Question: "What is the history and significance of the church in Corinth?"
Answer: The city of Corinth was prominent in the first century. It is located in Greece on an isthmus between the Aegean and Ionian Seas, which guaranteed its importance both militarily and commercially. Corinth was the capital of the Roman province Achaia. It was a prosperous city but also known for its immorality. Because of Corinth’s sordid reputation, a new Greek word was coined, korinthiazomai, which meant “to live immorally like a Corinthian.”
Acts 18 tells of Paul’s ministry in Corinth during his second missionary journey. Paul came to Corinth from Athens, which was about 45 miles away. In Corinth he met Aquila and Priscilla and worked with them in the tentmaking trade. Paul used the income he earned to preach the gospel without relying upon support from others. Paul preached in the synagogue every Sabbath. When the Jews en masse would not respond, Paul decided to take the message to the Gentiles. His ministry resulted in the salvation of both Jews and Gentiles, so the church in Corinth was made up of both. Paul ministered in Corinth for about a year and a half.
During Paul’s time in Corinth, opposition against him began to grow. The unbelieving Jews in the city brought charges against Paul before the Roman proconsul, but he refused to get involved in a Jewish religious dispute. Paul stayed a bit longer but eventually moved on to Ephesus. Paul remained in contact with the Corinthian church through letters and personal emissaries, sending them warnings and instruction. The books of 1 and 2 Corinthians are just two of the letters that he sent to them to address issues and concerns.
Paul’s letters to the Corinthians make up his largest body of work directed to an individual congregation. These two letters address problem areas that are still often problems in churches today.
The church at Corinth had divided loyalty to different leaders. Paul rejects this disunity, telling the church members to focus on Christ. The individual leaders should only point them to Christ. In conjunction with this, some people were questioning Paul’s character and authority (1 Corinthians 1—4).
There was gross immorality in the Corinthian church, and it was being tolerated. Paul tells the church they must exercise church discipline (1 Corinthians 5—6). Also, believers were taking each other to court, and Paul says they should handle disagreements among themselves (1 Corinthians 6).
There was some confusion about whether or not it was better to be married or single, and how married people should relate to each other. Paul clarifies those issues for them and for the church today (1 Corinthians 7).
Because of the mixed background of the church in Corinth, food was an area of conflict and concern. Jews had strict dietary laws while Gentiles did not. How could they maintain table fellowship? Also, meat sold in the marketplace may have been sacrificed to an idol before being sold. Could a Christian eat that meat? And how should a Christian respond to a fellow believer who holds a different opinion? Paul says that the Christian is free to eat anything as long as he is not actively participating in idol worship. However, if one Christian’s freedom causes spiritual harm to another believer by enticing him to do something against his conscience, Paul says the Christian should voluntarily curtail his freedom for the sake of his fellow Christian (1 Corinthians 8—10).
Paul also addresses the extent of women’s involvement in worship services and deals with problems the Corinthians were having in their gatherings, including abuses of the Lord’s Supper and their misuse of spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 11—14). In the midst of all the confusion, love should be the guiding principle (1 Corinthians 13).
The Corinthians were also confused about the future resurrection. It seems that some of them were questioning whether or not those who had died in Christ would be raised bodily. Paul affirms that, just as Jesus rose bodily, so also will all believers (1 Corinthians 15).
Paul also gives the Corinthian church instructions on giving money to support ministry, and he enjoins the principle of “grace giving” vs. an obligation based on a set percentage (1 Corinthians 16).
In 2 Corinthians, Paul has to cover much of the same territory again. False teachers had followed Paul and tried to convince the Corinthians that he was not a legitimate apostle or that they, the false teachers, were much better than Paul. In his second epistle, Paul has to defend his calling and reiterate and expand upon his previous instructions, as well as correct the church’s misapplication of his previous letter.
The New Testament does not give us any further information about the church at Corinth; however, Clement of Rome wrote a letter to them, probably near the end of the first century (almost 50 years after Paul’s time ministering there), and he had to deal with some of the same issues again.
Over the years, the city of Corinth began to decline in size and influence. There is evidence of a continuing Christian presence in Corinth for centuries, but how biblical it was at any point in time is difficult to ascertain. In 1858, the ancient city of Corinth was completely destroyed by an earthquake. A new city was rebuilt. Today, the city of Corinth is officially under the Church of Greece (part of the Greek Orthodox Church) under the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece. There is a small evangelical presence in Greece today, but it is often oppressed if not persecuted outright by the Greek Orthodox authorities.
In spite of all the problems the church at Corinth had, Paul refers to them as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people” (1 Corinthians 1:2). It would be easy to read 1 and 2 Corinthians smugly, given the multitude of their problems, yet the same problems present in Corinth are found in the church today. The church in the 21st century still needs 1 and 2 Corinthians to know how to deal with today’s issues.