Only divine wisdom could have enabled the apostle Paul to handle a church like Corinth. And today we need biblical wisdom to avoid the sort of errors prevalent at Corinth.
Things were bad in Corinthian culture — in Roman society ‘to Corinthianise oneself’ meant to abandon yourself to unbridled immorality. And things were bad inside the church; Paul’s two letters to the Corinthians reveal how much was at stake.
But perhaps that church’s biggest problem was how it viewed itself — as actually in pretty good shape, and considerably wiser than the others!
It is this flawed self-knowledge that accounts for Paul’s irony about the Corinthians’ ‘wisdom’ (1 Corinthians 3:18-19; 6:5; 10:15); it was certainly in their interest that he deflated their self-importance. We too should be on guard against a complacency that is ‘wise in its own conceits’.
Consider two of Paul’s warnings. First, he urged the Corinthians not to be obsessed with personalities.
Paul said: ‘There are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, I am of Paul, or I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas, or I am of Christ. Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptised in the name of Paul?’ (1 Corinthians 1:11-13).
Today Western society is driven by celebrity culture, and churches are not immune to this pressure. But perhaps we can safely conclude that Paul wasn’t against Christians having favourite preachers as such. Rather, he was against cliques gathering around favourite preachers and groups of preachers. He was against congregations evaluating preachers by who they are, and not by what they preach; by their pedigree and not their message.
In today’s Reformed churches, perhaps the question most frequently posed about any Christian meeting is ‘Who was the preacher?’ But far more important surely are the questions ‘What message was preached?’ and ‘Did the preacher preach Christ?’
Second, Paul emphasised to the Corinthians that the most vital thing in theology is the gospel itself. There is a hierarchy of priorities embedded in Scripture for Christian doctrine and for Christian living.
This prioritisation surfaces in 1 Corinthians in at least three places: ‘For Christ did not send me to baptise, but to preach the gospel’ (1:17); ‘for I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the Scriptures’ (15:3-4); and ‘though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing’ (13:2-3). It is the gospel and its resultant fruit of holiness that are of number one importance.
If the question who baptised me is more important to me than who died for my sins; if exercising my particular ‘ministry’ in the church is more vital than loving others; if enjoying my spiritual rights more necessary than serving others, then the great priorities of the gospel and Christian love have indeed been lost sight of. To believe ourselves more spiritual or wiser than we really are, in the long run, risks dividing the church and marring our Christian witness.
Let’s make sure that, by the grace of God, our self-knowledge is objective, accurate and real. The apostle Paul appealed to the Corinthians to imitate him as he did Christ (1 Corinthians 4:16; Philippians 3:17). Let us, like Paul, love Christ, his gospel and his people above anything or anyone else.