I’m preparing a lecture for Dave Black’s NT Theology class concerning the church meeting as described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12-14. Although I’ve studied these chapters many, many times, I’m studying them again as I prepare this lesson. And, since these chapters are part of a longer letter, I’m trying to better understand this section in the context of the whole.
In reading 1 Corinthians again, I noticed something interesting. I think I knew this already, but it stood out as I was reading this time. What did I notice? Identity (essence) was very important to Paul! What do I mean?
The church in Corinth had problems… major problems.
They were dividing from one another based on which apostle/evangelist they liked. They had morality problems. The strong disregarded the weak. The rich disregarded the poor. Those with certain spiritual gifts disregarded others. Some did not believe in the resurrection.
In other words, they had morality issues, interpersonal relationship issues, and belief (doctrinal) issues. They were a mess.
But, when Paul addressed them, he addressed them as:
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in (set apart by) Christ Jesus, called to be saints (holy ones) together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)
Regardless of the problems among the believers in Corinth, Paul recognized them as and interacted with them as the church… those who had been set apart (from the world) by God. He even reminded them that they were as much God’s people as were the believers in every other city.
In other words, Paul considered their common identity (essence) in Christ as the church of God to be of primary importance. And, the opening address is not the only place where Paul reminded them of their identity in Christ:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus… (1 Corinthians 1:4 ESV)
God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:9 ESV)
He [God] is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. (1 Corinthians 1:30 ESV)
And, all of those reminders about their identity in Christ are in the first chapter!
Paul reminded the Corinthians that while he and Apollos and others had worked among them, it was God that brought them into his family (1 Corinthians 3:6). He reminded them that God’s Spirit dwells within them individually (1 Corinthians 6:19) and corporately (1 Corinthians 3:16). Paul continually reminded them of their identity in Christ.
Not only that, but Paul continually addressed them as brothers, reminding them that their identity was a shared identity. Neither their moral problems, nor their inter-relational problems, nor their doctrinal problems caused Paul to separate from them. Why? Because he dealt with who they were, not with what they did or believed. (There is a big difference in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where some Galatians were denying the gospel. This caused Paul to question their identity in Christ.)
In fact, when Paul addressed the issues in Corinth – moral, relational, doctrinal – he addressed the issues as what should supernaturally flow from their identity. As children of God, they should act a certain way, relate a certain way, and believe a certain way. But, neither their ethics nor their beliefs formed their identity. Their identity was found in God through Christ by the Spirit.
When dealing with their moral problems, Paul called the Corinthians “brothers and sisters.” When dealing with their relational problems, Paul treated the Corinthians as “brothers and sisters.” When considering their doctrinal problems, Paul continued to recognize that the Corinthians were “brothers and sisters” – even in the case of the resurrection.
We would do well to learn how to deal with one another based on identity (essence) instead other issues. Yes, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we want to continually help one another (and be helped by one another) with moral, relational, and belief problems. But, until someone demonstrates that they are not in Christ (in identity), then we must continually treat one another through our shared identity as brother and sister in Christ.