Ecclesiology

Churches in the New Testament

Churches in the New Testament

  Dr George Karakunnel

            One of the most notable features of the Hellenistic age was the establishment and growth of cities. These became the nerve centres of civilization. They fostered commerce and culture in addition to providing opportunities for the religious expression of their inhabitants. One could argue that the city is characteristically evil, — one is reminded of Babel — but that is not to say that the city is necessarily and inevitably stained with corruption. In fact, the final abode of the redeemed in glory is pictured as a city (Rev. 21:10). Cities can be positively viewed as resulting from the fulfilment of various human needs.

            It is not surprising, therefore, that the churches of which we read in the New Testament are without exception located in cities. The gospel was taken to where people were found in community rather than in isolation. This did not mean that the country areas were totally neglected, but the city was clearly given the priority and with it the obligation to carry the message to the surrounding territory (See 1 Thess. 1:8). No doubt the church kept in mind the fact that Jesus not only visited the population centres but also the hamlets and the countryside.

  1. JERUSALEM

             The descent of the Spirit of God and the inception of the Christian movement cannot be described without reference to Jerusalem. The church at       Jerusalem is the first in the Christian history. Here we try to take a close look at the believing community in terms of its life and activity.

Evangelism

            Evangelism is the lifeblood of the church at any place and in any period. Luke’s account gives it primary attention. In the background is the Lord’s choice and training of the Twelve as well as his commission (Acts 1:8) and the promise of the Spirit. The human agents are Peter and the rest of the apostles (2:4; 3:12; 4:33; 5:42), aided no doubt by the more than one hundred persons who spent ten days with the apostles in an upper room prior to Pentecost (1:15). Probably this company included some, it not all, of the seventy who were sent forth by Jesus to prepare the way for him in connection with his final visit to Jerusalem (Luke 10:1). In addition, the text notes the presence of his family and the faithful women who accompanied him from Galilee (1: 14).

            The impact of the spoken word was aided by the manifestations of divine power in miracles (3:1; 4:10; 5:12; 6:8). In at least one passage (5: 12-14) these beneficent ministries seem to have had an important influence in effecting or aiding conversions. The same could be said of the healing of the cripple (3: 1-4: 4).

            Jerusalem is the one place where the size of the church is indicated by figures. These figures are stated in round numbers and show increase as the narrative unfolds. This was a growing church. First we read three thousand who responded on the Day of Pentecost (2: 41). Next we read of five thousand men (4:4), although these are not all converts. The figure represents the sum of male converts at this point in the narrative: when the families of these men are included, can think of a group of at least 10,000 (cf. the situation described in John 6:10). Beyond this point Luke makes only general statements to the effect that converts were continuing to increase in number (5:14; 6:1, 7). At a much later time James could point to the fact that believing Jews (apparently those in Jerusalem and environs) could be reckoned in terms of myriads (21:20). This is general and doubtless hyperbolic statement, but it seems to signify a steady growth over the years, despite persecution. The growth of the church at Jerusalem was quick, as the Book of Acts reveals. The coming together of big number of converts must have created a strong sense of assurance among them that they had not been deluded in making their decision to trust in Jesus of Nazareth as Savior. There was also a  feeling of excitement at being privileged to be part of a mighty spiritual movement at its very beginning, one that was destined to be epochal for the nation Israel and the world.

            In making their decision they were reminded by Peter that there was a price to pay – namely, separation from the sinful and unbelieving community around them. They were no longer to share the views and attitudes of the nation’s leaders regarding Jesus of Nazareth (2:40). By their repentance and faith, expressed in submission to baptism, they were able to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit whereby they gained assurance of their salvation and the ability to understand and embrace the teaching of the apostles (2: 38,42).

            There seems to be no intimation of any attempt of screening applicants for church membership, or any indication of disdain for any stratum of society. The example of Jesus in his attitude toward tax gatherers and notorious sinners must have been a factor. At one point (6:7) we read of the acceptance of a large body of priests. They were not rejected on the ground that they belonged to an order whose leaders, the chief priests, had taken an active role in the arrest and execution Jesus. These were ordinary priests, who resented the worldliness of their superiors. The healing of the cripple in the temple probably had an effect on them. In addition, they must have observed the followers of the Lord Jesus, since these people frequented the temple courts, especially during the hours of prayer; they could hardly have failed to see the joy written on their faces, a token of their inner peace.

            We do not read of evangelistic teams moving out into Judea during these early days of the Church’s life; nevertheless, the new movement became known by word of mouth so that people came into city bringing their sick with them for healing (5:16). No doubt there were many conversions under these circumstances. As these folk returned to their homes, they became forerunners of those who fanned out into the countryside under the pressure of persecution after Stephen’s death (8:1,4). The most distinguished resident of Jerusalem to become a brother in Christ was Saul of Tarsus, but he was hand-picked by the risen Lord on Syrian soil (chap. 9) and was not destined to be a worker in the Jerusalem Church (22: 18-21), though he kept in touch with it during his ministry in other lands.

            So far as the record goes, no Sadducee became a convert, which is not surprising in view of this group’s rejection of the doctrine of resurrection (Matt. 22:23). The resurrection of Jesus was central to the apostolic proclamation. On the other hand, some Pharisees accepted the gospel, as we learn from Luke’s account of the Jerusalem Council (15:5). Probably the church had many people who can be classified as belonging to the Am-ha-aretz (“people of the land”). They did not belong to any of the various Jewish parties of that period and tended to be despised because they were not students of Mosaic Law and did not conscientiously observe the customs. Thus from the very beginning Christianity was able to demonstrate both its leveling and its elevating power. It was able to unify in the bonds of Christ and the Gospel the most diverse elements in society, In addition, it was able to handle the linguistic harrier presented by the presence of both Aramaic and Greek–speaking people in the congregation (6:1).

Teaching

            In his Great Commission the risen Lord indicated that evangelism, sealed by baptism, was to be followed by the programme of teaching (Mt. 28: 19-20). This sequence was observed at Pentecost and in subsequent days. In baptizing converts the apostles may have had help from some of the 120, but the teaching ministry fell to them alone (2:42). So far as we know, these men were without teaching experience, although they had sat under the instruction of the master teacher, those work was now being continued through them (1:1) under the guidance of the spirit of truth (John 14: 25-26).

            Prophecy in the sense of revealed knowledge, as distinct from prediction, belongs roughly to the sphere of teaching and has as its goal the edification of those who receive it from the prophets. Peter’s quotation from Joel’s prophecy prepares the reader of Acts for the introduction of prophets in its membership, however, not only for purposes of prediction (11: 27-28; 21: 10-11), but also for exhortation (15:32), Barnabas seems to be called a prophet as well as a teacher (13:1), and he must have ministered in the Jerusalem church before being sent to Antioch to aid the Church there. So, despite Luke’s silence in the earlier chapters, it is reasonably certain that the Jerusalem church enjoyed a prophetic ministry capable of being classed as teaching.

            The apostles carried on their ministry of teaching both in the temple and from house to house (5:42), and did so on a daily basis. Remarkable indeed is the notice of this full-time nature of their work, the ample store of information possessed by the apostles. Important here is the promise of the Master that the Spirit would call to their remembrance all that he had taught them (John 14:26). Between preaching in the temple and teaching believers in homes the apostles must have had little time for anything else. Yet it seems virtually certain that in addition they had another instructional task, that of disciplining the men, or some of them, who were designated to take charge of the distribution of help to the widows (6:5). Since two of these seven men soon became active in public ministry, namely Stephen and Philip, and had not been under the Lord as far as one can tell, it is probable that these two at least and perhaps others were especially schooled by the apostles and groomed for leadership prior to their selection for service in the temporal affairs of the congregation. Stephen showed a comprehensive grasp of the Old Testament (Acts 4) and Philip was able to use the prophecy of Isaiah effectively in preaching Christ to an inquiring stranger (Acts 8).

Fellowship

            The term koinonia (“fellowship”) appears in Acts 2:42 along with teaching.  Fellowship in the biblical, apostolic sense implies being together frequently with other believers, and this is clearly stated (2:46). Faith in the living Lord drew people together, eager to learn and to grow. Homes were made available, including that of John Mark’s mother (12:12). The church in the house was a great boon. The people who gathered in this way had the promise of the Master that where two or three were gathered in his name, there he would be in the midst of them (Mt. 18:20). It is possible that in each such home group there were people who could pass on to the others many recollections of the Savior due to personal contact with him. These memories were still green and they meant such to those who had not been his followers. One can envision Mary visiting such gatherings and giving their recollections of the boy Jesus and then of the great change that came over them when the resurrection confirmed all his claims that had seemed to visionary at the time. Others who must have taken an active part in these gatherings were Lazarus and his sisters, Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and the two Emmaus disciples. Nor should we forget also the owner of the house with the upper room. It must have been a thrill for those who came to his quarters to meet with others in the very place where the Lord had instituted his memorial feast with the disciples.

Sharing of Goods

            The fact that the believers held their property in common is mentioned after the allusion to the fellowship (2:44) so as to make it clear that the koinonia of verse 42 is not the same as the sharing in material things. (There is certainly some close link between the two. See a theological reflexion on this in “Sabha: Danavum Dautyavum; see also “Koinonia…” by Panikulam)It is tempting to try to find a precedent for this feature in the practice of the Qumran community, but the practices are not equivalent: in the Dead Sea community the sharing of possessions was obligatory, whereas in the Jerusalem Church it was voluntary.

            The explanation for the emergence of this practice seems to be motivation for it. Not only did he teach that one should not be anxious about material things (Math. 6:25, 28) but he also make it plain that one should be prepared to part with one’s possessions for the sake of the needy (Luke 12:33; 18:22). The one who had left the glory of heaven and then the security of the carpenter shop called on his followers to leave all and follow him (Luke 14:33). He was content to subsist on what was given to him and his followers for their daily sustenance (Luke 8: 1-3). The likelihood is that the women who shared with him were now residing in the Jerusalem area. If so, their presence must have been an inspiration to other believers, leading them to give generously to meet the needs of the poorer brethren. The other factor that helped to develop the practice of sharing was the familiarity these people had with almsgiving as a part of their experience in Judaism. Joachim Jeremias has noted that there was a weekly dole to the poor of Jerusalem consisting of good and clothing as well as daily distribution of food. However, even the double precedent furnished by Jesus and by Judaism might not have sufficed by way of example had it not been for the dynamism of the new life in Christ fostered by the indwelling spirit. The joy of salvation yoked to love for the brethren brought an outpouring of gifts sufficient to meet the need. Some, like Barnabas (4:37), sold their property and gave the proceeds to the common fund.

            As time passed, the resources of the local church were unable to cope with the situation. When a famine compounded the problem, the church at Antioch graciously sent relief (11: 28-30). Later, under the sponsorship and superintendence of Paul, the Gentile Churches that he and his companions had founded sent a substantial contribution to the Jerusalem Saints (Rom. 15: 25-27). James the brother of our Lord and head of the Jerusalem church had a great concern for the poor who were under his care (Gal. 2:10), and beyond this his church reached out to embrace Jewish Christians dispersed in other lands (James 2:5, 15-16). Possibly the trip of Paul to Jerusalem reported in Acts 18:22 was for the purpose of discussing with James and the elders the acceptability of his plan to raise among the Gentile churches the fund of which he writes in some of his letters (1 Cor. 16: 2-4; 2 Cor. 8-9; Rom. 15: 25-28). The acuteness of the need of the Jerusalem church is attested by the fact that even as early as the sending of famine relief by the Antioch there is no mention of the Seven as receiving and distributing the contribution. It was accepted by the elders (11:30). Apparently the regular distribution referred to in the early days of the church had to be discontinued.

            According to some scholars the generosity of the saints in the Jerusalem church toward their poor was heightened by their confidence that the Lord would soon return, in which, as they would have no use for their possessions anyway. This may have been a factor, but it was certainly not he principal motivation.

            The burden of distribution fell on the apostles at the beginning (4: 37; 5:2). This, in addition to their preaching and teaching, largely accounts for a certain amount of neglect of the poor, particularly of widows in the Greek-speaking portion of the church (6:1). Conscious that they were unequal to the total responsibility, the apostles called for the selection of qualified men who would assume the oversight of the distribution, thus freeing themselves for prayer and the ministry of the word. Some students are prepared to see here a definite cleavage between the Hebraists and the Hellenists, with a virtual separation of the two groups: This goes beyond the evidence. The apostles had been trying to provide for the whole church in the daily distribution. Now the Seven, mostly if not altogether Hellenists, took over the task of caring for the needy, nor simply for the Greek-speaking people but for all the needy in the church.

The Temple

            Several allusions to the temple are scattered over the first few chapters of Acts, indicating that this sacred place continued to be used by believers both for worship (2:46; 3:1) and for testimony in its spacious courts (3:11 ff; 5:21). No doubt the brethren were encouraged to use the temple because Jesus had taught there and had purged its outer court of commercialism despite his awareness that thereby he would bring upon himself the wrath of the Jewish leaders. Furthermore, the apostles had easier access to crowds of people at that spot then anywhere in the city.

            The apostles and their helpers probably pursued this course of action with mixed feelings. They knew that Jesus regarded it as his Father’s house but they know also that he had predicted its destruction (Mark 13:2). The latter consideration may have acted as a spur, causing them to conclude that they should make use of these precincts while they were available.

Before long the temple itself became an issue between the church and the Jewish authorities, coming to a head during the public ministry of Stephen. He was accustomed to debate with Greek-speaking Jews in the synagogue and it soon became evident that his views on the temple were a great affront not only to these opponents in debate but also to the Aramaic speaking Jews and their representatives in the Sanhedrin. It is probable that he understood more clearly than the other leaders in the church what the Lords attitude toward the temple involved.

Jesus and his mission represented something greater than the temple (Matt. 12:6). He was the divinely ordained focus of worship directed through him to the Father (John 4:23). His bodily resurrection signaled the fact that he was replacing the earthly sanctuary as the means of approach to God (John 2: 19-21). By virtue of being joined to Christ the church becomes a spiritual house and its members priests unto God (1 Pet. 2: 4-5). In clinging to its cherished temple as the way to God, Judaism was rejecting God’s provision in his Son. It would be going too far, however, to claim that in Acts 7: 47-50 Stephen was arguing that Solomon had erred in constructing the first temple; he was merely suggesting that when the Jews clung to one temple as the way to God in preference to the revelation in his Son their attachment became a sin.

            It is possible that the apostles were not prepared to go as far as Stephen regarding the temple question. The fact that they were able to be stay in the city even after persecution broke out following Stephen’s martyrdom (8:1) may suggest that they were not identified with Stephen’s position regarding the temple, at least in a public way, possibly their hesitation, if that is the proper term to use, was due to their fear that an open break with Jewry over the temple issue would virtually close the door to further opportunities to bear witness to their nation. They seem to have been willing to treasure their knowledge of the new temple in Christ as their spiritual heritage without flaunting it before their countrymen. As it turned out, their ministry was less acceptable to the Jewish people after the Stephen episode. Though they were able to remain in the city, they did not enjoy the same favour with the populace that was previously accorded them.

2. ANTIOCH

            Seleucus, one of the generals of Alexander the Great, founded Antioch in 300 B.C., naming it after his father Antiochus (or possibly his son of the same name). The site, strategic both militarily and commercially, provided access to Asia Minor on the north and west as well as to Palestine and Egypt on the south and southwest. In addition, it was on the most important trade route between the East and the West.  The famous grove known as Daphne, a few miles away, contained a temple of Apollo and was a magnet for pleasure seekers, rivaling Corinth in this respect. Like Corinth, Antioch failed to develop into an intellectual center. The temper of its citizens was a combination of lightheartedness and buffoonery.

            The size and importance Antioch during the first Christian century yielded the palm only to Rome and Alexandria. Its population during this period may gave reached the half million mark. Here Greeks and Orientals lived side by side, joined later by the Romans. Jews were well represented also.

The Founding of the Church

            As early in his account as Acts 6:7 Luke drops a hint regarding to things to come when he identifies Nicolas, one of the Seven in the Jerusalem church, as being from Antioch and a convert to Judaism. Originally a Gentile, he had apparently been won over to the Jewish faith in his native city and had subsequently moved to Jerusalem. At this point, it seems Luke is telling his readers that Antioch is going to play an important role in the progress of the gospel (see 6:58; 8:3). The outbreak of persecution at the time of Stephen’s death figured largely in the spread of the faith to areas outside Palestine. Persecution is often a blessing in disguise. Some Hellenists who made their way along the Phoenician coast, preaching to Jews as they went, came at length to Antioch. Whether Nicolas was a member of this company or not remains uncertain. At first the new arrivals witnessed to proclaim the word to Greeks also (11:20). These became the predominant element in the church.

            Since Luke does not trace any further travels on the part of these Hellenists, the presumption is that they remained in the city, at least for some time. In the plan of God others were to build up the congregation until it would in turn become a leading source of fresh missionary advance. Even so, the original witnesses continued to have a place in the leadership (See 11:20; 13:1).

            It is important to notice the point at which Luke introduces his account of the establishing of the Antioch congregation – namely, immediately after the experience of Peterat Caesarea and the report he gave of the matter to the Jerusalem church. There is no sure way to establish the chronological relationship between the events at Caesarea and Antioch, but the order of notation is suggestive. Gentiles are becoming more prominent, whereas the Caesarea incident was an innovation (See 11: 18)

            The Jerusalem Church was obliged to come to terms with the new Gentile surge. It showed its interest by sending Barnabas to investigate the situation at Antioch (11:22).. This was a good choice, for a native of Cyprus (4:36) would have been more familiar with Antioch than most of the brethren. That he was pleased with what he found there is apparent, for instead of returning to Jerusalem to report he continued in the northern city, identifying himself with the church and ministering to its people with notable success (11: 23-24). His only return trips to Jerusalem were as a representative of the Antioch congregation (11:30; 15:2).

            It is a virtual certainty that Peter’s experience at Caesarea, once it was approved by the leaders at Jerusalem (11:18), prepared the mother church to accept the developments at Antioch.  No criticism seems to have been voiced, although later on a faction within the church became unhappy because Gentiles were received without circumcision (15:1, 24). Peter himself visited the church at Antioch (Gal 2:11), apparently after the Jerusalem Council (reported in chapter 15). His visit may testify to his hunger to witness again the work of grace in a Gentile setting such as he had seen in Caesarea. Luke may have been a resident of Antioch and a member of the congregation.

The Growth of the Church

            This is attested by the fact that before long, apparently shortly Barnabas came to share in the work, “a great number of people were brought to the Lord” (11:24). That this is no exaggeration is indicated by the fact that Barnabas had to seek out help, taking the time and trouble to go to Tarsus in search of Saul, Several years earlier he had shown conversion (9:27). Whether had had kept in touch with him since his departure from Jerusalem to Tarsus is not known, but Luke’s statement that Barnabas went to Tarsus “to look for soul” hints that he had not. Evidently Saul was impressed with the need and the opportunity at Antioch and was willing to change his sphere of Labor. The two men had a fruitful ministry for a year in teaching the converts, who by this time could be described as constituting “great numbers of people” (11:26).

Features of the Antioch Church

1.  It  was in Antioch that believers were first called “Christians.” There is no hint that the name was given by revelation from the Lord. The word Christ, from which Christian is derived, does not appear at all in his paragraph of the text (11: 19-26). Clearly this label could have originated with the Jews, for they refused to acknowledge that Jesus was their Messiah (the Hebrew equivalent of Christ). Furthermore, they had a different term than Christian for Jewish disciples of Jesus. They called them “the sect of the Nazarenes” (24:5).

            It is widely held that the origin of the term Christian should be sought in the fun-loving, ridicule-prone Gentile population of the city. They needed a tag of identification for this group in their midst, and since they heard them speaking of the Christ they made this term the basis of the epithet they chose. The word called that appears here (11:26) is not the ordinary term for giving a name such as is used in Mathew 1:21 in connection with Jesus, but a term that designates a person with respect to business or special interest (see, for example Rom. 7:3). The other appearances of the term “Christian” in the New Testament (Acts.26:28)  tend to support the position that the name had a non-Christian origin and was intended to convey a measure of reproach.

2.  The title Lord is prominent in Luke’s account, appearing five times (11: 20-24) as a designation for Christ (13:2 may be reference to God). According to scholars the Jerusalem church did not think of Jesus in these terms, but rather as the Son of Man who was expected to return in glory.

3.  The church at Antioch was probably the first to realize and express the actual unity of Jew and Gentile in one group (see Eph. 2: 11-22, which may well reflect Paul’s experience in Antioch). Luke’s report is confirmed by the testimony of Paul, who indicates that at Antioch Jews and Gentile in one group (see Eph. 2: 11-22, which may well reflect Paul’s experience in Antioch). Luke’s report is confirmed by the testimony of Paul, who indicates that at Antioch Jews and Gentiles sat down together at their meals (Gal. 2: 11-14). This was an innovation (Acts 11: 2-3). This table fellowship at Antioch was disrupted only when people from the Jerusalem church arrived and let their disapproval be known. This unity between the two groups meant that when Paul and Barnabas were called on to fight the battle for Gentile freedom from the law, a freedom that gave the Gentile believer an equal place with the Jewish believer in the body of Christ, they could point to the workability of this principle. It had proved itself in the Antioch church under the blessing of God (Gal. 2:12).

4.  Luke’s account emphasizes the large place teaching assumed in the life of the church. It was for the purpose of having help in this area that Barnabas went to find Saul (11: 25-26). Gentiles needed more guidance than Jews because of their ignorance of the Old Testament and because their environment did not provide them with adequate ethical and moral standards. As one reads the so called practical portions of Paul’s letters to his young churches, it is possible to conclude fairly accurately that much of the teaching had already been forged in the Antioch setting.

5.  The church was blessed with a wealth of diversified ministry. Several prophets and teachers are noted by name (13:1). If we grant that the raising of these gifted individuals was for the purpose of stimulating the rank and file of the congregation to take up their own ministry (laid down in Eph. 4:12), we can conclude that a very large company of people received encouragement to witness and serve in accordance with the gifts for ministry they had received.

6.  Whereas this church had the same pattern as the church in Jerusalem in matters of preaching, teaching, and giving, the third element took a somewhat different turn here. In Jerusalem the beneficence of the congregation had its own poor in view, whereas there is no mention of the poor in the Antioch situation. It as a prosperous city, and its prosperity seems to have been reflected to some extent in the constituency of the church. Luke says that each gave according to his ability (11: 29). When prediction was made of an impending famine, there was a generous outpouring of assistance for the mother church in Jerusalem to alleviate additional problems in the already burdened congregation (11: 27-30). It would be a mistake to suppose that this gift involved no sacrifice, for shortage of crops was felt in Syria as well as Judea.

7.  The Antioch church was a missionary church par excellence. An overview of the apostolic age enables one to sense a divine providence in the creation of a strong Christian community at Antioch just at this time. As the Jerusalem church for various reasons became less and less significant for the evangelization of the Greco-Roman world (we have already noted its lack of zeal as a group for evangelizing Gentiles). Its sister church in this leading center of the Hellenistic world was ready to step forward and sponsor a great missionary outreach becoming thereby the catalyst for the tremendous growth of the Gentile congregations in Asia Minor and Greece (including Macedonia).

        Antioch was different from Jerusalem, which became missionary largely as a result of persecution. Antioch was a missionary church in the twofold sense that is was founded by missionaries and in turn became a missionary base for sending out the gospel to regions beyond. So far as is known, it was the first church to undertake the fulfilling of the last portion of Christ’s commission to be witnesses to the ends of the earth (1:8). The decision of the Jerusalem Council concerning the reception of Gentiles gave fresh impetus to this missionary outreach. It is to the credit of the believers at Antioch that when the Spirit called for its leading men to go forth as its representatives, there was no hesitation. The whole incident was marked by deep earnestness, attested by fasting and prayer (13: 2-3)

8.  The continuing relationship between Paul and Antioch church may have become somewhat clouded by the confrontation he had with Peter (Gal. 2:11ff), especially since Barnabas sided with peter and may therefore have been censured by Paul. It is ad to have a rupture of this sort that mars fellowship, but Paul was clear in his own mind that Peter’s actions endanger future relations between Jews and Gentiles in the church.

9.  It is probable that the pattern of self-help followed by Barnabas and Paul in later days (1 Cor. 9:6) was developed during the period when these men laboured together in the Antioch Church. If so, the example probably stimulated believers to do all they could for themselves and their dependents rather than look to the brethren for help. This would mean that more assistance would have been made available to answer the cry of need in other places. One would like to know just what was involved in the statement that the Church sent the two missionaries off on their journey (13:3). Was this sending a matter of prayer and good wishes or did it also involve the taking up of an offering for their travel needs? The latter is probable, but beyond such provision the two men could be trusted to support themselves (see 1 Cor. 4:12).

                                                         3. CORINTH

            Corinth grew as a flourishing port city in the first century B.C. People of all kinds found their way to this center, enticed by work opportunities and by the free and easy life-style of the city. In these respects the resemblance to Antioch is worth noting. Though Romans founded the city, it had a large Greek population and in addition opened its arms to people from many lands. It presented a striking contrast to Athens, a contrast exemplified by their patron deities. Athens had Athena, the goddess of the mind, representing the wisdom for which the Athenians were famous. Corinth had Aphrodite, the goddess of the body, the goddess of love. Athens was associated with culture, Corinth with commerce. Athens had its idolatry, Corinth its immorality; Paul knew that the former led to the latter (Rom. 1: 22-24).

             The economic opportunities at Corinth attracted Jews.  Luke makes reference to a synagogue (18:4), which could mean one among several or the only one in the community. It was, at any rate, the synagogue into which Paul made his way.

The Founding of the Church

            The apostle was fortunate in being able to find living quarters with a couple who had recently come from Italy (18:2). Since Luke says nothing about their conversion, it is likely they were already believers. They became Paul’s fellow-workers in the gospel.

            In attending the synagogue Paul gained recognition as a Jewish scholar and was given permission to speak, an opportunity for declaring the good news that he eagerly embraced. His audience was composed of Jews and God-fearing Greeks (18:4). This continued for some weeks. Though Luke says nothing about a ministry during the week, it is probable that inquires were encouraged to come to the quarters Paul shared with Aquila and Priscilla. Before long Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, bringing with them financial help, it seems, so that Paul was set free to devote himself to gospel witness (18:5; cf. 2 Cor. 11: 8-9; Phil. 4:15). At this point the new arrivals joined in the ministry, making five workers in all (2 Cor. 1:19).

            Before long the expected break with the synagogue took place, brought on by Paul’s insistence that the promised Messiah of Israel the minds of his Jewish auditors were for the most part closed to this line of proclamation, he left with this parting salvo, “From now on I will go to the Gentiles.” At this point it is important to return to Luke’s statement that in the synagogue he had been addressing Jews and Greeks (v. 4). Those Greeks became a bridge to the next phase of ministry. They no doubt left with him. A God-fearer whose house adjoined the synagogue one who must have been won to the fifth shortly before, Titius Justus by name, opened his quarters for the apostle’s use. So the testimony continued with God’s blessing, and many of the Corinthians responded (18:8).

            We can be sure that Jewish opposition continued, intensified by the proximity to the synagogue of Paul’s preaching post. He may have considered leaving, but was deterred by a night vision in which the Lord appeared and encouraged him by saying that many people in the city belonged to him. This is best taken as meaning future believers. Thus he continued for a year and a half (18:11), the amount of time he spent there was significant in contrast with the length of stay in other places. The extended stay also gave him the opportunity of teach the converts the implications of their new faith in terms of Christian life and service.

            Jewish opposition was held in check by the size of the city and its cosmopolitan character, but it finally flared into the open, only to be rebuffed by Gallio’s refusal to give consideration to charges brought against the apostle. He sized up the case as an internal squabble between those who professed the faith of Judaism (18:15). When Paul finally departed, accompanied by Aquila and Priscilla, the church may have been left with only local leadership, though it is possible that Silas and Timothy continued for a time. The latter joined Paul later on at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:10).

Paul’s Additional Contacts with the Corinthian Church

            Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1) was a member of the church who joined Paul at Ephesus. He may be the same individual who succeeded Crispus as ruler of the synagogue. If so, the example of Crispus (18:8) may have influenced him. His failure to prosecute successfully the case against Paul before Galioled to his being beaten by disgruntled Jews (18:17). This may have caused Sosthenes to rethink his position and to follow “the way” of the Nazarenes. His visit to Ephesus meant that Paul gained up-to-date information about the state of things at Corinth.

            Appollos, a Jew from Alexandria who was helped by Priscilla and Aquila at Ephesus while Paul was on a trip to Jerusalem (18: 21-23), went on to minister at Corinth. By the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, Appollos was back in Ephesus and was doubtless another source of information for the apostle concerning recent developments (1 Cor. 16:12). Members of Chloe’s household came also, conveying some rather unwelcome news (1 Cor. 1:11). Information about Chloe is lacking, but these people provided Paul with word about the Corinthian situation. Three other brethren are mentioned by name as having come to see him (1 Cor. 16:17), but nothing is said of their mission. It is possible that they brought with them a letter from the congregation (1 Cor. 7:1). Paul replied (1 Cor.) he was not writing in ignorance of conditions in the church. An even earlier letter of a rather limited character (1 Cor. 5:9) has not been preserved.

            The reception given 1 Corinthians was somewhat less than cordial. In fact it became necessary for Paul to interrupt his work in Ephesus and return to Corinth for what  he described as a “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1). This was followed in turn by a severe letter to the congregation after his return to Ephesus (2 Cor. 2:4). Unable to bear the suspense of not knowing how the letter affected the church, he sent Titus to find out. Failing to hear from him after a reasonable time, he himself set out to meet Titus. Unable to find him at Troas, his agitation prevented him from accepting a preaching opportunity there (2 Cor. 2: 12-13). Pressing on to Macedonia, he located him and was relieved to find out that although there was some continuing opposition to him, the situation had cleared up considerably.

The Composition of the Church

            We have noted that Gentles predominated among the believers in Corinth. Judging from the apostle’s description, most of the converts were from the lower classes (1 Cor. 1: 26-28), but he did not hold this against them, Rather, divine sovereignty was evident in their calling. On the other hand, notice is taken of a few people of rank, including Tertius, Gaius, Erastus (Rom. 16: 22-23), and possibly Sosthenes (1 Cor. 1:1). More important than social status is the influence of the pagan environment, which continued to be a factor in their lives to a greater or less degree. The apostle recognized this influence and gave it due attention in his treatment of their problems.

            We tend to think of Paul  primarily as an apostle, an able preacher, and a missionary statesman. We do not usually think of him as a pastor. Yet he did have this task thrust upon him, especially in the Corinthian situation. When the troubles that erupted there came to his attention he was heavily involved in a demanding ministry at Ephesus. No wonder he had to confess that a climatic factor in his sufferings was his daily concern for all the churches (2 Cor. 11:28).

The Problems in the Church

To a great extent the church’s problems emerged after Paul’s departure from Corinth; otherwise he would have dealt with them in person rather than handle them by correspondence. The pagan environment encouraged their development, as did the commercial life and wealth of the city. It was easy to be drawn into habits of “fast” living and to develop a false evaluation of material things. More innocuous, but still diversionary, was the fact that Corinth was a sports center. But the diversionary, was the fact that Corinth was a sports center. But the most devastating element was the immortality of the city that reached out a beckoning hand. Paul notes the following difficulties:

1.  Factions in the church. The very fact that Paul addresses himself to this first of all is indicative of the seriousness of this development from his standpoint (1:10-4:21). The most illuminating approach to the factions is to see them in the light of traditional Greek preoccupation with various schools of philosophy. In contrast to Athens, Corinth had no famous teacher of philosophy, but it was well acquainted with the tradition. There was a natural inclination to view Christianity as a system of thought that might be given varied interpretation and expression. The church split into various groups, each of which attributed its particular interpretation to an individual, some choosing Paul, some Apollos, some Cephas.

   Paul fought this factionalism by pointing out that he and the other leaders all belonged to Christ as well as to the whole church, and not to individual coteries (1 Cor. 3: 21-23). Furthermore, the apostle injects into his treatment of the problem a discussion of wisdom, contrasting the wisdom of the world with that of God (1:18 ff). He sets revealed truth, centering in Christ and him crucified, over against knowledge arrived at simply by human wisdom (2: 6-6). Moreover,  he denounces the factious spirit as a mark of carnality that was keeping the Corinthians in a state of spiritual babyhood (3: 1-3). They were acting like the unsaved around them – mere men. Paul makes it clear that the Christian leaders named at the beginning were only servants of Christ (4:1).  They make have been pillars in the church, but Christ was the foundation. (3:10).

2. Lawsuits. The Greek temperament was tremendously individualistic. This trait not only led to creation of factions but also led to the problem of lawsuits as individuals all insisted on having their own way refusing to look at things from the standpoint of those with whom they were contending. The apostle complains, “Brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers” (6:6). Again, they were acting like mere men – that is, unsaved men. They should at least have looked to one or more among the believers to adjudicate their differences. But the root of the trouble reached deeper. If they had in fact had the mind and the grace of Christ they would not have permitted these cases to arise in the first place much less been inclined to pursue them in pagan courts. It would have been better tto suffer injury than to have darkened the cause of the Lord Jesus.

3.  Immorality. We have already noted a flagrant case of immorality in our discussion of discipline, but Paul broadens his treatment to remind the church that sexual immorality has no place among sons of the kingdom: it belongs to the old life, not to the new (6:9ff.). Some in the congregation had adopted a haughty, independent attitude on this. Paul appears to be quoting them when he writes. “All things are lawful for me” (6:12). He reminds them of a few things they have overlooked: to be joined to a prostitute is to enter into union with her, to become one flesh with her (6:16_ – a clear contradiction of one’s union with Christ. Moreover, such a thing is a grievous affront to the Holy Spirit, who had made their bodies his temple (6:19). Finally, these believers are not their own, for they or were bought at the price of the body and blood of the Savior: They are no longer free to give themselves to sin.

4.  Marriage (1 Cor. 7). Paul relates his discussion of marriage to that of immorality by nothing that marriage can serve as a deterrent to keep one from immorality (7:2), but he also treats it as a charisma. One the other hand, he treats the ability to remain unmarried as a charisma, too, putting himself in this category. Each one has his gift, whichever it is, from God. Marriage is honorable and permissible, but it should be entered into only with another believer.

         It would seem that in writing this section, Paul is dealing with a point of view that questioned marriage, an ascetic attitude. When he says, “It is good for a man not to marry” (7:1), he may be reproducing a sentiment hat has been passed on to him by some in the church. The ascetic, attitude is clearly the opposite of an immoral attitude, but both approaches can derive from a common source – namely, a dualism that makes a sharp disjunction between the spirit and the body. The immoral individuals who had cast their lot with Christ might claim that by that act they had become so purified that in their inner life they were impervious to any merely physical contamination. On the other hand, the ascetics claimed that the spirit should be separated entirely from the flesh and ruled out marriage on that ground. Paul’s position is that living as a single person is feasible when that status is a gift from God, but otherwise it can be a tragic mistake. He was himself set free from family obligations by his single status and was thereby enabled to do more in the cause of Christ than he could otherwise have done. Each must get his guidance from God and act accordingly.

5. Eating meat offered to idols (Chapts 8-10). The matter of purchasing sacrificial meat was a practical matter for many in the Church, especially the poor, since they could likely serve money by doing so. Doubtless these were those to whom it seemed a mark of punctiliousness to differentiate between meat that had and had not been placed before an idol. On the other hand, people with a tender conscience found it hard to view the practice of eating meat of this sort as anything but complicity in idolatry. Paul took his stand with the former group, which argued that no change had taken place in the meat by reason of its exposure to an idol. The apostle points out, however, that while one should have liberty to partake, all should be governed by – love, and if one’s conduct would cause a “weak” brother to eat and by so doing violate his conscience, then “strength” would merely be a stumbling block (8:9). The argument is threefold: One should have liberty to partake, but if this example leads others to partake, but if this leads others to partake, and thus violate their conscience, love should bring willingness o forgo the exercise of liberty. The highest principle of all is to do everything to the glory of God (10:31).

         In dealing with this problem the apostle mentions freedom of action. He goes on to apply this principle in other areas. He himself is free to marry, for instance, as other Christian leaders have done (9:5), but he has chosen not to use this right. Again, he is free to claim financial support as a Christian worker (9: 6-7), but here also he has not used his right. He notes in reference to his former association with Barnabas that they have worked with their hands to provide their basic needs (cf. 1Thess. 2:9). So Christian liberty is a great truth that must be upheld, but we are not compelled to insist on our rights; we can forgo them for the sake of the gospel.

6.  The resurrection of the body. Paul devotes a whole chapter (15) to the subject of bodily resurrection. His readers had embraced the gospel as he presented it to them (15:1), a gospel that included the resurrection of Christ, but their Greek background had made it hard for them to accept this teaching. They had inherited the idea that the body is the prison house of the soul and that death brings welcome freedom from this confinement. Paul’s thrust is emphasize along with truth of Christ’s resurrection the accompanying truth that he shares our humanity. If one does not hold that the Christian dead are raised, he argues, then one cannot hold that Christ rose from the dead, and if that is so, then we are without hope, being still in our sins. Christ is in fact the last Adam, the head of a new humanity. The resurrection attests this; whereas the first Adam gave us sin and death, only the last Adam provides a life that is impervious to the ravages of these two enemies.

7.  The charismata (chapts. 12-14). There are many angles to this subject, but space does not permit our entering into them all. We will touch only on the main points. The Spirit is the source of the charismata, granting to each one a gift or gifts according to his good pleasure. These gifts are for the edification of the body as a whole; they are given for the benefit of all believers. The gifts are not to be exercised selfishly, as a matter of display. Recipients cannot pleased that they are carried away, for told that they are able to control the manifestation of the gift at least sufficiently to permit others to have their turn in the assembly (14:30, 32). This can be related to the teaching in chapter 13, where love is exalted not merely as the manner in which gifts are to be exercised, but also as greater than the gifts, for love partakes of the essential nature of God himself.

        The Corinthians were difficult people to work with. Though Paul had begotten them through the gospel and was therefore their spiritual father, they were problem children. Some of them were prone to question his apostleship (1 Cor. 9:1), probably as an excuse for ignoring his teaching when it pleased them to do so. He had to threaten to use his authority as a rod of punishment (4: 21). They could be petulant, accusing him of fickleness because he changed his visitation plans (2 Cor. 1:15ff.). He himself, on the other hand, was conscious of being led in triumph by virtue of his relationship to Christ (2:14).

      We find that his apostleship is also denied in 2 Corinthians, where it seems to be connected with the complaint that, unlike other Christian workers, he refuses to accept financial support (11: 7-15; 12: 11-18). This complaint was apparently planted in the minds of his converts by men who came to Corinth with letters of recommendation (3:1), perhaps from the mother church in Jerusalem but more probably from an element in that church (cf. Acts 15:24). They likely demanded financial support and cited Paul’s refusal to do the same as evidence of his awareness of inferiority to the Twelve and other Christian workers.

          This pressure from outsiders caste its shadow over much of largely with problems that had arisen within the local church. Paul is obliged to defend himself against these interlopers and in so doing to oblige to defend himself against these interlopers and in so doing servants of Satan (2 Cor. 11: 13-15). The Apostle admits that he is indulging in foolishness even to try to defend himself (11:21; 21:1), but he feels obliged to do so because the Corinthians have not themselves countered the charges made against him. He feels isolated. The best he can do is to turn the tables on his opponents by resorting to boasting (11: 21dd.). He notes that his Hebraic origin is as authentic as theirs. If they are servants of Christ, he is a better one. Can they match his record in the area of suffering (11: 23-28)? These experiences have taught him to be thankful for his weakness and the necessity of depending on Christ. They seem to get along without a thorn in the flesh such as he has, but he would not care to exchange places with them.

          It was a hard situation for Paul. The more his heart is enlarged toward his children in the faith and the more he yearns over them, the more they seem to close their hearts against him (2 Cor. 7:2). Before writing 2 Corinthians, while still in Ephesus, he had spoken of a plan to go to Rome and the West (Acts 18:21). But as long as the Corinthians situation remained troubled, he felt compelled to stay in the East. His pastoral concern would not permit him to leave (2 Cor. 15-16). By the time he reached Corinth, his letter (2 Cor.) had effected a real change in the attitude of the church. Even before he wrote, the congregation had moved to restore good relations with the apostle by dealing with one person who had wronged him (2 Cor. 2: 5-11). From Corinth he wrote to the Roman Church a letter that is free of any overtones of continuing turmoil in his environment. Evidently peace and good will had been restored.

   A Concluding Note

The three churches, seen above, represents three different characters in the making of the Christian communities. Jerusalem church shows real Jewish character. Antioch church had a combination of both Jewish and Hellenistic elements. Corinth church was dominantly Hellenistic. A study of the churches of the NT shows the influence of the religious, philosophical, social and cultural factors of the people in shaping churches. In the context of today’s talk about inculturation or contextualization, study of the formation of churches in the early Christian history can be helpful. An overview of churches, which is in the above pages, is adapted from E.F. Harrison’s The Apostolic Church  (Eerdmans 1985).

 

 

 

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