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First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Priorities

October 5, 2020
1 Corinthians 8-10 can be difficult for modern readers to interpret, much less apply to their lives. Paul begins the section by talking about food sacrificed to pagan deities—a practice which seems inconceivable in our religiously skeptical world. Then he moves on to discuss issues related to financial support for ministers and to personal self-discipline before finally returning to idolatry and its accompanying sacrifices.

I have come to believe, however, that the issue of priorities is the tie that binds these three chapters together, and I am convinced Paul summarizes his point in the last three verses of the section. We find ourselves pulled many different directions, both as individuals and as churches–by the competing ideologies of our age. One day, we are told that we should prize one thing above all else; the next day, we are told to give our hearts to a completely different set of priorities. And in the midst of this uncertainty, we are easily tempted to do what benefits us the most, regardless of how it impacts our family, our friends, our congregation, our denomination, or society at large.

Paul will not allow us to be pulled apart by the competing value systems and selfish motivations which so often guide our steps. He proposes three priorities that should take precedence above all else.

The Glory of God

In her provocative book Dynamic Oneness: The Significance and Flexibility of Paul’s One-God Language, Suzanne Nicholson calls us to re-evaluate the standard accounting of Paul’s teaching on meat sacrificed to idols. Though her argument is both subtle and sophisticated, her basic point is as simple as it is profound. Paul was all about God, and he would not allow anything that stood in the way of his—or his converts’—unique devotion to God.

Whatever else we might think of her work, Nicholson is surely right about this point. Scholars have long recognized the importance of Christology for understanding Paul’s thought, and rightly so. Thanks to the work of people like Gordon D. Fee and James D. G. Dunn, people have also come to see how important pneumatology is for Paul. 

But theology, in the proper sense, is also vital to our efforts to understand the venerable apostle. As such, theology is also vital to our efforts to make sense of, and live out, the faith we share with the earliest Christians. How do our practices reflect upon our Maker? Do people see our theology at work in how we go about our lives, how we conduct our church’s business, how we structure our worship, how we engage in politics, etc.? Or do they see something else—something base, sinister, and self-oriented?

The Promotion of the Gospel

A second priority for Paul is the promotion of the gospel. This should not surprise us, for it is, in the apostle’s words, “the power of God” that makes salvation available to all humanity (cf. Romans 1:16-17).  As such, it is the only hope for humanity.

Paul goes to great lengths in chapter nine to defend his rights as an apostle.  Indeed, he extends those rights to all who serve the Lord as their vocation. Moreover, he affirms that there is freedom inherent within the gospel.

Nevertheless, Paul is willing to throw all of that away if it gets in the way of his efforts to share the good news with people. His life’s work is not his own comfort, power, wealth, status, or pleasure. It is the preaching of God’s good news. It should be our priority, too.

The Good of Others

This second priority is closely related to a third. Paul considers the welfare of others to be more important than anything which might benefit him, and he urges the Corinthians to to do the same. It is a common theme in Paul’s letters, and it fits quite nicely with Paul’s ecclesiology (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1-30; Romans 12:3:-8) and with his vision of the moral life—oriented as it is around love (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13; Romans 12:9-13, 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-15).  

We should not, however, allow the familiarity of these ideas to obscure their radicality. Paul was encouraging his converts to be other-centered even in the midst of wrestling with complex and difficult issues. Moreover, he was modeling other-centeredness for them at great personal cost. Not only did his actions deprive him of financial security (and perhaps female companionship), but they also put his own reputation at risk, given the somewhat perverse way the Corinthians thought about issues of honor and shame.

Paul’s teaching and example ought to trouble us precisely because they strike at the very heart of everything that we are taught by our culture. The wisdom of our age tells us that we have to think about our own well-being first, and we can all cite numerous examples of where the failure to take that wisdom seriously has cost us, or someone we love, needless heartache. But this so-called “wisdom” cuts us off from the transforming power of love and blinds us to the radical demands of the gospel.

Stoking the Fires of Our Moral Imagination

Maybe what we really need in order to take Paul’s priorities seriously is a renewed moral imagination.  How would our lives be different if we were more concerned with what would bring honor to God than what will make us happy? How would our congregations be different if we really cared more about the gospel than the petty rivalries that divide us? 

How would our society be different if every police officer cared deeply about the challenges of being black in America, and every protestor cared deeply about the challenges of policing and prosecuting crime?  Some people refuse to entertain such questions because they are not “realistic,” but I am convinced that this reluctance is to our detriment as a society.

I challenge us to consider again what we could be if we lived faithfully into how God made us and what God wants for us—and to honestly evaluate how far we have fallen from that ideal.

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