Church Problems Addressed in the Pauline Epistles
Just before His ascension to Heaven, Jesus Christ commissioned His disciples to do the work of spreading His message and assured them of His continued presence with them, saying at Matthew 28:19, 20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Despite His assurance, however, He did not promise that His followers would be free of problems and conflicts in their lives or in their churches. As the Christian Church developed throughout the first century, many issues arose in nearly every area of church life. Some of them threatened the ability of the church to function as a unit; others had dire effects upon the lives of believers, both collectively and individually. Some difficulties, left unchecked, might ultimately have spelled the downfall of the Church or at least so compromised its testimony as to make it ineffective.
The Lord knew full well that these situations would arise. In His sovereignty, He put men in place within the Church who had the ability and the zeal for righteousness that would be required to deal with such threats. One of the most prominent of these men was the Christian apostle Paul. Paul was the Roman name of the Jewish Pharisee Saul, who had been a persecutor of the early Church, but who had been converted to Christianity by a miraculous appearance of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Paul was appointed by Jesus to be a special apostle to the Gentile nations. In traveling through various Roman provinces preaching about Christ, Paul led many to Christ and was instrumental in establishing a great number of local churches. His love for his fellow believers was so great that he felt a responsibility to these churches beyond their initial establishment. When problems arose, he endeavored to help – in person where he could, but when that was not possible, by letter (epistle). Several of the letters that Paul wrote to the churches under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit have been collected in what is today known as the New Testament. His depth of feeling for those in the Churches is exemplified by his words at 1 Corinthians 11:28, 29: “Apart from such external things, there is the daily pressure on me of concern for all the churches. Who is weak without my being weak? Who is led into sin without my intense concern?”
In the remainder of this paper, we will explore some of the problems that faced local churches during the first century and how Paul dealt with each situation in one of his letters.
1 Corinthians – The Problem of Immorality
A situation of gross immorality had arisen within the church at Corinth in the Roman province of Achaia. A man in the church had become sexually involved with the wife of his father (evidently a stepmother). Such a relationship would have been forbidden under the Law of Moses (Lev: 18:8) and was of such a heinous nature that even Gentiles, who generally had much looser sexual morals than Jews, would be shocked by it. However, rather than responding in shock and taking disciplinary action against the offender, the Corinthian church had actually become “proud and arrogant” about the matter (1 Cor. 5:2, Amplified Bible).
From a viewpoint of twenty centuries in the future, it may be difficult for us to comprehend the mentality that would enable a church body to pride itself on having such an immoral person in its midst. However, a few possibilities suggest themselves. It may be that there was a general misunderstanding of Paul’s teachings on law and grace. Some may have believed that acceptance of Christ freed one, not just from the penalties imposed by the Mosaic Law, but from the need to obey any law at all. Certain Gnostic groups taught that enlightened knowledge freed a person from bondage to the flesh and brought him into the “real” life of the spirit. This, according to some, allowed the enlightened individual to live in the flesh as he chose, since the flesh was of no real account. It is possible that such Gnostic thinking had infected the congregation or simply that the members of the church did not understand that commitment to Christ, while bringing release from the penalty of sin, also requires the living of a holy life. As the disciple Jude wrote in his epistle, those who thought in such a way were really “turning grace into licentiousness,” and presuming upon God’s mercy (Jude 4).
Another possibility as to why the church was prideful about immorality in its midst might be suggested by thinking in our own twenty-first century. In many circles today, the watchword is “tolerance.” Churches pride themselves in being “inclusive” and “seeker-sensitive,” even, in many cases, to the point of ignoring or minimizing sin. If such thinking was the source of the Corinthians’ pride, it can truly be said in our day that there is “nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9).
Whatever the thinking that allowed for the acceptance of the immoral man’s behavior, Paul’s response was certain: “In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” There is some conflict among various commentaries as to the meaning of the expression used by Paul here. Some say that the offender’s being ‘delivered to Satan’ refers only to his being excommunicated from the Church in which the Holy Spirit resides and delivered to the world in which Satan is ruler. Other commentators speculate that there may have been a miraculous punishment against the man delivered under apostolic authority, in which he may have been plagued with various physical ailments – the “destruction of the flesh” – to steer him toward repentance.
Whatever the implications to the offender, the principle was clearly established by Paul that such individuals had no place in the Church of Jesus Christ. Due process was to be carried out – the excommunication was to be done “when you are gathered together” as a church – but, barring dramatic repentance, there would be no doubt as to the outcome. Taking such action would assure the continued holiness of the church in God’s eyes. Paul used the example of the deleavening of Jewish homes during the time of the Passover. Just as all leaven had to be cleaned out of the homes of faithful Jews at that time, so sin needed to be expunged from the Church. Otherwise, as a small amount of leaven eventually causes the entire lump of dough to rise, sin would permeate and corrupt the Church (1 Cor. 5:6-8).
Continuing his rebuke of the Corinthians for their tolerance of sin, Paul counsels: “I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within the church? But those who are outside, God judges” (1 Cor. 5:11-13). Some cults have abused this text in an effort to institutionalize shunning against anyone who leaves their group or violates its rules. In fact, the withdrawal of fellowship from such a person is to be done in a loving manner, as Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians demonstrates. Speaking of persons who might need to be avoided due to their conduct, he says, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.” It is of interest to note in this text that the Greek term translated as “not associate” (sunanamignumi) is the same term translated “not to associate” in 1 Cor. 5:11. So Paul advocated Christian kindness and admonition toward such individuals with a view toward repentance and restoration.
Apparently, Paul’s methods were successful. By the time of the writing of his second letter to the Corinthians, the immoral man had apparently come to repentance and Paul urged the church to again extend the hand of fellowship. At 2 Cor. 2:5-8 he wrote: “But if any has caused sorrow, he has caused sorrow not to me, but in some degree–in order not to say too much–to all of you. Sufficient for such a one is this punishment which was inflicted by the majority, so that on the contrary you should rather forgive and comfort him, otherwise such a one might be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. Wherefore I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.”
Colossians – The Problem of Heresy
False teachings have plagued the Christian Church ever since its foundation. Some errors have arisen simply because of misunderstanding of doctrine; others have been brought about by “by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming” (Eph. 4:14). Regardless of the sources of false teachings or the motivations held by those introducing them, such teachings need to be promptly corrected. Not doing so allows them to flourish and potentially to draw away believers into apostasy. Paul recognized a situation in the church at Colossae in the Roman province of Asia that needed to be addressed. According to Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible,
The trouble at Colossae was ‘syncretism’ – that tendency to introduce ideas from other philosophies and religions on a level with Christian truth […] There were Greeks and Jews in the Colossian Church, as well as ‘native’ Phrygians. It was natural that they should cling to their own ideas and want to incorporate them into Christianity.
The heresies that had arisen in Colossae were twofold: first, some Jews had brought in doctrines of legalism, requiring scrupulous observance of the festivals and Sabbaths under the Law, along with restrictions of food and drink. Apparently, while some Jewish believers had successfully cast off the trappings of Judaism and were living in a newfound freedom in Christ, others still clung to observances of the Law in the form of traditional celebrations and ascetic practices.
Second, mystical Gnostic ideas had been spread among the Gentile Christians, bringing into question the nature of Jesus Christ. Since Gnostics believed that the flesh was evil and that only the spirit mattered, some actually denied that Jesus had really appeared as a man, claiming that his appearance in flesh was illusory. Others seem to have denied that He was truly God in human form. Some thought that the man Jesus had merely been infused by a divine “Christ spirit” which then departed from Him prior to the Crucifixion. The effect of all of these teachings was to confuse believers as to the Person and nature of Jesus Christ.
Paul, in his letter to the Colossians, responded to these errors in a typically direct fashion. First, he established the Person of Christ, His deity and creatorship. The familiar passage at Col. 1:15-18 reads: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities–all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.” Such a description could apply to none other than God Himself. And lest Gnostic thinking should cause some to speculate that Jesus’ humanity was an illusion, Paul assures, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9).
Having established Who Christ really is, Paul points out that He has fulfilled the Law of Moses and taken it out of the way, so that Christians could experience a new freedom in Him. Rather than being bound by Law to certain ordinances and required feasts, they were to celebrate in a spiritual way. If they chose to celebrate the literal holy day traditions of the old covenant, it was permissible to do so, but there was no requirement. Likewise, those who chose not to celebrate violated no law. No one was to judge others in this area, as Paul forcefully declares: “Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day– things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Col. 2:16, 17). Lest the Colossians (like some of the Corinthians) should conclude that freedom from the Law means the casting off of all moral restraint, Paul spent the concluding portion of the epistle addressing the necessity of a holy life.
1 Thessalonians – The Problem of Discouragement
Discouragement is not uncommon among Christians of all ages and locations. Each of us has felt discouraged at times. Christians of the first century were no different in this regard than any others. However, a special reason for discouragement had arisen as the first generation of Christians passed from the earthly scene. Christianity since its inception had been a, eschatological religion. The “blessed hope” of Christians was and is the return of Christ to receive His own (Titus 2:13). Probably because of a misunderstanding of Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 24, many among the first generation of Christians expected His return within their lifetimes. As this generation began to die off, some of the believers who remained were becoming discouraged and needed to be reassured of their hope. As younger Christians, they may have anticipated that they would not themselves die prior to Christ’s return. The realization that a generation of Christians was now passing may have brought their own mortality forcefully to their attention. Their faith would need to be strong to deal with such a realization.
Apparently, this situation was causing problems in the church at Thessalonica in Macedonia. Paul, in his characteristic manner, dealt with the matter directly in his first letter to that church. He offered exposition as to the series of events that would occur when Christ actually returned. Paul assured his readers at 1 Thessalonians 4:14 that Christ’s coming return was as certain as His resurrection. Then, in a famous passage, he declared: “…we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words” (1 Thess. 4:15-18). Paul’s wording here betrays that he too, apparently, expected Christ’s return to occur within his lifetime, since he speaks of “we who are alive and remain.” Since then, every generation of Christians has lived in the hope of Christ’s imminent return.
After describing the events to come, Paul reminds his readers that the time for Christ’s return is not for them to know: “For you yourselves know full well that the day of the Lord will come just like a thief in the night” (1 Thessalonians 5:2). Unbelievers would be caught unawares, but Christians would not be overtaken – not because they had advance knowledge of the time, but because as “sons of light” they would be “alert and sober,” always standing ready in faithfulness, no matter when Jesus would come. God’s promises were rock-solid, even though the expectations of some had not been met.
1 Timothy – The Problem of Organization
Timothy was a relatively young pastor in the church at Ephesus. Paul had worked extensively with Timothy and taken him “under his wing,” grooming him for greater service. However, as Tenney notes, “Timothy was a trustworthy but not a forceful character. He gave the impression of immaturity, though he must have been at least thirty years of age. […]The epistles that bear his name were intended to encourage and strengthen him for the tremendous task that Paul had bequeathed to him.” The letters to Timothy were among the last writings of Paul’s career and are normally dated close to the time of Paul’s death. By this time, the church had become institutionalized. Procedures for worship had become standardized and offices within the church had become fixed. To some, these offices had come to be seen as platforms for power rather than for service. There were those who desired to hold office for their personal benefit rather than the benefit of the flock. Even among those with good motives, it was necessary that there be standards of qualification for persons to whom such responsibility was to be entrusted.
In addressing the issue, Paul laid out specific requirements for the offices of “overseer” (in some translations, “bishop”) and “deacon.” Obviously these positions had become standardized in the church and it would be Timothy’s responsibility to somehow contribute to the selection of persons to fill them. Key qualities expected of an overseer were virtuous character, good management of his household, a reasonable measure of age and experience, and a good reputation among those outside the church (1 Tim. 3:1-7, see also Titus 1:5-9 where a similar list occurs). The qualifications set out for deacons are similar, though perhaps less emphatic as to degree. Deacons need to be of good character, doctrinally sound, experienced and beyond reproach. Like overseers, they also needed to be good household managers.
It was vital that the persons placed in positions of authority in the church should be well qualified and have the Lord’s interests at heart. The time would come when people with selfish interests would begin to spread false doctrines, preying upon the believers (1 Tim. 4:1-3). To combat such deception would require a leadership well grounded in truth and devoted to the Lord. Timothy’s diligence in the Word along with his close attention to the needs of the flock would serve as a protection. Paul counseled him to faithfulness in these areas and reassured Timothy by saying: “Pay close attention to yourself and to your teaching; persevere in these things, for as you do this you will ensure salvation both for yourself and for those who hear you” (1 Tim. 4:16).
All of the evidence of Scripture, along with the preceding specific examples, shows us that Paul was an intense and very direct man, with a deep and abiding love for his fellow believers. When problems arose that threatened the spiritual lives of his brothers and sisters, he did not hesitate to address them in the most outspoken of terms. His “concern for all the churches” is evident in both the content and tone of his letters, and was a powerful force used by the Lord in shaping the early Church.
Alexander, David and Patricia, eds. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973.
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Barnes, Albert. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1962.
Berquist, Millard J. Studies in First Corinthians. Nashville, TN: Convention Press, 1960.
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Dunnett, Walter M. New Testament Survey: Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1989.
Eiselen, Frederick Carl, Edwin Lewis and David G. Downey, Eds. The Abingdon Bible Commentary. New York: Abingdon Press, 1929.
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Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Electronic edition available in the E-Sword Bible program. Program and modules available at www.e-sword.com.
Kee, Howard Clark and Franklin W. Young. Understanding the New Testament. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963.
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 Not every letter written by Paul has become part of the New Testament. Col. 4:16 refers to a letter to the church at Laodicea, and 1 Corinthians 5:9 alludes to an earlier letter to the Corinthians. Neither of these letters has been preserved, and it may be reasonable to conclude that Paul might have written other letters as well that have been lost. Presumably, the Holy Spirit has caused to be preserved those writings that He saw fit to include for the upbuilding of believers in later times.
 Albert Barnes. Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1962, p. 708.
 Matthew Henry. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible. Electronic edition available in the E-Sword Bible program, comments on 1 Cor. 5:1-6.
 Apparently the withdrawal of fellowship was an individual matter inflicted “by the majority”, not an institutional decision enforced upon all, as some cults practice in our day.
 David and Patricia Alexander, eds. Eerdmans’ Handbook to the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973, p. 611.
 Walter M. Dunnett. New Testament Survey: Study Guide. Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1989, p. 106.
 To describe Jesus’ return as “imminent” means that it could occur at any time, not necessarily that the time must be in the immediate future. Some false teachers and cult leaders today attempt to capitalize on the misunderstandings of first century Christians, including the apostles, to justify their own failed prophecies. However, no apostle ever set a date for Christ’s return.
Merrill C. Tenney. New Testament Survey. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985, p. 336.