Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Corinthian 'Church' and Internal Conflicts

Why did the Corinthian assembly suffer significant internal conflict?

1. Socio-Economic Diversity (1 Cor 1:26)

Wealth was the vital indicator of status in the pre-industrial, agrarian society of the Roman empire. Theissen (1982: 94-96) and Meeks (1983: 72-73) provide unconvincing descriptions of the Pauline community at Corinth as a cross-section of rich and poor through the un-measurable grid of social status. Wealth, however, serves as a more effective measurement of social status. Steven Friesen (2005: 352-370) argues for an economic model based on seven graduated categories of wealth and poverty in the imperial economy and concludes, that the majority, if not all of the Pauline community lived around the poverty line more clearly defined as subsistence living. None of the individuals mentioned in connection to Corinth were from the imperial elite; however, there were individuals of moderate surplus wealth: Chloe (1 Cor 1:11), Phoebe (Rom 16:1-2), and Erastus (Rom 16:23). The Pauline community at Corinth closely mirrored the economic structure within the broader civic community within the mid-first century Roman empire.

The majority of the Pauline community was poor and Paul while at Corinth required financial support from the Macedonians (2 Cor 11:8-10; Friesen 2005: 365). It is interesting to note these people are never mentioned as individuals, only as a group, a further indicator of their economic status (1 Cor 16:1-2, 2 Cor 8:12-15). This group, argues Friesen (2005: 365) contained “small farm families, laborers (skilled and unskilled), artisans (especially those employed by others), wage earners, most merchants and traders, [and] small shop/tavern owners.” This economic reality, based on 1 Cor 1:26, would serve as a difficulty for Paul, who was attempting to lead a group from a position of economic status below some within the community.

2. Relationship with Civic Authorities

There was little interaction between the ruling elites and those living at the poverty level and this rigid hierarchy of status was reinforced by law. The divisions were, for example, between freeborn and slaves (1 Cor 7:21-22; 1 Cor 12:23), citizen (limited to adult males) and non-citizen, the former having the ability to take someone to court (1 Cor 6:1-11). Within the citizens, however, there were various ordos. The senatorial class was the most elite and wealthy, while the equestrians were similar to the senators economically but beneath them in status. In colonies like Corinth the local elites would have been the decurions, each of these classes had significant property qualifications for membership, while the rest classified as plebs. Among the freeborn, privileged (honestiores) and non-privileged (humiliores) were defined by law and had certain rights within the judicial system (i.e., those taking others to court in 1 Cor 6 may have been from this class).

These relationships were defined by tradition and clientele (patronage) which was supported by notions of respect and deference within Roman society. The hierarchical nature of the society was necessary for patronage to work. Not everyone was involved in a patron-client relationship, however, deference and precedence still marked those relationships. It could be, in the context of Corinth that some of the issues Paul addressed related to individuals resisting this hierarchical structure (1 Cor 5-7). It also should be noted that they may have seen this example in Paul, himself, who appears to be resisting offers to become the client (1 Cor 9:1-18; Lampe 2003: 488-523).

3. The Result: Struggle for Prestige and Prominence within the Community of Faith

The Corinthian Christ-followers found themselves in a social system that, despite sharp class divisions, provided much needed social cohesion. The Pauline community was populated by a large number living at the subsistence level and a smaller number having moderate to surplus financial resources (1 Cor 1:26). This situation led to a struggle for spiritual-prestige and influence and vying for positions of prominence within the community of faith, similar to what was done within the broader Corinthian community; in which dependents of the person of prestige jostled for positions close to the person in the center. The ensuing interaction may have produced relationships within the community in which factions could emerge (1 Cor 1:12), as those individuals near the person of influence, they, themselves become more influential and a circle of family and dependents of varying status adhere to those individuals who now are the center of their own circle of influence.


Steven J. Friesen, “Prospects for a Demography of the Pauline Mission: Corinth among the Churches,” in Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches, ed. Daniel Schowalter and Steve Friesen (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005), 352-370.

Peter Lampe, “Paul, Patron, and Clients,” in Paul in the Greco-Roman World: A Handbook, ed. J. Paul Sampley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2003), 488-523.

Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983)

Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982).

1 comment:

Pat McCullough said...

Excellent post, Brian! Thanks.