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A Biblical View

By Ovid Need, Jr.

Chapter Three
Corinthians History

The primary Scriptural support for the modern charismatic movement comes from Paul's first letter to the Corinthian church, particularly chapters 12-14, which we will look at, along with the meanings of the words, in our next chapter. But first we need to look at the historical background of Corinth; as we do, we will see some circumstances which would discourage us from using this church as an example.

The first thing we need to notice is that Corinth was the only NT church to record the use of tongues, which was not practiced by the churches of Rome, Jerusalem, Colossi, Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica and others. What was there about the church at Corinth that it alone should have this unique "experience?"

The city of Corinth.

Corinth was the well-known, exceedingly wealthy capital city of the Roman providence of Achaia. Not only was it an ideal location between two harbors, but it also was beside the highway from mainland Greece to Poloponnesus. The Isthmian games were held close to the city every four years along with many Greek festivals. High on a hill overlooking the city was the beautiful temple of Aphrodite, the goddess of love and fertility, where one thousand priestesses practiced prostitution as a religious rite. 1

(In fulfillment of vows to the false gods, women war captives were placed here as prostitutes by the ones who financed the victorious military campaign.) Paul refers to a common sight on the streets of Corinth: long-haired male prostitutes (female prostitutes had short hair), 1 Cor 11:14.

"The city was famous for its immorality, much of which was vented under the guise of religion in the temple of Aphrodite. There temple prostitutes engaged in ritualized sexual orgies, often whipping themselves up into ecstatic frenzies. In the midst of these orgies, these frenetic women would utter ecstatic "tongues" in dedication to heathen gods." [The Charismatic Gift of Tongues, pg. 38.]

We should mention in passing that the Encyclopedia Britannica (Vol. 22) cites numerous instances of speaking with "tongues" among pagan cults (Corinthian ecstatic utterance). Paul refers to the mysteries in 13:2 and 14:2 because the Corinthian church was strongly influenced by the ancient Greek and Roman mysteries. The ecstatic speech of the worshipper played an important role in the Corinthian pagan temples; it was regarded as the sign of the god's favor upon the worshipper. Each devotee who uttered these "tongues" believed he was in intimate conversational contact with his god. Though the meaning of what he was saying was unknown to the worshipper, his words were supposedly known by the god or spirit to whom he prayed.

The same superstition (ecstatic utterance) which occurred in the worship of Aphrodite in her temple had invaded the church at Corinth. The lack of maturity and knowledge of the word of God (OT) permitted the believers at Corinth to attribute a spiritual meaning to pagan ecstatic utterances which had no meaning. True tongues were clear, distinct and easily understood; what was taking place in this church was a jumbled up mess wasted in the air (1 Cor 14:6-11; Acts 2, 10, 13).

Furthermore, the girl in Acts 16:16,17 under demonic control spoke praises to Jesus (God) and was soundly rebuked. Many times we hear a "spirit" identified as godly because it praises the Lord; obviously, praise is not necessarily a mark of a godly spirit (Mk 3:11; 1 Ki 22:21-23).

Paul did not want to come to Corinth from Athens and only came after the Lord assured him of His presence and protection. At Corinth he met the tent makers, Aquila and Priscilla, joined with them and stayed in their home. Silas and Timothy joined Paul, and they preached in the Synagogue where two important men were converted, Justus and Crispus, and a local church was started. This church was made up of a cross-section of people: male and female, Jew and Gentile, bond and free, as well as slave masters. Paul stayed here about two years teaching, preaching and organizing the church, and then he moved to Ephesus. Letters came to him from the people at Corinth asking his advice on marriage and meat offered to idols. Furthermore, Paul received disturbing reports of the decaying conditions in the church. Therefore, as he answered their questions on marriage and meat, he also dealt with the decaying conditions. Paul's first letter to Corinth is directed to a group of people founded on the firm foundation of good teaching and example, but now infiltrated with worldliness.

Spiritual disease

The city of Corinth presented a tremendous opportunity for the church to witness world-wide for the risen Christ, but the church failed; instead of a witness, they were a shame; instead of evan- gelism, they deserved ridicule. Ironically, the wrong people were evangelized: the church was evangelized by the pagans. Paul, in chastising this worldly church, describes for us the symptoms of a serious spiritual disease which has been called "Corinthianism". 2

Far too many of these symptoms are prevalent in 20th-century churches, regardless of the denomination or lack of denomination. (I am glad for the difficulties which this church had because Paul was forced to write Scriptural instructions to deal with them, but I sure would not want to hold up this church at Corinth as a model church. From what we read, this church was at the "bottom." God gives us these books for a warning, "Beware of Corinthianism!")

Let's quickly look at a few of the symptoms of this spiritual disease Corinthianism, briefly mentioning some of Paul's answers to these problems.

1) It was a charismatic church, 1 Cor 1:7; gift is the word charisma. Paul takes three chapters trying to correct this illness, 12, 13, 14. 2) It was an immature church populated by baby Christians, 3:1. Paul deals with immaturity in 14:20; 16:13. 3) It was an immoral church which accepted adultery, fornication and prostitution, 5: 6:15-18. Paul reminded them they are members of Christ and threatened them with physical destruction, 3:17, 18. 4) Their love feasts proceeding the Lord's supper involved drunkenness, 11:21. Paul strongly rebukes and reminds them of the qualifications for the Lord's supper, 11:23-33. 5) There was an overall attitude of pride and apathy concerning their relationship with the Lord, 5:2. Paul tells them to wake up out of their lazy indifference, 15:34. 6) Rampant heresy even went as far as to deny the resurrection of the dead, 11:19; 15:12. Paul mourns over their acceptance of false doctrine and tells them to examine their own salvation, 2 Cor 11:3; 13:5. Furthermore, the false teachers were undermining Paul's authority, 14:15; Paul responds in 9:1. 7) Corinth, a divided church, was choosing sides, 1:10; 11:18. Paul's rebuke is in 1:13. 8) Great eloquent speakers swayed immature Christians with swelling words of man's wisdom: "You can know God through worldly wisdom (Greek Philosophy)", 2:1 (Isa 55:8-9). 9) The Corinthian church was lazy, judgmental and puffed up with pride over "the gifts" ("My gift is better than yours; you are not right with God because you can't do what I can do, speak in tongues."), 4:1-7. Paul points out that brotherly love is above all things, not the "gifts", chp 13. 10) Confusion abounded because everyone wanted in the forefront, 14:26-33. 11) They were taking one another to court and defrauding one another, 6:1-7. Everyone was doing his own thing, 6:12-13. 12) False teaching about marriage and sex had infiltrated, 7:1. 13) Divorce was rampant, 7:11. 14) The weaker brother was disregard, 8:7-13. 15) Women were teaching, speaking and assuming authority in the church over men, 11:3; 14:34 (God deals with this important issue several times in places such as 1 Tim 2:11-12). The style of the long-haired male prostitutes and the short-haired female prostitutes had crept into the church, 11:4-15. 17) They lacked understanding of the spiritual gifts, 12:1, but were "gifted" with a short memory because they soon forgot the message that saved them, 15:1. Their emphasis was now elsewhere. 18) They had fallen behind in their giving, 16:1. 19) Most important, they yielded to social pressure, 16:13, and 20) showed a lack of genuine love, 16:14.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that this church was "hindered in its development, charismatic in its practice, immoral in its living, and heretical in its doctrine."

When we examine the Church of Corinth and compare to other NT churches such as Ephesus, we see that the former is more typical of 20th-century Christianity. Instead of the church at Corinth overcoming the world and holding back corruption, corruption had overcome the church to the point that Paul had to tell it to remove the corrupted individuals and deliver them to the devil for the destruction of their flesh (5:1-6); Paul exhorts and warns against their corruption, worldliness and pride (3:17; 15:34, &c. Pride: 1:27-2:5; 4:6-7). In fact, Paul was later forced to remind this same group that Christ had made them new creatures and that old things were passed away. (2 Cor 5:17).

Paul deals with their problem of immaturity with three examples. First, a building, 1 Cor chp. 3; an unfinished building is an eye-sore; finish what you begin! This church was an unfinished eye-sore. Second, a battle, chp. 9; an unfinished contest is a waste; continue on until the crown is obtained. Third, a body, chp. 12; a body which won't function properly is a tragedy; a non-cooperative body is suicide: "You are tearing the body apart by desiring the showy `gifts,'" Paul pleads. "That is not spirituality; that is selfishness and childish." In 1:7, he recognizes the presence of charismata among them, yet in v. 10 he is dealing with divisions among them. Therefore, we see that charismata and spirituality are not synonymous. If anything, according to the context, charismata and divisions go together far more than charismata and spirituality.

Even though this church had plenty of learning and good teaching, including Paul's teaching, Corinth was an immature ill church (1 Cor 2:12, 13). It had all of the gifts; it was well taught by the best teachers, yet its members were still carnal baby Christians. The symptoms of immaturity are pointed out by Paul: selfishness, shown by suing one another (6:7); insisting on doing what they were free to do in Christ regardless of its effect on others (8:9; 11-13); divisions among themselves rather than division from the world; criticism of God's man, even Paul himself, and a tremendous toleration for evil.

Paul tried to correct the ills but failed. The church died with the city, a failure and a tragedy. We must beware of the spiritual disease called "Corinthianism." It is spreading like wildfire in the 20th-century.


1. "Corinth was devoted, or dedicated thus to the goddess of love, or licentious passion; and the effect may be easily conceived." Barnes' Notes. Barnes identifies the city's deity as Venus. Back

2. See the tape series mentioned above. Also, the Corinthian Catastrophe. Back