Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Visiting a Church in Old Corinth in 50 A.D.

If it were possible to step into a time machine and travel back to the first-century, you would immediately be disappointed. There were no Christian church buildings in the first century to visit. Such edifices, built to honor God and cater to the religious needs of progressive and affluent congregations, did not begin to emerge until the early third century.1 One possible reason there were no buildings is because they believed the world was soon going to end—within their lifetime (1 Cor 7:26, 29-31). You would be further disappointed because there were no “Christians” in the first century, at least, not like we today think of someone being Christian.2 The creedal statements that shape modern traditional versions of Christianity hearken back to the framers of the creeds of the 4th and 5th centuries.3 Who were the predecessors of those who developed the foundational creeds of modern Christian faith? What were their gatherings like?

            They gathered4 in homes (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3-5; Philemon 2; Col 4:15), rather than buildings constructed to accommodate their particular worship style. Apparently, there was no distinctly Christian symbolism in statuary and painting. These expressions of faith, like all other physical remains, do not emerge until near the end of the third century.5 Corinth in the first century was not a Greek city. The Greek city had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., and left to lie in ruins for a century. It was rebuilt as a Roman city in 44 B.C. under Julius Caesar. As one of the leading cities of the Roman Province of Achaia by 50 A.D., it had something of a cosmopolitan flavor.6 Basically, Roman houses in which the Corinthian Christ group gathered were fronted by a spacious atrium leading onto a courtyard garden open to the sky, which was surrounded by rooms. Romans did not use glass for windows but there were small openings in the rooms that opened into the courtyard.7 So, we cannot peek through the window from the street and peer in on their gatherings. Fortunately, they welcomed outsiders to their gatherings (1 Cor 14:23-24).

            It appears, to judge from Paul’s letters, the gatherings of these early Christ groups were charismatic, meaning that those who shared in the gatherings believed themselves to be possessed of divine gifts (charismata). Persons in the gathering were enabled by the spirit of God to special ends. Some were endowed by the spirit to speak wisely and to utter knowledge, others to heal and to perform miracles or to prophesy, and others to distinguish between spirits (1 Cor 12:4-11). Some, they believed, were enabled to speak and sing to God in a kind of spiritual language (1 Cor 14:2, 15), these gestures were left for others to interpret (1 Cor 12:10; 14:27-28). Paul did not deny the presence of this gift (1 Cor 14:5, 18-19), but he was uncomfortable with how it was practiced (1 Cor 14:9, 15, 26) and particularly, with the excessive outward display of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 14:23). Paul thought all the spiritual gifts could be controlled (1 Cor 14:32) and should be (1 Cor 14:26-31, 37). On the other hand, Paul also had some odd ideas about spirit (1 Cor 5:3-5; 2 Cor 12:1-4; 13:5; Gal 4:6; 2:20).8

            The Christ group association at Corinth was not governed democratically by Robert’s Rules of Order. No leader in the gathering was elected by majority vote, but the spirit of God decided who filled every function (1 Cor 12:27-31). They had no pastors, deacons, or bishops. These came later (1 Tim 3:1-13). Leaders in the early gatherings were generally male (1 Cor 14:34-36), although there were exceptions (Rom 16:1, 3, 6, 12).

Personally, my time-travel self is a little uncomfortable with what I am finding in the Jesus gathering at Corinth. I am rather certain, as an heir of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, that I am more comfortable in the Sunday service of a modern church, which follows Robert’s Rules of Order, checks the credentials of church leaders, and discourages an excessive spiritualism, than in a middle first-century gathering, which could be interrupted by outbursts of glossolalia, competing prophetic voices drowning out one another, and people standing around the room with both arms lifted heavenward simultaneously audibly praying (1 Tim 2:8).9 My world today is not informed by spirits, holy or demonic.

When groups today advertise the organization of a “new ‘Jesus Church,’” they need to be more specific about what it is, and what might be expected by those of us who are becoming increasingly more than wary of some forms of religious expression, where (as Paul put it) such confusion (1 Cor 14:33) makes them seem crazy (1 Cor 14:23). How do you see it?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


2The term Christian appears in the New Testament three times (Acts 11:26, 26:28; 1 Pet 4:16).

3Bettenson and Maunder, Documents of the Christian Church (3rd ed.; Oxford, 1999), 25-27.

4Hedrick, “Pondering the Origins of the Church,” Wry Thoughts about Religion, Blog: Feb 16:2017:

5G. F Snyder, Ante Pacem. Archaeological Evidence of Church Life before Constantine (Mercer University, 1985), 2.

6Lamoine Devries, Cities of the Biblical World (Hendrickson, 1997), 362.

7Harold Johnston, The Private Life of the Romans (Scott, Foresman and Company, 1903), 117-47.

8Hedrick, “Putting Paul in his Place” Unmasking Biblical Faiths (Cascade, 2019), 124-27.

9Compare the discussion of the Orante in Snyder, Ante Pacem, 19-20; and also


PAULYR said...

Thanks Charles; you provide a good summary of first century church life. However you neglect to mention Eucharistic rite (1 Cor 10:16; 11:23ff; Acts 2: 42). I don't mind spontaneous expression in worship, but generally, Christian gatherings of all kinds should be orderly. I think maybe with the founding of new churches, I guess we're talking of local church starts, there is emphasis on free spiritual expression because the leaders want to provide a clear alternative to mainstream denominations. Even here though, I would not want worship or communal prayer to be crazy or confused. I do understand ecstatic feeling in new believers, because the Spirit of Christ does indeed break the chains of sin in individuals, resulting in joy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charlie,

The following may be an even more fundamental experience of the earliest followers than you have noted. It seems to me that what Paul describes in Corinth is a second layer of experience of more or less human origin, so to speak.

Galatians (NRSV) "4:4b God sent his son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!' 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God."

Romans (NRSV) "8:14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear [of the law], but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry 'Abba! Father!' 16 It is that very spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17ab and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ--if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him."

Extremely powerful, but not exactly a great feminist motivator.

Gene Stecher
Chambersburg, Pa.

Anonymous said...

I reckon I’m just cantankerous. Growing up hearing & playing a wide range of improvisational, spontaneous music, I think I understand expressions of ecstasy (glossolalia, holy laughter) one might find at a charismatic-oriented church service. Spontaneous expressions of ecstasy are not singularly specific to religion and are considered normal in some activities. What a Pentecostal might interpret as “baptism of the Holy Spirit,” a musician might interpret in music as “inspiration.” That they can be traced to electrical and/or chemical activities of the nervous system doesn’t diminish the experience.

In the few services I have attended in the last decade, mythic tradition peddled as history to me is annoying – and endemic. Participation through expressions of ecstasy wouldn’t bother me and could be a refreshing change from timeworn exhortations of a lecture. I would probably, however, avoid the sacks of vipers some church members are said to handle.

Dennis Dean Carpenter
Dahlonega, Ga.