The Case of the Corinthians’ Sin

In a previous post, I argued that it is inappropriate—pagan, even—to interpret misfortunes that befall us as God punishing us for some sin. I then argued that the case of Ananias and Sapphira does not negate the point. A much harder passage to square with the point is 1 Cor. 11:30, where Paul seems to attribute the cause of certain afflictions among the Corinthians to God’s judgment for their sinful handling of the Lord’s Supper. The passage reads:

act-of-god27 So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. 28 Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. 29 For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. 30 That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. 31 But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. 32 Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.

Seems clear enough: God judged their sin by punishing many of them with physical afflictions, including death. So is it false one should not view misfortune as divine punishment for one’s sin?

I. Common Interpretations

It should be admitted right away that contemporary commentators are nearly unanimous in interpreting 1 Cor. 11:30 in this way. I looked at dozens of commentaries by both prominent and more obscure scholars on the passage, and almost of them affirm this interpretation. But many of them—but by no means all—are quick to add qualifying remarks. For example, Richard Hays:

Paul certainly does not have a simpleminded theology that posits a one-to-one correspondence between disobedience and suffering; that would hardly be coherent with his emphasis on the cross as the center of the gospel. (First Corinthians, pp. 204-205)

Ciampa and Rosner urge a similar caution, noting that those who suffered were not necessarily those who were guilty of the sin:

This verse may be (and has been) easily twisted to suggest that were it not for sin in the community no one would get sick or die. It is not that all the sicknesses and deaths in the community are to be attributed to their sinning against Christ’s body and blood, but that that is responsible for many of the health problems that have wracked that community. … It should not be assumed that the sick or dying were particularly guilty of the sin, but, like most plagues of divine judgment in the Old Testament, the plague could fall indiscriminately on the community as a whole (see Exod. 32:35; Num. 18:19; Duet. 32:24; Josh. 22:17). (The First letter to the Corinthians, p. 556)

Also note that Ciampa and Rosner are careful not to draw a general conclusion about the relation between suffering and divine punishment from the passage, but instead restrict the conclusion to that instance. This is a point frequently made among commentators, who resist the idea that the passage presents a norm for how God relates to his people. This is emphasized well by Marion Soards:

Paul’s troubling statement is open to misunderstanding and abuse. He is explaining that he perceives God to be at work disciplining the members of the Corinthian church. Whether or not he was right in his conclusions, he does not say that all sickness and death are the result of inappropriate behavior. Paul’s analysis at this point is concrete and historical in nature and should not be treated as an observation on all of life and the difficulties that are encountered in daily living. … One should see that this explanation is descriptive and dramatic, not a declaration (1 Corinthians, p. 248).

So understood, the passage falls into the ‘exception’ category to the general rule that calamity is not divine punishment for sin. And recall the point made in the context of the Ananias and Sapphira case: in the Bible we see God judging sin more severely during periods that mark the beginning of a new phase in his relationship with his people. This becomes relevant when we consider the Lord’s Supper as “a covenant-ratifying oath-sign,” in the words of Gordon Hugenburger (quoted in Ciampa and Rosner, The First letter to the Corinthians, pp. 555-556).

Other commentators speculate that the Corinthians’ infirmities were the natural result of their sin, not special divine punishment. Hence Paul’s comment that they ate and drank “judgment on themselves.” David Garland explains:

Another possibility…is that some have become physically weak from lack of food. The Corinthians’ lack of sharing has dire repercussions for the poor in their midst. This would be particularly true if Corinth was undergoing a famine, as Winter (1989) and Blue (1991) contend. This observation about their illness may not be a warning threat but an appeal for them to share with the poor: Look where your behavior has led. Hermas (Vis. 3.9.3-5a) uses a similar argument: ‘Some are contracting illness in the flesh by too much eating and are injuring their flesh, and the flesh of the others who have nothing to eat is being injured by their not having sufficient food and their body is being destroyed. So this lack of sharing is harmful to you who are rich and do not share with the poor.’ (1 Corinthians, p. 554)

The natural consequences of sin is punishment unto itself, which can include both physical and spiritual repercussions. This is consonant with what Paul says in Galatians 6:7-8: “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.” The divisive and discriminatory scene the Corinthians made out of the Lord’s Supper was sown entirely according to their sinful nature, and they were reaping destruction accordingly. The destructive nature and power of sin is an unmistakable motif that runs throughout the entire Bible, especially the New Testament. That the natural effects of sin are often deleterious should not be surprising. It is written into the programming of creation. In that sense, suffering that results from sin can be thought of as indirect judgment from God in that it reflects the spiritual law and order of creation. But we should not see hardship and calamity as the direct result of God’s judgment on our sin.

Furthermore, many commentators note that in v. 32 Paul identifies the Lord’s judgment on the Corinthians as discipline, not punishment. David Prior, for example, writes:

For the children of God there is no judgment on sin, because that has already been paid for once and for all by Jesus himself. Any way in which God does thus preserve the purity of his table is part of the Father’s disciplining of his children. All Christians should ask themselves a leading question along the lines suggested by Paul’s teaching in verses 30-31: how much weakness and illness is, in fact, part of the wise, loving, painful but productive discipline of a perfect Father? It is, according to Paul, of that order rather than divine punishment: when we are judged by the Lord we are chastened [disciplined], so that we may not be condemned along with the world (32) (The Message of 1 Corinthians, p. 190).

The distinction between discipline and punishment is helpful. However, I’m not sure I see a difference between God disciplining one for their sin and God punishing one for their sin. In the present context, it is a distinction without a difference. You could just replace the word “punishing” with “disciplining” in the question “Is it ever appropriate to interpret misfortunes that befall us as God punishing us for some sin?” and the same thing is being asked.

But there is a difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment can be a form of discipline; but not all discipline is punitive, and not all punishment is disciplinary. Discipline essentially has a corrective, constructive telos, which can be achieved punitively or non-punitively. Non-punitive discipline is not a reprieval; training, exercise, practicing a skill, etc. would be examples. So, too, would the spiritual disciplines (see 1 Cor 9:27). Or, God sending calamity and hardship “not because God is angry but because he wants you to trust him the more fully” (Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians, pp. 8-9). The problem is that it is hard to interpret God’s judgment in 1 Cor 11:30 as non-punitive discipline because Paul says the afflictions were because of their sin. This seems to demand interpreting God’s judgment on them as punitive discipline. But the distinction between punishment and discipline allows us to conclude (if the case can be generalized): it’s possible that our misfortunes are the result of either God’s punitive discipline or non-punitive discipline, or neither.

Well and good, so what? Here’s what: the Corinthians had a prophetic word from Paul to tell them which it was. In the absence of a prophetic word telling us that our suffering is divine punishment for our sin, we are not justified in believing that it is. It could just as well be God’s non-punitive discipline (see Heb 12:1-11), or not divine discipline at all. And given that the norm is that God does not punish you for your sin, it’s overwhelmingly more likely that your misfortune is not punitive discipline. Bottom line: when you undergo hardship, in the absence of special revelation, not only are you never justified in believing it’s God’s punitive discipline, you’re justified in believing that it’s not.

II. Less Common Interpretations

There are some dissenting voices to the common interpretation of 1 Cor 11:30, however. They deserve a brief mention. First, two commentators I read attribute the Corinthians’ affliction not to God, but to evil powers. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

The Corinthians had in fact ignored the demands of fraternal charity, and Paul goes on to relate this to an outbreak of illness at Corinth (v.30). The background here is the Jewish idea that sin and sickness were intimately associated (Mk 2:1-12; Jn 9:1-2), and that sickness was a form of bondage to the powers of evil (Lk 13:10-17). Having seriously weakened the unity of the community by their selfishness, which displayed itself in so many areas (10:20-21) in addition to the eucharist, it came as no surprise to Paul that they should be physically afflicted. The protection from of God had been withdrawn in judgment (see on 5:5). (1 Corinthians, p. 114)

Here again we have a case of indirect judgment, whereupon God removes his protection and the evil ones go to work. One is reminded here of Job. The disanalogy is of course Job was “perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil” (Job 1:1). But the relevant point remains: one’s sufferings are not the result of special divine punishment. (Maybe one could make use of the distinction between punishment and discipline here, too. God’s removing the veil of protection can be understood to be his discipline, whereas the suffering that results from demonic attack understood as vindictive punishment. Cf. Joseph’s comment to his brothers about his suffering: “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” See also Rom 8:28).

But it isn’t just the mere Jewish association with sin sickness and demonic influence. C. K. Barnett makes more explicit the connection between the passage and the preceding chapter (1 Cor 10:20ff), where Paul himself does not shyly suggest the Corinthians’ abuse of the Lord’s supper amounted to “fellowship with demons,” “eating and drinking from the cup of demons” and turning the Lord’s table into “the table of demons”. Barnett writes:

The means by which the physical punishment worked is probably suggested by x. 20. f. Those who abused the Lord’s table were exposing themselves to the power of demons, who were taken to be the cause of physical disease. (A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 274)

This interpretation is made all the more plausible in light of 1 Cor 5:5, where Paul advises the congregation to deliver a particular sinner “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” If the physical afflictions mentioned in 11:30 are caused by demons, then Paul sees the judgment of the sinner spoken of in 5:5 and those in 11:30 as the same: “when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world” (11:32). The parallel is striking, and provides a remarkably consistent interpretation.

A second alternative interpretation begins by noting the fact that the “body” of 11:27-29 unambiguously refers to the body of Christ; i.e., either the church at large or just the Corinthian congregation. When Paul goes on to speak of sickness, weakness, and death, these afflictions are to be taken as metaphorical conditions of which the body of Christ suffers, or, more likely, spiritual sickness, etc. of which the body suffers. A related but slightly different interpretation is to see the sickness, etc. as spiritual conditions which afflict the souls of the Corinthian Christians. This interpretation has been powerfully defended by the German scholar Sebastian Schneider in his paper “Glaubensmangel in Korinth: Eine neue Deutung der ‘Schwachen, Kranken, Schlafelden’ in 1 Kor 11,30,” FilolNT9 (1996), pp. 3-19 and Ilaria Ramelli in her paper “Spiritual Weakness, Illness, and Death in 1 Corinthians 11:30,” Journal of Biblical literature 130/1 (2011), pp. 145-163.

Ramelli argues that Paul is referring to spiritual sufferings, and marshals an impressive amount of evidence suggesting that many of his earliest interpreters read him that way, too. Indeed, she observes that seeing Paul as referring to physical sufferings became the dominant interpretation only since Eighteenth and Nineteenth-century commentaries. This is especially ironic in light of the comment made frequently by contemporary commentators that what Paul says in this passage is likely to offend modern Western sensibilities, given that these same commentators are offering a decidedly modern Western interpretation of it!  At any rate, this gives a more balanced perspective, considering the unanimity of that interpretation among contemporary commentators. Needless to say, if Paul is referring to spiritual sufferings, then it’s inappropriate to interpret physical hardships, be it a series of misfortunate circumstances or sickness and death, as God’s punishment for sin.

Conclusions

In conclusion, I am not convinced that 1 Cor 11:30 justifies the common practice of interpreting misfortunes that befall us as God punishing us for some sin. Even if the passage demonstrates that the Corinthians’ afflictions were God’s punishment for their sin, that wouldn’t license the generalization that God deals with us similarly. It’s always dangerous to base theological conclusions, especially ones as bold as this, on a single verse. But if one did want to argue that our misfortunes can be seen as divine punishment for our sin, 1 Cor 11:30 would be the best go-to verse.

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