Understanding the Corinthians

Open your hearts to us. We have wronged no one, we have corrupted no one, we have cheated no one. (2 Corinthians 7:2)


For you gladly bear with fools, being wise yourselves! For you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face. To my shame, I must say, we were too weak for that! (2 Corinthians 11:19-21 ESV)


It is hard to measure the destructiveness of carnality. The Corinthians were carnal (1 Corinthians 3:3-4), from the Greek sarkikos, meaning they behaved as if they never received the Holy Spirit. They divided into factions and mistreated each other to such a degree that some were weak, others were sick, and some had died. I’ve discussed this at length in previous articles. However, perhaps the most disturbing symptom of their carnality is how they judged Paul and embraced charlatans.   


A Key to Corinthians


Some scholars view 2 Corinthians 7:2 as a key to understanding 1st and 2nd Corinthians. All three statements contain the words, no one suggesting that Paul is responding to an accusation or that others had done these evils and he was comparing his ways to theirs. Consider these three statements:


We have wronged no one.

We have corrupted no one. 

We have cheated no one.


All three statements use Greek words that, within this context, have a financial connotation (meaning). For example, the Greek word phtheirō, translated corrupted in the second phrase, has a wide semantic range but, within this context, means “to ruin economically” (TDNT).

All three verbs were commonly used for illicit financial activities (IVP, Keener):


  1. Wronged: Greek adikeō means injustice and is found in legal contexts denoting theft or fraud.
  2. Corrupted or Ruined: Greek phtheirō mentioned above.
  3. Cheated: Greek pleonekteō means to exploit, take advantage of, or defraud and is frequently used to describe greedy people.


I’m reminded of 1 Corinthians 11:22 when Paul confronted the Corinthians because they shamed a poor person who had no food. He was concerned about the impact of this selfish, thoughtless, and insensitive conduct upon brothers and sisters in Christ who suffer deprivation in an honor-shame culture. We translate καταισχύνετε as put to shame but could be translated as humiliate. (NIGTC) Somebody financially ruined them, they made poor decisions, or they fell on hard times (maybe all three). But the Corinthian carnality meant that they didn’t help them. 


Trading Faithful for Fools


Moving on to our second text above, we find that the Corinthians tolerated fools gladly and would “bear with” or “endure patiently” those who enslaved, exploited, and abused them (2 Corinthians 11:20). Although defending himself from some who accused him of similar or worse deeds, he replied with a hint of irony, “to my shame, we were too weak for that” (i.e., to exploit and abuse others 2 Corinthians 11:21).


The Corinthians were being exploited financially, but not by Paul. More likely, false Apostles visited the church and brought them under a spell (if you will). They were being used and abused and liked it. Moreover, they were dangerously close to giving their allegiance to these boastful frauds rather than appreciating Paul’s authentic message and lifestyle.


Modern Similarities


Sadly, it happens all too often today. People gladly tolerate foolish and fraudulent ministers and harshly judge those who are genuine and want what’s best for them. Carnality is spiritual immaturity. It refuses to grow up and put away childish things (1 Corinthians 13:11). Children are easily influenced. They lack the knowledge and experience needed to make wise judgments. They prefer sweets to vegetables and play (fun) rather than work. Their outlook is short-term rather than long-term. 


To “tolerate fools gladly” is a serious problem. The Greek word for gladly in 2 Corinthians 11:19 comes from the same root as our English word hedonism. The Corinthians were excited to be exploited and taken advantage of. The wolf in sheep’s clothing got all the love and accolades, but Paul had to remind them of his place in their life. He was a spiritual father to them. He planted them (1 Corinthians 3:6). They wouldn’t be saved if not for him, and now they follow fools gladly.


Falsely Accused


Despite all the precautions Paul took to prevent people from thinking he was “in it for the money,” people speculated and gossiped, forcing him to defend himself against such vile charges. Here is a man who lost everything for the Gospel (Philippians 3:8) and is now numbered with the money grubbers.


In 1 Corinthians 4:12, he told them he worked with his own hands for his needs. Yet he spoke plainly to those who “examined” him in 1 Corinthians 9:3 that he didn’t receive offerings from them even though he was well within his rights to do it (1 Corinthians 9:4-18). 


Paul wanted to preach the Gospel without charging money (1 Corinthians 9:18). He would rather die than do something that might hinder the Gospel or give its enemies an occasion to slander his motivations. Yet, to this day, the enemy accuses ministers of ministering for money. The few who get rich bring the rest, including poor ministers, under suspicion. 


Paul disarmed the Devil from the start by refusing to receive offerings or patronage at Corinth. He refused to teach things he shouldn’t teach for filthy lucre (Titus 1:11). A person who pursues filthy lucre is eager to gain money even if such gain degrades their moral character. 


Filthy Lucre


Paul understood how greed could destroy the ministry, and it’s why prohibition to filthy lucre is part of ministerial qualifications (1 Timothy 3:3, 3:8, Titus 1:7, 1 Peter 5:2). Moreover, he preached repentance in the John the Baptist style, which emphasized fruits of repentance that renounced greediness and stinginess (Acts 26:20, Luke 3:11-14 ESV).


Judas Iscariot was a thief and carried the bag (John 12:6). He served mammon (money), showing his attitude toward possessions (Matthew 6:24, Luke 16:13). Moreover, “the Pharisees’ goal was to enrich themselves by devouring widows houses (Mark 12:40). Widows are among the most vulnerable people on earth next to orphaned children (James 1:27). Paul was a Pharisee but didn’t tolerate such chicanery and nefarious behavior.


Closed Hearts


Paul asked the Corinthians to open their hearts to him. Yet, despite his efforts to “keep his good from being evil spoken of,” some persistently judged him, and their hearts were closed. The only collection he took up was for the poor Saints at Jerusalem (Romans 15:26). It’s madness that the Corinthians didn’t financially support Paul, and they still accused him.


Returning to our first text and adding to their injustices, Paul reveals he knows something about others they tolerate. In 2 Corinthians 11:20, he spoke of people that devour and take from them, and yet they suffer fools gladly. Again, the emphasis in our original text may be on the plural pronoun we.


We have wronged no one.

We have ruined no one.

We have cheated no one.


Taken together, Paul is saying that the Corinthians accused him of the things they tolerated from frauds and fools (Greek aphron). Imagine that people in that church were willing to ruin someone financially, yet they judged Paul. Was it the one who sued the other in court, or did the plaintiff sue out of desperation because their fellow brother or sister ruined them financially? (1 Corinthians 6:6-9) They judged him but couldn’t see their own sin.


Blame Shifting


Paul worked hard to provide for himself and others who ministered with him (Acts 20:34). There was a time when this approach was looked down on as a “lack of faith” or some other denigrating attitude. Nevertheless, this was the example Paul set from the beginning of his ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:9). His modus operandi (method) was to work with his own hands, good things so that he could give to others in need (1 Thessalonians 4:11, Ephesians 4:28).


The Corinthians judged Paul for what they gladly tolerated in others. He didn’t steal from people, financially ruin them, or cheat people. His life wasn’t about money but about Jesus and the Gospel. He would never ruin people financially so they couldn’t pay their bills or buy the food they needed. Instead, he sometimes worked night and day to help meet peoples’ needs. He epitomized the words of the Lord Jesus, who said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)


Further Reading:


The Party Spirit (The spirit of Rivalry)

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