First Corinthians and the Universal Church

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It has often been claimed in Pauline scholarship that Paul does not speak of “the Church” but rather of particular churches here and there as communities gathered in a given local, like Corinth, or Philippi, or Rome.

This is one reasons many scholars came to reject Pauline authorship of Ephesians: It presents a profound vision of the mystical Church transcending heaven and earth, an ecclesiology with an incipient conception of Christus Totus, that the Church is Christ himself in head and members.

I’ve come to think that Paul has been sold a bit short regarding ecclesiology. In the so-called “authentic” Paulines we find subtle evidence that Paul is thinking in universal terms about a Church that transcends any particular locale, that transcends time and space.

I was reminded of this in teaching 1 Corinthians in various contexts recently. The problem in Corinth is factionalism (see 1 Cor 1:10ff, in which Paul laments factions among the Corinthian Christians), rooted in a love of human wisdom as a lens for filtering the Gospel (see 1 Cor 1:18ff). Paul suggests there are four groups following either Paul, Apollos, Cephas (=Simon Peter), or Christ. In 1 Cor 3:1ff and 4:6 he mentions only himself and Apollos. Whatever the background situation, Paul laments a divided church.

Now look at the beginning of the letter, 1 Cor 1:1-2:

(1) Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, (2) To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: (3) Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Most people ignore the beginning of Paul’s letters, regarding them more or less as the standard boilerplate of ancient letters, moving right onto the meat of the letter. But this is a mistake, I think; if you look carefully at the beginning of Paul’s letters, it seems he adumbrates major themes there.

Now take another look at v. 2:

To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…

Sanctification is obviously a problem in Corinth, given what Paul says in chapters 5-7 about the illicit sex and irregular marriage situations he’s heard about among them. And so he calls the members of the church of God in Corinth “sanctified,” to perhaps remind them that (as he says directly) they’re “called to be saints”.

But the letter has a second set of addressees, so to speak: “…together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours…”

Why? 1 Corinthians isn’t a circular letter, like “Ephesians” may be. He seems to be reminding his hearers (letters were read aloud to congregations in the ancient Church) that every Christian everywhere is called to sanctification, to holiness. But he does so by subtly reminding them that their local congregation is a part of the universal Church, that they’re a part of the whole.

Why? It’s as if Paul is saying, “Look, it’s not just that you need to be of one mind and agree in all things and make the same judgment among yourselves as a particular church in Corinth. You’re also a part of the universal Church across the face of the earth.” They’re part of something great and grand, and they can’t even get it together in Corinth; given that unity is a theological and Christological matter, their divisions aren’t mere problematic but scandalous.

Now look at 1 Cor 3:16-17, in my paraphrase:

Do you not know that all of you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in the midst of all of you? If any one destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you all together are.

Paul will talk about individuals being temples of the Spirit in 1 Cor 6; here, however, the “yous” are plural. He’s not talking about individuals but about the community of the Church. He’s using a metaphor of the Church as temple to talk about their unity. And there was one temple, as there is one Church. It’s more than a metaphor; Paul here is presuming a metaphysical, ontological unity. One temple, one Spirit, one Church, one Christ.

I think it’s clearer when one thinks of Paul’s concept of “union with Christ” or “participation in Christ.” The idea here is that believers are really, truly, personally, ontologically, sacramentally united with Christ through baptism (Romans 6), existing in and with Him who is in the heavenlies. This is the basic warrant for much of Paul’s “ethical” admonitions. Consider the following:

(15) Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! (16) Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, “The two shall become one flesh.” (1 Cor 6:15-16)

Paul doesn’t say it’s morally wrong, as if it breaks a law somewhere. His thinking is almost physical: Christians are hooked up to Christ, so they shouldn’t hook up with a prostitute, because that’d be mixing holiness and unholiness.

Now let’s bring it back to ecclesiology. There is one Christ, in whom all Christians are in union, in whom they all participate. There is one Christ; all Christians participate in him; there’s one Church that transcends space and time precisely because its unity is located in Christ.

This is operative in 1 Corinthians. It’s fundamentally the same model one sees in Ephesians, if more subtle. But that might be because Paul is putting out fires in Corinth; he’s addressing all sorts of issues more directly. Ephesians, if it’s written by Paul, is Paul’s most general letter, more general than Romans.

All that is to say, the “authentic” Paul has a higher Christology than much of scholarship has given him credit for. And if that’s so, one of the major ideological reason for discounting Pauline authorship of (at least) Ephesians is called into question.

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