In the first century AD, the crew of the HMS Corinth (His Majesty’s Ship Corinth) was mutinying to the will of the captain of the ship, Captain Jesus, by following different oarsmen on the ship and not the captain in charge of the ship. The Apostle Paul had to address the issue of division within the church at Corinth.
The Maritime Setting of Paul’s Ministry in Corinth
At the end of the Apostle Paul’s second missionary journey, he and his traveling companions, Aquila and Priscilla, embarked on a ship at Cenchrea heading for Ephesus in Asia Minor (Acts 18:18-19). As they sailed east through the Saronic Gulf, with Attica on their port side (left side), they passed through the Bay of Eleusis and perhaps stopped at Eleusis to discharge or pick up passengers at the famous Eleusian shrine to Demeter. As they continued down the Straits of Salamis they observed a shrine to Artemis on the island of Salamis off the starboard side (right side) of the ship. Nearby was a trophy dedicated to the Greek navy and its victory over the Persian fleet on September 25, 480 BC (Pausanius, Descriptions of Greece 1.36.1; LCL 1:193).
Perhaps Paul had read the account of this naval battle in the works of Herodotus (Persian Wars, Book 8) while at Tarsus University, or maybe, while he was in Athens, he had seen the theatrical production The Persians by Aeschylus in the Theater of Dionysius. Always looking for an opportunity to engage people in conversation, Paul might have asked one of the Greek sailors to recount the battle. This was like asking a new grandmother about her newly born grandchild! (“Want to see my pictures?”!). The Greek sailor might have regaled Paul with stories about the heroics of the victorious Greek fleet of trireme vessels and how they routed the Persians and their allies right under the nose of the Great King, the King of kings, Xerxes.
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The sailor would have had a good laugh when he pointed to the spot on Mount Aegaleos where Xerxes placed his throne to watch the battle. There Xerxes observed a Persian trireme commanded by his ally Queen Artemisia ram what Xerxes mistakenly thought was a Greek trireme in her attempt to escape the Greek forces. Xerxes reportedly exclaimed, “My men have become women, and my women men!” (Herodotus Persian Wars 8.87-88; LCL 4:85-87). Some have paraphrased this statement as: “My men fight like women and my woman fights like a man!”
The Apostle Paul might have used his knowledge of trireme vessels he had gained in this conversation to drive home a point about the carnal activities of the believers in the church at Corinth. They were mutinying against Captain Jesus on the HMS Corinth!
The Trireme Vessels
The apostle would have been interested in the trireme vessels that both the Persian and Greek navies used because they provided him with a spiritual illustration that could be used in his epistle to the Corinthians. This illustration would be very meaningful to the civic-pride of the Corinthians because Thucydides (ca. 460-400 BC) reported that “Corinth was the first place in all Hellas, we are told, where triremes were built” (History of the Peloponnesian War 1.13.2; LCL 1:25).
The wooden trireme vessels had three banks of oarsmen below deck. The side of the trireme was covered with wood, animal skin, or canvas of some kind, so the rowers could not see what was going on outside. At the stern (back) of the ship and above deck was the captain with a young man who beat the cadence on a drum. The captain would say “Stroke.” The drummer would beat the drum, “Boom.” The rowers would stroke their oars in unison. Again: “Stroke,” “Boom,” and another united stroke of the oars by the rowers. These oarsmen were called uparetas, which is usually translated “under-rowers.”
Since the Roman navy still employed trireme vessels in their fleet, Paul would have been familiar with them. Thus, he filed away this information about the trireme ships and the “under rowers” for future use.
The Problem in Corinth
The Apostle Paul first visited Corinth in AD 50 during his second missionary journey and spent 18 months ministering in the city (Acts 18:11). He, more than anyone else, was responsible for establishing the church at Corinth (1 Cor. 3:10). Yet the Apostle Peter (Cephas) and Apollos from Alexandria had a great influence in the church as well.
The first issue that Paul addressed when he wrote First Corinthians in AD 56 was the mutiny of the church at Corinth to the sovereign will of the head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ. There was division and contention within the church (1 Cor. 1:10-11). Factions were being formed by followers of Paul, Apollos, Peter, and the real “pious” ones, Christ (1:12)! Paul labeled these divisions and factions as carnality (3:1-4).
The Apostle Paul stated that he, Apollos, and Peter were fellow-workers laboring together, metaphorically, in agriculture (3:6-9) and building construction (3:9-11). Yet he pointed out that God ultimately gave the increase for the harvest (3:6-7) and the Lord Jesus was the foundation of the church at Corinth (3:11).
Paul then painted another powerful word-picture that invoked civic pride, issued a call to unity, challenged the saints to work as a team, and encouraged them to follow the Sovereign Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Under Rowers for Captain Jesus
Paul wrote: “Let a man so consider us, as servants (uparetas, “under-rowers”) of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor. 4:1). The word-picture of an “under-rowers” was well known to the saints in Corinth. When Paul wrote to “consider us,” he was referring to himself, Apollos, and Peter (1 Cor. 3:22), as oarsmen rowing together on the same ship for Captain Jesus!
There are at least five aspects of “under-rowers” that Paul might have had in mind when he painted this word-picture. First, the under-rowers were not slaves, but they were all volunteers because they were citizens of the city-state. All believers in the Lord Jesus have “heavenly citizenship” (cf. Phil. 3:20-21), so should willingly volunteer for the Lord’s service.
Second, as a member of an organized team of rowers, they were all on the same footing as each other. The Apostle Peter considered himself a “fellow elder” in the assembly where he was in fellowship and not elevated above the others (1 Pet. 5:1-4; a lesson in humility he learned from the Lord Jesus in the Upper Room, cf. John 13:4-17).
Third, they rowed together. If all the under-rowers were “rowing to the beat of different drummers” the ship would be stranded in the water and would go nowhere! While there is diversity of spiritual gifts within the assembly, all believers are to work together to edify spiritually, and build up numerically, the Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12).
Fourth, the under-rowers were below deck and could not see the captain, nor could they see outside, so they had to trust him to lead them into battle and finally into port. They were to row by faith, just as believers are to walk by faith, and not by sight! (cf. 2 Cor. 5:7; see also Peter’s take, 1 Pet. 1:7-9).
Fifth, the under-rowers received no honor because only the captain was visible and he was the one who guided the ship into battle. This instilled humility in the oarsmen because they had to acknowledge that the victory belonged to the captain. At the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Lord Jesus will graciously reward the believer who labors for Him, in His strength, by His grace, and for His glory (cf. 1 Cor. 3:12-17). But the believer will humbly return those rewards to the feet of the Lord Jesus and acknowledge: “You are worthy, O Lord, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and by Your will they exist and were created” (Rev. 4:9-11).
LCL = Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press.