1 Corinthians is in many ways the opposite of Romans. Romans is high theology written to a church Paul had never visited, while 1 Corinthians deals with one practical, pastoral issue after another. Romans is neat and organized — and very abstract.
1 Corinthians reflects all the messiness of real life in a newly planted church filled with former pagans.
What does 1 Corinthians tell us?
* The overriding theme of the book — from chapter 1 through 14 — is unity. The church was dividing over all sorts of issues, and Paul struggles to help them hold it together.
* Chapters 1 – 4 are particularly pointed toward the sin of division, with Paul even pronouncing a curse on those who’d divide a church.
* In the next several chapters, Paul deals with disputes over temple prostitution, meats sacrificed to idols, marriage and divorce, and drunkeness at the Lord’s Supper. And each time he points his readers back to the gospel. The gospel teaches us to say no to fornication and idolatry. The gospel teaches us that it’s good to be single, to better serve the Lord. The gospel teaches us that communion is about the body, not selfishness.
* In chapter 12, Paul shows how the Spirit works in the body to give gifts, to build unity.
* In chapter 13, Paul shows how the Spirit’s greatest gift — love — brings unity. (Ponder for a moment the fact that Paul says that love is greater than faith or hope — faith which saves and hope for the resurrection. It’s because love will survive the End of time. Learning to love is practicing for heaven.)
* In chapter 14, he shows how love works in the assembly. The assembly is about edification, encouragement, strengthening, and comfort, and so Paul approves those practices that edify and rejects those practices that do not.
* In chapter 15 Paul teaches us about the resurrection we will all enjoy — and the culmination of the gospel.
* In chapter 16 Paul shows how the gospel should lead the church to support the poor in Jerusalem.
What does 1 Corinthians not teach?
* We have an entire chapter on the assembly, plus extensive teaching in two other chapters on the Lord’s Supper. And the first part of chapter 11 is about how women should dress in the assembly while prophesying and praying (with veils).
There’s mention of giving, but no mention of giving in the assembly to a general fund. We have no “5 acts of worship” or any suggestion that there is a fixed checklist of what may be done to the exclusion of all else.
* When Paul is confronted with practices going on in the assembly, he tests them in practical, gospel-centered ways: does this edify? is this true to the gospel? And those practices that are true to the gospel and edify are approved; those that don’t are not.
Thus, Paul condemns rudeness toward others and drunkeness, but he approves prophecy. He approves speaking in tongues only if a translator is present. He approves prophecy only if the prophets aren’t rude. And practices may only be those that cause an unbeliever to want to glorify God.
Paul doesn’t test the proposed practices against a pre-approved checklist, nor does he approve a practice just because it’s part of some pre-ordained order of worship. Rather, if it edifies, it’s fine. If it can be done in a way that edifies, it’s fine if done that way.
* There’s not a word about elders or deacons.
* There’s not a word about the name of the church.
Here’s perhaps the most practical of Paul’s epistles, which addresses the Lord’s Supper and the assembly more than any other book in the Bible — and there’s no 5 acts of worship. Rather, we are told the purpose of the assembly and that whatever accomplishes that purpose is fine.
Paul tests their communion practices, once again, against the purpose of the communion — to proclaim the Lord’s death — and finds their behavior abhorrent.
But there’s no semi-secret rule book. Rather, it’s all very pragmatic in a gospel-centered way: Does it edify? Does it serve to honor Jesus? Does it show love?
Look as hard as we might, we find nothing of conservative Church of Christ thought in 1 Corinthians. Rather, we find a very immature congregation being taught to honor the gospel, to proclaim Jesus, to edify each other in the assembly, and above all, to love one another.
And just as Romans 12-15 brings Romans to a practical conclusion on love among brothers, 1 Corinthians 12-14 give practical guidance on how to live “love they neighbor” in a congregation.
We often read 1 Cor 13 at weddings, but it’s really about how to get along with your brothers in church. Interesting that we find a lesson on how to do marriage in a lesson on how to do church. But God is calling us back to Eden — to the relationship Adam, Eve, and God enjoyed before sin, and God wants us to have that relationship in our churches and in our marriages — and in our relationship with him.
(1 Cor 13:4-8) Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails.
Read that passage four times: first as a description of how to get along in church, its primary meaning. Then read it and apply it to you and your spouse. Next, read it as though you were making those promises to God. And finally, read it as though God were making those promises to you.
Now, re-read the whole book. Paul has just re-answered every question put to him. How do we not split? How do we get along with our spouses? How do we treat each other during communion? Answer: Get your relationships right — through love — and the rest will work itself out. Try to fix those things by binding rules, and you’ve entirely missed the point.
Paul manages to address many issues of worship and division without once mentioning the need for authority, the laws of generic and specific authority, positive law, or such like. He has no rulebook. Rather, he argues over and over from the gospel and from love.