I imagine the church at Corinth was not an easy church to lead. Yet, the Apostle Paul went far and beyond to help them become what God would have them be as a church. We likely only have two of the four letters we can tell Paul wrote this church (maybe three if our Second Corinthians is actually two letters combined). We can tell from the way Paul starts many of the sections in First Corinthians that this letter is actually a response to some sort of correspondence from the Corinthian Christians. Next maybe only to Ephesus, Paul spent more time in Corinth during his missionary journeys than anywhere else. As challenging as the Corinthians were to Paul, he dearly loved them and that comes out in these letters.
Paul seems to be combating several issues in these two letters, each letter quite different from the other.
Holy living in an unholy culture: Corinth was home to many temples, not all of which were likely in use at the time of Paul. The most famous of these was the Temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, in which 1000 temple prostitutes once had served. On the north side of the city was a temple to Asclepius, the god of healing. This background of idolatry and sexuality will appear several times in the two letters. This may be Corinth’s most recognized vice. There is a now-archaic English verb, “to corinthianize,” which means to engage in lewd and indecent acts of debauchery, especially unbridled and indecent sexuality. Paul’s instructions will be unequivocal: navigate through a sinful society with purity, abstinence, and consideration for your brothers and sisters in Christ. This point is also what makes many people say 1 Corinthians is especially relevant for today’s world.
Airs of superiority amongst the members and the division that naturally would bring: Wisdom was key to the Greek culture. At least in some people’s minds, one’s value was attached in part to their intellectual development. Education, philosophy and conventional thinking would have been held in high esteem. As we will see early in 1 Corinthians, this attitude was clearly present in the Corinthian church as well. This thinking also seems to have shaped how they thought about the spiritual gifts they had been given by the Spirit. A pecking order of giftedness seems to have been causing a problem, as was their penchant to group off according to which religious teacher they preferred. Unity will be the most recurring point in these letters.
Misunderstandings about the resurrection of the dead: There can be no misunderstandings about this all-important idea fundamental to Christianity, yet it seems the Corinthians had many. Paul will speak to the who, when, how, and what of the resurrection from the dead.
Encouraging the Corinthian Christians to give generously to famine-striken Christians in Jerusalem: Situated at a main commercial nexus point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, there would have been a good bit of wealth in the city. Paul will encourage his Greek brothers and sisters to use that wealth to show tangible love for the Jewish brothers and sisters who started this movement they are now a part of.
Having to defend this apostolic authority: Paul’s response to this issue composes most of Second Corinthians. This was an especially big deal as questions of authority would have undermined everything Paul had been working for in Corinth. The emphasis on wisdom in Corinthian culture would have contributed to this as Paul was foreign, educated in non-Greek religion and philosophy, and he did not emphasize the charisma commonplace in Greek cultural leaders. More troubling for Paul were false teachers posing as apostles who had come to Corinth since his departure who were turning the church against him. They painted Paul as opportunistic, greedy for their money, unreliable, and unskilled. Paul responds will great passion and fire. For what it’s worth, Paul’s explanation of why he is competent to be a “minister of reconciliation” has been one of my favor sections of Scripture since first training for the ministry in undergrad.
So much of the Corinthian letters has to do with church life. This may be where we see Paul’s pastoral heart best of all.