The city of Corinth was a bustling town due to its location on the isthmus that connected the Peloponnesian peninsula with the rest of Greece. The isthmus was useful for military and commercial movement, and since the area was a crossroads for sea traffic from around the world, Corinth had ports for travelers to base. Corinth was a wealthy city due to its ability to tariff traffic and due to its ongoing world commerce throughout the city. Corinth was a religious and philosophical hub as people from around the world visited and introduced their culture and ideas (Hafemann 172).
The contextual setting of Corinth contributed to the Corinthians becoming intellectually and spiritually prideful. They were overly fixated on human wisdom and the wisdom of the world, and they became culturally arrogant and addicted to power, wealth, style and sophistication. This affected the church community in areas of sexual integrity, food practices and communal worship. Church members who followed the cultural norms thought that they were above other people within the church, and so they behaved and treated people differently. They thought they could engage sexually with anyone, eat whatever food they wanted and exercise their spirituality whenever they felt moved.
This type of attitude also led to a boastful competition and division within the church regarding leaders. Rival factions developed among the Corinthians based on their preference of and loyalty to certain Christian speakers. One would say, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ” (1 Cor 1:12). Paul addresses this by explaining that the church is not a popularity contest, but rather the church is a community of people centered on Jesus. He points out that their dividing based on their favorite teacher is a sign that the Spirit of God is not prevailing in their lives, and so while they think they are spiritual, they are acting like those who are unspiritual (Hafemann 164-165).
This behavior was so prevalent in the Corinthian church that Clement of Alexandria needed to address it again several decades later. Clement refers to Paul’s Corinthian letter and writes, “he [Paul] wrote to you concerning himself, and Cephas and Apollos because even then parties had been formed among you” (Chap. XLVII). Then, he describes their present similar behavior as “highly disgraceful, and unworthy of Christian profession” (Chap. XLVII). He finishes his admonition by writing, “…through your infatuation, the name of the Lord is blasphemed, while danger is also brought upon yourselves (Chap. XLVII).
Clement of Alexandria. “The First Epistle of Clement.” ANF v.1.
Hafemann, S.J. “Corinthians, Letters To The.” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin. Inter-Varsity Press, 1993, pp. 164-179.