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Küng on the Church in Corinth

Posted by on Oct 28, 2008 in books, discipline, elders, gathering, office | 5 comments

I’ve recently been introduced to the writings of Hans Küng, a Catholic theologian who has written several books about the church. This excerpt is from his book, The Church, in a chapter called “Ecclesiastical Office as Ministry”:

The problem becomes finally acute when we take a look at the Church which we know so much more about than any other of the New Testament Churches: the Church of Corinth. We have a reasonably good idea as to how preaching and the Lord’s Supper were organized, as to what sort of ecclesiastical discipline and order there was. We know from Paul’s lists exactly how many different kinds of ministries there were at Corinth—apostles, prophets, teachers, and so on. But there were no “bishops”, deacons or elders. Moreover, when it is a question of restoring order in matters of preaching, the Lord’s Supper and Church discipline, Paul never addresses himself to a single official or a single group of officials, responsible for all the community. He addresses himself throughout to all and at the same time to each individual. With regard to the irregularities that had occurred at the Lord’s Supper, where the writer of the pastor letters might have said to the Corinth community something like: ‘Timothy is to give the sign for the celebration to begin’ (or perhaps even: ‘Timothy is to celebrate the Lord’s Supper’?), what Paul in fact says to the Corinthians is: ‘When you come together to eat, wait for one another’ (I Cor. 11:33). With regard to the confusion which had arisen through several members of the community preaching during worship, where the writer of the pastoral letters might have said something like: ‘Titus is to decide who shall speak’ (or even perhaps: ‘Titus is to give the sermon’?), what Paul actually says is: ‘… let there be only two or at most three, and each in turn… you can all prophesy one by one’ (14:27 and 31)… All of this is more than an argumentum e silentio [argument from silence]. The burden of proof lies with those who wish to assert that there existed in the Corinth community, in Paul’s time, an office of leadership, whether elders or the later monarchic kind of episcopate. (403)

While I disagree with Küng concerning the pastoral epistles (i.e., the author did not lay out rules for Timothy, Titus, and other rulers to control others or to control the church meeting), Küng raises some very good questions that we should consider.

For now, consider the question of leadership. Küng recognizes that the church in general and academic works concerning eccesiology in particular have blurred the distinction between the church and leadership. He says:

The fundamental error of ecclesiologies which turned out, in fact, to be no more than hierarchologies (where ecclesia=hierarchia) was that they failed to realize that all who hold office are primarily (both temporally and factually speaking) not dignitaries but believers, members of the fellowship of believers; and that compared with this fundamental Christian fact any office they may hold is of secondary if not tertiary importance. (363)

There may or may not have been leaders (elders or deacons) at Corinth. But, Paul did not consider their presence or absence relevant to the problems at hand. He did not tell the elders to handle discipline problems (1 Cor. 5). He did not tell the deacons to take of issues surrounding the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11). He did not tell any leaders to take control of the meeting to ensure that it did not get out of hand (1 Cor. 14).

Yet, today, when there are problems, everyone turns to the leaders. Why? Why do we presuppose that leaders are to make decisions while others are to either approve or disapprove of those decisions? If no one approached a brother or sinner who was sinning, whose “fault” would that be? If the Lord’s Supper gets unmanageable, who is responsible for ensuring that everyone is considering others first? If some people disrupt the meeting, who should help get things settled down? Why do we usually think of leaders first? Why did Paul not think of leaders first?


Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 10-28-2008


    To answer you’re the questions of your concluding paragraph I think we have to look into the fundamental foundations of our current structure in the church. We are organized more like a business, not a body. A business will look to its leaders to take care of the problems and make things run more efficiently. In some ways (at its worst) today’s church is the leaders and office holders and the rest of the people are those that are there consuming the product being “sold.” Consumers do not solve problems; they only point them out or create them.

    On the other hand a body is structured completely differently. The power, leadership, responsibility resides in the group generally. Within that group there are those that are elevated to serve the body because they have been gifted to provide certain functions that are necessary for the building of the body. (A finger is good for picking your nose, but an elbow is not so).

    The difference is: In a business, leadership is an office and authority starts in the office and flows to the rest of the group. In a body, leadership is a function and authority starts with the group that willingly submits itself (grants authority?) to those that have gifts recognized by the body for the good and building of that body.

    Sorry, I’m trying not to be too long winded and I’m sure I didn’t articulate this very well, but I see the answers to the issues and questions starting in the foundations of how we are structured in the church. They may look the same from the outside, but they operate completely differently.

    By the way…I read this week that a body, acting like a business is a prostitute.

    Keith Price

  2. 10-28-2008

    This is a great post. I am intrigued that a catholic theologian wrote about this issue the way he did without really any bias inserted. If that makes sense. Why can’t we see Corinthians as it is without trying to add or take away with our own thoughts? Granted it took the Lord to show me what I am learning concerning this book and how it relates today. Anyway again thank you for your research and blog.

  3. 10-28-2008


    I think you’re right about the distinction between a business and a body. Certainly, the church has leaders – and the church had leaders in the NT. But, the apostles did not send instructions to the leaders about the body. The apostles expected the WHOLE body to function together to care for itself. That’s a very strange – almost heretical sounding – concept to today’s church.


    First, thanks for the link to your blog. I’ve added it to my reader. From what I understand, Küng has gotten into some trouble because of some of his views. I don’t know if these views were related to ecclesiology or not. Perhaps if someone know they can let us know.


  4. 10-28-2008


    I think the modern church would do well to understand this concept. It is not heretical if it is Biblical. I think this structure or concept is more closely related to first century synagogues than 21st century churches.


  5. 10-28-2008


    Well, it is “heretical” in the modern use of the word, because it goes against accepted religious norms. But, I agree that these concepts are very scriptural.