Recap: In this series, What is a Church?, I’m trying to discover what the Bible says about the local church. What is, or better yet, what should this odd collection of people we call a church be like? What is the nature of a Christian community, according to Scripture?
So far I’ve examined in detail the meaning of the Greek word ekklesia, which is usually translated as “church” in our Bibles. In my last post, I noted that Paul’s letters to the Colossians and to the Ephesians talk about the church in terms of a body, with Christ as the head. This points to the next stop in our tour of New Testament images for church. But we won’t start with Colossians and Ephesians, since these are some of Paul’s later letters. (Yes, I’m aware that some scholars believe them to be written by one or more of Paul’s disciples, but I’m convinced that they are from Paul’s own hand.) Rather, we’ll start with 1 Corinthians, the oldest extant reference to the gathering of Christians as a body.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians sometime in the mid-50s A.D. Previously, he had ministered in Corinth, a city in southern Greece, perhaps for around a year and a half, leaving behind a collection of believers in Jesus. After Paul left town, these folks continued to meet together in a regular gathering (ekklesia), or perhaps in several gatherings (ekklesiai) located in various homes.
Life among the Corinthians Christians wasn’t altogether happy, however. Though they experienced Christ’s presence and power through the Spirit, they had a hard time getting along together. After greeting the Corinthian ekklesia and offering a prayer for them, Paul jumps into the core of their turmoil:
Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose. For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” or “I belong to Christ.” (1 Cor 1:10-12)
Paul was writing to the Corinthians from Asia Minor (modern Turkey). While ministering there, he had received a visit from “Chloe’s people,” who were probably members of her household, perhaps relatives, servants, or slaves, though we can’t be quite sure. They brought bad news of divisions among the Corinthian Christians. This may not have been the first Paul had heard of this, because he had also received as visitors three men from Corinth (1 Cor 16:17). These people had, among other things, delivered to Paul a letter from the Corinthian Christians (1 Cor 7:1). The combination of reports and letter concerned Paul greatly, especially as they related the disunity among the Corinthian believers. So he decided to write the letter we know as 1 Corinthians. (In fact, however, it was at earliest the second of Paul’s letters to these believers; see 1 Cor 5:9).
One of the main things Paul intends to do in 1 Corinthians is to help the immature Christians there understand who they are together. We would say: Paul wants them to know who they are as a church. Yet he doesn’t do this by drawing out the deeper implications of the word “church” (ekklesia). Rather, Paul uses the image of the human body as a way of explaining how the Corinthian Christians are related to each other, and therefore how they should in fact treat each other in their gatherings. Their likeness to a body makes clear the fact that they should be unified rather than divided. It also suggests how they can achieve unity in a practical way.
Before I get to Paul’s teaching about the church as a body, however, I need to say a few things about Corinthian society, and why this may have led to divisions in the Corinthian ekklesia. I’ll do this in my next post in this series.