The culture of the city was thoroughly anti-Christian. It was marked by the cult of personality and celebrity. The leading figures did all they could to attract followers and their money. The cult of the body beautiful and the sporting image was prominent. How a person looked was critical.
There was a great emphasis on entertainment and novelty. The theatre and the intellectuals were noted more for their cleverness than wisdom. Everyone wanted to be upwardly mobile and to acquire the trappings of success. People thought that life would go on forever and so gave themselves over to the present and the instant.
In such a culture of image and position there was much boasting, much competitiveness, much conflict and squabbling. And in such a culture the church was infiltrated by many of the attitudes and values of the surrounding society so that it ended up aping the culture rather than obeying God. That was the situation of the church in first century Corinth, set in the midst of Romanitas, the Roman civilisation that characterised the expanding city.
For one week of the Spring Gospel in Society session at CityGate we looked at the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians, to discover the pressures on the young church and how Paul addressed their problems. And then we tried to see how what Paul wrote applies in the cultures that surround us and seek to invade our thoughts and values.
Paul found that the church was in trouble over divisions, over what wisdom and maturity meant, over how to regard ‘leaders’, over human pride and boasting – and much else. The parallels between Romanitas and current cultures are strong and Paul’s emphasis calls us back to true unity in the gospel; to the wisdom based on God’s revelation and centred in the substitutionary death of Christ; to maturity based on a Spirit-given grasp of truth; and to a spirit of serving and trustworthiness in those called to positions of Christian responsibility.
As he called the church back to its foundations, Paul showed that he understood and could use the concepts and terms current in secular Corinth; when he used them as contact points, he always used them with a contrasting Christian meaning, to show where the gospel differed so radically from the culture.
So the challenge came from 1 Corinthians about where we look for truth and wisdom, for power and reality; about where our faith is based – on human ideas or God’s revelation; about where our salvation is secured – in the death of Jesus for our sins; and what God requires of us – to be trustworthy stewards. The challenge is also to ensure that the gospel influences people, society and the culture – rather than the culture invading and influencing the people of God.