April 24, 2011

The Death and Resurrection of Corinth (3 of 3)

Among the most emotional words of 2nd Timothy, for all of us, should be these:  "Erastus remained at Corinth".  The power of these words all depends on who Erastus was.  As I shared here the other day, there's an institutional mindset that wants to see this man as having "remained" there for many years previous to Paul's letters.  But for Paul's word "remained" to be noteworthy at all, it must be somewhat unexpected.

This suggests three things.  First, it says Timothy knew Erastus as an itinerant church worker, an apostle/evangelist of some sort, a characterization which gives us sound reason to identify this Erastus with the man named in Acts 19.  Second, it says Corinth may not have been a place Timothy would have expected such traveling ministers to stay in for long.  This reading, of course, also depends on whether we suppose the church there to have died or survived past the time they received 2nd Corinthians, but as I noted in part one of this series, Paul's pointed silence in Romans, about Corinth, suggests they probably didn't make it.

But thirdly, this reference in 2nd Timothy suggests that there yet remained hope.

One advantage:  it had been a good while since the death.  Corinth met Paul in the year 51 AD.  Paul left them in 53.  Apollos and Peter visited in 53/54, and Paul wrote his first letter(s?) to them before Emperor Claudius died, in late 54.  That death changed Paul's plans dramatically, so instead of visiting Corinth in 55 as he'd hoped to do, Paul stayed busy preparing to plant churches in Dyrrachium, Illyricum (in person) and in Rome, Italy (long-distance, by proxy).

When Corinth was dying for attention from Paul, in 54 and 55, they received visits from Timothy and Titus.  After Paul left Ephesus in early 55 it took him until late 56 to write 2nd Corinthians.  After three years of crisis, with no recent data, Paul wrote a desperate letter, confessing much of his own angst, hoping that something in Corinth would hold fast, corporately speaking.  By early 57, in his letter to Rome, Paul may as well have revealed Corinth's fate.  It should have been the church's six year anniversary.  Instead, she was no more.

But 2nd Timothy speaks of Erastus setting foot there in Corinth at some point during the year or so in between Paul's last imprisonments, around 62/63/64.  At that moment, to our knowledge, no itinerant worker associated with Paul's churches had made contact with saints there in over six years.  Granted, of course, our knowledge is likewise dim about other cities in Paul's circuit around this time, but the thin beam of light we do have in this case centers on (1) the most likely conclusion I put forth in part 1, that Corinth had in fact ceased gathering as a body, and (2) those hopeful words, which I now cite again:  "Erastus remained at Corinth."

Within all bounds of consideration, there are generally only two reasons why an apostle-type such as Paul or Erastus might stay behind in one city instead of moving onward.  Possibility number one is that Paul & Erastus were hoping the spirit would blow upon embers still burning from years past, and rekindle the fire of a remnant at least.  In other words, one scenario is that Erastus had arrived to begin finding out if a remnant was indeed there, and open to being built with once more (by a worker and by God); or perhaps - failing that - to begin building from scratch with new converts.

Possibility number two is more interesting to say the least, but may also, actually, be slightly more likely.

Given that a decision had already been made for Erastus to stay there in Corinth, it seems likely that some hope had already been sparked.  In other words, Paul is writing to Timothy *after* he and Erastus apparently had gone through the city.  How briefly they lingered is unknown.  That Paul even went there himself is unclear, but the immediate context of 2 Tim 4:20 does sound as if he's recounting his own recent travels.  In any case, if Paul the-even-more-aged-than-ever had been willing to let Erastus remain, their mutual hope for the mission was very likely more than an empty hope.  There had probably already been signs of a church resurrecting in Corinth.

Thus, scenario number two seems more likely:  Erastus stayed because a new/renewed work in Corinth had already/just begun.

It's an odd thing, when a church "dies".  Usually all the saints remain living, physically.  Often most of the saints remain living, spiritually.  But anything traumatic enough to cause a group of Christ-ones to quit assembling as Christ's Body, often causes a tragic amount of individual quitting as well.  And though Paul could not cite anything positive about Corinth in AD 57, and though many of those most hardy souls may have by that point moved a few miles away to the city of Cenchrea, there must have been some saints in Corinth who'd remained faithful, throughout all those dark years.  They may or may not have gathered at times, but they had nevertheless stopped meeting with the rest of Christ's Body in Corinth.  And they evidently went on like that for five or six years, at least.

If Erastus had already met with those saints, and been impressed with their desire to resurrect God's Testimony, corporately, in that place, it would certainly help explain why "Erastus remained in Corinth".

Like all historical reconstructions, naturally, this one's a hypothesis. But - as I said the other day in my post on Erastus, I happen to think this view of what most likely happened in Corinth is "more reasonable, more plausible, more supported by the text, less wistful, more accurately representative of how divine life in a people-group actually operates here on Earth most of the time, [and] more encouraging to the kind of corporate experiences and struggles we're all likely to face..."

It's also far more compelling than the institutional whitewash that says Corinth obviously bounced back when the man in charge wrote to them personally, and that Erastus had obviously "remained" there in Corinth because he was their city-manager.

If it's true that the church in Corinth indeed died, but returned to life years down the road...

What a powerful and encouraging message that could stand as for all of us!

There's a big difference between dying and staying dead.

But we, saints and struggling saints, we embrace death that Christ might be raised anew, within all of us. And, preferably that ought to mean not merely in each of us, but rather in all of us, as an "us".

And that, in about so many words, is the Gospel.

A church can embrace death.  A church can die.  A church can experience resurrection.

Say Amen, saints.  Happy Easter.



Anonymous said...

Now in all this, do you suppose that we are talking about ALL of the saints in Corinth, or just one little pocket of brothers and sisters who lived in one little area of Corinth?

Bill Heroman said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Bill Heroman said...

At that particular time, I'd consider a split just the same as a death.

Anonymous said...

So... you mean it was originally one big happy family in Corinth, and then it split up into little bunches (sects)and individuals?...some probably saying "I'm more closely associated with this guy and what he stands for, etc...", some saying "Well not us, we are simply of Christ"...?

Anonymous said...

Do you think that, today, a split=death?

Bill Heroman said...

I hope you're not trying to make me say anything harsh. ;-)

I think it's possible some who were anti-Paul continued to gather when Paul wrote Romans, but Paul couldn't speak of them. However, I think it's more likely there wasn't anything nice to be said about those dissenters, whether some of them continued gathering or not.

As for today, no. A split does not necessarily result in total death for a church. Sadly.*

(*) I say "sadly" not because I'd rather see total death than splinter groups keeping together; but only because the previous statement reveals that those primitive conditions are so far gone, now we don't even know what a deathly condition our divided state really is. And yet, that's only sad on the macro level. From a micro perspective, for those trying to continue, it really can be a blessing.

Anonymous said...

No, not hoping that you will say anything in particular...
Seems like it would be better to know the truth of the condition than experience the death and convince ourselves that it is something else.
I guess.
Then again, I don't know for sure that it's all that black and white in the first place.
Seems to me that there have *only* been splinter groups of various shapes and sizes from waaaay back.
One day, the trend may be for lot's of people to break away from Organic Church in order to pursue something more meaningful/God purposed to be a part of.

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