I am beginning a series of posts on 1 Corinthians. As I work through this letter I will be asking this question: What does it mean to be communities of faith in diverse cultural contexts? I prefer the phrase community of faith over church because I think it better describes what the Scripture meant by the word ekklesia. It more adequately describes the diverse contexts we Interservers find ourselves in overseas.
Corinth was a central trade route in the Mediterranean world. It had been destroyed by Rome in 146BC but then rebuilt by veterans from the legions of Julius Caesar. By the time Paul visited Corinth, it had become a thriving commercial center and was predominantly Roman in cultural orientation. Competition, patronage, consumerism, self-promotion and success shaped the ethos of the city. Into this context came the Apostle Paul. In Acts 18:1-18 we read of Paul’s visit to Corinth. He stayed a year and a half there, teaching the Word among them.
The church at Corinth had a number of problems. As we read through the book we will see that the church was being negatively impacted by the culture in Corinth. Due to this, these problems appear to have arisen among the believers: 1) a drive toward competitiveness, self-achievement, and self-promotion; 2) feeling entitled to indulge in certain freedoms; 3) a misguided understanding of what it meant to be spiritual; and 4) a tendency to value knowledge, wisdom, freedom and rights over and above love and respect for others (see Thiselton 2000). Paul likely wrote the letter around the year 53 or 54.
Community with diversity
As I work through 1 Corinthians I want to reflect on this question: What does it mean to be a community of faith in a context where people from many different cultures come together? This question leads us to other questions: How does being a community of faith impact the way we interact with one another? How does being a community of faith impact the way we live and work in the different cultural contexts we work?
The way we answer these questions can be transformational in a number of ways. First, wherever we work, we find that we are part of a community which is international and interdenominational. Due to the diversity within our communities, there is potential for disagreement over a variety of issues. Disagreement unfortunately can lead to conflict. How do we as communities of faith work and live well within such diversity? 1 Corinthians gives wisdom on how view and accept diversity and how to resolve our differences. Second, there is some very good advice about how to make decisions as married couples, about sexuality, and about how to worship together.
Third, as communities of faith we work interculturally. How as communities of faith should we live and work in our diverse cultural contexts? Like us, Paul was an intercultural worker. Paul grew up a wealthy Jew and Hellenized Roman. He had been religiously strict and then turned to Christ. Due to his intercultural and broad religious background, Paul was able to move in different cultures and adapt to his contexts. To the Jew he became a Jew. To the Gentile he became a Gentile. What did this practically mean for Paul? Will we be able to see Paul contextualizing Gospel truth for the Corinthians, that is, applying Gospel truth to the Corinthian context?
Someone once told me that he thought contextualizing the Gospel was equivalent to compromising the Gospel. In his mind contextualization was a capitulation to culture. He had lived the bulk of his life in his passport culture. He did not realize how much his culture shaped his understanding of the Gospel. In another conversation another person asserted that Christ was over culture. Though I was not sure what he meant by this statement I think he meant that the Gospel was inherently countercultural. If this is what he meant, does Christ expect us to create a completely new and alternative culture when we become believers?
As we study 1 Corinthians it does not appear that Paul thought that contextualization was a capitulation to culture nor does it appear that Paul thought that the Gospel was 100 percent countercultural. I think we will discover this: when cultural norms genuinely conflict with the values or ethics of the Gospel, Paul always sided with the Gospel. We will see that Paul was against any unfair use of influence or patronage to elevate oneself above another because this would be contrary to the Gospel. In addition, though Paul said that eating in temples was forbidden, Paul also warned against an overscupulousness that would remove influential Christians from interacting with their friends and business contacts (Chapters 8-10).
I think we will discover when we take Paul as our model that proper contextualization enables people to remain within their cultural contexts without being unnecessarily countercultural. In this way the Gospel is relevant to those who hear it. Yet, since the Bible provides the ultimate ethical and moral standards we will also discover that when cultural norms contradict biblical ethics then the Gospel is to do its work and be wonderfully transformational.
Is this accurate? Let’s see as we work through this epistle seeking to discover what it means to be a community of faith in our diverse contexts.