Paul wrote at least four different letters to the church at Corinth, three of which are included in the New Testament. In what is now called 1 Corinthians, there is a reference to a former letter in which instruction was given concerning the type of conduct that should not be tolerated in a Christian church. 2 Corinthians is made up of two different letters. Chapters 1–9 are written in a conciliatory tone that indicates that they were composed after Chapters 10–13 were received and accepted by the members of the church. Chapters 10–13 belong to what is often referred to as the "painful letter," in which Paul replies to the many false charges made concerning him and his work. The largest part of Paul's correspondence was with the church at Corinth, for the problems that he encountered in this place were more numerous than he had found in other cities, and if his message could be successful in Corinth, there was good reason to believe that it could have results that would be equally as good in any other place.
Corinth was an important city in Paul's day. Generally known as a city devoted to pleasure-seeking, it was a center for Greek culture and a busy commercial city with a cosmopolitan atmosphere that brought together people and customs from different parts of the world. Pagan religions with sexual rites and ceremonies existed, and both materialism and immorality were the accepted order of the day. In view of these conditions, no wonder Paul said he began his Corinthian mission with fear. However, his work was successful from the beginning. He was especially anxious to guide new Christian converts with reference to the many perplexing problems that were bound to arise. In other places, the Jewish element, with its legalistic tendencies, created difficulties, but in Corinth, the moral problem caused the greater anxiety. The Corinthian church's membership was composed of people from many different quarters, including those whose training and environment were foreign to the Hebrew standards of morality. Paul was deeply concerned that the Christian church in Corinth should make no compromise with the morality — or immorality — customary in a pagan society.
The longest of the letters written to the church at Corinth is known in the New Testament as 1 Corinthians. Containing sixteen chapters dealing with a wide variety of topics, the first topic mentioned is that of divisions within the church. Four distinct factions correspond to the four individuals whose teachings were followed by the respective groups: Paul, Apollos, Cephas, and Christ. Reportedly, the household of Chloe informed Paul that serious quarrels had taken place among these factions. The spirit of independent thinking emphasized so strongly by the Greeks evidently was influencing the Corinthian Christians. Paul's manner of dealing with the problem is noteworthy. He does not insist that all members of the community should think alike on every subject, nor does he advocate that someone with authority should tell others what to believe. What he does insist on is a unity of spirit and purpose that will allow each group to learn from the others.
On the subject of immorality within the membership of the church, Paul is very explicit. Any type of immoral conduct must not be tolerated among the believers. If any of their number persist in following the low moral standards of the pagans, they should be excluded from membership. Association with evildoers cannot be avoided so long as church members live in a wicked city, but it need not be permitted within the group that is called Christian. The function of the church is to set a high standard for the society in which it exists, which cannot be done by permitting low standards among their own members: "Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast — as you really are."
Disputes arising among members of the Christian community should be settled peaceably without going to a civil court: "The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged?" Paul refers to a popular Jewish belief that saints are to have a part in the judgment of the world. Certainly the Corinthians are not qualified to have a part in the judgment of the world if they are unable to settle difficulties among themselves.
Sexual morality was a real problem in the church at Corinth. Neither monogamy nor chastity was regarded as obligatory in the pagan society in which many of the church members were reared before becoming Christians. Paul's instruction regarding marriage must be considered in accordance with his belief concerning the imminence of the second coming of Christ, as well as with his desire to have the church at Corinth exemplify a high standard of living. The same can be said about his advice concerning the impropriety of women speaking in church. In the city of Corinth, prostitutes customarily spoke in public, and to protect the reputation of the women in the Christian church, Paul thought it would be wise for them to remain silent. He explains, however, that this is merely his personal opinion; he has received no direct revelation to this effect.
Regarding the eating of meat that has been obtained from animals sacrificed to idols, everyone should follow the dictates of their own consciences, the only condition being that each person should have respect for the conscience of the person who does not agree with him. One should refrain from needlessly offending another person, even though by doing so it is necessary to curb one's own appetite.
The Christian churches customarily commemorated the events associated with Jesus' death and resurrection by partaking of a common meal together. Some of the people at Corinth failed to see the significance of this meal and made it an occasion for feasting. Paul explains that the purpose of this meal is not for the enjoyment of eating and drinking together but rather for a renewed dedication to the spirit made manifest in the life and death of Jesus. In other words, each individual should examine his own heart and life and bring them into harmony with the Spirit of Christ. Any grievances that people have with one another should be set aside in preparation for the eating of the meal together.
Spiritual gifts among the various members of the church is another topic treated at some length in 1 Corinthians. Using the analogy of the human body, in which each organ has its special function to perform and no one of them can be regarded as more vital than another, the same principle applies within the church, which is the body of Christ. Some members have the gift of prophecy, others that of teaching, and still others that of offering help in carrying forward the work of the church. Those who are apostles or prophets are not to think of themselves as superior to those who exercise other gifts, for all gifts are necessary, and the church would not be complete if any of them were missing. To those who boast that they have the gift of tongues and are therefore in a position to exercise lordship over others, Paul writes that this particular gift, like all of the others, should be evaluated in terms of its usefulness in promoting the Christian way of life. He does not condemn this gift for those who might find it useful, but he says that so far as he is concerned, it is better to speak a few words that will be understood by others than to speak at great length in an unknown tongue that is quite unintelligible to those who might hear it.
Following the discussion of spiritual gifts is Paul's immortal hymn to Christian love, which is one of the great classics of Christian literature. The hymn makes love the foundation for all Christian conduct. What wisdom was for the Greeks, love is for Christians: "And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."
After the discourse on love, Paul discusses resurrection. For him, the subject is of primary importance, for he considers resurrection the basis upon which the whole structure of Christianity rests. If Christ is not risen, then our hope is in vain. Christ's resurrection is attested to by a large number of witnesses, of whom Paul counts himself one of the last. The significance of the resurrection, more than a vindication of the Messiahship of Jesus, assures us that what happened in the case of Jesus can and will happen to all those who believe in him. The resurrection of the righteous will be associated with the second coming of Christ: "For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: 'Death has been swallowed up in victory.'" The letter closes with an appeal for a contribution to help provide for the poor among the Christians in Jerusalem. Paul will stop at Corinth on his way to Jerusalem and take the gift with him.
The so-called "painful letter," which is found in Chapters 10–13 of 2 Corinthians, contains Paul's defense of himself and of his work to the charges made against him by his enemies, including the Jewish legalists who said that Paul was an impostor who had not been authorized by the proper authorities to work among the churches. The legalists supported their charge by pointing out that Paul had a "thorn in [his] flesh," some physical defect that, according to ancient Jewish regulations, would have barred a man from the priesthood. They further maintained that Paul supported himself by doing manual labor rather than by accepting support from the members of the church. This labor, in their judgment, was an admission on his part that he was not qualified to be supported in the way that was customary for duly authorized missionaries. The legalists also accused Paul of cowardice on the grounds that he was bold so long as he was writing letters, but he was very mild when present with the legalists in person. Other charges of a similar nature were made in an all-out attempt to discredit the religious work that Paul was doing.
To all of these charges, Paul makes a vigorous reply. He shows wherein the charges are false, and he recounts for the people at Corinth the many trials and hardships that he suffered for their sake and for the sake of the gospel. Although he apologizes for seeming to boast of his own attainments, he explains the necessity for doing so. He indicates further that his greatest disappointment lies not in the fact that charges of this sort have been made against him but that the members of the Corinthian church have apparently been persuaded by them.
The first nine chapters of what is now called 2 Corinthians are a letter that appears to have been written some time after the "painful letter" was received and accepted by the church. This letter contains an expression of gratitude for the change that has taken place among the Corinthian believers. Paul rejoices that they are now on the right track again, and he summarizes for them the essential meaning of the gospel that he first proclaimed to them. Using the language of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, Paul tells them that the Christian gospel is none other than the New Covenant, written "not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts." Toward the close of the letter, he again reminds them of the collection to be taken for the poor in Jerusalem.
Although the Corinthian letters were addressed to a single church and were concerned primarily with local problems existing at that time, they are of special interest to readers of the New Testament. One reason for this interest is that the letters were writ- ten at an early date; therefore, they throw considerable light on the character of the Christian movement prior to the writing of any gospel account of Jesus' life. Paul's statements concerning the resurrection of Jesus constitute the earliest preserved record of that event. The same is true of his account of the institution of the Lord's Supper. His remarks concerning the gift of tongues, along with the other gifts of the spirit, help us to understand the way in which these manifestations were viewed by the early church. Finally, the many problems discussed in 1 Corinthians tell us a great deal about the conditions that prevailed at that time.
Paul's account of the resurrection enables us to see how his view differed from those of the ancient Greeks and also from the view found in certain portions of the Old Testament. The Greeks believed in the doctrine of the soul's immortality. According to this doctrine, souls do not have a beginning or an end. They are eternal realities capable of existing apart from the bodies in which they were incarnated. This view was contrary to the Hebrew conception, which viewed man as a single unit including body, soul, and spirit; the soul was not something that existed apart from the body. After death, all went down to Sheol, a cavern below the earth, but no memory or consciousness of any kind attended this state of existence.
In contrast to these views, Paul believed in a genuine resurrection from physical death in which a person's individuality and moral worth would be preserved. But this preservation was not to be a reanimation of the corpse and a continuation of life as it had been before. Flesh and blood, Paul tells us, will not inherit God's kingdom. The body that is raised will not be the natural body but rather a spiritual body. Paul does not tell us what this spiritual body will be like, but he is sure that it will be a body of some kind, for the personality includes body, soul, and spirit, and salvation is not achieved until all three have been transformed together. The Gnostics of Paul's day, who believed that only spirit is good and that all matter is evil, taught that Jesus did not possess a physical body but only appeared to do so. For Paul, this position was untenable: Unless Jesus possessed a body in common with other human beings, his triumph over evil would have no significance for humans. Jesus' resurrection means a triumph of the entire personality over the forces of evil; what it means for Jesus it also means for all those who put their trust in him.