Church at Corinth

Church politics, and the conflicts that ensue from them, are as ancient as the Jesus communities themselves

Corinth Canal
Photo by Jeroen van Nierop on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

April 28, 2024

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Commentary on Acts 18:1-4; 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

While not exactly rose-tinted, in Acts there was an almost triumphal portrayal of the church at Thessalonica turning the world upside down in last Sunday’s reading. The heady possibilities of this scene slip away entirely with the introduction of the church at Corinth for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. 

Within less than a decade of the death, resurrection, and ascension of their teacher, Jesus the Christ, the realities of being church on this side of the resurrection begin to unfold with the movement from the Fourth Sunday of Easter to the Fifth. With this settling in comes the insight that church politics, and the conflicts that ensue from them, are as ancient as the Jesus communities themselves. 

As Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians progresses, it becomes evident that Paul’s apostolic authority has been called into question. Paul founded the Jesus community at Corinth several years before writing this letter (1 Corinthians 2:1–5; 2 Corinthians 1:19; see also Acts 18:1–18). 

While Paul appeals to the Corinthians “that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you” (1 Corinthians 1:10) in response to clear and present conflicts, the divisions within the Corinthian congregation appear, according to Paul, to be the result of significant departures from the gospel he initially preached among them.

Although titled 1 Corinthians, this text is at least the second letter to the Corinthian congregation from Paul. An earlier letter referenced in 5:9 is lost, which suggests that there is already thick communication between Paul and this church.  

Paul writes 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (1 Corinthians 16:8) in response to a letter he has received from the Corinthians about several disputed matters, as well as word-of-mouth reports about schismata (“division”) and eris (“strife”) within the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:10–11; 5:1; 11:18).

The scene in Acts also portrays the Corinthian church wrestling with conflict, although on a much larger scale. At the beginning of Acts 18, Paul meets Aquila and Priscilla in Corinth, who have come from Italy “because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome” (18:2).  

Claudius was the Roman emperor from 41 to 54 CE. The Roman Empire in this period practiced a kind of religious pluralism in which the peoples it conquered could continue to keep their gods and religious practices if they also acknowledged the supremacy of the Roman pantheon and worshiped the emperor as a god. The Jews, though, and the Jesus believers who grew among them, presented a particular problem to the empire because of their insistence on worshiping only the God of Israel. 

This tension with the empire would inspire occasional Roman persecution of the Jews, here specifically with Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49 CE on account of disturbances caused by the “Chrestus” Jews (Acts 18:2; Suetonius, Life of Claudius, 25.3).  

Scholars speculate that “Chrestus” may well have been a misspelling of “Christ,” that the Jews were expelled from Rome on account of the “Christ Jews.” While many Jews returned to Rome after the expulsion, others like Priscilla and Aquila, also greeted as leaders of the early church in Paul’s letter to the Romans (16:3-4), sought new lives beyond the city of Rome. 

Paul’s own letters reflect interpersonal dynamics among Paul and particular churches. Despite this Sunday specifically centered on the conflicts in the church at Corinth, as well as last Sunday’s brouhaha in Thessalonica, the author of Acts aims to enlarge the impact of the preaching of the gospel beyond specific locales. The expansiveness suggested in “turning the world upside down” and reference to the mass expulsion of a people from what was then a global city moves the impact of the early churches far beyond the limited scope of community conflict. 

Paul, too, in his own letters will make the case for the cosmic scope of the gospel, but not through narrative stories like Acts. His communication style, through letters, instead relies on exegetical proofs and rhetorical arguments, which have a different impact on readers and listeners conditioned to receive information through stories, not letters. 

The conflicts within the Corinthian church are also occasions to explore the “conflicts” within the New Testament itself, particularly as they relate to Paul and the earliest Jesus communities. 

These tensions are on full display with the pairing of narratives about Paul in Acts and Paul’s own letters during the Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Easter. For example, while Acts portrays Peter as the advocate for the inclusion of the Gentiles within the church, in his own letters Paul describes himself as this advocate. In fact, in various places in his own letters, Paul describes Peter as a hindrance to the inclusion of the Gentiles (for example, Galatians 2:11–14)! 

While congregants may often assume that the New Testament tells one story—that the various books all “agree” with one another or describe the same events—the Bible does not speak with one voice. No one walks into a library expecting all the books housed within it to say the same thing or agree on point of view. The “library” that is the Bible, representing authors with different perspectives and motivations, and writing in different time periods, is an invitation to understand the Jesus story reflected through multiple points of view. 

All these thematic conflicts suggest that these texts might be more appropriate for Lent, with its focus on human frailty and failing, than Easter! But in the Easter season, these texts point to disconcerting edges of the resurrection. 

While Jesus’ body was once dead but is now alive, the signs of torture in wounded hands, feet, and side remained. The resurrection body—the church itself as the body of Christ—is a wounded, imperfect, warts-and-all kind of body, full of conflict and continually called back into relationship. 

God creates new life from this messy imperfection. God does not give up on God’s people but creates even amid conflict.   


Holy Lord, within your church, your followers have often allowed their disagreements to get in the way of being faithful to your word. Remove any barriers our communities face that prevent us from sharing your word and building up your church. Amen.


Jesus, we are gathered   ELW 529, GG 392, TFF 140
Goodness is stronger than evil   ELW 712, GG 750


Be thou my vision, Bob Chilcott

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