New Testament | Study Guide


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New Testament | 1 Corinthians | Summary



  • Paul has heard that the Christ-believers have become divided based on which teacher shared the gospel with them, whether it was Apollos, Cephas (Simon Peter), or Paul himself.
  • Paul reminds the Corinthians that by making himself a "fool" on behalf of them, Paul allowed the "power of God" to become the true focus (1 Corinthians 2:5).
  • Their teachers—Apollos and Paul—cooperate as builders who add to God's "foundation" that is Jesus.
  • Paul says his weakness has become a source of strength for the Christ-believers, who should imitate him.
  • Paul advises the Corinthians about how to handle issues of sexual morality in their community.
  • Paul suggests people should remain unmarried unless sexual temptation would lead them into sin, and he reports two teachings from Jesus forbidding divorce.
  • Responding to reports that there are some in the community who eat food "offered to idols," probably in a gentile marketplace (1 Corinthians 8:4), Paul urges them to avoid practices that threaten the faith of fellow believers.
  • Paul reminds them of the final meal Jesus ate with his disciples, recounting the sharing of bread and wine and Jesus's command to repeat the process.
  • Metaphorically the believers form the body of Christ; they must care for and respect one another in their diversity.
  • The greatest spiritual gift is love, and all members of the ekklēsia should put their gifts in the service of the others.
  • Paul describes the transformed "spiritual body" that resurrected human beings will have.
  • Paul concludes with a request that the Christ-believers contribute money to support "the saints" in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1).


The major theme of this letter to the Corinthian Christ-believers is unity. Paul has diagnosed their major difficulty as a problem of factions and divisions. Throughout the letter Paul emphasizes cooperation, concern for others, and coming to a recognition that their identity as Christ-believers does not leave room for self-interest. He situates the Corinthian Christ-believers in the wider context of a unified community of believers. Instead of dividing into groups loyal to particular apostles or teachers, the Corinthians should consider themselves all as spiritual children who must learn to embrace God's wisdom, even if that wisdom appears to be foolishness or weakness from the perspective of the outside world.

The lengthy, famous poetic discourse on love in 1 Corinthians 13 ("Love is patient, love is kind," 1 Corinthians 13:4) is a meditation on the theological virtue that can bind the Corinthian Christ-believers together. United in love for one another, they can use their various spiritual gifts to support one another and serve God instead of to gain recognition for their individual talents.

The letter offers some important historical insights into the complexity of various problems Christ-believers faced as they carved out a religious identity in a religiously pluralistic society. Forms of worship, for example, were probably varied and could lead to conflicts.

Gender roles are another complicated issue. In this letter Paul offers guidance for men and women participating in liturgy, giving instructions about men worshipping with heads uncovered while women wear head coverings (1 Corinthians 11:4–5). In a passage that some scholars believe was not originally part of the letter but is a later interpolation (addition), Paul also writes that women should not speak in church.

In addition to addressing gender norms, Paul lists the kinds of spiritual gifts that Christ-believers might have; his summary reveals different roles that people could play in early Christian liturgy, teaching, and leadership.

His instructions about the communal Lord's Supper indicate that this liturgical practice was probably not performed in a standardized way at this early stage. He has to admonish wealthier members of the community who bring their own food to the ritual meal and refuse to share with those who are less fortunate. He seems to be attempting to provide the Corinthians with some guidelines for their worship, reminding them that the meal is not a feast but a ritual celebration that should focus on its symbolic function.

1 Corinthians provides valuable information about what 1st-century Christ-believers knew about the teachings and actions of Jesus 20 to 25 years after Jesus's death. Paul is an interesting source for this kind of information, because he admits in other letters that he never met the earthly Jesus (see, for example, Galatians 1:16). However, in 1 Corinthians he relates a narrative about Jesus's final meal with his disciples, at which Jesus symbolically shared his body and blood with his followers. Already by Paul's time this event had become the basis for a ritual meal among Christ-believers; eventually, it served as the foundation for the proto-orthodox Christian ritual of communion or Eucharist (Greek for "thanksgiving").

He also identifies his teaching forbidding divorce as a command that comes not from him but from "the Lord," presumably Jesus (1 Corinthians 7:10). Scholars who attempt to reconstruct a portrait of the historical Jesus use these pieces of information about Jesus's sayings to supplement the narrative accounts of Jesus's life.

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