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Paul’s concern over certain issues in 1 Corinthians gives the reader insight into the condition of the early Christian Church. Without a binding, supreme authority, the missionaries spreading the Gospel often expressed widely varied interpretations of doctrine and practice. Paul felt that the missionaries preached a false Gospel, and believed that these differing perceptions contributed to the division in the Corinthian Church.
Paul’s teachings often conflicted with other significant missionaries, most notably Apollos and Cephas (Peter), who each had major followings in the Corinthian Church. Paul’s conflict with Peter is evident not only in his letters, but also in Acts, and is usually centered around the more conservative approach to Jewish law adhered to by Peter and James.
In Corinthians, however, Paul is writing to a group of mostly converted Greek Gentiles with little knowledge of Jewish culture who may have received an incomplete instruction of Christianity at the outset of their education, and therefore either struggled with the doctrinal differences or simply interpreted them as a characteristic of the Church. A certain amount of confusion, however, was probably inevitable. Paul does not offer concrete solutions for these ideological divisions, but rather stresses the importance of a unity that surpasses these divisions. He encourages missionaries to act with total freedom of conscience – while, of course, maintaining certain moral boundaries.
Paul’s conception of freedom of conscience involves not only doctrine, but also practice. He believes that it is not sinful to eat food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 10:26-27) – a total contrast to the decision reached by the church leaders in Jerusalem (Acts 15:28-29). However, he discourages this practice while in the presence of another Christian who might find the act offensive. He returns to the theme of unity within diversity when discussing varying spiritual gifts: “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord” (1 Cor 12:4-5).
Unity and freedom of conscience are the major themes of 1 Corinthians, and ultimately lead to Paul’s central idea that the greatest commandment is to love. He believes that the community can be united while accepting varying beliefs and practices, thereby creating a stronger sense of faith as the Second Coming approaches.
It is important to note, however, that this acceptance should not compromise true faith and piety. Paul places limitations on this religious diversity, and does not hesitate to “say this to your shame”, nor to scold the Corinthians for repeated misdeeds (1 Cor 15:34). Those who refuse to repent are to be “[driven] out…from among you” (1 Cor 5:13). Paul compares his attitude to that of a stern but loving parent, suggesting that his authority places him in the position of a spiritual father to the communities he guides (1 Cor 4:15). The family of the faithful is open to all who are baptized in the Spirit, (“Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” 1 Cor 12:13).
2 Corinthians is the most personal piece of Paul’s writing. He has been deeply affected by the situation in Corinth, and this letter is a testimony to his devotion to both his ministry and to his converts. It also reveals several of Paul’s very human qualities, suggesting his insecurity and quick temper, but also his gift for persuasive correspondence and linguistic precision.
Paul is skilled at producing concise epigrams and constructing poetic phrases (“what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” 2 Cor 4:18). His writing is simultaneously affectionate and abrasive (2 Cor 7:4 and 13:2), full of humility as well as authority (“I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing” 2 Cor 12:11).
Paul spends a great deal of time reminding the readers of his qualifications and the extent of his martyrdom in both of the Corinthian letters, suggesting his innate insecurity. It is likely that his insecurity is a result of the instability of the early Church hierarchy. He considered himself equal to the “super-apostles” appointed by Jesus, but the fact remains that he was not one of the original apostles. The only proof he can provide of his appointment to apostleship by Jesus in the Damascus story relies on the faith that others hold in him. His claim is not as well established, but Paul insists that his epiphany is equal in importance to the experiences of the original twelve apostles, especially in light of his frequently disagreements with Peter and his ministry.
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