Paul visited Corinth (a city in Greece) in AD 51. He stayed there for 18 months (Acts 18:11). Many Corinthians heard the good news about Jesus and were baptized in his name (v. 8).
Even after moving on to other mission opportunities, Paul had a deep affection for the church in Corinth. But his brothers and sisters there had some serious spiritual problems. One reason for this was the pagan culture of the city. Corinth devoted itself to idolatry. The place was known for its drunkenness and sexual impurity. In Greek the verb “to Corinthianize” meant to practice sexual immorality. Christians are just people, and so they struggle to give up their own bad habits or resist the influence of godless neighbors and family.
Troublesome preachers caused problems in the church too. These men bad-mouthed Paul in his absence and tried (with some success) to assert themselves as apostles. Paul deals with these false apostles directly and fiercely in the final chapters of 2 Corinthians.
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is responding to an unfavorable report of the church brought him by “Chloe’s people” (1:11) and to a letter sent him by the church itself. Notice the wording of the following verses: “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you” (5:1); “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1). So what had Paul heard and read? We can piece together an answer by noting the issues he addresses.
Disunity (1:10-4:21). The Corinthians are quarrelsome and divisive. Paul says that their behavior is immature, unloving, and fleshly. In Paul’s thinking the “flesh” is anything that pits human will against God’s will.
Lack of Discipline (5:1-13). A man in the congregation is sleeping with his stepmother. The church isn’t doing anything about it. The Corinthians even feel some pride. “Look how wonderful grace is! We have a fellow here guilty of the most atrocious sort of perversion, but God is love.” Grace is indeed a beautiful thing, but it isn’t an invitation to indulge sin. Paul urges the church to disfellowship the man.
Lawsuits (6:1-11). The Corinthians are embarrassing the church by suing each other in the public courts. Paul wants to know why they can’t settle matters among themselves. Don’t they have any wise people in the church who could arbitrate disputes?
Immorality (6:12-20). Some of the pagan men converted to Christ are continuing to pursue prostitutes. They argue that this sex is as natural as eating food. No big deal. Paul sharply disagrees. A Christians’ body belongs to Jesus and is the Holy Spirit’s temple. Committing sexually immoral acts drags the Lord’s name through the muck.
Marriage (7:1-40). Paul encourages married couples to stay together if possible. But if a brother or sister is married to a pagan who wants to leave, then let the unhappy spouse go. If someone is unmarried and content with being single, then let him or her refrain from marriage. Paul seems to be addressing a particular situation in this matter. He gives his instructions about remaining single “in view of the impending distress” (7:26).
Food Offered to Idols (8:1-11:1). Eating food that has been presented to an idol isn’t wrong in itself. After all, the idol is nothing. But a former pagan may feel guilty for eating such food. It may feel too much like idol worship. Strong Christians (people who have no qualms of conscience) must respect the feelings of weaker brothers and sisters. Even though a practice may be technically right, engaging in it could prove to be unloving and hurtful to others.
Here’s a relevant example. As Christians my wife and I believe that God imposes no restriction on eating pork. But if a Muslim friend were a guest in our home, we would never offer him pork or eat it in front of him.
Dress (11:2-16). In Corinth women wear head-coverings. It’s the culture. But women in the church know that wearing no head-covering isn’t a sin. So why should they wear anything on their heads? Paul explains that a Christian woman in Corinth does have the right to wear no veil. The Lord doesn’t regulate this. But it is important to honor the gender differences customary in the society we live in.
Lord’s Supper (11:17-34). The Corinthians are abusing the Lord’s Supper, the simple meal of unleavened bread and grape juice that commemorates the death of Jesus. People are coming to the Sunday assembly drunk or refusing to share the Lord’s table with the poor. But this behavior is completely unacceptable. The Corinthians have forgotten what the memorial meal is all about.
Spiritual Gifts (12:1-14:40). The Spirit of Christ has richly blessed the Corinthian church with miraculous gifts. Paul lists nine of these (12:8-10). Speaking in tongues (the miraculous ability to speak in foreign languages without studying them) is a point of particular pride. Tongue speakers think of their ungifted brothers and sisters as spiritually inferior, and they speak over each other to draw attention to themselves. Paul commands the church to stop this foolishness. A church assembly is to be conducted in an orderly and respectful manner. And treating people with love is far more important than possessing a spiritual gift.
Resurrection (15:1-58). The church in Corinth has come to doubt the promised resurrection of the dead on the last day. Paul explains that the basis for Christian teaching is the resurrection of Jesus on the third day. If Jesus didn’t rise from the dead, then everything the church believes in collapses. Our faith, our forgiveness, our preaching, our hope—everything falls. But since Jesus did rise from the dead (a truth affirmed by abundant evidence), then we can expect a bodily resurrection too. Our physical body will undergo marvelous changes, becoming glorious and powerful.