This week we began a series in 1 Corinthians 1-4, about a divided church. We saw yesterday how they were divided around leaders – specifically, their style of preaching. And we thought about how we do this in our own “entertain-me” culture. (Make sure you read that one first or today won’t make much sense.)
Today,we step back and look at how this is one particular instance of a much broader issue – one that runs throughout this letter to the Corinthians. It’s the issue of when we bring the world’s values into the church.
Corinth was a relatively new city. It had been rebuilt a century earlier, and settled by many retired soldiers and freed slaves. It meant that there wasn’t a lot of ‘old money’ in Corinth. And the recently wealthy – the self-made rich – tend to be more anxious about status. They’re keen to prove how cultured they were. And one way to show off your sophistication as an upper-class Corinthian was to host the most eloquent speakers in your home.
So the sort of Corinthian Christians who appeared in the style section of their local news-papyri would have been falling all over themselves to host the likes of Apollos, leaving Paul to the Missy Higgins fans. They were bringing the world’s value system into the church, along with the squabbles that went along with it. Have a listen to how one ancient writer describes Corinth back in those days(one who’s clearly not a Mariah Carey fan:‘That was the time, too, when one could hear crowds of wretched Sophists [eloquent speakers] around Poseidon’s temple shouting and reviling one another, their disciples, as they were called, fighting with one another, many writers reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting while others applauded them…’ (Dio Chrysostom, 8.9)
Public speaking purely for self-promotion and entertainment, fighting over prestige, and over style – this was what was going on in the city of Corinth. And it was going on in the church, too. (Don’t forget, there were no church buildings, so they could only meet in the private homes of the wealthier Christians.) They had adopted the world’s values in terms of what matters. They were obsessively seeking status like the city around them.
And this issue of status is what seems to drive all of the other issues Paul deals with in the letter. Whether it be treating the poor as second class citizens at their fellowship meals, leaving them outside with the leftovers as was the custom (ch11); or whether it be seeking status through spiritual gifts (ch12-14); or a whole host of other issues. They had brought the world’s status-seeking values into the church, with disastrous results.
We can bring our status in the world with us into the church, and then treat others accordingly. We value the opinions of some, and devalue the opinions of others, based on their secular occupation. We accept some people, and ignore others, because of their style, rather than their substance. When we’re not careful, the values & standards of the world become our default settings in the church as well.
But the gospel calls us to check our status at the door. To check our money. Our degrees. Our ability to play the world’s power games and win. Our skills at persuading others to do things our way. The church should be a haven of servanthood and mutual submission. It’s not just another place to act out the same old social scripts.
Beware of acting out the world’s values in the church. Because it can divide us.
To think about
In what ways do I try to bring my worldly status into the church community?
What impact does this have on those who are or perceive themselves as poorer, less gifted, more shy, ethnically different, etc.?
What natural abilities do I have that I should sometimes choose not to exercise in the church – so that I don’t simply bring my status in the world with me into church? (In this regard, contemplate the example of Christ in Phil 2:1-11.)