thundered from pulpits (another word not found in scripture), but curiously, 12b is left out, because it plainly states, "But we did not use this right." As before, the examples of Paul and his co-workers is always of self-sufficiency, of parents caring for their children, of laying privilege and rights aside so as to serve without obligation. He repeats this in vs. 15-18, and points out that whoever is paid for their services has only done a job, while whoever serves voluntarily will be rewarded.
In vs. 19-23 Paul is not saying that he tries to look for the "good in other faiths", as is preached today, but that he uses any hook he can to bring people the gospel. In "becom[ing] like one under the law" he is not saying we must all adhere to the Laws of Moses, or even some of them, but that he uses what he knows about it to reason with Jews. Likewise, he uses what he knows about non-Jews to reason with them as well.
At the end of the chapter Paul makes statements typically misunderstood to apply to salvation, as if not even Paul could ever be assured of it. But what has he been talking about all this time? Preaching the gospel, reaching out to people, serving at his own expense. As we learned earlier,3 Paul was striving to reach a prize, not receive a gift, and he has stated in this context that the prize is a future reward for serving faithfully.
In chapter ten Paul gives a history lesson as a backdrop for a warning against idolatry. And this in turn is the basis for what he says about the "bread and cup". Is Paul setting up or endorsing what we would call a "communion service"? If so, he mysteriously left out any details about it. Anything we call an ordinance or requirement would certainly be spelled out in these letters from which we derive our doctrine, but there are no instructions about it. Likewise for water baptism; Paul talks about it happening but gives no detailed directions concerning it, and even downplays it and separates it from the gospel.
But here, especially given the earlier discussion of eating meat offered to idols, we can know that Paul's point about this memorial meal is that if something is done to honor God, that same kind of honor should not also be given to idols. I think the point he is driving at is that if others see us participating in things they associate with their religions, they will think we are only adding our own religious beliefs to the list— just as in ancient Rome, where all gods had to be accepted. But again, per the focus of this book, the important lesson is that since Paul did not give details about any ordinances for the ekklesia, and since we know of God's practice of working through people's social norms, Paul is saying that whatever we do as a group, we should do carefully and with due consideration. Above all, we have no right to institute laws of our own and call them divine or necessary.
In verse 23 we see more statements that are frequently put in quotes. In this case, we do have a clearer grammatical indication: the word translated "but" indicates opposition to the statement before it. There is another indication for strong, extreme opposition that we will examine later, but if this milder word can indicate a quote, certainly there is even more confidence in recognizing a quote when the stronger word is seen. Again, in itself this seems fairly insignificant, but it is something we know about Paul and thus a part of the context.
Paul continues to deal with the issue of conscience in our contacts with the world regarding this matter, and what he says in the second half of the chapter seems almost contradictory to the first. But he is simply presenting the same question from two perspectives: what we mean by what we do, and what others mean by what they do. First he tells believers not to violate their own consciences or give unbelievers the wrong impression, and then he tells believers to consider the consciences of others. The statements in quotes are the pivot point, and Paul is now addressing the other extreme where people saw no reason to restrict themselves since they knew that the other gods were false. He repeats in verses 31-33 what he had said in verse 24: seek the good of others, to the point of giving up your rights for the sake of saving the lost. And he wraps it all up in the first verse of the next chapter, which really belongs with this discussion.
We have come to another shift of topic, to things that have been more obvious points of contention over the centuries. But hopefully we have discovered important truths along the way, and gained a better understanding of where Paul is coming from in all this. We are learning his habits and becoming familiar with his train of thought, his choice of grammar, and his consistent appeal to humility and service out of love for others. Some, even unbelievers, only see Paul as a Pharisee making cold-hearted rules, but we know him better than that. And because we do, we will be better able to follow his reasoning on some very hotly-debated subjects to come.
- 1 A recent case illustrating where the line is drawn is that of Dr. Sheri Klouda (ref. http://tinyurl.com/yu56sl), who was fired from her tenured position as professor of Hebrew at Southwestern Theological Seminary solely because she is female. The laws of our land forbid such a thing, but the excuse was given that this was a private school. However, even with the most narrow male supremacist view of scripture, this position was one that was not exclusively Christian nor carried any "ecclesiastical" authority. It was a terrible miscarriage of justice, and Dr. Klouda has every right, even as a believer, to sue the school in secular courts. And within the faith, femaleness, unlike homosexuality, is not a sin, efforts of male supremacists to say otherwise notwithstanding. This is the poorest witness as well, showing the world that Christians are unjust, cold-blooded, hypocritical, illogical, and hyper-literal.
- 2 Note in verse 18 that Paul does put sexual sin in a class of its own. All sin has the same result, affecting our relationship with God, but scripture never says all sin will have the same penalty on judgment day. There is no use in being judged if God merely needs to count the number of sins. The very fact that we will be judged proves that each sin will be given an appropriate "weight".
- 3 See "A New Creation" on Acts 20:24, later ref. to Phil. 3:14