This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

1 Cor 4:17-21 and licentiousness in Corinth

Here I argue that the sending of Timothy to Corinth in 1 Cor 4:17-21 concerns the Corinthian licentiousness of chapters 5 and 6.


In 1 Cor 4:11-13 Paul lists his tribulations. He then writes:
4:14 I am not writing this to make you ashamed, but to admonish you as my beloved children. 4:15 For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. 4:16 I appeal to you, then, be imitators of me. 
4:17 For this reason (διὰ τοῦτο) I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church. 4:18 But some of you, thinking that I am not coming to you, have become arrogant (ἐφυσιώθησάν). 4:19 But I will come to you soon, if the Lord wills, and I will find out not the talk of these arrogant (πεφυσιωμένων) people but their power. 4:20 For the kingdom of God depends not on talk but on power. 4:21 What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? 5:1 It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among the pagans; for a man is living with his father's wife. 5:2 And you are arrogant (πεφυσιωμένοι)! Should you not rather have mourned, so that he who has done this would have been removed from among you?
1)  If 5:1 is the beginning of the discussion of licentiousness, as many suppose, it is very abrupt. In all the other passages where Paul speaks against licentiousness he is not abrupt but first prepares his readers by appealing to a tradition that they had already received. Thus Phil 3:17-19 starts with an appeal to imitate Paul and those who follow the example that he had set. Similarly, 1 Thess 4:1-8 begins with a reminder that Paul had instructed them how to live. 2 Cor 12:19-13:10 begins with a reference to earlier correspondence. 1 Cor 10:1-8 appeals to the Hebrew scriptures before warning of sexual immorality. Paul had not been to Rome so in his letter to the church there he cannot appeal to traditions that he had passed on to them. However, he still introduces the subject of licentiousness by referring to their knowledge of "the time" (Rom 13:11-14). Similarly, Rom 16:17-18 appeals to "the teaching that you have learned" before warning of the practice of some serving their own appetites. In  Gal 5:13-21, though there is no reference to traditions passed on by Paul (for whatever reason), there is a reference to Lev 19:18 at Gal 5:14. Since Paul consistently introduces discussion of licentiousness with some kind of appeal to earlier teachings, it is highly likely that Paul's reference to his "ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church" in 4:17 introduces the subject of licentiousness that is mentioned explicitly first at 5:1 and dominates the next two chapters. Several further arguments will confirm this.


2)  Timothy was to "remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church". Paul wrote against licentiousness in every letter that he wrote to a church (Rom 13:13-14; 16:17-18; 1 Cor 5:1-13; 6:9-20; 2 Cor 12:21; Gal 5:13-21; Phil 3:17-19; 1 Thess 4:1-8), so the issue fits the description of something that he taught "everywhere in every church".

3)  Timothy's mission is mentioned again at 1 Cor 16:10-11: "If Timothy comes, see that he has nothing to fear among you, for he is doing the work of the Lord just as I am; therefore let no one despise him." These words are explicable if Timothy's mission was to counter opponents in Corinth, such as those who promoted licentiousness.

4)  Kenneth Bailey wrote an important and much neglected article, in which he argued, as I do here, that 1 Cor 4:17-21 introduces the subject of sexual immorality ("The Structure of 1 Corinthians and Paul's Theological Method with Special Reference to 4:17", Nov Test 25, 2 (1983)). Bailey (p162) points out that the tone in 1 Cor 4:18-21 is much sharper than in 1 Cor 4:11-16. He writes, "In 4:14 Paul speaks very gently. He wants only to admonish his beloved children and not to make them ashamed. But in 4:18-21 he is threatening the arrogant with a rod!!" This shift in tone confirms that Paul has shifted the focus to a   particularly troubling issue. The tone in 4:18-21 and the threat of punishment is much more in keeping with 5:1-9, where punishment is demanded, than it is with 1:1-4:16.

5)  2 Cor 12:21-13:10 ties in nicely with 1 Cor 4:18-21. Paul visited Corinth for the second time and, finding that "impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness" was being promoted in the church, he warned them that he would not be lenient when he returned (2 Cor 12:21-13:2). He decided to delay his return, and wrote to them and sent Timothy to give them maximum opportunity to repent so that he would not have to be severe when he came (1 Cor 4:21; 2 Cor 13:10). This delay made the culprits cocky (1 Cor 4:18), so Paul responds by saying "would you rather that I came right away with a rod?" (1 Cor 4:21). Thus, the arrogance of these Corinthians concerning Paul's failure to come again to Corinth (1 Cor 4:18) is explicable if they were the proponents of the libertine doctrine whom Paul had warned that he would punish when he came back (2 Cor 13:2). This is confirmed by the parallels between 1 Cor 4:21 and 2 Cor 13:10. Now, this argument requires that Paul's second visit to Corinth took place before 1 Corinthians. This is likely for a number of reasons that I have touched on before. The only counter-argument is that Paul would not suppress all direct mention of the second visit in 1 Corinthians, only to revive its memory in 2 Cor 2:1; 13:1-2. However, Paul brings up the second visit in these passages only because he is forced to do so. He must explain that his failure to return to Corinth was to avoid another painful visit and was not due to fickleness. And he must explain that his failure to return did not mean that he was too timid to carry out the threats that he had made on his second visit. The fact that it is necessary for Paul to give these explanations in 2 Corinthians suggests that he may have avoided the subject of the second visit in earlier correspondence (such as the tearful letter). Paul's mentions of the second visit in 2 Corinthians are to clear up misunderstandings, which are explicable if Paul had suppressed discussion of his second visit in earlier correspondence. Therefore we should not be surprised that there is no mention of the second visit in 1 Corinthians. For more on Paul's silence in 1 Corinthians concerning his second visit see David R. Hall "The Unity of the Corinthian Correspondence" JSNTsup 251, p245.

6)  1 Cor 4:17-21 is linked to 1 Cor 5:1-9 by the word "arrogant" (φυσιόω), which appears at 5:2  as well as at 4:18 and 4:19. Bailey (p161) writes, 
in 4:18 Paul refers to some who are "arrogant". In 5:2 he becomes more pointed with the remark, "and you are arrogant!". 
7)  1 Cor 4:17-21 is linked to 1 Cor 5:1-9 by the issue of Paul's presence and absence. Bailey (p161) writes that Paul seems to be saying:
Some think I am not coming (4:18) but I am indeed coming (4:19); as a matter of fact, although I am absent in body consider me already present in spirit (5:3).
8)  The term "kingdom of God", given at 1 Cor 4:20 appears again at 1 Cor 6:9-10, where Paul says that the licentious will not enter the kingdom of God. Similarly, Paul writes in Gal 5:19-21 that licentious wrongdoers will not enter the kingdom of God. The only other mentions of the kingdom of God in Paul's undisputed letters are at Rom 14:17, 1 Thess 2:12, and 1 Cor 15:24, 50.

9)
4:16 I appeal to you, then (οὖν), be imitators of me (μιμηταί μου γίνεσθε). 

4:17 For this reason (διὰ τοῦτο) I sent you Timothy, who is my beloved and faithful child in the Lord, to remind you of my ways in Christ Jesus, as I teach them everywhere in every church.
Bailey (p160) points out that both 4:16 and 4:17 have a "therefore" and that "it is difficult to argue that Paul is summarizing his previous argument twice in a row with two "therefores" one after the other." The "therefore" of 4:17 (διὰ τοῦτο) is used by Paul 15 times in all (Rom 1:26; 4:16; 5:12; 13:6; 15:9; 1 Cor 4:17; 11:10, 30; 2 Cor 4:1; 7:13; 13:10; 1 Thess 2:13; 3:5, 7). Bailey (p162) writes that this phrase, when used by Paul, always looks forward in some sense. Now, since 4:17 is linked to 4:16 by the common theme of imitating Paul, it cannot be argued that Paul is starting a completely new theme at 4:17, but Paul's use of the phrase διὰ τοῦτο makes it probable that he is taking the discussion in a new direction.

Paul often uses the phrase to transition from general reflections to specific practical implications. We see this in Rom 1:26 where Paul gets into specifics about sexual practices, and in Rom 13:6 where he gets into specifics about paying taxes. Similarly 1 Cor 11:10 and 1 Cor 11:30.  The phrase (διὰ τοῦτο) in 4:17 therefore is in line with Paul's use of the phrase elsewhere if it marks the transition from the general discussion of the Corinthians' arrogant lifestyle (1 Cor 4:6-16) to one particular practical manifestation of that arrogant lifestyle (licentiousness).

10)  Bailey (p160-1) writes,
to our knowledge no ancient paragraph system divided the text at 5:1. However, there is wide spread early evidence for a break at 4:16 or 17.
The commentators
Why do most commentators, then, fail to recognize that 1 Cor 4:17-21 is strongly connected with 5:1ff? I suspect that there are two reasons.

Firstly, many read Paul's letters as if they were written for them. They interpret the passage in the context only of what has already been said, and fail to read it from the point of view of the Corinthians, who already knew the history of Paul's interactions with them that we learn about later in the letter and in 2 Corinthians.

Secondly, 1 Cor 4:17-21 is linked to the preceding passage by the theme of imitating Paul and by the word "arrogant" (1 Cor 4:6, 18, 19). Some seem to assume that the passage cannot be linked simultaneously to both the preceding and the following passages. However, recent studies have demonstrated that there is a common theme running through the letter. Hall (The Unity of the Corinthian Correspondence p15) writes,
Paul discusses the rhetorical aspect of the Corinthian wisdom in chs. 1-3, and its theological and ethical outworking in chs. 4-16.
Matthew Malcolm's comments are similar, I think:
In 1 Corinthians 1-4 Paul evaluates struggles over leadership in the Corinthian congregation as an implicit expression of human autonomy, and responds by summoning the Corinthians to identify with Christ, by forgoing the role of the boastful ruler and adopting the role of the cruciform sufferer. This identification with the cruciform Christ consequently gives shape to Paul’s ethical instruction in 1 Corinthians 5-14.
Therefore, the links between 1 Cor 4:17-21 and the earlier part of chapter 4 do not in any way weaken the links with chapters 5 and 6.


In my next post I will argue that this mission of Timothy to Corinth is one and the same as the mission of Titus to Corinth of 2 Cor 2:1-13; 7:6-16. This will provide further confirmation that Timothy was Titus.

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