Summary: Ministry in co-operation with God. Nurturing grace in the believer.
A FORMULA FOR CHRISTIAN FORMATION
The natural man does not receive the things that are of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him (1 Corinthians 2:14). Yet the Corinthians hoped they were better than this – and the Apostle Paul wished that they were. And yet, for all their spiritual gifts (which Paul acknowledges, 1 Corinthians 1:7), they seemed to still live according to their former carnal state (1 Corinthians 3:3).
What, Paul, Christians who are carnal? It appears so: but the evidence that the Apostle presents is not a list of obvious ‘fleshly’ sins - not in this passage, anyway - but sins which might be described on a ‘soulish’ level: “emulation, strife, divisions” (1 Corinthians 3:3). Is that not carnal: is that not ‘living according to the flesh’?
Somebody said to me the other day, when they saw I was reading and researching 1 Corinthians: “Oh - Paul ‘having a go’?” That is a common misconception. In fact, Paul was speaking to “brethren” (1 Corinthians 3:1) with an almost Maternal love that yearned for them to ‘grow up’! (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:1-2).
There is something quite endearing – almost ‘sweet’ - when we think of grown-up people who are still “babes-in-Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:1). But Paul’s point is that the Corinthians should have come on further than they had: if not in spiritual gifts, at least in spiritual graces. Am I making sense?
So am I a Christian: or an Augustinian, or a Lutheran, or a Calvinist? I have purposely mentioned three men that I know to be Christians (and if you are of a different opinion, I will grant you that). But following even the best of Christian leaders is not the same as following Christ.
What does Paul say elsewhere? ‘Be ye followers of me as I am also of Christ’ (1 Corinthians 11:1). Do not follow me if I head off down a wrong path: stay on course with Jesus. In short, only follow Christian leaders inasmuch as they follow Christ.
Meanwhile, whilst the Corinthians are bickering about which leader they follow, the evangelist or the pastor perhaps, they are acting on a “carnal” level (1 Corinthians 3:4). Paul puts it another way: “What is Paul, and what is Apollos?” Answer: Servants (deacons). Servants through whom you believed, certainly, but servants with differing callings and differing functions, each (and both) answerable to the Lord (1 Corinthians 3:5).
An agricultural illustration follows. Paul planted the church in Corinth, Apollos watered it – but God gave the increase. All ministry boils down to this particular “but God” (1 Corinthians 3:6) – or else it is not a ministry at all.
Paul then goes on to play down the role of the ministers, and to emphasise the God who gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). The church-planter and the pastor are one in their mission, but each will receive his reward according to his own work (1 Corinthians 3:8). “For,” says Paul, “we are God’s fellow-workers” (1 Corinthians 3:9).
The word for “fellow-workers” gives us our English word, ‘synergy’, which speaks of a combined effort, a co-operation with God if you will. It is not that God lacks anything: He could create, train and grow Christians all on His own. But what a privilege for ministers to be involved in the formation of His creation, the nurturing of His ‘babes-in-Christ’ (if they will allow themselves to be nurtured and ‘trained up’ in the ways of the Lord).