A Carnal First Century Church

I Corinthians 3:1

Alan Lewis
Elon, North Carolina
July 2010

This morning we want to begin a study of the book of I Corinthians. I want us to read 1:1-9 which is the introduction to the book. Paul wrote this book in the first century but it is still very relevant to the contemporary church. This book is just as relevant today as it was in about 55 AD when it was written.

Some of the problems that the Church at Corinth had are some of the same problems that churches today have but I want to begin with a warning about I Corinthians. This book will challenge you. It will make you feel uncomfortable. Before we begin looking at the book, I want to see what we know about the church of Corinth.

What was the Church of Corinth like?  This church was a little unique. Churches have their own personality. What was the church at Corinth like? In what ways is the church of Corinth like our own church? In what ways was it different?

Characteristics of the Church of Corinth

1. It was a diverse church.

Most churches that come from large metropolitan areas are diverse. Corinth was a city of 500,000 people. It was larger than the population of Raleigh, NC.

  • It was economically diverse.

The church had both rich and poor members (11:20-22) just like our church does but not many of the church members were wealthy. Most people in the church were poor and uneducated (1:26). Apparently, most of the members were from mostly from the lower economic class of society.

  • It was racially diverse.

It was made up of Jews and Gentiles but it was mostly Gentile church (Acts 18:4-7; I Corinthians 12:2). Corinth was a mostly Gentile city in Greece and the church at Corinth was a mostly Gentile church but there was a synagogue there and there were some Jews in the church at Corinth as well. In fact, there were some prominent Jews in the church. A former ruler of the synagogue at Corinth was a member of the church – Crispus (Acts 18:8)

2. It was an Apostolic Church

It was founded by an Apostle. Paul started the church around 50 AD on his second missionary journey. He stayed there for a year and a half (Acts 18:11). He founded the church. He planted the seed (3:6) and laid the foundation of the church (3:10).

He was their spiritual father through the gospel (4:15). It sounds like a good thing to be an apostolic church but, apparently, you can be an apostolic church and be a bad church.

3. It was a House Church

The church in Rome met in Aquila and Priscilla’s house (I Corinthians 16:19-20; Romans 16:3-5) and the one at Corinth met in someone’s house as well. The church is not a house. The church is a group of people that met in someone’s.

We use the word “church” to refer to a building. We saw that we are going down to the church to worship. The NT does not use the word church to refer to a building. The church in the NT is a group of people who make up the body of Christ. Church buildings did not exist until the third century. We do not have a house church, although we have small groups that meet in people’s houses.

4. It was a Charismatic Church

Paul said that they did not lack any spiritual gift (1:7). They didn’t just lack a few of the spiritual gifts. Apparently, they had them all. That was not a bad thing. It was a good thing. This was an area of strength for the church. They excelled in the area of spiritual gifts and Paul praised them for it.

Paul didn’t have to tell the people in Corinth to stir up the gift that was in them (cf. II Timothy 1:6). They had them and were using them. He did tell them to make sure that they exercised their gifts in love and tried to edify people with them. In my own opinion, we are not utilizing all the gifts in the church to their full capacity.

5. It was an Immoral Church

The church at Corinth had some serous moral issues. Paul said that it was so bad that some of them were living worse than the unsaved (5:1). They were getting drunk at Lord’s Table, committing sexual immorality, committing incest, and Some of the Corinthians were visiting prostitutes. They were sleeping with their step mammas. They were getting drunk on communion wine (11:21).

They didn’t get drunk before they came to church. They got drunk while they were taking communion. That seems a little strange to us. You can’t get drunk on grape juice. Apparently, the early church drank wine at communion. Paul did not condemn them for using wine at communion. He condemned them for getting drunk.

Why in the world would the early church have used real wine at communion? The very first communion had wine. Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper with bread and wine. The first communion was a Passover Seder meal and Jews drank wine at Passover and still do today. Jews drink four cups of wine at Passover and Jesus was a Jew.

So the church at Corinth was an immoral church and, what’s even worse, is that the leaders of the Corinthian church weren’t doing anything about these problems. Like many churches still today, the church at Corinth did not practice church discipline. Do we have any of these problems at our church?

6. It was a Worldly Church

Paul called it a carnal church (I Corinthians 3:1-3). That is the key to understanding the entire book. It is also the key to the problems we see in modern churches. This was a carnal or worldly church and there are many churches like that still to this day.

Is our church a worldly church? What makes a church worldly? Is it rock music? Is it using any kind of drama in church, as some say? Is it showing movies in church? A church is worldly when it acts like the world and lives like the world ethically and morally.

Cities get reputations for certain things (e.g., crime, corruption). Before Paul came to Corinth (Acts 18), he was in the city of Athens, Greece (Acts 17). Athens had a reputation as an intellectual center. It was a great center of learning. The philosophers Aristotle, Plato and Socrates were all from Athens. Some of the sharpest minds who ever lived came from Athens.

Paul then went from Athens to Corinth and Corinth also had a big reputation but it was not for learning or knowledge. It had a reputation for immorality. It was the sin center of the Roman Empire in Paul’s day.

It was the Las Vegas of the ancient world. It was a city famous for idolatry and immorality. There were lots of gods were worshipped in Corinth. The church of Corinth was like the city of Corinth. The church is made up of people who live in the city.

There were twenty-six different holy places in Corinth. The temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and sex, was located in Corinth. And at one stage in Corinth’s history, one thousand prostitutes served that temple.

If you said to someone, “you’re acting like a Corinthian,” it was an insult, not a compliment in the ancient world. The church had become a mirror of the city. The sins in the church were just like the sins in the city. There was blatant sin in the city and there was some blatant sin in the church. It was a reflection of the city.

7. It was a Dysfunctional Church

The church at Corinth was a church with all kinds of problems and they were big problems (moral problems, relational problems, legal problems, leadership problems). It was not balanced.  It was a church gone wild. Paul actually said, “Your church services do more harm than good” (11:17).

Churches founded by even apostles were not perfect. How do you know if you have a dysfunctional church? The church has serious problems and they are not addressed by the leaders, Scripture is ignored or blatantly disobeyed, staff members do not get along, a small group of people run things and is not open to any kind of feedback or transparency.

8. It was an Immature Church

It was a church of baby Christians (3:1). We have whole churches today, like the church at Corinth full of baby Christians. That is not a good thing (cf. 14:20). It is not normal. This was not a healthy church. Healthy babies grow up and became adults. God wants Christians to grow up and to be spiritually mature as well.

This is perhaps the number one problem in the church today. There are some churches that almost encourage Christians to remain at the baby stage. Many of the seeker sensitive churches fall into this category. There is not a lot of depth. They are a mile wide and an inch deep. What are some signs of a baby church?

Signs of a Baby Church

1) A church full of brand new Christians.

Some churches are full of brand new Christians or people who act and think like brand new Christians.

2) A church that focuses on evangelism but not as much on discipleship.

In baby churches, there is more of a focus on teaching the basics to new Christians or members than going deeper. We have tons of things to disciple children (AWANA, VBS) but there is very little places for adults to be taken to a deeper level.

3) A baby church can’t take meat.

A baby church only wants milk. They would not want the preacher to go too deep when preaching or to preach very long.  Sermons are short and simple.  They do not go in-depth and do not really challenge anyone.  They are very basic.

4) No one knows what the Bible teaches, not even the leaders.

How many churches are there that have elders and deacons that don’t know the Bible? If you have a Bible question, you can’t go to them, because they would have no clue. Our church is not an immature church but we do have a ways to go in the area of discipleship and spiritual growth.

9. It was a Saved Church

This was not a liberal apostate church. This was a church of saved people. Like all churches, there may have been some unsaved people in it but most of the church was comprised of saved people.

Even though it was a pretty messed up church, Paul still calls them “the church of God”. It was a church with many faults but it was still “the church of God”. There is no perfect church. Paul also calls them saints in 1:2 (cf. 6:2).

That sounds a little strange. They didn’t act very saintly. They acted more like sinners than saints. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that very few people are saints. They are all dead and Catholics even pray to them.

They are declared a saint only after a long process called canonization that can take years Apparently you do not have to be dead to be a saint, because Paul called the Corinthians saints and not just come of them but all of them.

Paul uses the term saints of living believers (Romans 15:25, 26, 31; 16:15; II Corinthians 13:13). Every Christian is a saint. I am St. Louis. What does it mean to be a saint? It just means to be saved.

Notice, Paul doesn’t just say that they are saints, he says that they are “called saints”. Who called them? God. This has the idea of election. The word “called” is parallel with chosen in 1:26-27. They were saints by divine calling and summons.

They were chosen to be saints (cf. Ephesians 1:4), just as Paul was called to be an apostle (1:1). He was chosen to be an apostle “by the will of God” (1:1). He did not become an apostle because that was what he had always dreamed of becoming.

In fact, that was the last thing that he wanted to become. He was out persecuting the church. He became an apostle because God called him to be one . You don’t become a believer or a saint unless God calls you, as Luther points out .

Why did Paul write this book?

1) There was a rumor that there were all kinds of divisions in the church.

Paul turns to a report that came to him from the household of a woman named Chloe (1:11). We know absolutely nothing about this woman but she was apparently someone that the Corinthians knew and she was apparently someone who was well respected, otherwise Paul would not have put any weight to the rumor.

Paul wrote I Corinthians to try to heal some of the divisors in this newly founded church (chapters 1-6). That makes I Corinthians a pastoral letter. I Corinthians is not a book primarily of doctrinal theology, although there is some doctrine in it (marriage, Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, resurrection). It is primarily a book of pastoral theology.

2) The Corinthians had questions for Paul and wrote him a letter asking a bunch of questions.

They had questions about marriage, divorce, sex, spiritual gifts, food offered to idols. (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1; etc.). The letter was carried by Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). This delegation from Corinth brought to the letter to Paul. Paul writes I Corinthians to answer those questions.

He answers those questions in the second half of the book (chapters 7-16). First Corinthians is actually Second Corinthians. It is probably the second letter Paul wrote them. Most scholars believe that Paul wrote an early letter (5:9) that was lost.

 Outline of I Corinthians

  1. Introduction (1:1-9)
  2. Problems (1:10-16:20)
    1. Divisions in the Church (1:10-4:21)
    2. Lack of Church Discipline (5:1-13)
    3. Lawsuits (6:1-8)
    4. Moral Problems (6:9-20)
  3. Answers to Questions (7:1-16:12)
    1. About Marriage (7:1-40)
    2. About Food Offered to idols (8:1-11:1)
    3. About Public Worship (11:2-14:40)
      1. Head Coverings (11:2-34)
      2.  Lord’s Supper (11:17-34)
      3.  Spiritual Gifts (12:1-14:40)
    4. About the Resurrection (15:1-58)
    5. About the Collection of Money (16:1-12)
  4. Final Exhortation (16:13-24)

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