Paul’s two epistles to the Corinthians grant us an up-close and personal portrait of the Corinthian community he was leaving behind. They were a diverse community of Jewish believers, God-fearing Gentiles, and recently converted pagans. They were not perfect people.
They struggled to maintain cohesion after Paul left. They often differed in their opinions and practices regarding such matters as gender roles, sexuality, use of spiritual gifts, and the doctrine of the resurrection. Some found it difficult to adapt to Judaism’s strict standards of modesty in dress and conduct. Sexual immorality was a problem. The Corinthian leadership struggled with censuring members who were engaged in immorality. A lack of qualified leaders to serve as judges in civil suits encouraged the community to use secular courts. The Corinthian believers misused ecstatic utterances and allowed charismatic antics to disrupt worship services. Philosophical monotheists among the Corinthians chafed at the prohibition on things sacrificed to idols and struggled with the concept of a literal resurrection of the dead. Visits from other apostles led to factionalism. Some among the Corinthians began to question Paul’s authority and apostleship. In his letters, Paul addresses these issues and several other problems with genuine pastoral concern.
Sound familiar? No? Consider a recent discussion in the comments section of Derek Leman’s blog. Although the topics and themes aren’t really the same (no apparent problem of sexual immorality, for example) the dynamics and the diversity of populations and opinions on all things spiritual and philosophical is very much in evidence. You have the same mix of Jewish and non-Jewish believers with a few converts tossed into the mix. That brings in a diversity of background, education, perspective, and identity into a single container which, in both ancient and modern examples, is the community of the Messiah; the body of Christ.
And after 2,000 years, we still are having a tough time getting along.
Not that the Corinthian “church” was completely representative of all believing first century communities, but whenever you involve dissimilar populations in a common group, especially a religious group, you are asking for a few “strongly worded” debates. And that’s what we experience today on the blogosphere when we come together (virtually) to have some of the same interactions that the ancient Corinthians did in the days of Paul.
Actually, there’s quite a time gap between the ancient mixed Jewish/Gentile “church” and the modern one. After the schism between Judaism and Christianity, each religion, for they became separate religions, went their own way, only getting together for a pogrom or an inquisition every now and again. The problems of the Corinthian religious congregation faded away into history…until quite recently.
Now that we’re trying to put our theological humpty dumpty back together again, we’re finding out that it would be easier to take an omelet and put it back into the broken egg-shell than it is getting different factions of Messianic Judaism, Hebrew Roots Christianity (and it’s variants), and more traditional Christianity (or Christianities) to come to any sort of agreement.
I know I’ve written about this before and used Lancaster’s Torah Club commentaries to do it, but in reading this past week’s Torah club chapter right on the heels of Derek’s blog post, the similarities jumped out at me again.
Doesn’t anyone else out there see it?
Was there ever a peace between the Jewish and the Gentile believers? We see strife looming largely in the Messianic world right there around 50-53 CE when Paul was the most active in his “missionary travels.” In Acts 18:1-17, Paul experiences a “split” in the synagogue at Corinth and half the Jewish membership follows Messiah right out of the synagogue and into a building next door. There were actually two competing synagogues, one Messianic and the other not, strongly contending with each other. There wasn’t unity over the Messiah in the local Jewish community let alone between Jews and Gentiles.
But then again, not all Jewish communities experienced the message of Messiah the same way.
And they came to Ephesus, and he left them there, but he himself went into the synagogue and reasoned with the Jews. When they asked him to stay for a longer period, he declined. But on taking leave of them he said, “I will return to you if God wills,” and he set sail from Ephesus.
–Acts 18:19-21 (ESV)
It seems the synagogue in Ephesus was much more unified in its reception of Paul’s teaching on the Messiah and I’m sure he would have rather spent more time in this particular setting, but he wanted to get to Jerusalem in time for Sukkot.
I won’t pull any quotes from Derek’s blog (you can click the link and read through the comments yourself) but it seems as if the same old debates are being continually recycled. Things haven’t changed a whole lot in twenty centuries. Human nature after all, is human nature. I guess that’s why the Bible is still relevant after the passage of so much time. We’re still the same old creatures we’ve always been, stirring up the pot and making a mess out of the message of the good news.
The Messiah came and then he left. And after he left, his apostles and disciples struggled to keep the new Jewish sect of “the Way” afloat while integrating a large Gentile population in the diaspora along with whoever among the Jews would accept that Yeshua (Jesus) was Moshiach. In the end, it fell apart and all of the broken pieces have been shattered and scattered across the landscape for almost 2,000 years. Recently, we’ve been trying to put them back together again with limited success. We’re encountering pretty much the same barriers that Paul did in his “mixed population churches.” Maybe the “bilateral ecclesiology” people are on to something after all. No mix, no mixed up community.
But I don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to work out, at least not in an extreme and absolute segregationist sense. Paul didn’t seem to demand that the Gentiles form their own churches, although that’s how things ended up. Here we are, trying to forge new or renewed relationships to pave the way for Messiah’s return. But it seems that it will take the Messiah to teach us to get along, share our toys, and play well together.
We live in a broken world. There are religious Jews who cry out, “Moshiach now!” Given the sorry state of affairs in his “Messianic community,” maybe we should be shouting the same thing. Nothing else we are doing seems to be working out.