Was the Church of Corinth a Single Congregation or a Presbytery?

church-of-corinth-presbyteryThe church of Corinth in Greece comprised in it also more congregations than one, as may be justly concluded from, 1. The multitude of believers. 2. The plenty of ministers. 3. The diversity of tongues and languages. 4. And the plurality of churches at Corinth. Let all these be well compared together.

1. From the multitude of believers

There appears to be a greater number of believers at Corinth than could all at once meet together to partake of all the ordinances of Christ:

1. At Paul’s first coming to Corinth, and at his first sermon preached in the house of Justus, it is said, “And Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue, believed on the Lord, and all his house, and many of the Corinthians hearing, believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:1, 7, 8). Here is Crispus and all his house (which probably was very great, he being the chief ruler of the synagogue), and many of the Corinthians, believing; an excellent first-fruits; for who can justly say but Paul at his first sermon converted so many as might be sufficient to make up one single congregation?

2. Immediately after this (Paul having shook his raiment against the Jews, who, contrary to his doctrine, opposed themselves and blasphemed; and having said unto them, “Your blood be upon your own heads, I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” Acts 18:6) the Lord comforts Paul against the obstinacy of the Jews by the success his ministry should have among the Gentiles in the city of Corinth: “Then spake the Lord to Paul in the night by a vision, Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). Much people belonging to God, according to his secret predestination, over and besides those that already were actually his by effectual vocation. And much people, in respect of the Jews that opposed and blasphemed (who were exceeding many), otherwise it would have been but small comfort to Paul if by much people should be meant no more than could meet at once in one small single congregation.

3. Paul himself continued at Corinth “a year and six months teaching the word of God among them” (Acts 18:11). To what end should Paul the apostle of the Gentiles stay so long in one place, if he had not seen the Lord’s blessing upon his ministry, to bring into the faith many more souls than would make up one congregation, having so much work to do far and near?

4.They that believed at Corinth were baptized” (Acts 18:8). (Baptism admitted them into that one body of the Church, 1 Cor. 12:13.) Some were baptized by Paul (though but few in comparison of the number of believers among them: compare Acts 18:8, with 1 Cor. 14-17), the generality consequently were baptized by other ministers there, and that in other congregations wherein Paul preached not, as well as in such wherein Paul preached; it being unreasonable to deny the being of divers congregations for the word and sacraments to be dispensed in, himself dispensing the sacrament of baptism to so few.

2. From the numerous ministers and preachers

From the plenty of ministers and preachers in the church of Corinth, it is evident it was a presbyterial church, and not only a single congregation; for to what end should there be many laborers in a little harvest, many teachers over one single congregation? etc. That there were many preachers at Corinth is plain:

1. Paul himself was the master-builder there that laid the foundation of that church (1 Cor. 3:10), their spiritual father; “In Christ Jesus I have begotten you through the gospel” (1 Cor. 4:15). And he stayed with them one year and a half (Acts 18).

2. While the apostle sharply [assessed] them as guilty of schism and division for their carnal crying up of their several teachers: some doting upon one, some upon another, some upon a third, etc. “Every one of you saith, I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ” (1 Cor. 1:12). Doth not this intimate that they had plenty of preachers, and these preachers had their several followers, so prizing some of them as to undervalue the rest? And was this likely to be without several congregations into which they were divided?

3. When the apostle saith, “Though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers” (1 Cor. 5:15); though his words be hyperbolical, yet they imply that they had great store of teachers and preachers.

4. We have mention of many prophets in the church of Corinth: “Let the prophets speak two or three, and let the other judge—And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets” (1 Cor. 14:20, 31). Here are prophets speaking two or three; and prophets judging of their doctrine, which sure were more than they that were judged; it being unreasonable for the minor part to pass judgement upon the major part. And though these prophets had extraordinary gifts (as the church of Corinth excelled all other churches in gifts, 1 Cor. 1:7), and were able to preach in an extraordinary singular way; yet were they the ordinary pastors and ministers of that church of Corinth, as the whole current of this fourteenth chapter evidenceth, wherein so many rules and directions, aptly agreeing to ordinary pastors, are imposed upon them for the well ordering of their ministerial exercises. Now, where there were so many pastors, were there not several congregations for them to feed? Or were they idle, neglecting the exercise and improvement of their talents?

3. From the diversity of tongues and languages

From the diversity of tongues and languages, wherein the church did eminently excel. “In every thing ye are enriched by him, in all utterance, and in all knowledge—So that you come behind in no gift” etc., i.e., ye excel in every gift, more being intended than is expressed (1 Cor. 1:5, 7). Among other gifts some of them excelled in tongues which they spake, the right use of which gift of tongues the apostle doth at large lay down, (1 Cor. 14:2-27). “If any speak in an unknown tongue let it be by two, or at the most by three, and that by course, and let one interpret.” So that there were many endued with gifts of tongues in that church. To what end? Not only for a sign to unbelievers (verse 22), but also for edification of divers congregations, of divers tongues and languages within that church of Corinth.

4. From the plurality of churches at Corinth

From the plurality of churches mentioned in reference to this church of Corinth. For the apostle regulating their public assemblies and their worship there, saith to the church of Corinth, “Let your women keep silence in the churches.” It is not said, in the church, in the singular number; but in the churches, in the plural; and this of the churches in Corinth, for it is said, “Let your women…“, not indefinitely, “Let women…“. So that according to the plain letter of the words, here are churches in the church of Corinth, viz. a plurality of single congregations in this one presbyterial church. And this plurality of churches in the church of Corinth is the more confirmed if we take the church of Cenchrea (which is a harbor or seaport to Corinth) to be comprised within the church of Corinth, as some learned authors do conceive it may (c.f. Acts 18:18; Rom. 16:1).

Excerpt from The Divine Right of Presbyterian Church Government (Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici) by the London Provincial Assembly of 1646.

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