Scandal in the Church in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

December 1999

Browsers interested in careful historical exegesis of the New Testament are referred to an important research article by Dr Jim Harrison, a local scholar. Its title is ‘Paul’s House Churches and the Cultic Associations’ and may be found in Reformed Theological Review 58 (1999), pages 31-47.

Harrison has identified five pagan religious associations in Graeco-Roman society more or less contemporary with the formation of Paul’s churches. The striking thing is that these religious groups had clear expectations as to the behaviour of their members. It is obvious that such groups were concerned to have a good reputation with the wider society so as to avoid notoriety and scandal.

When we read First Corinthians against this background we can see that many things Paul wrote were to avoid the church having a reputation for scandal in the city of Corinth.

Let me briefly mention three areas of concerns of the pagan groups, as noted by Dr Harrison. His list is more extensive.

First, these cults insisted that their members should orderly in their behaviour and show reverence during their religious services. One group demanded that their proceedings be carried out ‘reverently and in a fully lawful manner.’ Another did not tolerate disruptive behaviour or abusive and insolent language. One society ruled that, ‘No one shall deliver a speech without recognition by the priest of the vice-priest.’ It is worth quoting more fully the Guild of Zeus Most High:

‘It shall not be permissible for any one of them to[...] or make factions or leave the brotherhood of the president for another, or for men to enter into one another’s pedigrees at the banquet or to abuse one another or to chatter or indict or accuse one another…’

We note that Paul accuses the Corinthians of creating ‘schisms’ (1:10; 11:18; 12:25), chattering during meetings (14:26-40) and ‘indicting and accusing’ (6:1-8)! Clearly the Corinthians were not observing even the standards of the pagan guilds!

Second, the women members should not violate conventional cultural decorum. ‘None of the women is to wear gold or rouge or white makeup or hair bands or braided hair or shoes made of anything but felt or leather…’

Paul (1 Tim. 2) and Peter (1 Pet. 3) echo these concerns. The call for wifely submission fits in with this, too.

Third, the funds of the association were to be scrupulously supervised by men of integrity.

Paul sought to avoid disrepute regarding the manner of supervising the Collection for believers in Judaea (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:20-21).

These and the other matters identified by Dr Harrison cast light on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was new social grouping and Paul was concerned lest it provoke a bad impression in the city. There were a number of aspects of the life of the Corinthians that would have aroused negative comment locally.

1. The adultery of a man with his stepmother, a sin not found even among pagans (5:1) is one example.

2. A second is the practice of church members taking one another to the public courts. This told the wider community that these Christians are a disorderly lot (6:1-8)!

3. A third example is the women prophets who are casting off their ‘sign’ of their submission in marriage (11:13-14). Likewise those women who created disorder in the gathering by calling out questions to their husbands (14:33b-35). Both are examples of women kicking off the submission expected of them at that time.

4. A fourth was the factions apparent at the Lord’s supper (11:17-22), especially at a time of food shortage due to protracted famine in the eastern Mediterranean. The rich flaunting their prosperity before the poor may have been a matter of notoriety The factionalism in Corinth associated with leaders (‘Each one of you says I belong to x, y. z’ – 1:12)would not have been appreciated in the city.

5. A fifth was the chaos in the meetings with the babble of tongues-speakers, of prophets talking over the top of one another and of wives calling out questions across the meeting (14:26-40).

Such behaviour would have attracted serious criticism in a city like Corinth, where good order in household cult groups was important. Surviving rules governing mystery cults noted above reveal that disorder was unacceptable.

Paul was sensitive to a church developing a bad reputation. Many of Paul’s concerns found in First Corinthians arise from his awareness that the behaviour of the Corinthians may have fallen below the standards that applied for other groups at that time.

This is relevant. Modern societies are now deeply conscious of ethical issues. Professional associations adopt strong moral codes and discipline their members where necessary. It is a scandal where standards of behaviour in the church fall below those of the community. Believers must not allow their standards to fall below the expectations of various groups within the community.