First Corinthians and the Twenty-First Century Church: Worldliness

The last time we were together, we discussed how 1 Corinthians 1:10-3:23 speaks to the unfortunate habit Christians have of undermining their own unity. One aspect of Paul’s extended discussion of disunity in Corinth, however, deserves special attention. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, Paul explained what he thought was the real problem in Corinth, and his explanation might be both helpful and challenging for us as we seek to promote unity in our own time.

Translation Trouble

When the NIV comes to the four verses in which we are interested, it renders the problem Paul addresses as “worldliness.” It is important to note, however, no word with the normal meaning of “worldliness” or “worldly” appears in the Greek text. Rather, Paul uses a Greek word (σαρκίκος) which is often rendered “fleshly.”

So, why does the NIV do this? We cannot be sure without talking to the translators themselves, but it is not hard to come up with a reasonable guess. The contrast Paul is trying to make can easily be misunderstood by modern readers. We read the contrast between “fleshly” and “spiritual” through a Platonic lens, whereas Paul presents the contrast in light of his own (dare I say, non-Platonic) theological, cosmological, anthropological, and ethical matrix (cf. Galatians 5:13-26; Romans 8:1-17). In other words, being “spiritual” does not mean ignoring (or hating) the body, and being “fleshly” does not mean being obsessed with the body.

So, the NIV uses terms like “worldly” to try and avoid any miscommunication. The problem is that worldliness is in the eye of the beholder. What one person considers a reasonable concession to life in the present age may be considered by another person to be an unnecessary compromise with the systems and values which have corrupted humanity and disrupted societies around the world. At worst, a word like “worldliness” can become a tool for the acquisition of and the exercise of religious power.

It’s Still Bad

Of course, we could say the same thing about “fleshliness.” But it doesn’t matter how we render it or the problems our renderings create. Paul claimed the Corinthians’ captivity to their own, distorted humanity was at the root of their problems with unity. And I am convinced Paul would say the same thing about us.

In his book, Managing Leadership Anxiety, Steve Cuss contends much of the anxiety we feel, both as individuals and as leaders, has to do with the fact that we have not yet put to death “the flesh” as Paul commanded us. As such, we have desires we fear will go unmet, and we act out of that fear. Cuss may have overstated his case, but his call to re-examine ourselves, bringing our deepest longings to the surface and submitting them to the Lordship of Christ, is always timely.

Just think about the things which divide us. Bad doctrine is often rooted in desires for unsanctioned sex or for power over others. Factionalism often grows in the soil of greed and is watered by the untamed appetite for wealth. Personal jealousy is often a reflection of our own inability to find our identity and meaning in Christ. Distrust of leaders and institutions is often a sign we lack humility.

This is not to say that everyone involved in a conflict is equally guilty of sin. Indeed, commitment to one’s convictions often will bring a person, congregation, or denomination into conflict with those who do not share those convictions. Nevertheless, it is vital that we all examine ourselves to see how we have contributed to the disunity in our homes, our churches, our communities, and our nations. We have to be the first to put aside the childish and petty rivalries that so often plague human social interactions and embrace Jesus’ vision of loving and rugged unity.

I know I have a long way to go in this regard. What about you?

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