3) For the Corinthians, what was the result of their blindness?
Now we get into the specifics of Apostle Paul’s rebuke to this church.
1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2 And you are proud!
This is quite shocking. Not only are they in denial about their spiritual state, they actually think they are doing quite well. Blindness leads to denial, and at times, it can also lead to boasting.
Think about what is going on here. This is a case of incest in the church. If it was his biological mother, it would probably say, mother, but instead it says he had his father’s wife. So it sounds like it could be his stepmother. We don’t know. Or, perhaps, Paul is so shocked, he can’t even write the word “mother” because it is so disgusting to him. Either way, it’s still incest. And rather than mourning over this sin, rather than wondering, what went wrong at our church, they were proud. They not only tolerating this sin, but they were patting themselves on the back for how spiritual they were.
How did they get this way? It’s important to trace how things ended up like this.
You could partially blame the society. The Hellenistic world of Paul’s day valued Greek culture and the life of the mind. So things like oratory skills were held in high regard. And this elevating of the mind had a tragic effect. The mind was elevated to such an extent that the body was considered almost irrelevant. The mind was way up there and the body, it’s way down here so you don’t have to fret about your actions and behavior. Plato would later follow up on this idea and refer to the body as the prison of the soul. The mind, or in Christian terms, the spirit or the soul, was what matters and the body was something evil and therefore it could be dismissed.
On top of that, Corinth was a wealthy port city known for sexual immorality. In fact, one ancient Greek playwright coined a verb, korinthiazo, which means, to act like a Corinthian, and this literally meant to commit fornication.
How did they become so blind? Not only to fall into this kind of deplorable sin, a sin that not even the civilized pagans committed, but to look past this sin and boast about their brand of spirituality. How did they get to this degree of blindness?
The first step toward blindness was a departure from the gospel. Then, this forgetting of who God is, and the work of Christ on the cross, and who they are in Christ, forgetting this gospel opened the door for societal values and worldly wisdom to seep into the church. And in the same way that the world recognizes its leaders because of their ability and charisma and their eloquence and wisdom, the church started identifying leaders in their midst using the same criteria. And everyone in that church bought hook line and sinker this Greek notion that the mind and the body are two separate things. You are spiritual as long as you can speak well and pray well and lead well and we will look past your private life.
The direct consequence of this dichotomy between mind and body was a throwing out of all ethical standards. Holiness was now an option. The high view of the mind and the corresponding low view of the body produced a lax ethical climate because you can pretty much do whatever you want with your body. Because they reasoned, your actions do not influence your mind or your spirit or your soul. You see the cause and the effect? High view of the mind/soul/spirit, low view of the body. Therefore, you are free to do whatever you want in terms of your bodily actions. That is why this church is in a state of chaos when it comes to ethics. 10 of the 11 problems listed in this letter to the Corinthians are behavioral and only 1 problem is theological.
The 10 behavioral or ethical issues range from things like: sexuality, marriage, lawsuits, divorce, what if your spouse is a non-believer, then can you divorce her?, whether or not it is proper for Christians to eat meat which has been ritually slaughtered in a pagan temple, proper conduct in public worship and, in particular, the value of spiritual gifts, like speaking in tongues. They were confused about all kinds of ethical matters and church practice.
Only in Ch 15 does Paul raise a theological concern. We are going to explore this in detail when we get to that chapter, but I want to mention it briefly right now. Because it’s interesting to note how one distortion in theology can cause an unraveling of an entire church. I used to think, theology, it’s not important. Let the systematic theology professors figure it out. It’s too hard for the vast majority of Christians to know. But I am realizing more and more that certain doctrine, certain key tenets of the faith must be guarded. I can’t be lazy intellectually about theology because if I become unclear about an important doctrine, then it has to potential to damage a lot of precious people at this church.
In chapter 15, Paul mentions the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. It’s a passage that is often preached during Easter or funerals. And we hear about the resurrection, and we are like, of course there is a bodily resurrection. It wouldn’t be a resurrection if Jesus didn’t rise from the grave in the flesh. Jesus rose bodily to show that death was not the end and he was the firstfruits, demonstrating that one day when Jesus returns, not only will our souls be with God for eternity, but even our physical bodies will resurrect and be redeemed. And so will creation, all that we see here on earth, God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. This world as we know it is going to be redeemed, re-created, made new. Therefore, this doctrine of the bodily resurrection forever connects our mind/spirit/soul with our bodies. Mind, spirit, soul, body, these are all one. They are inseparable.
Now it follows that if you abandon the idea that ethics matter, then life is a free for all so do what you want; this is what the Corinthians believed. And isn’t it convenient that they began to leave out the theology of the bodily resurrection? They thought, Jesus didn’t resurrect physically. He is all Spirit, don’t you know? God is personal. It’s between me and God in my private devotional life that nobody else sees. What I do in terms of ethics or in my interactions with others, that is separate from my faith.
Don’t we hear this language a lot these days? People coming to church and appearing really holy on Sundays, but Monday through Saturday, they are just as greedy and ambitious and flippant about their sins as their non-believing friends and colleagues. There is an overemphasis at the Corinthian church on human leaders and spiritual gifts, to the neglect of real life, Monday through Saturday behavior. Do you see how blindness works? No wonder non-Christians don’t want to come to church because they think we are all a bunch of hypocrites.
This is the pattern that leads to blindness. You depart from the gospel, then society’s values begin to seep into your life and into the church. As a result, any ethical standard personally or corporately goes out the window; and in order to make sense of your faith and relieve yourself of guilt, your theology changes to support or rationalize your lifestyle.
This is how blindness works. There are many zealous Christians who say, I am pursuing my major and eventually my career for God. For example, I want to be a doctor so that I can be a medical missionary in Africa. This is quite common. Many Christians who are pre-meds actually say that medical missions is their conviction or calling. But when you look at their lives when they are college students, they are too busy even in the small mundane decisions to put God first. They have to put their studies and their grades first and everything else takes a back seat. They skip church, they don’t have time for prayer and for Bible reading. They don’t have time for accountability with other brothers and sisters in Christ. 20 years go by and the vast majority of people who started out saying, I want to serve God, most of them end up being no different than the rest of their non-believing peers.
That’s my experience from doing college ministry for the last 15 years. It happens all the time. People have good intentions, people make many promises to God, people make many commitments in their early years of being a Christian because they are excited. But those same people with good intentions, if you look at how they live Monday through Saturday, the evidence of their lives reveals that God is not the most important person to them. Instead, what they wanted to pursue was more important than the call of God. And that in the end, they were not willing to adjust their lives to match their convictions.
So over time, that creates an uncomfortable gap between what we profess and how our lives turned out. And at that point, we could admit our disobedience and repent. Or, instead of repenting, we can change the story. You know, actually, I think God wants me to witness at my hospital while I make half a million dollars instead of serving in Africa as a medical missionary. I was just being naive back then. I have a family to take care of now. That might be true, God may want you at that hospital instead of Africa. But I would like to ask that person, did the call of God change, or did you change to line up God’s call with what you really wanted to do all along. We need to be honest with ourselves. Search your hearts. Are you willing to follow Jesus all the way, no matter the cost?
For the Corinthians, it wasn’t just one issue–sexual immorality–but from v11, Paul implies that there were other areas of blindness and compromise in this church.
11 But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
The sexual immoral, the greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, swindlers. You find these things in the world. Not in the church. But the fact that Paul has to state the obvious is a clue that the world’s value system had seeped into the church.
The church of God was called to be a temple of God, a community that was distinct from the rest of the world. Yet, the Corinthians, while being well aware that a professing Christian brother in their midst was committing incest with their mother or stepmother, they ignored it, they tolerated it. And on top of that, they were boastful about how spiritual their church was. This is blindness to the max. And because they failed to realize the seriousness of this sin and other sinful behaviors in the church, they could actually be quite convicted, to the point of boasting. Boasting about how long they were able to speak in tongues at last week’s Sunday service. Or how that particular leader spoke such a powerful sermon last week. And doing all this while ignoring something as blatantly sinful as incest. It’s unthinkable, but this is not just a Corinthian problem. It happens to every one of us.