By the time he wrote the letter we call 1 Corinthians, Paul was obviously becoming exasperated with the saints at Corinth. After his ever cordial and didactic greetings—reminding them that their calling and sanctification in the Lord is not unique to them, but it is a privilege that they share with other Christians everywhere (1 Cor 1:2)—he starts right in on what he sees is wrong with them. But, before he does that, he shares some words of encouragement, nourishing his students with a kind of pedagogical sandwich, as every good teacher will, mentioning something positive, then the negative that needs correction, then ending with a positive, encouraging appeal, urging the students to do better in the future.
So Paul begins in verse 4 by expressing gratitude to God for the grace God has given them—and here he highlights the positive aspect of knowledge (the negative aspect he will correct as the letter proceeds). He thanks God for the “word”—that is, literally, the logos—and the knowledge with which God has enriched these believers (v. 5). Logos, of course, is the same word the Apostle John will use to describe Christ himself, God-Among-Us, the person of the triune Godhead who enters our world to bring us true knowledge of God. In our day, in English, the term logos has been brought over from Greek as a cognate to represent all study or learning, so that we build it into the names of our academic disciplines, as theology (theos-logos, God-study), anthropology (human-study), sociology (society-study), and on and on. In Greek, the term also indicates teaching and reasoning. Paul is careful to locate that learning in Christ Jesus, the one who enriched the Corinthians with the learning that they value so highly, who confirmed them in their “testimony” (v. 6), and who equips them with spiritual gifts (v. 7), preservation from blame (v. 8), and faithful perseverance to carry them through to the second coming of Christ and the last judgment (v. 8).1 As a result, their entire faith should rest on God’s power, not on human wisdom (2:5). Paul then appeals to them in 1:10 that they apply these blessings by training their minds and purposes to agree.
What is Paul concerned about? Reminding the Corinthians of the origin of their knowledge—that it is purely a gift from Christ—is his attempt to rescue them from being puffed up with a self-importance that allows godly wisdom to be perverted with worldly wisdom. That is a big problem for the Corinthians. So this is what Paul is centering in on: he is just about to lecture them on the difference between godly wisdom and worldly wisdom from verse 1:18 on.
In his focus, Paul has the Corinthians’ weakness pegged exactly. Very soon, he will be proved right in the most heartbreaking manner. By the time of 2 Corinthians, his worst fears for their safety will be realized, as his opponents will exploit their unbridled affinity for knowledge and use it to enslave the Corinthians into regarding them as great pundits, supplying them with money, suffering their abusive ways (these “teachers” strike their students, 2 Cor 11:20). Thus, they will domineer and oppress them. Paul can see all this coming in the Corinthians’ future because he knows the predatory nature of his opponents, the weakness for insider information in the Corinthians, their tenuous regard for community, and the way a pernicious abuser is drawn inevitably by bloodlust to exploit the weak. Such a fate is what he was trying to head off.
So Paul builds another sandwich argument to begin his appeal. In 1 Corinthians 1:10–17, he lectures the Corinthians on their need to build a true supportive, protective community that avoids factionalism and divisions. Immediately following, in 1:18—2:16, he contrasts worldly wisdom with godly wisdom, carefully detailing the true learning about Christ, and then, in 3:1–23, he closes this section with a reemphasis on the need for true community, applied particularly to the Corinthians’ divisive context.
Surprisingly, some scholars have missed entirely Paul’s strategy in this letter. When I was a seminary student, I heard the speculation that what Paul was actually doing is moaning and groaning to the Corinthians about his own failure at Athens, nursing his wounds, and working through a decision in this letter not to venture into the area of philosophical debate again, but deciding to stay safely with what he knows best, which is proclaiming nothing other than Jesus’ crucifixion (2:1–5 was the proof-text for this position)—in short, just sticking with the no-frills gospel. This interpretation, clever though it may at first appear, misses out entirely on what is happening in this letter. It also makes an assumption that Paul regarded himself as far less successful on the Acropolis’s Mars Hill than he was elsewhere. Both of these errors miss the logic of 1 Corinthians’ argument.
First, Paul in Athens may have faced rejection, but he also won converts, including two prominent thinkers, Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris, among others (Acts 17:18–20, 34). Further, he was not run out of town, as he was in Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13:50), beaten with rods and jailed, as in Philippi (Acts 16:22–24), or stoned and left for dead, as in Lystra (Acts 14:19). In short, in Athens, Paul actually did well, according to his standards.
Second, in Corinth, Paul had a more immediate reason to center on Christ’s humiliation alone (Christ crucified [1 Cor 2:2]). From his opening statement on, the true source of their learning, gifts, and hope, right through his condemnation of the way the church had divided, his reminder of his own humble past behavior among them, his advice on the centrality and humility of love, his cautioning on the sensible use of spiritual gifts for the common good and the need to cooperate as a “body” for Christ, and so on, Paul the teacher is honing in on various aspects of their central weakness—and so prescient was his choice of target, given the impending threat of invasion by his opponents. That is why Paul immediately moves in on the Corinthians’ penchant for celebrity-mongering. Christ, Apollos, Cephas (Peter), even—to his chagrin—Paul himself were being raised as figureheads by their schismatic factions. It did not seem safe for any prominent teacher to venture among them. Apollos himself refused flatly to return despite Paul’s pleading, perhaps having had enough of the Corinthians on his previous visit and wanting a bit of space before putting himself through that experience again (1 Cor 16:12). A lack of humiliation is like a deadly virus. It not only pollutes the people who have it, but threatens to infect and destroy all the teachers who try to help them. Being unduly lifted up is as bad for one’s spiritual health as being beaten down is bad for one’s mental and physical state.
But missing from Paul’s complaint list of those the Corinthians had elevated to figureheads was one group of leaders so skillful that they worked among the Corinthians and apparently managed never to be lionized: Prisca and Aquila.
So powerful was this couple in the very things that the Corinthians valued so highly—learning and knowledge—they corrected even Apollos, whom the Corinthians pedestaled. But these teachers were so effectively humble (having so thoroughly embraced the lesson of Christ crucified) that they avoided the Corinthians’ notice, and so their ministry among them appears to have progressed unhampered by being divided into an Aquila versus a Prisca faction.
In fact, when we see the six references to them together across the New Testament, Aquila is mentioned first in Acts 18:2 and
1 Corinthians 16:19, while Prisca is mentioned first in Acts 18:18, 26, Romans 16:3, and 2 Timothy 4:19, which means that they shared leadership mention. Obviously, this couple was thinking not with worldly wisdom, but with godly wisdom; thus, it is small wonder Paul trusted them far above many others, entrusting the care of several churches to them, working beside them in their leather goods shop, traveling with them on ministry jaunts. That he loved and respected them deeply comes out clearly when he mentions them (e.g., Rom 16:3–4).
What Prisca and Aquila knew is what Paul was warning the Corinthians they needed to take seriously to heart: that there is a logic abroad in this world that is doomed to perish (1 Cor 2:6), and it is opposed to the logic of God’s wisdom that leads to “our glory” (1 Cor 2:7). This is a perverted reasoning that Paul himself will “overthrow” because it is “raised up” against the knowledge of God (2 Cor 10:4–5). No believer should embrace it.
Thus, like the Corinthians, the question we need to keep asking ourselves today is whether we are like Prisca and Aquila, humbly setting our course of action by God’s life-enhancing logic, or lording it over others with the world’s pernicious logic.
When we puff ourselves up with knowledge, factionalize, and oppress others, suppressing their God-given gifts and leadership potential, while we sit like vultures bloated on road kill atop church structures, swelling ourselves up with entitlement and clever arguments why we should be in charge and they should serve us, then we have prepared ourselves to perish with the wisdom of the world. We need to repent, for the true wisdom of God is nonoppressive, others-oriented, humble, and its end is to build up every member of the church to become mature in Christ.
In this light, this issue of Priscilla Papers is dedicated to applying the redeeming quality of others-oriented egalitarian logic to correcting the fallen logic of oppressing others that too often has permeated the church. We open our issue welcoming back to our pages David Cramer, who analyzes challenges to the evangelical egalitarian approach for nurturing and guiding the church. Next, Prof. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, a longtime wise woman who has greatly enriched the thought of contemporary evangelicalism, points out to us the limits of depending unduly on secular studies to define gender for us. A newcomer to our pages, Sam Arts, then takes a perceptive look at the inadequacy of John Calvin’s sources that limited this great thinker in his view of nature and the true potential of Christian women. Woodrow Walton follows with a perceptive book review of Lisa Stephenson’s Dismantling the Dualisms. Our issue completes with Prof. Jane Beal’s intriguing poem on gender differences. Together, this issue’s essays, reviews, and creative work certainly enriched my thinking, and I trust they will do the same for you.
Ultimately, as the Corinthians in their best moments, each of us contemporary Christians also wants for ourselves and each other the gifts that Paul reminded the Corinthians they had received from Christ Jesus: enrichment in learning and knowledge, of course, but also a strengthening of their witness, wisdom in how to use their spiritual gifts to build one another up and thereby give God glory, and the prospect of being found blameless by God. Later in his letter, Paul will remind the Corinthians that, even if their knowledge expanded to the point that no mystery was closed to them and they could move mountains with their mental power, yet were bereft of love for God and one another, they would have gained nothing lasting at all (1 Cor 13:2). In our hearts, if we stopped to think about it, none of us would actually want to receive a high position of puffed-up self-importance with the power to lord it over others if we realized we were exchanging for it the love of our God and the ultimate glory we will receive as good and faithful servants (1 Cor 2:7). Such a price would be lethally exorbitant. Thus, models like the ever-giving Paul and the selflessly humble, profound, and highly effective Prisca and Aquila are the ones we should be choosing when deciding how to conduct our lives and our service in the church. No other option makes godly sense.
- All translations are by the author. Lexical definitions are from Barclay M. Newman, Jr., A Concise Greek-English Dictionary of the New Testament (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1993).