A Commentary in Simple English on 1 Corinthians

A note about Paul's First Letter to the Church at Corinth

By God's help, Paul began the Church in Corinth about AD.50. He left Corinth probably early in AD.52. Then he went on to Ephesus. He went to Jerusalem but later that year he came back to Ephesus. He wrote this letter from that city at about that time. [0.1]

Now we know that Paul wished to have a group of elders in each new church. See Acts 14:23. See also Titus 1:5. Paul himself did not have to appoint the elders. Titus could 'appoint' elders in the cities in Crete: Paul had left the island. See also James 5:14. A sick man cannot ask the elders to come to him, if there are none. Now we are not told that Paul appointed elders at Corinth. Luke might not have told us about this in any case. Yet we have other reasons to think that he did not appoint any elders there.

  1. Paul often 'appointed' elders when he visited a city for a seond time. He had only had one long visit to Corinth.
  2. When Paul sends letters to Corinth, he writes to the whole church. He does not say anything about elders or deacons. See Philippians 1:1. Of course, there were other letters which Paul sent to Corinth and which we do not have. We think that in 2 Corinthians 2:3-9 Paul speaks about a letter which is now lost.
  3. The elders should have settled most of the matters which Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians. The division in the church (see 1:10-17) is the first of these. The case of the sinful scandal in Chapter 5 is another. The next is in 6:1-11. The Christians took law cases against each other to heathen judges. The elders should have given advice about marriage (Chapter 7). Then in Chapter 8 Paul gives his teaching about food offered in sacrifice to false gods. Chapter 11:2-16 has to do with worship and the place of women in the church. Chapters 12 and 14 have to do with the use of spiritual gifts. These too would be matters for the elders of the church.. Chapter 15 is Paul's famous chapter on Christ and His people rising from the dead. Even here, Paul has to write because the elders ought to have put right the ideas of some of the people. See 15.12. The first few verses of Chapter 16 (1-4) speak about another matter which the elders would have settled.

There are parts of this letter where Paul writes about other things. Yet when you look at the sections we set out above we begin to understand the letter better.

  1. Paul was the apostle who had started the work at Corinth. If he had to do the work of the elders, it would result in bad feelings. See 1:17. In fact it did! Paul had to write 2 Corinthian to sort this out.
  2. 6:4 is another verse which suggests what the elders might have done.
  3. Chapter 7 is very useful. The elders would look at life in their city. The advice that they gave might then not be the same advice that the elders in another city would give. See 7:2. In verse 17, Paul actually says that some of his advice he would give elsewhere. When we come to verse 26 Paul speaks about 'the present crisis'. (NIV) We do not know just what he means; but he does mean that things will change. In the future he might give other advice.
  4. In chapter 8, what people in Corinth who are not Christians think matters. This is true also in 10:20-33. People in another city would think in a different way. So the advice that the elders give might not be quite the same.
  5. Notice 14:33-35. The elders of a church do have to take notice of what happens in other churches; yet they may do something different.

Chapter 1:11 is very important: see also 11:18. Paul hears about the Corinth church from 'Chloe's people'. Now they may not be quite fair in what they say. They do not have the right to speak for the whole church. The elders would.

There is one more matter. That is the quality of church life. See for example 3:1-4.. This is the duty of any good Christian minister. He must look at the church. He must ask whether the people who hear him can receive the truth which he preaches. Perhaps God in His wisdom provided Paul's letter to teach elders how to go about their work in the church.

[0.1] Kenneth Bailey in "Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes" (SPCK, London, 2011) takes the view that this was in some sense a general letter to the Churches. But 1.v2 need not mean this. "Together with ....." need only mean that the Corinthian's experience of God's grace is shared with all other Christians.

His argument about the structure of the Epistle is much more persuasive, although it may be challenged. But this could be the work of Sosthenes, rather than that of Paul. Co-authorship - as with Timothy and Silas - needs to be taken seriously, as does its absence in Romans and elsewhere.