Products of our Environment

In A.D. 51, the apostle Paul arrived in the Greek city of Corinth on his second missionary journey; at the time, the Christians back in Judea may have wondered why. In the first century, Corinth had a well-deserved reputation as a den of immorality. It was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, and was strategically located on the main trade route between the eastern and western halves of the empire; this brought much wealth to the inhabitants. It was also a pagan city, going back to the days of the Phoenicians. There was a temple there to Aphrodite, the Roman goddess of love, where more than a thousand "priestesses" engaged in ritual prostitution. Such was the city's notoriety that actors who portrayed Corinthians in plays invariably appeared to be drunk. If a preacher in our time expressed a desire to go to such a place, there would doubtless be many raised eyebrows and whispered comments.

But Paul was determined to carry out the Lord's command to "go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16:15). So he stayed a year and a half in the wicked city, preaching the good news to anyone who would listen; first, to the Jews in the synagogue, and then, when they rejected him, to the Gentiles. "And many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized" (Acts 18:9).

Some years later, Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church, in which he had to address the sort of problems that arise in a church that exists in an immoral society - sectarianism, lawsuits between brethren, food from idolatrous sacrifices, abuses of the Lord's Supper, and adultery. The church at Corinth has become a worst-case scenario for Bible students who seek to learn just how bad things can get in a congregation. Should we expect any different, given the circumstances? Anyone who knows what Corinth was like in those days cannot be surprised that people who call themselves Christians would sink into such depravity.

In our own time, we are seeing problems in churches that would have been unheard of a generation ago. The greatest danger, though, is not the transgressions of modern Christians, but rather that we may become so accustomed to them we are no longer shocked by them - or even worse, we no longer condemn them as wrong. We will have become the kind of people Paul warned Timothy about in I Tim. 4:2: "Having their own conscience seared with a hot iron."

This is exactly the complaint Paul raised to the Corinthian brethren in I Cor. 5:2. They had become puffed up, he said, instead of taking the action necessary to put this sin away from them. He didn't soft-pedal the issue or try to play it down because of their circumstances, because the circumstances didn't matter. God's word reads the same in the presence of blasphemers as it does in the presence of apostles. His commands never change - nor do His expectations of us.

Consider this. After going over all their sins, individual and collective, in chapter 10 Paul tells the Corinthian brethren exactly what they need to hear. All of the Hebrew fathers, he said, ate the same spiritual food, but some of them died in the wilderness anyway (vv. 1-5). They serve as examples of what can happen to God's people when they disobey. The Corinthians drank the same spiritual water, from the same Christ (v. 4), as had all other Christians. But they were now committing some of the same sins that had caused the Hebrews to lose their inheritance in the land of promise, and as a result they were placing their spiritual inheritance in jeopardy.

Paul concludes his thoughts this way in verses 12-14: "Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." There is no question that the Corinthian Christians lived in an environment that was not spiritually healthy. Even so, they still had an obligation to obey God's laws, even the ones that were inconvenient. They could not use their surroundings as an excuse for their misbehavior - and neither can we.

That is a concept that will need to be driven home to Christians in the 21st century. Everywhere we see and read about people who are claiming they are not answerable for any wrongdoing they commit because of some vaguely defined emotional condition. The great hope now is that science will come up with a pill we can take that will make us responsible, just as we have pills that will cure headaches and sinus blockage. Recently I read about a pharmaceutical company that is testing a medication - and I am not making this up - that will cure shopaholics of their insatiable desire to spend money in stores. (The experts call this condition "oniomania", in case you're wondering.) Bad environment, emotional stress, or whatever, will not stand up in the day of judgment. We are each responsible for what we do - or fail to do. We need to remember that (Rom. 14:12).

By Jack Harwell

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