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First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: What Is Christianity Really About?

November 2, 2020

The Lay of the Land

1 Corinthians 12-14 contains some of the most studied material in all of Paul’s letters. In these chapters, Paul uses the issue of spiritual gifts to bring out some points he wants to make about the nature of the church and about how it ought to function. Indeed, his argument in these chapters flows quite nicely from what he has already written in chapter 11 and it illuminates much that he wrote in chapters 1-6.

But how do we make sense of Paul’s argument? For one thing, he covers a lot of ground in this portion of the letter. For another, he seems to interrupt the flow of his reflections upon spiritual gifts with a discourse on the importance and implications of love.

I am convinced it is this “interruption” that is the key to interpreting the entire section. 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:13 is not merely a rhetorical device Paul uses to shame the Corinthians for fighting over stupid stuff. Rather, it articulates Paul’s perspective on Christian existence, and without it, the rest of his formulations about the church do not make sense.

So, we are going to begin our discussion of these chapters by exploring the same topic Paul does—love. Over the next several weeks, we will discuss how love is defined, address several questions about love, and demonstrate how Paul’s message about love applies to various aspects of our lives. But before we do any of that, we are going to turn our attention to what I think is the most shocking claim Paul makes in the thirteenth chapter of this letter.

A New Perspective

More than a year ago, I was reading Curt Thompson’s book The Soul of Shame. On this particular day, I came to a chapter where the veteran psychiatrist discusses 1 Corinthians 13:1-4. I wasn’t expecting anything remarkable; I would have been perfectly happy simply to receive some new insight on the book’s main topic.

Suddenly—and for reasons I still do not understand—something remarkable did happen. I saw these verses, with all their vibrant imagery and all their difficulties in translation, in a completely new way. I realized Paul was not merely providing for us a list of things that lose their meaning if they are not accompanied by love. He was telling us these thingsas important as they areare not what Christianity is really about.

So, what made Paul’s list of things Christianity is not about? Well, they are a “who’s who” of the theological priorities of Christian history. 

Our common heritage, according to Paul, is not about knowing things no one else knows. That ought to have humbled the Corinthians. It should also humble those of us who consider ourselves modern-day experts in all things theological, as well. It isn’t about the exercise of spiritual power. It isn’t about beneficent activity towards the poor (or other concerns of social justice, for that matter). It isn’t even about the exercise of our faith. It is about love.

Now, before you start looking around for a stake to burn me on, hear me out. It is “impossible to please God” without faith (Hebrews 11:6), and those who put their faith in Christ will receive knowledge and power to live in ways that benefit others. But it is not our faith that begins the process. It is God’s love (Romans 5:6-10; 1 John 4:9-10). And, it is God’s love which ensures the process He began in Christ will be brought to completion.

Moreover, it is love God wants from us. It is true, admonitions to “the fear of the Lord” are all over Proverbs; and it is also true—as Paul himself points out (Romans 4:1-25)—we cannot make sense of Abraham’s story unless we recognize the vital role his faith played in that story (cf. Genesis 15:6). Indeed, I am convinced we cannot love God unless we first revere and trust Him.

Nevertheless, it is not ultimately our reverence or even our trust that God is after. It is our love. The Pentateuch makes this clear, but so do the teachings of Jesus and the writings of Paul. Our commitment to God is not complete until we love Him—and not just love Him with part of ourselves or even with the most important part of ourselves, but with all of ourselves. And our love for God is supposed to be such a life-altering, character-transforming experience that it results in a love for our “neighbor” that is at least equal to the love we have for ourselves. It even results in love for our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

This is the foundational presupposition upon which Paul builds his conception of the church. Since, to borrow some language from John’s writings, “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16), it is impossible to be “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 4:12) unless a people knows what love looks like, knows themselves to be loved by God, and has wholly committed themselves to love God, each other, and even those who do not belong to their number. 

That is why we are going to expend so much effort over the next few weeks to try and understand what Paul in particular, and the Bible in general, teach us about love. f you want more information on this topic, I encourage you to do what I and my wife are doing over the next year. Read Patrick Mitchel’s The Message of Love and wrestle with what he has to say to the twenty-first-century church.

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