An Outline of Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians

M.A. Rudge

The first epistle to the Corinthians has been rightly called the epistle of the Church of God. It provides the pattern to be followed throughout the Church age, by "all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord" (1:2), "everywhere in every church" (4:17). In this connection, the opening statement of Paul as a "called apostle" (1:1), is of obvious importance and places the stamp of apostolic authority upon the whole of the epistle and its teaching. The epistle deals with truth concerning the church of God and the character and order which are distinctive features of churches of God, in the local setting (1:2; 11:16). Nowhere else is the application of the teaching of a New Testament epistle, to all other churches of God, given such emphasis (1:2; 3:10; 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:36-38). It is a companion epistle to the epistle to the Ephesians, Which deals with the dispensational aspect of Church truth, "the Church which is His body" (Eph. 1:22,23), composed of all believers from Pentecost to the Rapture.

The city of Corinth had been one of three leading city-states during the period of Greek world empire. Athens was notable as a naval power, Sparta with its professional army, was an austere military state and Corinth was a "maritime and trading power." The period of Greek empire was in the past. Destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 14 BC, the geographical location of Corinth enabled it to rapidly become, once again, an important and busy center on the major trade routes, "the great emporium of commerce between Asia and the West." Corinth was now the fourth largest city in the Roman empire, with a population of 600,000 or 700,000, of which about 400,000 were slaves. It was the capital city of the Roman province of Achaia, one of two provinces into which Greece was divided, the other being Macedonia. Licentiousness and debauchery existed side by side with wealth and culture, learning and luxury, slavery and poverty. These were the conditions at Corinth, in which Paul and his fellow-laborers commenced their labors, "and such were some of you but..." (6:9-11; 7:21, 22).

The power of God in the gospel was demonstrated by the establishment of the assembly through the labors of Paul, Silas and Timothy (Acts 18:1-18). Paul continued there for "a year and six months teaching the word of God among them." Then he "tarried there yet a good while," before taking his leave for Ephesus (Acts 18:11,18), where he labored for about three years (Acts 20:31). The first epistle was written from Ephesus and Paul indicated that he would remain there until Pentecost (16:8). The epistle is written in his third year at Ephesus, three years after he had left Corinth and almost five years after the assembly was established.

Faced with the division and disorder which had arisen during his absence, the apostle’s patient, orderly and constructive approach and his faithfulness in dealing with these and other problems, bear testimony to the authenticity of his letter as a Divinely-inspired epistle. The introduction with its comparatively lengthy thanksgiving (1:4-9), his references to them as "brethren" (1:10,11, 26; 2:1; 3:1; 4:6), the identification of divisions (1:10-12), the explanation of their cause and their effect upon the unity and sanctity of the assembly (3:5-6; 11), show his constructive approach to the problems and the order of priority in which they were dealt with, before moving on to a more advanced level. Paul’s orderly and painstaking treatment of each subject in turn, are an example to all of us in dealing with similar problems today, and which, similarly, call for "much patience." (2 Cor. 6:4; 12:12).

The following outline should be studied carefully in order to gain a general idea of the structure of the epistle and to appreciate the way in which Paul deals with each subject in turn.

Introduction and Thanksgiving (1:1-9)
Identification of Divisions and Initial Condemnation (1:10-17)
Human Wisdom and the Gospel (1:18-2:5)
Wisdom among them that are Perfect (2:6-3:4)
God’s Fellow-Laborers, God’s Husbandry, God’s Building
- the Assembly and its Unity
God’s Holy Sanctuary
- the Assembly and Its Sanctity
Christian Liberty: Its Use and Abuse  
"All things are lawful... but..." (6:12)
"Meats for the belly..." (6:13a)
"Now the body is not for fornication," (6:13b-20)
"but for the Lord" (7:1-40)
"Now concerning meats..." (8:1-13)
"All things are lawful... but..." (10:23-30)
Conclusion and apostolic example (10:31-11:1)
Authority and Order  
Headship (11:2-16)
Remembrance of the Lord (11:17-34)
Spiritual Manifestations (12:1-14;39)
Resurrection (15:1-58)
The Work of the Lord  
Matters of Finance (16:1-4)
Movements of Servants (16:5-12)
Ministry of the Saints (16:13-18)
Salutations and Greetings (16:19-24)