While the city of Corinth was never known as a godly city in the time of the early church, the struggles and turmoil that the church went through played a large role in shaping the thinking in the church. Corinth was a very prominent city during the time of the New Testament. Established as a Greek city, Corinth was overthrown by the Romans, and it officially became a Roman city in 44 B.C. One of the most important aspects of the city was that it lay at a strategic place for sea traffic. This meant that there was a great deal of wealth and resources passing through the city and also lots of wealth staying in the city. This lead to prosperity within the city, which was also accompanied by flaunted moral depravity.
Worship of false gods was a part of everyday life for those who dwelt in Corinth. The city was full of temples devoted to Greek deities (and later their Roman counterparts). Some of these temples were also proud centres of sexual immorality and expression. The main temple of the city was the temple that was devoted to Aphrodite, but it did not stand alone, as there were many other, smaller, temples throughout the city. It would be these temples where animals would be sacrificed and their meat sold in the markets, a quandary for the early church.
By reading through Acts 18 as well as 1 and 2 Corinthians we can gain many useful clues as to what the church itself was like. The church would have been made up of both Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4), as was the case for almost every early church. The Jewish believers would have come from a background of strict monotheism, that is, the worship of only one god, while the Greeks would have come from a background of worshipping many gods.
We can also see by the topics that Paul addresses in his letters that the church was deeply struggling in some serious areas of the corporate Christian life. It is fair to say that the early church in Corinth had failed in several ways to make a clean break from the pagan society around them. There were divisions and disunity in the church (1 Cor. 1 & 3), sexual immorality (1 Cor. 5), legal disputes amongst believers (1 Cor. 6), misuses of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), along with the socially complicated topic of eating and buying meat that had been offered to idols (1 Cor. 8). By Paul writing about these issues, we can see that they were relevant struggles for this young church. The church of Corinth was by no means perfect, and yet there is encouragement that we can take from their failings and struggles.
One truth that we can hold on to as we observe the culture of Corinth is that God can work in dark places. Not only can He do great works, but He chooses to do them, and nothing can stand in His way. Corinth would have been greatly corrupted in many ways, probably in ways that we have never seen or experienced. Yet, God was able to grow the good news by the preaching of the gospel. Another truth that we can be encouraged by is that God can save and use anybody. This is the theme that Paul starts 1 Corinthians off with, and it should resonate with us. The believers in Corinth weren’t chosen by God because they were noble, wise or strong. We can also see by their track record that they struggled to live out the Christian life. Yet, God says that they are His and that Jesus Christ is who they are to boast in. The same is true for believers today. Being a Christian isn’t about our qualifications or achievements, but rather it is about what has already been achieved by the death of Jesus. In this we take courage that;
God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that as it is written ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. (1 Corinthians 1:27-31)
For further reading: ESV Study Bible, Life Application New Testament Commentary