From:  A Torah Commentary on First  Corinthians 1-6                   Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2011






Chapter 3:                                                                                                     [Page 43] 

Focuses for Conflict within the








1.    Paul’s Immediate Reason for Writing:

 Rampant Factionalism



            To judge by his lengthy indignation and discussing the matter before anything else, the major reason for Paul writing was profound annoyance at the Corinthian divisiveness (chapter 1).  Even so, he had the need to communicate with them on other matters as well since they had questions which they desired to have him answer (7:1) and since these either could or already had become the excuse for local cliques.   These questions certainly included matters of sexual conduct (celibacy, divorce, remarriage after divorce) since these are discussed immediately after being introduced by the statement “concerning the things of which you wrote to me” (7:1).

             Chapter 8 begins with the statement “concerning things offered to idols:”  in light of the similarity to the earlier statement (7:1) and in light of this following immediately afterwards, this was virtually certainly another subject matter over which they had expressed concern to Paul. 

            Each of these areas represents issues that call forth strong emotions and were natural points around which division could arise.  The fact that Corinth was division stained and in light of the fact that these were issues that were presented to him, it seems inescapable that these issues had become factional issues as well, with one group favoring a given view on each of these in contradiction to those of the other groups.     Whether members of a given faction agreed on each of these must be speculatory:  if modern experience is any guide, a church with even just a handful of factions may well find a minority within a party agreeing with the dominant view on that subject found in a different group.  Yet they maintain their own loyalty to a given clique because the points where they are in agreement with their own camp are counted as of greater importance than where they were in agreement with the views of competing groups.       

            Did the Corinthians send questions on other issues over which they were divided and which Paul treats in his letter?  The discussion of miraculous gifts in the church is prefaced with the remark, “Now concerning spiritual gifts brethren, I do not want you to be ignorant” (12:1).  The similarity in language to that introducing the controversies over sexual morality and offerings to idols could indicate that he has returned to another of their queries.[1]  Since the utilization of these gifts certainly represented a matter over which envy and assertiveness could aggravate factional pride, it is inherently probable



[Page 44]  that they had such differences whether or not they raised the subject to Paul. 

            In discussing the contribution for the needy, Paul introduces it with the remark, “Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the church of Galatia, so you must do also.”  The similarity in introductory language has been used to argue that Paul is introducing another matter the Corinthians had raised,[2] one over which perhaps they had factional differences.  Although it was not completely impossible, it is harder to conceive of such disagreements arising over what was an act of charity and which in no way affected one faction’s power relative to another. 

            If they had raised a question it is likely to have been one of genuine interest rather than factional maneuvering.  To this commentator, however, it reads more like Paul is simply incidentally using similar language to introduce a completely new topic, i.e., this was the first time that he had mentioned his desires to them on the matter.  If it was, it is unlikely to have already been a topic of division!  Alternatively, his prior remarks may not have been specific enough to galvanize the immediate action that was required and he wished to correct that situation.

            The final use of “concerning” language is about Apollos, “Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to come to you with the brethren, but he was quite unwilling to come at this time; however, he will come when he has a convenient time” (16:12).  If this indicates that the Corinthians had raised a question about Apollos[3] (and, as in the case of the reference to the contribution there seems no pressing reason to read it in this manner), then it could have been in the hope that he would return and press the case for “his” faction (1:12) against that of the others.  If so, it is no wonder that he wanted no part of the mess and delayed his return!

            In addition to possible disagreements over these matters, Paul explicitly refers to divisions in the assembly at the time of the partaking of the Lord’s Supper (chapter 11) and the common denial of a personal bodily resurrection (chapter 15).  These issues may or may not have been included in the letter the Corinthians sent, but since he was discussing divisive issues he clearly felt they had to be dealt with--on his own initiative if they had not introduced the subjects themselves. 

The danger in expanding their query list too broadly lies in the fact that Paul’s use of other sources (see next section) would have been needless if they had already introduced all the matters themselves.  Of course, it could be that what his other informants had provided him were details of the passion, intensity, and venom with which the disagreements were accompanied.  This could easily transform matters of concern to Paul into matters of intense worry. 

            Some have detected a unifying theme among the various contradictory beliefs in the Corinthian rival factions:  each claimed to have a unique insight/knowledge (“gnosis”) that the others did not share.  Since this led to behavior that was destructive of the apostolic standard of orthodoxy, this is understood as a kind --or, since the beliefs were contradictory, perhaps we should use the plural “kinds”--of primitive Gnosticism, in which the initiated and elect have possession of “truths” the mass of believers are either unaware of or unwilling to accept.  In this approach, the full fledged form did not evolve till the next century but the basic mind-frame leading to it was already at work.[4]       

            Taking it from this standpoint, a belief in being “above” the world and the world having lost its controlling “power” could lead in very contradictory directions.  For one it could lead to an extreme asceticism, such as forsaking the marital obligations to engage



[Page 45]  in fasting.  For another it could lead to consorting with prostitutes and promiscuous dealings with outsiders in which the lack of standards established the tone of the relationship.  After all, if one was “free” from the world, its worse could do no harm.[5] 

            At this stage, there was almost certainly no formal Gnostic theory to formally justify such excesses.[6]   We are dealing with extremes that could easily arise from Pauline teaching and which--if persevered in for a lengthy period of time--would only then be formalized into a organized body of thought.  It is not so much that Gnosticism created such behavior as such behavior required the ultimate invention of Gnosticism to justify itself.






2.  Paul’s Sources of Information on

the Internal Corinthian Divisions



            Three distinct sources of information were available to Paul in preparing his epistle.

First there was the earlier letter written by the Corinthian congregation (referred to in 7:1), which certainly informed Paul of some of the subjects that were in contention within their church.  On the other hand, the fact that the presence of the incestuous man seemingly had raised no (or, at most, merely token) objection argues that there would have been no need felt to mention the matter.  Nor, if they mentioned the lawsuits at all, were they likely to explicitly bring up the fact that some of their members had unquestionably been acting dishonorably and dishonestly (6:8), thereby creating the legal challenges in the first place. 

Hence on at least these two subject matters it is unlikely that Paul gained much or any of his knowledge of internal conditions from their epistle to him.  What, then, were Paul’s sources of information on the matters they had omitted or downplayed?        

            Perhaps the most obvious source were the people of Chloe’s household (1:11) and their reports about internal dissensions.   Some have taken the reference to her “people” as her “friends,” which seems an improbable interpretive stretch.[7]  Being her kinspeople or employees would be more reasonable.  Slavery being so common in that day and age, it is quite possible that the informants were trusted slaves sent by her.[8] 

        W. B. Harris speculates, on the basis of the fact that it was a common name among slaves, that she herself was a freedwoman who had obtained success in some type of business venture.[9]  The fact that she could afford to send messengers argues that she was financially well off.  With that would have come a recognition of her as “a woman of prominence and power” within her home congregation.[10] 

            Theoretically she could have been a resident of Ephesus (where Paul was apparently currently residing) who had sent her representatives to Corinth—presumably for trade purposes[11]—and they brought back the alarming word of what they had seen and heard.  The Corinthians might be able to hide the seriousness of their problems by



[Page 46]  not communicating them to Paul, but they would have no way of hiding them from outsiders who, alarmed at the situation, would pass word on to the apostle the next time they saw him.

More common seems to be the assumption that she was a resident of Corinth itself and had sent her people either specifically to Ephesus or as a stopping point on the way to their ultimate destination.[12]  If so, barring specific contrary instructions from Chloe, they would surely have felt free to candidly answer any of Paul’s queries and might easily divulge--intentionally or inadvertently--some of the various problems within their congregation. 

Against Chloe being a resident of Corinth, is the danger that her being named could have easily resulted in her being singled out for shunning, criticism, and verbal backstabbing.  Indeed, she is the only person specifically named as a source of information.  If a resident of Corinth, would not Paul have felt the need to secure her well being by some type of verbal caution so that the locals not take their frustration out upon her?

On the other hand it seems more probable that she was a very respected member of the group.[13]  Even in a divided congregation there are usually a few people who seem able to “stand above the storm” and to enjoy the respect of the bulk of members and she could well have been one such person.  Certainly Paul would have been unlikely to give her name if she had been a controversial member or one who could have been easily retaliated against for passing word to him as to the local circumstances. 

            But that still leaves the question of just what specific information did her people provide the apostle?  Did they mention the other problems Paul discusses?   Since the answer is not explicitly given, we must deal with deduction and inference and those lead commentators in significantly different directions.

            Some believe that since that household had provided information, that there is no good reason to limit it to the one topic of general divisiveness that is specified.  Indeed, having claimed division existed, one would have expected specific examples to be given—indeed, the more there were, and the more significant they were, the more likely Paul was to be aroused to intervene.[14] 

Furthermore, referring to Chloe’s household as the source of his facts, could constitute an implicit ruling out of any responsibility (or blame?) being put on the three man delegation of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus who were now with him (16:17).[15]  Some have speculated that this argues that the divisions erupted after they had left to go to Paul.[16]  The argument, however, is based on the assumption that they arrived at Ephesus before Chloe’s people did.  On the other hand, divisions so extensive and on so many major themes seem extremely unlikely to have sprung up quickly and would surely have been present no matter which group left Corinth first.  Hence it seems probable that one group was in the position of confirming what they other had said, no matter which was the first to speak of it.

            Finally, there was the likely facts provided by of the three man delegation of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17).  Some have wondered whether these three might have been the specific people of Chloe (1:11) who had provided Paul information.[17]  Since Stephanus had his own “household (1:16), this reconstruction would seemingly work only if Stephanus were her son or other blood relation and even then it would seem odd for him to be defined in terms of his mother’s house rather than his own.



[Page 47]         It has been reasonably speculated that the Corinthian letter to Paul was  delivered by this three man group,[18] perhaps functioning as an official delegation from the congregation.  The very letter itself would provide an insight into either current or potential problems for the group and would raise obvious questions for Paul to present to whoever brought the correspondence.  They could hardly have avoided answering them without making Paul even more concerned as to the true situation. 

Furthermore, the query was surely inescapable, “Are there any other problems?” which would directly lead to a mention of one or more of the issues not specified in the letter.  Indeed, any effort to dodge a straight answer would have provoked an even greater Pauline determination to get out of them—or other sources—the complete story.  Whether from them or not, whoever did deliver the epistle would certainly have faced just that situation.  And whoever came later, face inquiries as to whether the situation had been accurately presented and still persisted.

While only unidentified members of Chloe’s household had come to Paul, here the householder, Stephanas himself, had undertaken the long journey.  We do not know who “Fortunatus and Achaicus” were but they may well have been members of his household as well--again either bondservants or freemen.  Certainly it would be surprising if a man of such substance would have traveled without the presence of such individuals and Paul’s passing over such attendants in silence would be odd, if they also were believers.  If, however, they were other important members of the congregation rather than members of his personal household, the number of Paul’s sources of independent information were even greater.

If some make Chloe’s household the primary source of Paul’s information (above), a very different reconstruction, not surprisingly, is available that deduces the very opposite:  that these three men were the main basis of Pauline knowledge, at last of certain significant matters.  For example, W. B. Harris suspects that the information about the problems discussed in chapter 11 (and presumably the following chapters as well) were primarily dependent upon the delegation’s report, though possibly supplemented by information from Chloe’s people as well.[19]

The most important thing, of course, was not the exact source that Paul gained his information but the fact that he obtained it at all.  Having done so, he felt it not only useful but vital to deal pointedly with the various matters that were tearing away at the congregation.






3.  Sexual Morality As a

Source of Disagreement



            Contrary to the late twentieth century delusion that the generation coming to adulthood in the 1960s and 1970s had discovered the joys and pleasures of unrestrained licentiousness, the first century world was equally aware of them.  They engaged in all its forms from visual and written pornography to unrestrained sexual expression outside the



[Page 48]  bonds of matrimony.  Indeed, it had some forms that would have been embarrassing even to the “modern” mind, in particular religious cultic prostitution.

Hence it is not surprising that the apostle Paul was forced to deal with such matters when writing to a congregation located in a major seaport, where the financial and psychological incentive to provide and enjoy such “pleasures” would have been regarded as quite natural.  Furthermore the city’s reputation for indulgence to a degree that surpassed most other cities would have further predisposed many toward acceptance of such behavior.

            In the case of the Corinthian church, the issues involved both matters socially condoned by most and those that were even beyond the pale of contemporary society’s generous boundaries on sexual conduct.  Prostitution was readily available and, though Paul does not explicitly accuse the members of involvement, his sustained argument against participation (1 Corinthians 6:15-20), argues strongly that he was well aware that some members were continuing to engage in such encounters. 

Since so many other issues were tearing the congregation apart, perhaps he simply thought it best to avoid explicitly stirring in yet another one.  Prostitution, by its very nature, was private.  Deniability was nearly always an option.  Rather than go down that path, he chooses to deal with issues that were not so easily hidden.

            Other sexual sins are referred to--but only in passing--in his list of behaviors that would keep a person from “inherit[ing] the kingdom of God” (6:9-10):  fornication (pre-marital sexual intercourse), adultery (sexual intercourse with someone besides one’s spouse) and homosexuality (being careful to specify both the “active” and “passive” partners lest one try to use the distinction to wiggle around his rebuke).  He pointedly notes that “such were some of you” but that they had been transformed by their conversion (6:11).  Yet if he had thought such evils had totally disappeared why mention them?  For that matter, one or all of these evils would be available by the consorting with prostitutes condemned later in the chapter.      

            What he could not ignore or disguise behind the semi-transparent veil of “abstract” teaching, was the son who had his father’s wife (5:1).  Whether we take this in terms of actual marriage or simply living with the woman after his father’s death or divorce—issues which will be examined in the commentary itself—the key fact was that the first century Gentile could hardly imagine a more shocking behavior.  Even by their lenient standards, the Corinthian church had hit rock bottom by tolerating such a person. 

            In addition to the individual’s own salvation (5:5) and the impact it had on degrading the moral behavior of other believers (5:6), such conduct created a horrendous obstacle to converting outsiders.  Hence it had to be dealt with because of both its internal and extra-church repercussions.     

            In chapter seven, Paul turns to subjects on which there are, on at least several of the matters, equally moral choices:  for example, choosing celibacy instead of marriage, deciding to marry after a long-term engagement versus leaving things as they were due to the societal “distress” facing them, and that of celibacy instead of remarriage after the death of one’s spouse. 

In addition there was the potentially divisive issue of if and when there could be divorce by a believer:  did Jesus’ fundamental opposition apply to divorce in situations involving a non-believer (marriage with such a person being virtually incomprehensible within the geographically Palestinian context in which Jesus had labored and taught).  Or



[Page 49]  was this such a dramatically distinct context, that a different approach was permissible?  This issue, ironically enough, deserved discussion within a chapter devoting so much of its space—directly or indirectly—to celibacy and that was because celibacy would be at least one of the options available to the divorced.  Indeed, quite possibly, the preferred choice for a good number of Corinthians. 

How different our contemporary world, in which divorce is virtually assumed to “inevitably” lead to remarriage!  Different societies, with different sets of assumptions, yet still wrestling with the same fundamental issues of if and when marriages can or should be terminated and, if so, what would then be the best and right course of behavior.   






4.  The Abuse of the Communion

As a Source of Discord



            C. F. D. Moule is quite correct in reminding us that the New Testament provides no “technical name” for the commemoration.[20]  Even so, it does offer us data suggesting that several appellations were considered appropriate in the first century.  Four of the five terms used to describe the Communion—or forms of the term—are found in the current epistle.  The fifth is the “Mass” and, that comes in the post-apostolic period from the Latin word missio and originally referred to the “closed” nature the celebration had become:  outsiders and catechumens were dismissed from the meeting and the members then partook of the bread and fruit of the vine.[21]

            Paul H. Jones describes the English derivation of the four scripturally related terms,[22]


One of the most common terms is “Holy Communion.”  Its scriptural usage is found in 1 Corinthians 10:16, “the cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a koinonia in the blood of Christ?”  Although traditional translations (King James Version) render koinonia “communion,” more recent translations use “participation” (Revised Standard Version and New International Version), “sharing” (New Revised Standard Version and Today’s English Version) or “means of sharing” (New English Bible).

A second term, “Lord’s Supper,” represents the usual translation (King James Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New English Version) of Paul’s phrase kyriakon deipnon, which describes the church’s common meal that in Paul’s view is being defiled by the Corinthians, “When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper” (1 Corinthians 11:20).

A third term, “the breaking of the bread,” is found in Acts 2:42 and Luke 24:35.  The corresponding verbal form “to break bread” is employed by Paul when referring to the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 10:16 and also by Luke in Acts 2:46; 20:7, 11; 27:35.

The fourth term, “eucharist,” is derived from the Greek word eucharistia



[Page 50]  which means “thanksgiving.”  Although the noun form is not found in the New Testament, except as a variant reading in 1 Corinthians 10:16; its verbal form, “to give thanks,” may be found in Mark 14:23, Luke 22:17, 19 and 1 Corinthians 11:24.  Within a short time it became the favorite expression which the early church used to designated its communal meal.  


            One major worship problem that the Corinthian church suffered from was an abuse of the Lord’s Supper.  Whether we take the factional partying (11:21) as incorporating the Communion or as technically separate from it, Paul tore into the behavior not merely because it blatantly manifested their internal division, but even more so because it humiliated their poorer co-religionists (11:22). 

Paul conceived of the church as an institution whose members behaved in a loving manner toward each other.  This concept of loving in deed rather than just in word lies behind the lengthy discussion in Chapter 13 on the nature of love.  Indeed, if they had been able to fully grasp this principle, that alone would have resolved many if not all of their internal problems.  Instead, their separate cliques’ determination to dominate permitted them to ignore or roll over the inhibitions and limitations of others.

            This was bad enough when it came to giving more loyalty to faction leaders than to Christ (1:10-13).  This was bad enough when it involved turning the assembly into a disorderly meeting in order to be able to “show off” one’s spiritual gifts (cf. 14:24).  It was, if anything, far worse when it infected their participation of the Communion.  By remembering their Lord’s death, they were involved in a practice of mutual bonding through a solemn remembrance of the Lord they shared in common.  By partaking of the loaf they all partook of His body and by partaking of the loaf they all shared in His blood.  Regardless of whatever sense one takes those expressions it was still, if you will, the time when they all also became one with the Lord they worshipped.

            Hence to restore the unifying intent of the Lord’s Supper, Paul had even more reason to vigorously insist that it be partook of in a respectful manner (11:27).  A secular parallel might be if some of those partaking in a fourth of July celebration of American independence decided to burn the flag instead of standing in respect while the national anthem is sung.

            In our modern context the problem is virtually 180 degrees diametrically opposite:  To the Corinthians it was a matter of partaking while visibly acting in a manner indicating that it was not being taken seriously.  The modern participant is unlikely to fall into that trap.  The modern danger is typically that of partaking without adequately meditating upon the significance of what one is doing.  It becomes, too often, an empty form and ritual and not a true “communing” with the Lord.

            Where did Paul gain his knowledge of the Supper and its institution?  He describes it in this fashion, “I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you” (11:23) and proceeds to give an account of the institution of the communion (11:23-25).  Although the exact meaning of this has been a subject of much discussion (see chapter 11), Paul clearly draws an authoritative straight line between what Jesus instituted and demanded and what he himself was teaching.

            True, Paul might have learned this Jesus tradition from more than one source.  In the case of the Communion, Paul had been on his way to Antioch when converted.  Hence it would be fully expected that his first exposure to its practice would be in that



[Page 51]  church.  His own teaching (barring learning anything suggesting to him it was defective) would naturally reflect what he had seen and heard there.[23]   Yet that would not preclude him--assuming one believes that “inspiration” was a genuine, externally produced phenomena--from receiving more details of how it was instituted or having that teaching confirmed by direct revelation.






5. The Abuse of Tongue Speaking

and Prophecy

As a Source of Conflict



            Paul makes crystal clear that he had no problem with the presence of miraculous gifts being utilized in the church assembly.  Indeed, in regard to tongue-speaking he asserts that he exercised the gift more than others (14:18) and that he wished that all shared in this gift (14:5).

            In criticizing the Corinthian practice he does so with two major factors in mind:

            (1)  The use of such gifts was to be for the collective good and not for the enhancement of one’s personal prestige.  In doing this he is attempting to repair the damage that Corinthian factiousness had inflicted upon their congregation. 

            Hence we read of the essentiality of one prophet yielding to another when an additional message had been received (14:30).  The number of prophetic speakers is limited to three (14:29) as are the number of speakers in tongues (14:27).  These limitations functioned to keep the service length from turning into a kind of spiritual “endurance contest.”

            Another limitation was that when “tongues” were involved they were not to utilize that gift unless an interpreter is present (14:28).  They were not to waste their time listening to that which they could not comprehend.  Services were not to be turned into an exercise of personal gifts that did not benefit all present.  By such rules, potential chaos and conflict was to be replaced with order so that all might receive the maximum benefit from the phenomena.    

            (2)  The use of such gifts was never to be in such a manner as to lower the reputation of the church in the surrounding community.  He warns that “if the whole church comes together in one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind” (14:23).  Hence the need to limit the number of speakers and assure that there was an interpreter present.  Otherwise their collective wisdom—yea, even sanity—would be questioned.

Prophecy was to be utilized to “convince” and “convict” the listener (14:24), compelling them to the conclusion that “God is truly among you” (14:25).  Again the gift was designed to be of benefit to those in attendance and not as an idle wonder.

            How common were these phenomena?  Evelyn Underhill would be far from the



[Page 52]  only student of the question to conclude that, “Charismatic worship, in the form in which St. Paul describes it, was perhaps more characteristic of the early Hellenistic converts, who quickly moved away from Jewish models, than it was of the sober Mother-Church at Jerusalem.”[24]  That regional preferences would exist in the ancient church would be no more surprising than that such differences exist in the modern world.  On the other hand, in the presence of a fervent religious movement, presumed lines of “conservatism” versus “innovation” do not always hold true. 

The sad fact is that we do not have any other New Testament epistle that provides such in-depth data about any congregation’s worship, either Jewish or Gentile dominated, and any conclusions must reflect that scarcity of information.  It would be just as compatible with the Corinthian data to conclude that the utilization of these “gifts” was just as common in other churches and that the only reason they were discussed at length here was due to their abuse. 

If we deny that such practices were widely known and followed, the common emphasis upon the apostolic letters normally growing out of “real life problems”—rather than being abstract analyses—comes back to haunt us:  Unless there were blatant excesses, phenomena like tongue speaking and prophesying were unlikely to be mentioned in the first place.        

            Furthermore, if the “gifts” weren’t widespread, Paul would surely have felt obligated to make some reference to the “special blessing” that the Corinthians had received:  It was bad enough that they were abusing their gifts of the Spirit; how powerful an argument if he could have said that they were some of the few—or even the only ones—to have them!  To look at this from another viewpoint, assuming that the exchange of epistles was widespread, one would have anticipated some explanation of the phenomena, at least in passing, to make them comprehensible to those in other places where they were not available or exercised.  Yet they are presented in a straightforward, matter-of-fact manner, as if any reader who encountered the epistle would have an understanding of what was being described.

            Furthermore, there are at least some indications of the phenomena in other congregations.  In 1 Thessalonians there is the admonition, “Do not quench the Spirit.  Do not despise prophecies.  Test all things; hold fast what is good” (5:19-21).  Verse 19 has been introduced as evidence that the Thessalonican church viewed the exercise of such phenomena with significant reserve[25] and that is quite possible—different communities feel differently even about practices that they share in common, both as to the degree of enthusiasm and popularity.  The reserve, however, could just as easily be attributed to the potential for abuse (so clearly referred to in the Corinthian epistle) as it does to a significantly lesser degree of it being practiced.  

            The Corinthian epistle itself clearly implies the use of tongue speaking at other places that Corinth:  when Paul claimed that he utilized the gift more than others (14:18), there is every indication that he was describing his practice at the current moment, presumably in Ephesus.  And if he was able to exercise that gift in Ephesus (or any other city) would we not expect others present to also be doing so as well?

            Dealing with tongue-speaking and the associated phenomena described in this epistle, forces the modern mind to confront fundamental religious/theological issues:  Has God, can God, would God ever actually act in the “literal” manner the text clearly conveyed to its original readers?  This involves not only a historical question but one of



[Page 53]  underlying assumptions.  If one believes God either can not or would not, then one has to seek out an alternative scenario to explain what we read.

            The most obvious explanation is pure unmitigated invention.  Yet that approach suffers (regardless of one’s presuppositions) from the fact that the phenomena is described in such a mixed manner.  Paul is not trying to encourage, but to rein in what is happening.  Indeed, if it were pure invention with a Pauline origin, one would anticipate a glowing and totally positive presentation and the avoidance of any rebuke to what was happening.  If a purely local invention one would expect the other extreme of a thorough and complete repudiation.  The fact that we have the combination of theoretical acceptance and even endorsement with efforts to control the way the phenomena was expressed, argues that something objectively “real” (and controllable) was under discussion.

            Exaggeration is another explanation that can be utilized to explain what was happening.  There was a genuine “something” to at least some of the phenomena, but its practitioners—and Paul in his zeal—exaggerated its true significance and origin.  Then there is the possibility of the psychological origin of the phenomena, which fits in well with the exaggeration scenario, especially if we opt for the “ecstatic” (rather than real languages) interpretation of the tongues.  

Rarely in Scripture do we have God providing an external verbal message to an audience.  Moses at the burning bush and God’s praise of Jesus at His baptism are the two most easily remembered exceptions.  “Inspiration” of all types—however accomplished—was an internal phenomena, the interaction between the recipient and the Almighty.  It was not something that others normally saw or heard.    

            To those who believe that there was a genuine and objectively real interaction, the mode could be anything from dictation to a warning sensation when the writer was getting ready to deviate from what God wanted.  To those who believe that all “inspiration” comes from an inner reach for that mysterious “something” that lies beyond mortal flesh, it all comes from elevated human aspirations and striving for moral excellence.

            Assuming that the miraculous gifts in Corinthians were objectively and historically real, that would still leave the question of whether they continue to exist today and, if so, whether they would be manifested in the same form and manner.  1 Corinthians 13:8-10 certainly reads as if at some point such phenomena were to come to an end.  Have we reached it? 

When one reads the restrictions on the phenomena given by Paul (a limited number of speakers, their speaking one after another rather than simultaneously, the prohibition of women exercising the gifts in the public assembly) we are faced with the virtual abandonment of them in that segment of the modern religious world that claims to be the advocates of “spiritual gifts.”  Shall we interpret this as an indication that the phenomena has passed from genuine (first century) into the psychological (today) . . . that the modern practitioners are in blatant defiance of the apostolic regulations and hence are sinners . . . or that somehow the rules have been changed (and if so by whom and when, since the majority of such practitioners claim to go by the “scripture alone” standard)?  

It is one of the oddities of contemporary religious discussion that some of the most liberal and the most conservative join together in interpreting Biblical tongue speaking as primarily or exclusively ecstatic or, to be blunt, “jibberish.”  To the liberal



[Page 54]  this permits one to dismiss the entire phenomena as subjective and as having nothing truly and overtly Divine; to the conservative this permits one the liberty of learning “how” to speak tongues—rather than waiting to receive it from God.  This is accomplished by the repetition of a routine of nonsense syllables that, combined with the proper frame of mine, ultimately encourages one to utilize it in collective worship.  Hence one can literally be “coached” in techniques that permit one to “speak in tongues” in this sense of the term.[26]     

            To further complicate the picture, there appear to be occasional well documented contemporary cases in which an individual does speak in such services in a genuine foreign language which he or she is consciously unaware of having heard.[27]  How does one seeking to totally dismiss the objective reality of modern tongue-speaking deal with this?  Even more perplexing (but to those on the other side of the issue), how does one explain that such a tiny fraction of modern glossolia represents genuine “language-tongues?”

            In this context we can only outline the potential lines of division and note potential answers for them.  Some of them we can provide partial answers to in the text of our commentary.  In the final analysis, however, the answers generally are inescapably linked to one’s working presuppositions.  The claim of “total objectivity” is virtually untenable in this area of analysis no matter how much the twenty-first century “scientific” mind would prefer for it to be.  






6.  Women’s Role in the

Congregation As a Source

of Division



            Of all the issues discussed in the epistle, this is probably the most contentious one as the effort is made to apply the teaching to the modern world.  For what comfort it may be, it should be noted that Paul himself implied that the teaching was going to be such that many of his contemporaries would not like.  Otherwise his prolonged argumentation would not have been necessary.  Yet if a goodly number of them did not feel comfortable with it, why should it be surprising that many in our contemporary world feel similar discomfort?

            On the positive level, Paul expresses clear respect for specific women.  Although he does not explicitly praise Chloe (1:14), he thinks enough of her and her people to accept their report of Corinthian divisions as reliable.  He also conveys greetings not only from Aquilla but “Aquilla and Priscilla” both (1:19), implying a mutual friendship and full acceptance.

            Yet on the practical level, he provided guidelines for female behavior in general, some of which seems odd (due to our different cultural setting) and others which are antithetical to current dominant theological interpretations of women’s proper status and



[Page 55]  role.  Dominant, that is, in certain theologies, in certain religions, and in certain strata of certain religions.  Different theologies, different religions, and different segments of specific communities of faith quite often feel anything from actual reassurance to only mild discomfort.  Because we react with one degree of intensity, it would be unwise to assume that everyone else does as well. 

            As to Paul’s specific teachings regarding women three areas draw special attention:

            *  The women were to maintain traditional sexual distinctions in attire that allowed males and females to be readily told apart.  In chapter 11, Paul refers to the need for women to have long hair and to have their heads covered while repudiating both for males.  Whether one takes the “covering” (as we do) as equivalent to the long hair or as two separate phenomena, he is clearly enjoining two separate types of physical appearance or attire for the genders.  Both genders wore what we today would call “skirts” just as our contemporaries of both sexes, commonly wear “pants,” yet there clearly were sufficient stylistic differences between them that one could still quickly tell the difference between the male and the female—in part because of the distinct hair styles expected of the two sexes.

            *  They were to avoid asking public questions or disrupting the assembly.  Rather than pressing their questions in the assembly they were to discuss them with their husbands at home (14:34-35).  What is often overlooked is that this also required that husbands become sufficiently spiritually educated to be able to answer the questions!  If it limited women’s role in open participation it also increased married male responsibility as well.

            Yet however much a public leadership role in the service was being restricted, the apostle went on record firmly in favor of women having the right to prophesy (11:5), implying that there were other contexts in which that supernatural teaching gift could be rightly exercised.  

            *  Finally, there is the depiction of man as “head of woman” (11:3).  The anti-hierarchical nature of modern feminism rebels against the concept but—for better or worse—virtually no business or organization can exist without some form of it.  It always comes down to who will form the leadership and on what terms that “power” will be exercised.  If an organization (or even marriage) desires to prosper and be effective, then the concept of hierarchy will be utilized in a cautious and respectful manner; repressive treatment undermines the cooperation required for full success.

            Yet there were areas where the participation of both genders simultaneously rather than in competition with each other was regarded as clearly proper and desirable.  When they partook of the Communion (11:27) there is no indication that only males were involved.  Nor when the contribution was taken up (1 Corinthians 16:1-4) was there any indication of gender limitation.  Hence the Pauline idea clearly seems to be that when the two genders could co-operate simultaneously in acts of worship they were to do so, but not at the cost of the male obligation to take the guiding role. 

Only when it came to taking what a later generation would call “leadership roles” was female participation limited.   (How modern scholars attempt to eliminate the restrictions through their textual analyses, is discussed in detail in chapter 14.)  Yet this was also a double-edged sword:  just as it limited the public roles that some women would have desired to exercise, it also required the public participation of certain males


[Page 56]  who would have preferred to remain silent and in the background.  Hence it created obligations that, to a certain percentage of both genders, would have been viewed as undesirable.   

Some theoreticians speak of “female suppression” being involved in the Pauline teaching, yet one would be thoroughly unwise to overlook the considerable element of “male obligation” that the apostle is also demanding.  He is imposing standards of potential discomfort to many of both genders. 








[1] Fuller, 42, affirms it does.


[2] Ibid. 42.


[3] As implied by Ibid.


[4] For a favorable presentation of this approach see Ibid., 43-44.


[5] Cf. Ibid., 44, on how apostolic concepts could have been developed in very unapostolic contradictory directions.


[6] Indeed, the more primitive form we claim it to be, the less reasonable is the attachment of the term “Gnosticism” to it.  Hence Russell Pregeant, Engaging the New Testament:  An Interdisciplinary Introduction (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 1995), 365, argues that the concepts are presented so vaguely and left so undeveloped that the term can not properly be applied to the movement(s).  


[7] Ellis, 49.


[8] Robert G. Bratcher, A Translator’s Guide to Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, in the Helps for Translators Series (New York:  United Bible Societies, 1982), 8.  Gundry, 263, believes they were “probably slaves.”  The same opinion is held by Witherington, 99.  Gerd Theissen, Social Setting, 57, who provides concrete arguments in behalf of this conclusion.  Brian J. Dodd (The Problem with Paul [Downers Grove, Illinois:  InterVarsity Press, 1996],  25), adopts the interpretation though without giving a reason for the opinion.


[9] Harris, 37. 


[10] Dodd, 25.



[Page 57]  [11] Conzelman, 32; Murphy-O’Connor, Doubleday, xii.          


[12] On the uncertainty of her actual home town, see Luck, 16, and Margaret T. MacDonald, “Reading Real Women through the Undisputed Letters of Paul,” in Women & Christian Origins, edited by Ross S. Kraemer and Mary Rose D’Angelo (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999), 201. 


[13] Mary A. Getty, “1 Corinthians,” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, edited by Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minnesota:  Liturgical Press, 1989), 1107.  


[14] Tambasco, 67, argues that the problems described in chapters 1-6 are discussed because of Chloe’s information.  Certainly in chapter 7 Paul explicitly begins discussing the issues the Corinthians themselves had written about.


[15] Nils A. Dahl, Studies in Paul:  Theology for the Early Christian Mission, assisted by Paul Donahue (Minneapolis, Minnesota:  Augsburg Publishing House, 1977), 50.


[16] Ibid.  


[17] Howard, 16.   


[18] Gromacki, 202;  Bernhard Weiss, A Manual of Introduction to the New Testament, Volume 1, translated from the German by A. J. K. Davidson (New York:  Funk & Wagnalls, 1889), 267.     


[19] Harris, 141.   


[20] C. F. D. Moule, Worship in the New Testament (Richmond, Virginia:  John Knox Press, 1961), 27.   


[21] Paul H. Jones, Christ’s Eucharistic Presence:  A History of the Doctrine, in the American University Studies series (New York:  Peter Lang, 1994), n. 10, p. 20.   


[22] Ibid., 20-21.   


[23] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, Paul and His Theology:  A Brief Sketch, Second Edition (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice Hall, 1989), 94, sees the teaching as “possibly derived” from the worship practice of that congregation.    


[24] Evelyn Underhill, Worship (Guildford, Surrey [Great Britain]:  Eagle, 1991), 180.


[25] Alexander B. MacDonald, Christian Worship in the Primitive Church (Edinburgh:  T. & T. Clark, 1934), 43.

[Page 58]  [26] Carl B. Bridges, Jr., Paul and the Penumatics:  A Study in Social Control (Ph.D. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary [Richmond, Virginia], 1990), 30-31.


[27] C. F. D. Moule, The Holy Spirit, in the Contemporary Christian Insights series (New York:  Continuum, 1978; reprint, 2000 reprint), 87.



Roland H. Worth, Jr.

A Torah Commentary on First Corinthians 1-6:

Interpreting the Text in Light of

Its Old Testament Roots


© 2011