I Corinthians Epilogue—It Ain’t Over Till It’s Over

1 Corinthian series, Bible study lesson 19

By Reta Halteman Finger

Saint Paul
“Saint Paul” painted by Bartolomeo Montagna in 1482. Currently at the Museo Poldi Pezzoli in Milan, Italy.

“Everything will turn out alright in the end, and if it’s not alright, it isn’t the end.” Such Yogi Berra or Marigold Hotel wisdom applies well to the Apostle Paul’s rocky relationship with his Corinthian churches. “First” Corinthians wasn’t even the first letter he wrote to them. In 1 Corinthians 5:9-10 Paul refers to an earlier letter which at least some had misunderstood. We can be sure that the letter we have, with its radical vision of sharing honor, wealth, and power equally in the Body of Christ in Corinth, will be resisted by those with the most to lose.

Tracing the Clues

Fortunately, a trail of clues in both 1 and 2 Corinthians helps us reconstruct more of the relationship between these struggling congregations and their apostle, even though the clues are not easy to follow. A lot depends on how we unpack 2 Corinthians, which seems to be a collection of three or more letters—not necessarily in the right chronological order.

Soon after he sent the current letter, Paul dispatched his companion Timothy, with some anxiety, to see how things were going (1 Cor 16:10-11). This was Tim’s second visit, since he had earlier been treated with contempt (1 Cor 4:17-18). But it must not have been successful either, because Paul himself changes his plans in order to briefly visit Corinth again—but he is apparently insulted and humiliated by at least one person during that visit (2 Cor 1:23-2:11). Rather than returning and risking more personal confrontation, Paul writes a conciliatory “letter of tears” (2 Cor 2:4), which he sends with another co-worker, Titus. When Titus returns with good news of the Corinthians’ apology and repentance (2 Cor 7:5-16), Paul is overjoyed.

But at this point scholars differ on chronology. What does Paul mean by his “letter of tears”? Is that letter lost—or do we actually have it as chapters 10-13 of 2 Corinthians? There are enormous mood changes between the end of chapter 7, where Paul rejoices over the Corinthians’ attitude, and the beginning of chapter 10. (In between these two chapters are 8 and 9, which are all about the collection we discussed in the last lesson. They may comprise a different letter entirely.)

Trouble with Super-Apostles

In 2 Corinthians 10-11, Paul vigorously defends his ministry, using irony and biting sarcasm against those whom he calls “super-apostles” in 11:5. Apparently, other church leaders are making inroads into the Corinthian assemblies. They belittle Paul, saying, “His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is contemptible” (10:10). Throughout 2 Corinthians 10-13, Paul defends his upside-down ministry of God’s strength working through human weakness and suffering.

The “patronage pyramid” described in Lesson 4 of this series (“Crazy, Upside-down Wisdom”), as well as Paul’s forceful argument in 1 Corinthians 9 against accepting financial support from patrons, help us better imagine the cause of such conflict. Paul is convinced that Jesus’ gospel requires believers to share or lay aside whatever privileges they have which keep them from serving the common good in the Body of Christ. Although he has a right to financial support in his apostolic work, he refuses it to become a lower class manual laborer instead (Acts 18:1-3). He rejects patronage so that he is not obligated to those with wealth at the expense of the working classes. Clearly, the “super-apostles” do accept patronage, so they are honored while Paul is denigrated.

Which plot in this web of complex relationships do you prefer? Does 2 Corinthians 10-13 sound like the “letter of tears” which moved the Corinthians to the repentance described in 7:2- 16? Or did these super-apostles move in after Paul thought that Titus had effected reconciliation among them and with him? We cannot be sure.

A Final Resolution?

I confess to enjoying a good murder mystery now and then, where a reader can be assured that the mystery will be solved and justice served. However, real life is often full of messy, unresolved issues. The evidence of 1 and 2 Corinthians leaves us wondering “what really happened.

In spite of the gaps and puzzles within the most complicated relationship Paul ever had with a church he planted, we find an important clue in his later letter to Christians in Rome. It appears Paul did make the longer visit he had promised (1 Cor 16:5-7). He apparently makes peace with his contentious house churches because he writes to the Roman Christians from Corinth within the next couple of years. He stays at the home of Gaius, a house church leader (1 Cor 1:14; Rom 16:23). The secretary Tertius transcribes the letter that he dictates (Rom 16:22). Both of them, along with Erastus, send greetings to believers in the capital city. In this letter there is no hint of the past history of conflict.

Questions for Reflection:

1. Knowing what you now know about Paul as a charismatic, emotional church leader, would you have liked to have him as your pastor? Why or why not?

2. What are the most important things you have learned from the study of 1 Corinthians that can be relevant to your life or the life of your church today?

Final note:

If you are part of a church school class or study group, you will find many additional insights into 1 Corinthians by role-playing Chloe’s house church, one of those receiving this letter. To help you with this, we’d like you to know about a new book to be published this spring, Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation, by Reta Halteman Finger and George D. McClain (Herald Press, 2013). All background material and instructions for setting up a conflict-simulation are included, and slide presentations and additional web resources for teaching in college or seminary will be available through www.HeraldPress.com after the book’s publication. It may be the most exciting group Bible study you’ve ever had!

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.