If you have been around church circles for any amount of time you have probably heard it said that the Corinthian church had so many profound sin issues because it was rooted in a city that that had a centuries long tradition of debauchery, immorality and the vilest kinds of sin. You may have even heard it said that to coronthianize meant to engage in sexual depravity. The logic is that because the church at Corinth was made up of converts who were steeped in that entrenched culture of debauchery prior to conversion, the church at Corinth was unique in its propensity to sin and tolerate sin. That would explain a lot, but unfortunately it’s not true.
Let me explain. The Greek city of Corinth was known for its debauchery, it was dominated by the temple of Athena where prostitution formed much of the service of the temple, and to corinthianize did sort of (it was brought into the language by one author, the comic playwright Aristophanes) mean to engage in sexual debauchery, but the church at Corinth was not in the Greek city of Corinth.
Greek Corinth was the leading city of the Achaean League, a confederacy of city-states in the northern Peloponnese. In 146 B.C. the League decided to forcefully resist annexation by the Roman republic. This did not work out well for the League and especially for the League’s chief city, Corinth. Roman forces under Lucius Mummius razed the city of Corinth to the ground. It existed only as a object lesson, in the form of uninhabited ruins, that resistance to Rome was futile for over a century. Not until 42 B.C. did rebuilding begin under Julius Caesar who established the new city of Corinth as a Roman colony (which is different than a conquered city, to learn more click here).
And this is important to understand; at the time Paul was writing Corinth wasn’t a city with a nearly 1000 year history of extreme debauchery, Corinth was a shiny, (relatively) new city largely peopled by transplants and the descendants of transplants from other parts of the empire. The church at Corinth was largely made up of converts from paganism, but not former pagans who were shaped by a centuries old culture of extreme immorality. Corinth was largely a typical Roman city, in many ways it was conceived as an ideal, or at least exemplary, Roman city.
The church at Corinth wasn’t unique because it was in a particularly wicked place and it wasn’t made up of converts out of a particularly wicked and debauched culture. It was a typical church of the time.
What makes the Corinthian church unique is that we know more about it and its problems than any other New Testament church. Fully 1/3 of the inspired writings of Paul addressed to churches are addressed to the church at Corinth. The Colossians and the Philippians both get 4 chapters, the Ephesians and Galatians 6, The Thessalonians 8, and the Romans 16. But the Corinthians have 29 chapters devoted to them.
I am pretty convinced that the church at Corinth is not atypical, it is typical. And for all of it’s many sins and problems I think it is instructive to remember how these two letters are addressed.
To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: – 1 Corinthians 1:2
To the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints who are in the whole of Achaia: – 2 Corinthians 1:1
With all of it’s many serious, sin problems the inspired Word of God recognizes the church at Corinth as part of the church of God. It is not a false church, like all true churches, it is a flawed church. It is a church made up of redeemed sinners in the process of sanctification.
I have experienced every problem addressed in the Corinthian epistles, disorder, disunity, drunkenness, division, sexual immorality so severe it is out of bounds even in pagan society et al, in “good” Bible believing, Bible teaching churches.
And like the most local assemblies it is likely to have been made up of believers and unbelievers who for some reason chose to associate themselves with the people of God. Jesus Himself warned that this was the condition of the visible church.
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn. – Matthew 13:24-30
Too often I think the Corinthian letters are taught as cautionary tales of what can happen when what they are is Paul’s most pastoral letters addressing unflinchingly situations, sinful situations to be sure, that arise in typical churches. There is a reason that when pastors say everything at the church is going well and that there is no trouble, they invariably qualify their statement by adding that they are waiting for the other shoe to drop. And there is a reason I have never met a pastor who, as a shepherd, hasn’t wept because someone under their care has fallen into sin. The Corinthian letters aren’t cautionary, they are instructional.
Think of it this way, Las Vegas is often thought of as sin city USA and a particularly tough place to minister. But is it? I can gamble at all of the local grocery and convenience stores (via the state lottery), I can buy liquor, there have been numerous prostitution and drug busts close by, and hi speed internet access is the gateway to oceans of pornography here too. Las Vegas is no more sinful than Haymarket, and Corinth was no more wicked than Ephesus (which was right across the Aegean).
Sin is not a disease you catch from exposure, it is a genetic disorder that comes from within. And sin doesn’t seep into the church from society, it seeps out of the sinners who make up the church. If you really want to grasp and apply the Corinthian epistles, don’t think of the church at Corinth as an outlier, think of it as typical.
 Lamoine Devries Cities of the Biblical World Hendrickson, 1997. P. 362.