Stories. There are stories that we embrace as our own that say something about us. And sometimes there are other stories that lie behind our lives—behind an attitude, or behavior, or personal quirk—that say other things about us! All these stories shape us and tell about who we are. Yet some other stories can also be so foreign to us that we cannot understand them.
The story of the Corinthian believers is one of a checkered past. Many histories of Corinth describe the people in terms of excessive sexual immorality (after all, a double seaport in the ancient world, combined with its temple devoted to Aphrodite, its patron goddess of love, beauty, and procreation as well as sailors lends itself to such conclusions). Such exaggerations originated in Athenian propaganda, which tried to diminish Corinth’s reputation. Yet Corinth was no different from other ancient port cities or other cities of the Roman empire, with multiple temples devoted to the gods of that day. Religious observances were intertwined inseparably with the political and economic practices of the city, so that those of economic means would not only have been among the city’s political leaders but would have also participated in the city’s religious practices.
For some readers of 1 Corinthians, they get the impression that Paul is overly concerned about different behaviors of the Corinthian believers. For Paul addresses a number of issues that he sees as problematic in chapters 5 through 14. But for Paul, the real issue is not so much their behavior, as he sees the Corinthians believers still having too much Corinth in them. That is, the problem for the Corinthian believers is that, although God had called them to be God’s chosen and distinct people in the city of Corinth (see 1 Cor 1:2, where Paul addresses the believers with “called” language: as the ekklēsia of God or “those called by God,” those “called to be holy ones,” and those “who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ in every place”), they have not lived out the story of their calling, but instead they continued to live out the story of their setting. And the results did not mirror the gospel but more of the same kind of thing that one would expect in a city like Corinth. Division. Sexual immorality. Leading others astray. More division.
The passage of 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 stands early in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church to offer some theological perspectives regarding the behaviors that he addresses. For when Paul addresses those issues, what he sees is something much larger than merely what the believers were doing. In this passage, he refers to the “message of the cross,” but immediately describes it from two perspectives. On the one hand, Paul affirms that Christ sent him to “proclaim the gospel” (1:17, nrsv), which gives witness to the power of the cross of Christ (1:17; see 1:18). Yet, on the other hand, Paul also describes the “message of the cross” as “foolishness” (1:18) from the perspective of “those who are perishing” (nrsv) or “those who are being destroyed” (ceb). The Roman cross came out of the world of the Roman empire. It was used as an instrument of execution for those guilty of treason against the empire and as a symbol of a person’s foolish (unsuccessful) attempt to stand against the powerful Romans. It was also a tool of intimidation for anyone who might be tempted to resist the empire. Rather than a sign of strength, it represented weakness within a specific worldview or story affirming Roman imperial power and foolishness in a story affirming wisdom as a way to understand divine will. Even from a Jewish perspective, the Jewish people saw the cross as a “stumbling block” (1:23) or an obstacle to seeing Jesus as the Jewish Messiah, because they could not see how a dead man could serve as their political deliverer. This made the idea of a “crucified Christ” an oxymoron or a ridiculous notion within their own stories.
But Paul hints about a different story that has shaped the Corinthian church. The Old Testament quotation in verse 19 (cf. Isa 29:14) suggests that God is above human wisdom, not in an anti-intellectual sense but in the sense that God cannot be understood merely by means of human intellect or human ways of knowing. Rather, God makes God’s own self known through God’s self-revelation: in God’s own actions, and ultimately in the person of Jesus Christ. And so that story includes, among other things, the episode of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross. Although such an episode seems to be utter foolishness from a Roman perspective and may be described in terms of Jesus’ humiliation (cf. Phil 2:6-8, where the Greek word translated “humbled” in most translations, etapeinōsen, should be understood more strongly as “humiliated”), this Christian “counter-cultural” story offers a distinctly different perspective: that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world” (1 Cor 1:20) and demonstrated Christ to be “the power of God” and “the wisdom of God” (1:24).
That God had called the Corinthian believers from one story or world to a different story is most important as Paul addresses the different behavioral issues. For Paul’s point is that, in each case, the behavior that he assesses seems to come out of the world of Corinth … the story of the believers’ past, rather than the new story of Christ and the cross to which they have been called. And so Paul calls them to be who they are, and to live into the new story of the gospel that should be shaping them, rather than holding onto the stories that their world and empire tell them to be truth. For Paul contends that they have a new name and a new identity, because they have entered a new story of the cross, redemption, and reconciliation that should inform and define their lives, as they live in a world propagating a very different story.
The lives of contemporary Christians are often indistinguishable from the rest of society. I have recently seen some believers wearing shirts that offer a Christian statement, followed by the caveat, “If this offends you, get over it.” This may reflect more concern for personal rights than Christian responsibility for loving our neighbor and responding charitably, thereby ironically living into contemporary society’s story more than the story of the crucified Christ.
Discourse among Christians over political or theological issues too frequently becomes more hostile than discourse among non-Christians, even when the Christian story includes Jesus’ words, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love one another” (John 13:35, ceb).
Attitudes toward those who think or act differently from traditional Christian doctrines or practices sometimes reflect distain rather than charitable regard and respect as fellow children of God whom God created and loves. In a world where the story is increasingly one of division and discord, Paul affirms a different Christian story where responsibility for the other takes priority.
It takes more grace to live into the story of our calling than it does to be correct. For in our efforts to be correct, we often fall back into the story that society keeps enticing us with.
Professor of NT; Chair, Department of Religion; STCM, NNU