Apostle Paul preaching amid the ruins of Corinth

Paul re-forms the body in Corinth

By Simon Jooste, pastor of RCSS

Embodiment is central to salvation, so is suffering in the body. Without the incarnation, passion, and ongoing enfleshed intercession of Christ, there is no redemption. This was the heartbeat of the apostle Paul’s preaching in ancient Corinth, a city pulsing with ideas and illicit passions.

Postmodern identity politics has challenged the Pauline and Enlightenment (natural law) conception of fixed human forms determining gender, sexuality and social interactions. The New Left has also reconfigured the idea of suffering. Identity for the postmodern social justice warrior is a fluid reality constructed by language. Those who have access to the “truths” of identity politics, those who offer the vision for cultural renewal, are the social outcasts: persons belonging to oppressed intersecting groups, such as racial minorities, transgendered individuals, and the sexually queer.

The contemporary postmodern West shares in common with ancient Corinth a deconstruction of embodiment, coupled with a reconstruction of power through a relativising use of words. Paul counters this destructive pragmatism with a reaffirmation of the objective Word of the incarnate Christ: for the salvation of His One Body of many bodies on earth.

The apostle Paul’s message to the church at Corinth centres on the recovery of the subversive theology of the cross. Yet, this recovery did not override forms and hierarchies embedded in and arising out of the created order, including gender and sexual identities. In other words, according to Paul, grace does not cancel nature, even in a fallen world, and even when the body has to suffer to bring about salvation.

The body in a city without boundaries

One way to describe the problem experienced by the Corinthian church in the first-century Greco-Roman world is a disorder that lacked the boundaries of God-ordained forms. This church had difficulty navigating the pressures of life amid a pluralist, pragmatic and competitive society fuelled by a prosperous market economy.

Throughout the first letter to the Corinthians, Paul pushes against worldliness within a local church (cf. 1 Cor 1:20–21; 3:1–4, 19). These Christians were influenced by a popular culture that placed great importance upon outward shows of power, status and success when climbing the social ladder (Thiselton 2000:12–13). Examples of these symbols were family pedigree, accumulation of wealth, learning (wisdom) and rhetoric (cf. 1 Cor 1:26–2:9). Not to be underestimated is the role language played to promote these and other signs of socio-political superiority as means to persuade for pragmatic and dominating ends (cf. 1 Cor 2:1–5; 12–14). In many respects, the city of Corinth prefigured the postmodern turn with its relativising use of language for political purposes, albeit to further the interests of those already in power. Traditional and creational forms did not matter as long as specific group interests were promoted (Hicks 2013:161–162; cf. Thiselton 2000:12–17; Lockwood 2000:9–12).

Like any church, the one in Corinth was its own “body politic”. Like any city, with people working together to make culture according to a philosophical system, the church there had its flesh-and-blood members who generated a culture of their own, for better or worse. Not surprisingly, Paul makes copious references to the “body” (more so than in any of his other epistles) as mutually informing both physical and social (metaphorical) realities.

The problem for the Corinthians was that their spiritual and social body, as well as their physical bodies, were being divided, divorced and degraded because of the pressure of worldly wisdom coming from a faction of spiritual elites or “pneumatics” (cf. 1 Cor 1:10–17; 5:9–6:8; 7:1–5, 12–16; 10:14–22; 11:17–22; 12:14–31; cf. Fee 2014:8–16). Certain “teachers” or “super-apostles” had succeeded in leading some believers astray into a chaotic kind of piety that knew few boundaries. It mattered little what one did in the body, whether physical or social because “true spirituality” transcended the earthy constraints of the bodily system. This dysfunctional “spiritual freedom” manifested itself predominantly in sexual licence (cf. 1 Cor 5–6; 8–11; 14) mixed with a minor strand of asceticism (cf. 1 Cor 7:1–16). The Corinthians abandoned bodily decorum concerning biological sex, genitals, dress, the tongue, spiritual gifts and worship rituals. Such is the quest for spiritual power that bypasses the cross and wants glory now (1 Cor 4:8–13; cf. Lockwood 2000:13–14).

Hence, in his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul corrects these believers with a message of controlled and ordered unity amid hierarchical and functional diversity along creational and re-creational lines. The body of the Christian and the Body of Christ must be treated as holy (cf. 1 Cor 6:9–20).

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Note: This essay is adapted from Chapter 2, Section 7, of Rev Jooste’s book, Embodiment and Power: The Essential Nature of Office in the Identity Politics Debate (Potchefstroom: Calvin Jubilee Bookfunds, 2022; Amazon: Kindle), which can be purchased here.

Rev. Simon Jooste (Phd, Stellenbosch University) is a former USA Division I tennis player and CPA now living in his native South Africa serving the Reformed Church Southern Suburbs. He is a research associate for Stellenbosch and North-West universities.