The Corinthian Church

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

When I was in graduate School at Duke University I spent a whole semester in Advanced New Testament Greek studying 2 Corinthians, which is probably one of the most interesting of Paul’s letters. We're fairly certain that it is not just a single letter but a compilation of several letters. Scholars don’t always agree as to how many letters have been stitched together to make the canonical 2 Corinthians, but it should be clear to any serious reader of the Bible that there are at least 4 different letters contained therein.

In the very least, I believe that chapters 1-7 make up a very positive letter from Paul in which the Apostle rejoices because, even before his arrival for a church trial, most of the difficulties he has had with his Churches in Corinth have been settled. Chapters 8 and 9 speak, rather abruptly and un-connectedly, about stewardship and the offering he has been collecting for the churches of Jerusalem, and I believe that they are two independent letters which Paul sent to Corinth sometime after the letter contained in chapters 1-7. And, finally, it is a fair bet that chapters 10-13 make up the harsh letter that Paul speaks of in 2 Corinthians 2:1-4, which means that chapters 10-13 were written before 1-7. Certainly, the character of 10-13 agree with the nature of the letter Paul references in 2:1-4; and, if we don’t understand it in this manner, then why would Paul go from the positive attitude in chapters 1-7 to the harsh attitude in 10-13? Is he schizophrenic? I don’t think so.

When you read chapters 1-7 and 10-13 very closely, it becomes fairly clear that Paul had some really difficult times pastoring the churches in Corinth. There were a lot of rich and socially influential people at First Church Corinth, and they apparently had a lot of free time to sit around and argue about theology, debate who was the most spiritual, and fight for control of the church. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? One of the things that these people really enjoyed doing was attacking Paul and every little thing he did. Indeed, it was simple to do: he wasn’t around much, so almost all of their nit-picking took place “behind his back,” so to speak. Some said that he was an unattractive, ineloquent man who was bold in his letters to them but meek and unconvincing in person. Others had heard about how he had persecuted the Church before being converted on the Damascus road, and so they were accusing Paul of being untrustworthy. Some even accused Paul of being in ministry for personal gain and glory. Essentially, Paul’s authority was under attack. Indeed, after much reflection I cannot shake the impression that they opposed Paul for no other reason than because he was an outsider—he was not one of them. Worse yet, he was a Jew, and gentiles simply didn’t think very highly of Jews. All of these things built up their case against him, and so Paul journeyed to Corinth to answer these charges and bring the church back from its sin.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the letters to the Corinthians. So many people love to focus on 1 Corinthians, and especially its teachings on the gifts of the spirit; and, it is true, such is a very important subject of that letter. I, on the other hand, find it interesting, and quite sobering, to note that the church to which Paul had to write concerning the proper role of the gifts of the spirit is also the church that exhibited these many horrendous and unchristian internal struggles.

All churches should read 2 Corinthians from time to time, if only to remind themselves that even the most spiritually alive church can become a stomping ground for the powers and forces of darkness. Even after nearly 2000 years, Paul’s words have a way of cutting to the heart of the issue which leaves no room for argument. No wonder chapters 10-13 caused the people in Corinth to wake up and look at what they were doing. What if Paul said this to you?

Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish . . . for I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. (2 Corinthians 12:19-20)

We can all remember times in the past when we probably deserved such words. Let us always pray that Paul would also be willing to say this of us:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. (2 Corinthians 3:2-3)



© 1999, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from Amazon.com.