Article Apr 1, 2015

The ethical similarities between Corinth and today

I know a Kansas City resident who could have lived in first-century Rome. He’s not that old, of course, but he knows that much about ancient Mediterranean history and culture. Every time he talks about the New Testament, I learn something new that’s not available in modern commentaries.  

When he handed me a copy of Timothy Savage’s, Power through Weakness: Paul’s Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians and said, “Brother, you have to read this,” I knew I had to read it right away. So I did and with just the result that my Roman time-traveler anticipated.  

Savage’s work allowed me to see Paul’s letters in a new way; and since then, I don’t think there’s another book that I’ve recommended as often.

We are what the Corinthians were

Therefore, when an invitation came to rave about a significant ethical work, this title sprang to mind. It doesn’t quite fit the profile—not at first, anyway. After all, it deals with 2 Corinthians, not abortion, gay marriage or religious liberty. It’s a work of exegesis, not a treatise on public policy. Yet, I have a theory: if we can see why Paul had enemies in Corinth—people who hated his preaching of the cross—we will face today’s ethical debates with sanctified déjà vu.  

Things have changed since Paul’s day, no doubt; but human nature hasn’t, or at least not enough to make the Apostle’s troubles entirely foreign to us. What the Corinthians once were, we now are. The fit is close enough to be useful.  

Rejecting the cross in Corinth

Savage’s argument begins with an account of Corinthian social life and values, because these factors explain why Paul’s ministry and message would be rejected by unregenerate pagans. The latter were treating temporal goods as ultimate ends, trying to surpass each other in wisdom, eloquence, power, wealth, beauty and victory. Life was a contest, a zero-sum, shame-and-honor struggle, where victory meant everything—especially to freedmen and people of lesser or ignoble birth.  

Thus, we should have expected the Corinthians to despise Paul’s message of the cross, dismissing it as idiocy. Only fools would believe that a crucified Jew, abandoned on slave’s wood, is the Lord and Savior (1 Cor. 1:18). Who could accept this offensive message? How could Pauline weakness—carrying in his body that kind of death—be a conduit of supernatural power? As arrogant social-climbers, the Corinthians rejected Paul and his message, favoring the alpha men who offered to replace the Apostle and preach a cross-free gospel.

But it gets worse. Paul’s gospel implies that love is cruciform and that boasting is allowed only if its object is Christ. We must do more than put ourselves second: we come in last, after the Lord himself and everyone else, too. In this sense, discipleship inverts the world’s core-values, leaving no room for self-regard or pride. Pagans sense this fact intuitively and recoil from Christian morality as something immoderate and unreasonable.  

So we come to today’s ethical scene, with new light from Paul’s letters to Corinth and a living color applied with Savage’s help.

The deeper catalyst behind ethical questions

On the one hand, we know that some arguments in ethical theory involve mostly factual disagreements; and the latter give us plenty of trouble, all by themselves. If life has begun, it shouldn’t be unjustly ended. But when does life begin? If the purpose of sexuality is procreation, then homosexuality is wrong. But is that the purpose of sexuality? Does sexuality have any purpose? People should be cared for until their lives end. But when does someone’s life really end?  

Lost people answer these questions in one way, and we answer them in another. In this sense, some debates turn largely on matters of description, not on judgments of ultimate value. On the other hand, if our culture resembles ancient Corinth—and we can hardly miss the overlap—PTW suggests a darker force at work, one that could intensify today’s struggle between biblical right and secular wrong.

Maybe the today’s antinomians are just selfish, after all, and driven by shame-and-honor priorities. It’s a familiar problem, and no one in this life fully escapes the temptation. We know what it’s like to make idols of wealth, power, beauty, victory and wisdom—to keep score and forget our neighbors. We know what it’s like to demand a reasonable gospel that entails feasible sacrifices. Thus, we should expect to find similar failings outside the church, this time going deeper and doing more damage.  

Why, then, do parents kill their imperfect children in the womb, children developing without limbs or conceived at the wrong time? Why do people get divorced so often? Why do they use their votes to seize other people’s money? Why do they want to define marriage as “state-sponsored PDA”? How did “No” become so offensive? Each question suggests a failure of moral insight in our society, as if the options presented were being judged by an alien yardstick, a radically different standard. But what is the standard?

We have given away the answer already. People may sin, as they do in these cases, because they have ascended thrones, in essence, and feel entitled. They know what the facts are about human life. They know that homosexuality isn’t normal and isn’t right. They know that unborn children are children. They know that the purpose of government is not to achieve by proxy what one would never do in person—e.g., accessing other people’s money without working for it. Parents shouldn’t abandon their children or deprive them of either one by divorce.  

But when these “No’s” are heard, another voice rises to meet it, a voice from ancient Corinth and within each of us, if we yield to it. This second voice says, “I’m entitled.” I’m entitled to a perfect baby, born on my schedule. I’m entitled to smooth skin and a happy, tailor-fit marriage with someone young, attractive and unproblematic. I need a stylish car, sexual gratification, whenever and with whomever. It’s an old lie that stays green all year round, a lie that fools the wise egoist every time. Cross this line, bright one, and you’ll fall for that ancient lie of the serpent: “You shall be as God.”