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Reviews | The Challenge of Corinthians

The Challenge of Corinthians

Michael Ashton

Hardback or e-book (ePub)

256 pages

The Challenge of Corinthians

The Testimony review (from December 2006)

Bible letters for today (1)

THE SERIES of articles by Brother Michael Ashton on the two letters to the Corinthians, published in the Christadelphian several years ago, has now been revised and enlarged and published as a book. In many ways this book is highly relevant to the Brotherhood today, for so many of the problems facing Corinth nearly 2,000 years ago are facing the Brotherhood now. In his preface to the book Brother Ashton writes:

“The liberty of the Corinthians who lived in those far-off days was of the same stamp as that which is valued by modern society – the freedom to choose, the freedom to indulge in self-gratification, the freedom to express individuality. The effect of the teachings of the gospel upon this worldly and self-centred society was bound to create tensions, and the apostle’s measured and sound advice, based often on the Old Testament scriptures, was designed to help individuals from many different backgrounds draw together to serve their new Master”.

The only other complete exposition of the Letters to Corinth in the Brotherhood was written some forty-six years ago by Brother Fred Barling, and much has happened in the ecclesial world since then. There have been changes in society that have had their impact on the meetings, and abroad the Truth has been taught in many new places, bringing both opportunities and also new problems. Brother Barling’s fine book has been a most helpful work to the reviewer, and no doubt to many others, setting out the principles of understanding and expounding the two letters. From the pen of Brother Ron Abel, verse-by-verse expositions of 1 Corinthians 9–13 and 2 Corinthians 1–5 have been available for some years, and of course Brother Thomas wrote Anastasis, a treatise on the resurrection of the dead that expounds much of 1 Corinthians 15. Brother Ashton’s balanced and careful exposition is therefore very welcome for a new generation of brethren and sisters who need the counsel of the Apostle Paul in this ‘Corinthian’ age in which we are living.

Background and summary

The first chapter of the book deals with the background geography and history of Corinth, and the reviewer does not remember seeing this material in the magazine articles. There are maps and photos to make this a most useful resource, but most interesting here are the author’s comments about the “landmark decision” of the proconsul Gallio and his summary dismissal of the case against Paul (Acts 18:12-17).

Chapter 2, entitled “Paul’s contact with Corinth”, is an introduction to the two letters and their links with all the other communications between Paul and the ecclesia. Those studying Corinthians for the first time should read this chapter more than once, for it pieces together all the visits Paul made to the ecclesia and the letters exchanged between them. There is a useful summary box at the end, and more maps.

The overview in chapter 3 is also very helpful, with an analysis of 1 Corinthians. In the course of this chapter Brother Ashton lists ten problems the ecclesia had written to Paul about, and poses a question to the reader:

“How would you grade these ten problems? Which would head your list as the one most urgently in need of resolution? Would you tackle first of all the case of the man who had taken his father’s wife? Or the misunderstandings about the doctrine of the resurrection? Or the chaos at the breaking of bread?”.

He goes on to say:

“Paul considered subjects that were not in their letter much more in need of serious attention … we can be guided by the Apostle Paul in setting priorities as problems arise that we have to face” (page 22).

The issues of the discord in the ecclesia and the case of the incestuous man were in fact dealt with by Paul before he turns to any of the questions that the Corinthians had written to him about (1 Corinthians 7:1).

The power of the Word, not worldly wisdom

The message of the first three chapters of 1 Corinthians is that no flesh should glory in God’s presence, and that human wisdom is invariably wrong, especially in ecclesial matters. Brother Ashton makes the point powerfully:

“The Corinthians only had to look at the apostle’s example. He was not a great philosophical orator; he did not appear in a dazzling display of riches or finery. He arrived in Corinth on his own after his brush with the Jews of Thessalonica and the philosophers in Athens! He was of unprepossessing appearance (2 Corinthians 10:10), and may have been suffering from the recurring weakness which was his constant reminder that he must not ‘be exalted above measure’ (2 Corinthians 12:7, cp. Galatians 4:14). And he came with a simple message – ‘Christ crucified’. The ecclesia in Corinth … was not founded on a silken-tongued message whose effect would soon disappear like froth blown by the wind. They were introduced to ‘the power of God’, and beside that all human pretence swiftly fades.

“Imagine the scene as these words were first read aloud to the assembled ecclesia in Corinth. All who had proudly stated their allegiance to one faction or another must have hung their heads in shame as the truth of the argument gradually sank in. Paul led them once again to consider Jesus. He is our wisdom, for the only true wisdom is the message he brought. Through him only can men and women be counted righteous; they are set apart in him, and he is their redeemer (1 Corinthians 1:30)” (pages 33,34).

Sin and fellowship

In his seventh and eighth chapters Brother Ashton writes about the incestuous brother and the withdrawal of fellowship from him. Sadly, sexual weaknesses and sins are always with ecclesias, and how to deal with them rightly exercises many a meeting, with much sorrow and argument. After discussing the background of the Corinthian case, Brother Michael writes, “But whatever circumstances were involved, the problem was that an obviously sinful act was not troubling the ecclesia. Even more seriously, there was an element of pride in the situation” (page 49). He shows that Paul’s command to put away that wicked person was based on the provisions of the Law, and then says, “Only after talking about the process that was intended to encourage the brother to repent of his sin does the apostle turn to its effect on the ecclesia: ‘Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump?’” (page 51).

The main thrust of Paul’s counsel was that the sinful brother should turn from his wrong ways and be restored to fellowship again, as indeed proved to be the eventual outcome of this case. Brother Ashton argues that, instead of turning to withdrawal of fellowship as the last stage of all efforts to win back erring brothers and sisters, it should, in some cases, be used early on to deny the benefits of fellowship so that a return is sought on right principles, and both the individual and the ecclesia “Purge out … the old leaven” (5:7).

These chapters of the book and the relevant passage in Corinthians should be read and re-read by any individuals or ecclesias stricken with similar problems, as Brother Ashton’s words are balanced and weighed carefully. As he writes: “Carried out in the right spirit and for the right objective, withdrawal of fellowship is a loving act to be undertaken by an ecclesia’’ (page 60). The concluding thoughts of the author, on page 63, present to us the benefits, to both an erring individual and his or her ecclesia, of dealing faithfully with problems caused by sin.

Chapter 6 of 1 Corinthians concerns two issues: going to law against our brother in Christ, and the sexual immorality which was prevalent in first-century Corinthian society, as it is in our own society today. Brother Ashton takes the view that the angels to be judged by the saints (verse 3) are Gentile rulers, but whether this is correct or not, the immortalised saints will be in charge of all kingdoms, and it is imperative that now, in the time of our probation, disputes should be settled in the spirit of Christ as our training for much greater authority in the age to come. The great example of the young man Joseph in running away from Potiphar’s wife’s enticements is cited in connection with the prevalent sexual immorality: “fleeing from temptation must become habitual. Unless this attitude is a daily practice, a moment of weakness or a particularly strong temptation will result in disaster” (pages 68-69).

Marriage questions

1 Corinthians 7 is the first of Paul’s replies to the written questions made by the ecclesia. Brother Ashton writes, “Against the background of rampant immorality in Corinth, it is understandable that a view had developed in the ecclesia that ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’ (1 Corinthians 7:1)” (page 72). Paul was fully aware of the human need for companionship, and the chapter shows that faithfulness in marriage was a thing to be desired in immoral Corinth. Brother Ashton suggests that it is unlikely that Paul never married, as membership of the Sanhedrin was open only to those who were married, and so he could have been a widower, or perhaps his wife left him when he put on Christ. Though several times Paul points out the benefits of being single, as he was at that time, nevertheless he recognised that not everyone would be able to be like him, or would wish to be like him.

The apostle addresses the problem of those new to the Truth whose spouses had not accepted it with them. If the unbelieving spouse was happy to remain in the marriage, then the believing spouse should remain and make no attempt to break the marriage bond. The children would benefit from this position, as they could learn about the Truth from their believing parent. But if the unbelieving spouse broke the marriage and departed, then the believing partner was not under bondage in such a case. There is much more in chapters 10 and 11, and the reader will benefit from the author’s careful discussion of what the apostle says.

Meat offered to idols

1 Corinthians 8–10 is devoted in the main to the problem of meats offered to idols, a problem which at first sight does not concern us in the twenty-first century. But, as always, the expositions made by Paul from the Old Testament are so powerful and helpful that we cannot but benefit from studying these chapters. Here we have the unity of the Godhead endorsed, the separateness of His Son, the great exhortation from the athlete, and the example of Israel in the wilderness as we too struggle in the twenty-first century wilderness (Revelation 17:3). In his closing comments on these three chapters, the author says:

“We should be deceiving ourselves if we thought these chapters do not apply to modern disciples … the issue was more to do with a believer’s association with the world than strictly about idol worship or what to do about meat offered to idols … Before engaging in any activity in the world, it is worth asking the following questions, which are all derived from Paul’s teaching:

  • can I offer thanks beforehand, and thus commit what I am doing to God? (Romans 14:6)
  • will it be edifying? (1 Corinthians 8:1)
  • will it cause my brother or sister to stumble? (8:11)
  • can I do it to the glory of God? (10:31)
  • can I share it with my brethren and sisters as an act of fellowship? (10:21)
  • would I do it if the Lord Jesus was with me?” (pages 93,94).

Head coverings

Brother Ashton devotes two chapters to 1 Corinthians 11, one on headship and head-coverings, and the other on the breaking of bread. As today, there was a sort of feminist movement in first-century Corinth, and the head-coverings worn by respectable Jewish and Greek women were being discarded. The subject is treated very faithfully by the author, and we all have to recognise that the wearing of head-coverings by sisters during prayer and worship, and the bareheadedness of brothers, is based on foundation teachings in Genesis and not on any passing human customs. It seems to the reviewer that the older sisters among us should be setting a good example here, as they should have a clear understanding of the principles set forth by the apostle; but, sadly, they do not always do so. This section should be read and read again by all ecclesias troubled as to what course they should follow about head-coverings. The concluding summary table on page 102 is very helpful.

The breaking of bread

And so Paul came to the breaking of bread (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). In those days the breaking of bread formed part of a larger meal, which Jude calls a “love-feast” (Jude verse 12, RV). The bad practices mentioned in Corinthians spoiled the Lord’s Supper. Brother Michael concludes another interesting chapter with these observations:

“Paul’s response to the riotous behaviour at the breaking of bread was threefold:

  1. To give the remembrance its original character and emphasis, as defined by the Lord’s words.
  2. Each brother and sister should attend only after carefully considering their relationship to the sacrifice that is symbolised by bread and wine.
  3. The meal itself should be regarded as wholly symbolic. Anything more than this would be likely to detract from its true significance” (page 109).

Paul writes about other subjects in this first letter, and also in the second letter, which is of a very different kind. The way that Brother Ashton expounds these things will be the substance of the second part of this review next month, God willing.

(To be concluded)

JOHN NICHOLLS

(Originally published in the December 2006 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 426-429), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

The Testimony review (from January 2007)

Bible letters for today (2)

WE CONTINUE our review of Brother Michael Ashton’s book on the two letters to Corinth by considering his treatment of 1 Corinthians 12–16 and 2 Corinthians.

The Spirit gift problem

Chapters 12–14 of 1 Corinthians are Paul’s reply to the question put to him about the Spirit gifts, and Brother Ashton’s exposition of these chapters is both lucid and coherent. With the challenge of the Pentecostal movement today, it is not surprising that we have in our Brotherhood a number of excellent expositions of the New Testament teaching on the Spirit and the Spirit gifts, and the interested reader may like to refer to them. [1]

The particular merit of Brother Ashton’s exposition is that it is part of a study of the whole book, and so the reader comes to appreciate the context more fully. And so the verse that reads, “no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy [Spirit]” (1 Corinthians 12:3), which, wrested from its context, would appear to support Pentecostal ideas, is expounded in its first-century background of pagan persecution of our first-century brothers and sisters.

Not all the believers had Spirit gifts, and Paul stresses that the gifts were given for the building up of all the ecclesia, and that they had a limited application and importance. Brother Ashton cites the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness by the Spirit-endowed Bezaleel and Aholiab and their co-workers as an earlier example of a temporary outpouring of Spirit gifts, and to this, of course, could be added the instance of Elijah and Elisha.

Another helpful feature of this exposition is found in chapter 16, “The Teaching of Pentecost”, which shows how the bestowal of the Spirit at Pentecost fulfilled Jesus’ promise to the twelve of the ‘Comforter’. These gifts reinforced the teaching of the apostles, just as the works of healing by our Lord supported his teaching. Brother Ashton argues cogently that the “promise” spoken of by Peter in Acts 2:33,39 includes the hope of the resurrection and immortality that applies initially to the Lord Jesus and then to all faithful believers.

In Corinth the gift of tongues was being used almost exclusively, and the other spirit gifts hardly at all, and it seems that there were displays of unintelligible ecstatic speech that were a pretence at having the gift of tongues. In certain evangelical circles the same pretence of having the gift of tongues takes place today. Much of 1 Corinthians 14 is devoted by Paul to guiding the ecclesia over the problem. His main advice was that they should “covet earnestly the best gifts”, especially prophecy, which would edify and benefit the ecclesia as a whole (12:31; 14:5).

On page 130 Brother Ashton makes a useful summary of Paul’s practical advice on controlling Spirit gifts, and on the same page he begins his comments on why Paul did not allow the sisters to take part “in the new arrangement that allowed the involvement of no more than two or three with a specific spirit-gift”. Paul’s reasoning that the sisters should keep silence in the ecclesial meetings is, like his reasoning on the issue of head-coverings, based on foundation teachings in Genesis 3, not on any fleeting custom of man’s devising.

Probably most Christadelphians are aware that the wonderful passage on love in 1 Corinthians 13 is written in the context of the unruly behaviour of the ecclesia over the way they exercised the Spirit gifts, particularly tongues. Once again, the fact that the book under review expounds all of 1 Corinthians makes this one of the clearest and most compelling explanations of 1 Corinthians 13 we have in the Brotherhood. There is so much here that the reviewer would like to quote, but just one paragraph must suffice:

“What if he [Paul] gave all he possessed to feed the poor, which in modern times we call ‘charity’? He said that this too, unless it is motivated by love, is of no profit. These are harsh words, and they challenge a widespread belief that good works are above all else the mark of Christian discipleship. The act of giving, the apostle says, brings no lasting benefit unless it is accompanied by love. As we have seen, this is not love bred only by fellow-feeling or by compassion, but from a sincere desire to share what God has given, particularly the word of salvation” (page 136).

The resurrection issue

The last of the questions Paul deals with is resurrection, in chapter 15, which we rightly love to quote in our talks and lectures. The language is so clear and compelling that we are grateful to the Corinthian ecclesia for causing Paul to write 1 Corinthians 15 so that the doctrine of resurrection could be spelt out so clearly. Brother Ashton’s exposition, however, helps us to appreciate better the parts that we do not quote very often, such as verses 35-49. He begins by talking of the two strands of proof for the resurrection of Jesus (the Scriptures and personal witness), and then concludes, from the questions that the Corinthians had asked Paul, that Greek ideas about the immortality of the soul had not been totally eradicated from the ecclesia. A splendid section follows, entitled “The Lesson of Israel’s Calendar”, and a lovely section entitled “Each in His Own ‘Troop’ [‘order’ in the AV]”.

Chapter 20 of the book expounds, quite straightforwardly, verse 35 and beyond. He uses Galatians 6:7,8 and John 12:23-25 to underpin his exposition, saying that ‘sowing’ in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44 is talking about the kind of life we live now, in our mortal state, and not the placing of the body in the grave at death. And so ‘reaping’ refers to the change of state of the body to everlasting life, “in glory” and “in power”. This chapter has many useful points in it, and it is of consuming interest to us because we all want, above everything else, to attain to the Kingdom and to have our vile bodies fashioned like the glorious body of our Master.

The second letter

After some helpful words based on the last chapter of the first letter, Brother Ashton turns to the second letter. As we saw in the first part of this review, this was almost certainly the fourth letter written by the apostle, and it followed a painful visit that took place after the writing of 1 Corinthians.

Brother Ashton sets out the circumstances surrounding the sending of this ‘second’ letter, and divides it into three parts:

  1. his defence of his conduct towards the ecclesia (chapters 1–7);
  2. the collection for the poor ecclesias in Judea (chapters 8,9);
  3. his defence against those who have personally opposed him (chapters 10–13).

Page 171 has some useful comments about the translations of the letter, for who has not found the AV unintelligible in places? Page 172 has a helpful table that sets out the order of events in the Apostle Paul’s dealings with the Corinth ecclesia.

Who were the adversaries of Paul who stirred up the ecclesia and caused Paul the anguish of heart that is apparent in 2 Corinthians? In chapter 23 the author makes the case that they were Judaising brethren, claiming strong connections with the apostles in Jerusalem. But the news that Titus brought to Paul, that the Corinthians wanted to restore the good relationship Paul had with them and that they still regarded him highly, prompted the thankful tone of the first section of 2 Corinthians. This is Paul’s defence of his conduct towards the ecclesia.

The middle section of the letter concerns the collection for the poor saints, which at first sight seems out of keeping with the principal themes of the letter. But, as Brother Ashton writes:

“The only way Paul’s critics could make any progress was by concentrating attention on the needs of Corinth and ignoring the wider responsibilities of fellowship. When problems arise in ecclesias today, it is often because the focus has turned completely inward, and in such circumstances molehills soon become mountains.

“The antidote in cases like this is to be active in fellowship, and this was the great object of the Judean Collection that Paul organised wherever he travelled. Details of the great collection are therefore central to this second epistle … and not a strange digression as some commentators see it” (page 178).

Paul then concludes the letter with what is described as “a passionate defence of his position and authority”.

Brother Ashton’s exposition of 2 Corinthians needs to be read to appreciate the thread of these three sections, and in doing so the reader will be treated to some fine background and Scripture study. Most speaking brethren who have based a Sunday morning talk on 2 Corinthians will have found that there is usually a theme which can be developed into a helpful exhortation. And so such themes as “comfort in tribulation”, “triumphal processions”, “letters of commendation”, “fading glory”, “an earthly tent and a heavenly house” and “the problem of mis-mating” are all delightfully expounded within the context of the whole letter.

When he comes to the middle section about the collection for the poor Jewish ecclesias, Brother Ashton goes outside 2 Corinthians and gives the wider picture, including the information that there is in Acts 20. This adds to the interest of the exposition. One short quotation gives a flavour of this part:

“But why was it so important for him to reach Jerusalem in time for Pentecost? Under the Law, it was the practice during the feast to provide ‘two wave loaves … baked with leaven’ (Leviticus 23:17). True believers would see the significance of these as representing the Jewish and Gentile parts of the one loaf in Christ. There could be no more appropriate time for Paul and the other brethren to present the gift collected from among the Gentiles to succour their Jewish brethren” (page 224).

Even in the final section of the letter, where Paul is defending his apostleship, there is much exhortational material. Jeremiah 9:23,24, used in the first letter, is used again to remind us of the eternal principle that human wisdom, riches and might are nothing in comparison to our understanding of the lovingkindness, judgement and righteousness of our God. Paul again goes back to Genesis 2, this time to justify his role as the friend of the bridegroom, anxious to present his bride to him as a chaste virgin. There are wise words about the third heaven, and Paul’s thorn in the flesh.

In conclusion, then, this book is highly commended to the Brotherhood. All those who desire to see the ecclesias united in their love for our Lord Jesus Christ and for each other should read it and benefit from the labours of the author. He has faithfully expounded these sometimes difficult letters, and has been able to comfort us with “the comfort wherewith [he himself has been] comforted of God” (2 Corinthians 1:4).

JOHN NICHOLLS

[1] See, for example, ‘Spirit’ in the New Testament by Edward Whittaker and Reg Carr (available from the Testimony); The Spirit: A General Exposition on New Testament Usage by Aleck Crawford; The Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit Gifts by Graham Pearce; God’s Spirit in Work and Word by Fred Pearce.

(Originally published in the January 2007 edition of The Testimony Magazine (pages 8-10), and is reproduced by kind permission.)

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