This is a long letter. Romans is a bit longer, but this comes in a close second, substantially ahead of the all Paul’s other letters, and longer than any of the other epistles, including Hebrews. And it covers a lot of territory and a variety of topics. The first six chapters address directly the dysfunctions in the Corinthian church, and the remaining chapters explicitly answer questions that the congregation had put in writing to Paul (so chapter 7 begins, “Now concerning the things about which you wrote …”). Some of the dysfunctions have more present-day relevance than others, and some of the questions are of more interest to us than others, too. By the way, the placements of the chapter breaks from chapter 7 on are quite helpful and logical.
Chapters 1-6: Addressing (Mostly) Church Dysfunctions
Paul begins in the first few chapters by warning against divisions and cults of personalities in church. And chapter 4 (verses 12-13) reads: “[W]e toil, working with our own hands; when we are reviled, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure; when we are slandered, we try to conciliate ….”
The “immorality” that he generally criticizes in chapters 5 and 6 is sexual, since this was apparently widespread in Corinth generally, with predictable reflections in the church (chapter 5 begins with Paul calling out a congregant who reportedly was sleeping with his stepmother).
I thought this passage in chapter 5 was also noteworthy:
9 I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; 10 I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. 11 But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? 13 But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.
In chapter 6, Paul criticizes the congregants for dragging one another into court. And there is this passage:
9 Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals,10 nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.
Chapters 7-16: Addressing (Mostly) Congregant Questions
Chapter 7 addresses a question put to Paul about marriage. The discussion here is basically all about whether Christians should get married or stay celibate. Paul’s answer is that it is better to be celibate but, since a life of fornication is worse by far than either of the other two choices, by all means get married if you can’t stay celibate, “for it is better to marry than to burn” (7:9) (it follows that those married should be willing to have sex with one another). Now, Paul’s rather grudging acceptance of marriage seems odd given God’s endorsement of it and His command to be fruitful and multiply and I’m not sure how to deal with it; perhaps the question put to Paul was in the form of, “So, we shouldn’t get married, should we?” and Paul was afraid that the congregants were looking for an excuse to avoid marriage and, inevitably, to fornicate. Paul also says you shouldn’t leave your spouse just because he or she is an unbeliever and you are a believer. More broadly, don’t focus on your current external circumstances but rather, I think he is saying, on the coming kingdom.
Chapter 8 addresses a question put to Paul about food that has been sacrificed to idols. Paul says that of course to a believer the fact that such a sacrifice has been made does not affect the food, since other gods don’t exist, but if eating the food will somehow undermine the Christian faith of others, don’t do it: “But take care lest this liberty of yours somehow becomes a stumbling block for others” (8:9). This is the sort of discussion that, as I noted above, seems of limited relevance now — there not being a lot of food out there that has been sacrificed to idols — but Paul’s broader point is still relevant: Don’t engage in behavior that, while harmless to you, might create problems for someone else (drinking in front of an alcoholic, to give an obvious example).
I said at the outset that chapters 7 on appear to be Paul’s answers to specific questions he had received from the Corinthian congregants, and it’s easy to read chapters 7, 8, and 12-14 and perhaps 15 that way — but chapters 9-11, not so much.
Chapter 9 contains Paul’s famous verse (9:22), “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some,” and seems to be mostly a personal justification by Paul, perhaps from some congregant criticism? Verse 9:5, by the way, seems to be a reference to James and Jude, “the brothers of the Lord.”
Chapter 10 begins with a discussion of the sins into which Israel fell (idolatry, sexual immorality, trying the Lord, grumbling) and then turns back to the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols and reiterating the earlier conclusion (you can eat anything unless it will appear to endorse paganism).
Chapter 11 shifts gears, and fits in well with the following chapters insofar as all seem focused on proper Christian behavior, especially in church. Thus, 11:3-16 is about head covering in church (women should, men shouldn’t, and in both cases the point is that we are to be modest and humble when worshiping; the discussion begins, “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ”), and 11:16-34 instructs that communion is to be unifying — communal! — and not a gluttonous, drunken feast. Again, one hopes this is not a big problem in 2018. (By the way, I wonder if 11:1 — “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ” — is the source of the title of the famous devotional by Thomas a’ Kempis.)
Chapters 12 and 14 address a question put to Paul about spiritual gifts (chapter 13, and this really shouldn’t be a parenthetical, is Paul’s famous passage on love and its primacy, quoted at innumerable weddings, including one in Wedding Crashers
). A lot of it is focused on the relative merits of prophecy (here, not telling the future, but speaking boldly God’s word to one and all) versus speaking in tongues. Again, this is not a pressing issue these days, but Paul ranks prophecy as more valuable, on the reasonable grounds that other people can understand you when you prophesize but not when you speak in tongues (indeed, “if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in the church; and let him speak to himself and to God” (14:28)). Along the way, Paul says that we each have different gifts (and there are different ministries and kinds of work) — wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discerning evil spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues — and that it’s all good since it’s all from the Spirit, “But earnestly desire the greater gifts” (12:31). He makes the memorable comparison of different gifts to different parts of the body: You need them all, and they’re all part of the same whole. One other note: Paul uses the famous “whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free” phrase at 12:13 (of course, he uses it elsewhere, too, perhaps most famously in Galatians 3:28).
The shorter detour in this discussion of prophecy versus tongues (the longer one being the discussion of love in chapter 13) is this politically incorrect passage (14:34-35): “Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says. And if they desire to learn anything, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is improper for a woman to speak in church.” This seems to come out of nowhere, but I suppose that one might uncharitably suggest that Paul thought listening to a woman talk is sort of like listening to someone speaking in tongues. Well, perhaps it’s not so uncharitable; my NIV study Bible notes, “[W]omen of that day did not receive formal religious education as did the men. Women may have been raising questions in the worship services that could have been answered at home without disrupting the services.” (So, does this mean that we should not, for example, have female ministers? Well, that’s literally what these verses say, no getting around it; but the counterargument is that, if Paul’s reason for writing this was church-specific or a result of women’s lack of education at that time, then why interpret it that way — which is at odds with the respect he affords women elsewhere in his ministry and in his writing (just a few chapters earlier, for example, Paul acknowledges that women can pray and prophesy (11:5)) — in different churches where a woman’s speaking can generally be as enlightening as a man’s?)
Chapter 15 is about resurrection, starting with Christ’s and then discussing some of the details of ours (including the Second Coming and what sort of body we’ll get “in the twinkling of an eye” (15:52)). The first part is noteworthy for its unflinching argument that (a) Jesus rose from the dead and this is an observed, objective fact, and (b) “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (15:17). What’s more, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die'” (15:32, quoting Isaiah 22:13). But we will be raised, and “‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’ ‘O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?'” (15:55-56, quoting Isaiah 25:8 and then Hosea 13:14).
Finally, in chapter 16, Paul briefly exhorts the congregants regarding a collection of money for the Christians in Jerusalem (who were suffering then from poverty and famine). The book closes in typical Pauline fashion, with personal greetings to different folks, and he urges the congregants to “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong. Let all you do be done in love” (16:13-14) — oh, and “If anyone does not love the Lord, let him be accursed” (16:22).