C. The Isthmian Games assembly
If the assembly of 1 Corinthians 11-14 were indeed an occasional meeting of all the disciples in Achaia, then we might wonder from where this tradition originated. Here is a possibility: The Isthmian Games were conducted in the spring every two years in the city of Corinth. These games originated several centuries before the arrival of Paul on the scene on his second mission journey. Paul wanted to be present in Corinth in the spring of A.D. 51 because he knew that this was the ideal opportunity to preach the gospel to the world through the athletes who attended the Games. Since athletes from throughout the Roman Empire were gathered for these games, Paul wanted to seize the opportunity for world evangelism. It was during this opportunity that Paul used a diversity of languages to communicate the gospel (1 Co 14:18).
In order to support this view, it is interesting to note the “athletic language” that Paul used throughout the Corinthian letters (See 1 Co 9:24-27; 10:1-13; 15:55-57). He knew the athletic culture of the Greeks and others who prepared for the Isthmian Games. Words as “crown,” “race,” “self-discipline,” “boxing” and “victory” were commonly used words in the competition of the Games. Paul simply coined the words when he wrote of spiritual matters to the Achaian disciples.
It is also interesting to note that there were no public accommodations for the athletes who came from great distances to participate in the Games. The visitors camped in tents in the open fields that surrounded the facilities for the events. Not only did Paul see the Isthmian Games as an opportunity for evangelism, but he also saw them as an opportunity for his tentmaking business. Evidently, Aquila and Priscilla also took advantage of the opportunity, for it was in Corinth where Paul first encountered this couple who had recently fled from Rome (See At 18:1-3). This common tentmaking business in the context of the Isthmian Games explains how Paul could have contacted the other two tentmakers.
It would not be difficult to assume that since the first disciples of Achaia may have been in Corinth for the occasion of the Isthmian Games, that the members of the body throughout Achaia continued the tradition of an “Isthmian assembly.” They possibly had such an assembly every two years in order to take advantage of the evangelistic opportunity that the international event presented. However, in their behavior, they were tarnishing the opportunity.
At least this possibility explains why the gift of speaking in languages would have been so valuable during this biannual assembly. Since there would have been present athletes of different language groups from throughout the Roman Empire, it would have been a tremendous opportunity for world evangelism. The opportunity was similar to that which was presented by the annual Jewish Passover/Pentecost feast in Jerusalem where the apostles stayed for at least fifteen years after the establishment of the church in Acts 2. The Achaian brethren may have simply scheduled an “Isthmian assembly” at the time of the Games. At least it would have been quite negligent on their part not to have taken advantage of such an opportunity.
The Isthmian Games presented the opportunity for world evangelism as the Passover/Pentecost feast. However, the Achaian brethren were squandering the opportunity for evangelism because of their lack of love and consideration for one another. They should have been manifesting the same spirit of love that the early Jewish disciples did in Jerusalem a little over twenty years before:
“Now all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they sold their possessions and goods and divided them to all, as everyone had need. And continuing daily with one accord in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and sincerity of heart” (At 2:44-46).
The Achaian brethren were portraying the opposite of the above description of the first disciples in Jerusalem. It may have been a Greek cultural problem. Nevertheless, they needed to learn a great deal from the first Jewish disciples.
When we read the statement by Paul to the Achaian brethren, “if the whole assembly [of Achaia] gathers in one place [in Corinth]” (1 Co 14:23), then in the historical context, we would probably be correct to assume that this was a biannual assembly of the saints from throughout Achaia who came together in Corinth for the mission opportunity of the Isthmian Games (See 1 Co 11:18). During their presence in Corinth at the time of the Games, they simply took the opportunity to assemble on Sunday in Corinth, having invited athletes of the games to come to the unique spring Sunday assemblies during the Games (See 1 Co 14:23).
Based on this possibility, Paul asked a specific question concerning the disciples’ chaotic behavior that took place during this regional assembly. We quote his question below with our assumption that his question was indeed made in the historical context of the biannual event of the “Isthmian assembly.”
“Therefore, if the whole assembly [of the disciples from all Achaia] gathers in one place [in Corinth during the Games], and all speak with languages [of the different nationalities that are present during the Games], and there come in the uninformed [who know little or nothing about the church], or unbelievers [who are attending out of curiosity], will they not say that you are mad [if you conduct your assembly in confusion as in the idolatrous temple]?” (1 Co 14:23).
Unbelieving athletes assuredly attended the assemblies of the saints during the Games. But if they witnessed the rival competition between the tongue speakers and prophets, then they would assume that these people (Christians) were mad. It may have been that some of the brothers brought the competitive spirit of the Games into the assembly of the saints.
It would not be outside the historical context to understand Paul’s teaching concerning the assembly in 1 Corinthians 11-14 with the background of an occasional meeting of the Achaian saints in Corinth. Such an interpretation would certainly answer a great deal of questions concerning the nature of his instructions concerning the problems that arose during this unique assembly.