[Texts: Romans, 1 Corinthians]
Genre matters, when reading the New Testament epistles. We rightly assume that these letters contain both marching orders for the church and theological truth to be believed, but we may need to be reminded about the context of that content. In particular, we may need reminders that some of the writers’ words were written to address situations immediately relevant to those people “back then” (thus being, perhaps, only indirectly applicable to us), while other passages speak more directly of things universally true for Christian experience and belief.
Awareness of some basic differences between the letters can help us navigate this tension between contexts, enabling us to more quickly distinguish the Universals from the Situation-Specifics. For example, one quite variable epistolary element is the intended audience. While a few of Paul’s epistles were written to individuals, most of the NT letters were addressed to whole congregations. And among the congregational epistles, some were written to congregations with whom the writer shared a very personal history, and some were addressed to people whom the writer had never met face to face.
Now, all of these letters were eventually circulated among the early churches – a primary reason that they were included in the NT canon at all – so it’s fair to conclude that all of the epistles contain instruction beneficial to all Christians everywhere and at all points on history’s timeline. But as you might expect, the more personal knowledge a writer has of his congregation, the more likely his words are to be situation-specific, suited to his occasion for writing.
When it comes to the theological content communicated in such personalized letters, the writers’ tendency is to link God’s perspective and works directly with the issues at hand. I call this Pickup Theology – “pickup” as in basketball game, not truck – because it’s presented more spontaneously than planfully. This detail is important to keep in mind: as readers, we, too, must approach these theological statements as illustrations, analogies, and supports for situation-specific material, or we will tend to overgeneralize in our interpretations of them.
Consider, for instance, the contrast between the deliberately planned theological content of Romans and the incidental theology scattered throughout 1 Corinthians. Although both letters were addressed to entire congregations, Paul’s personal connection with these two churches differed significantly in degree. Thus to the saints in Rome, whom he had not yet met in the flesh, Paul penned a thorough theological treatise explaining faith, righteousness, and God’s plan for salvation in Christ and maturity in the church – material that any Christian of any era could receive as a revelation of God’s mysteries and grace. Apart from expressions of his eagerness to visit and greetings to a handful of friends (who may have since emigrated to Rome), Paul links none of his words directly to the present situation of his readers.
On the other hand, having spent at least two years nurturing the fledgling church in Corinth, it’s understandable that his correspondence with them should quickly turn to immediately relevant concerns and issues. In fact it’s both Paul and the Corinthians who choose the topics that are addressed in this first letter – Paul, first, because he has heard independent reports of divisiveness and sin in the church (chs. 1-6, 11); and the Corinthians, next, by soliciting Paul’s advice about certain matters (chs. 7-10, 12-16).* By my count, fully nineteen separate subjects related to church life have been dealt with by letter’s end.*
What does this mean for the theological content of 1 Corinthians? First, obviously, this content cannot be expected to flow in a straight line, gradually developed as it is in Romans. There are too many changes of subject in this letter for any topic to be sustained for very long, although Paul does take his time elaborating on the most important issues. Second, and, I think, less likely to be realized by believers reading today, the theological content will be “Pickup Theology” – that is, tightly bound to the situations being addressed. So when we read in 1 Corinthians some profound expression of God’s ways and works, we should be careful to consider that statement in light of the Corinthians’ particular situation, rather than just assuming we know what Paul is talking about.
Two examples from 1 Cor. 3 will illustrate what I mean.
This passage opens with Paul’s recollection of his original interactions among the worldly Corinthians and his current lament that they seem still to be “people of the flesh” rather than “spiritual people.” In the nineteenth century, patterning their thought after the King James translation, some evangelical preachers in North America began to teach that some believers are “carnal Christians” – that is, not yet full, spiritual Christians regenerated by God’s Spirit. Popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible in the early twentieth century, this belief that there are two tiers of Christians is still promoted in some evangelical circles.*
A little application of the Pickup Theology paradigm serves as a useful corrective here, though: If the theological statements in this letter are closely linked to the situation of these particular believers, and if Paul has introduced the letter (1:1-9) with an emphatic acknowledgement of their status as fully saved saints in the Lord Jesus Christ, then the “carnal Christian” theory holds no water. Instead, our take-away should be that even fully saved saints can behave in immature and worldly ways and require correction from wise leaders!
As a second example, take whatever you have heard or read about the quality of the materials that you should “build with” in the life of faith – in order to survive the fires of judgment, they ought to be “gold, silver, and precious stones” rather than “wood, hay, and straw,” right? If you’ve been taught that whatever you set your head and hand to as a Kingdom-building activity ought to pass this test, then you’ve probably been listening to a teacher who is not paying attention to the Pickup Theology in 1 Cor. 3.
Paul’s concern throughout the whole unit of thought (our chs. 1-4) is the proper (or improper) valuing of apostles and leaders, and in chapter 3 he offers this metaphor about the quality of “building materials” to emphasize the responsibility of church planters and pastors to teach what is true. The work in question here is word-work, not Christian work in general; and while all of us should indeed pay attention to the orthodoxy of what we pass along to others, it’s pastors and teachers who are primarily in view here. “I laid a foundation,” writes Paul, “and someone else is building upon it” – no doubt recalling the very specific history that he and Apollos shared in the instruction of these Corinthian converts.
Just another reminder that the context of a piece of writing will always exert some influence over its meaning – and never more so than when Pickup Theology is in play. Catch!
*Chapter 16 is also driven by Paul’s choice of topic – in this case, his travel plans and conveyance of personal greetings.
*(1) Divisions due to wrong values; (2) proper regard for apostles; (3) sexual immorality; (4) church discipline; (5) lawsuits; (6) various marriage conundrums; (7) the impact of conversion on one’s present vocation; (8) food offered to idols; (9) idolatry; (10) husbands and wives in the church; (11) the Lord’s Supper; (12) unity in diversity; (13) spiritual gifts; (14) love; (15) prophetic gifts; (16) speaking in tongues; (17) resurrection; (18) the collection for the saints; (19) Paul’s travel plans.
*This article by Ernest C. Reisinger nicely summarizes and critiques this erroneous teaching: http://www.peacemakers.net/unity/carnal.htm