This morning we're looking at the next instalment of the apostle Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians. We've got to chapter 3. Do have that open in front of you.
As I look back now, I can see that my faith came alive at a time of what was the closest thing to revival that I've ever experienced. I was at a boarding school, in my early teens. In a short space, dozens of us became Christians. It was an exciting time. We discovered not only the gospel, but also singing spiritual songs with strumming guitars, and spine-tingling spiritual gifts like speaking in tongues and prophecy. We weren't just young in years, we were spiritually very immature. Without really understanding what was going on, there was a big question to which we were searching for an answer: to whom should we be looking for leadership?
I can see now that there were a lot of parallels between us and the church in Corinth. In fact, it's ironic that it was the Corinthian church that was really our model of what a church should be like. As far as we could see, they'd experienced the same kind of spiritual power that we were experiencing.
Somehow we missed the fact, as we read selected parts of this letter, that though the apostle Paul is rejoicing in the new-found faith of these Corinthian Christians, he is also worried about them. He is stretching every spiritual sinew to try to get them back on a Christ-centred, gospel-centred track. And not least, he is trying to teach them a mature and Christ-centred attitude towards Christian leadership. Why? Because the church was in danger of being destroyed.
What then should our attitude be to Christian leaders and to Christian leadership? That's the issue that Paul is tackling in this chapter. So I have three headings that talk of three things that church leaders in particular, and every Christian in general, need to know: first, how the church gets damaged; secondly, how the church grows; and thirdly, how the church is built.
1. How The Church gets Damaged
The church gets damaged through worldly spiritual immaturity. In verses 1-3 Paul hits the Corinthians with a direct and blunt assessment of the state of their fellowship and their spiritual health. This is what he says:
"But I, brothers [note that: he's not disputing the reality of their faith; they're in the Christian family], could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?"
You can see that Paul characterises them in three ways.
First, he describes them as worldly - not spiritual. He's not denying that they have the Holy Spirit – look at verse 16:
"Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?"
But they're not keeping in step with the Spirit. They are listening to their flesh – their old sinful nature – which in turn listens only to the world that's in rebellion against Christ. Secondly, he speaks of them as infantile – not adult. They should have grown up but they haven't. They should be digesting the gospel and the Bible and taking them into their system. But like a baby that won't take food that's offered they spurn solid spiritual sustenance. Then thirdly, they are, he says, acting only in a human way – and not as Christians. They are acting as if they don't have the Holy Spirit, even though they do.
So that's what they are like: worldly, infantile and unchristian. And how does that show itself? It comes right out in the way they think, in the way they behave, and in their attitude to Christian leadership. How do they think? They're jealous. How do they behave? They quarrel. There is strife among them. And their quarrels lead to factions. What is their attitude to Christian leaders? They make their allegiance to certain leaders more important than their unity in the gospel of Christ. So their self-seeking jealousy leads to quarrels. Their quarrels lead to factions. Their factions line up behind different leaders.
I think back to that early Christian experience of mine. As far as we could see, we'd discovered spiritual realities that a lot of the older Christians around us knew little or nothing about. I remember how my own allegiance veered from one Christian leader to another. There was the visiting evangelist. He had even written books, which was deeply impressive. There was the pastor of a church hundreds of miles away where the Holy Spirit had taken up residence, or so we heard. We even travelled down for the weekend. There was the schoolteacher who'd been running the Christian Union for years, who suddenly found his house over-run on Sunday afternoons. There was the venerable founder of a powerful evangelistic ministry who used to visit the school. There were older boys at the school who knew everything about God and especially about the Holy Spirit (at least, that was the impression I got). There was the author of a book that spoke to me as if it was the voice of God himself. He became my guru for a time.
A lot of us really had become Christians. Our faith has stood the test of time. We knew Christ crucified. But as I look back I can see that at times Christ was almost crowded out of our lives. Our obsession was with the latest flavour-of-the-month Christian leader. The Bible's teaching was subordinate to whatever he said. And when one section of our group was favouring one leader, and another was looking to a different leader, there were some sharp disputes. Sometimes those arguments threatened to break up our youthful fellowship, to do severe damage to the vulnerable faith of some of us, and to undermine our witness in the rest of the school.
Of course, that kind of immaturity, and the damage that's caused by it, is not just a danger for the Corinthians back in the first century, or for an excitable and impressionable bunch of teenagers back in the seventies. The danger exists now. The danger exists among us. Even if we've learned a thing or two over the years, it's all too easy for us to slip back into a kind of spiritual second childhood. That dangerously immature spiritual infant is always lurking within us, ready to break out and wreak havoc. We need to act our age. If we don't, and if the church suffers as a result, then the warning there in verse 17 is frighteningly clear:
"If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."
The Lord will not stand by and see his dwelling place, his people, torn apart. If we begin to act like the spiritual equivalent of dry rot, then God will bring in the spiritual equivalent of Rentokil, and our influence will be eradicated.
How does the church get damaged? By worldly, infantile, unchristian immaturity that leads from jealousy to quarrelling to factionalism. We must beware.
Now the best antidote to a dangerously wrong attitude to leaders and leadership is to have a right attitude. That's what Paul wants to encourage the Corinthians to do. So he uses two different analogies for the way that the church develops and extends. The first is in verses 5-9, the second in verses 9-15. That makes verse 9 a kind of hinge verse in which he moves from one image to the next. Verse 9:
"For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building."
There are the two pictures: first, the church is like a field of crops that grow – the agricultural analogy; secondly, the church is like a building that is constructed – the architectural analogy. If we're going to have a right attitude to leaders and leadership, then we need to know how the church grows, and how the church is built. Those are my next two headings. So:
2. How The Church Grows
The crucial thing is to understand how God uses leaders. What is their part in the growth of the church? And what is down to God alone?
The responsibility of leaders is to sow the seed of the gospel – the word of God – and to do all they can to ensure that the conditions for its growth are right. But no church leader can produce growth, any more than a farmer can cause the sun to shine or seeds to germinate, sprout and grow. It is God who does that.
That is what the Corinthians need to understand. They have been lining themselves up behind different leaders, as if spiritual power flowed from the leaders themselves. In verses 4-5 here Paul picks up again on what he said back in chapter 1:
"For when one says, "I follow Paul", and another, "I follow Apollos", are you not being merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each."
Then he goes on to spell out the tasks of leaders and the role of God. Verses 6-9:
"I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building."
Leaders, preachers and teachers have their part to play. And it's a vital part. But no one leader either can or does do everything needed. Church growth is always a co-operative venture. That is clearly true even if you are the apostle Paul. How much more is that true for any of us. We all play our part. But the contribution that any one of us makes, under God, is just that: one contribution amongst many.
And even then, the growth itself is God's department alone. Only he can bring that about. God grows the church. It is God alone who causes the seed of the gospel to take root in the hearer's heart. It is God alone who raises someone who is spiritually dead to new life in Christ. It is God alone who makes a church grow in spiritual depth as well as in numbers.
A couple of weeks ago, Vivienne and I worked together on sowing the seeds for our veg crop for this year. And from now on we do a bit of watering and weeding. Otherwise all we do is wait and hope. And year after year the plants proliferate and the crop comes. And it never ceases to amaze me.
You get the point. Church growth is a co-operative effort. And in the end it's all down to God anyway. What are some of the implications of that?
We should recognise the different roles that all believers in general and leaders in particular play in enabling the church to grow. Whether we're leading or being lead, we need to understand that leaders are merely servants. We must recognise that all the glory for the growth of the church is due to God. And that applies also to the contributions of those who lead the church. They only do what they do by the grace of God, and because God has assigned their roles to them.
We can safely leave the prize-giving to God. God will give honour where honour is due, in his good time. So no blowing of our own trumpets. No resentment because of lack of recognition for all that we've done. No putting of anyone on a pedestal as if they have anything to boast about. All that any of us has to boast about is 'Jesus Christ and him crucified'.
If we have leadership responsibility (and come to that, if we don't) let's be united with our fellow-workers for the gospel in the one purpose of growing the church for the glory of God alone.
And rejoice in the privilege of being able to work not only with the rest of the body of Christ, but with God himself. We belong to him. And in the power of his Spirit, we work alongside him. That is truly an astounding privilege, and reward enough in itself.
How does the church grow? We all play our part. But God grows it. So no squabbling over who does what and who owns what. It belongs to God. We belong to God. So now to my final heading:
3. How The Church is Built
We've thought about the agricultural analogy. What of the architectural analogy? That is what Paul uses in verses 9-15. Here he speaks of the church as a building, as the temple, the dwelling place of God. But the church is a temple under construction. And once again, from a different perspective, it is attitudes to leadership within the church which are in focus. Verses 9-10:
"For we are God's fellow workers. You are God's field, God's building. According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it."
I used to be a civil engineer, and my job was to go around looking at existing buildings that had failed in some way in order to work out what the problem was and design a scheme to put it right. Almost always the problems that I saw had arisen because there was something wrong with the foundation of the building. A building needs a good, solid, immoveable and permanent foundation. If you build with no foundation, or with a bad foundation, then even if you get away with it for a while, you are storing up problems for the future.
Paul knew that the same applies to the church. And he knew that the only solid and lasting foundation is Jesus Christ and him crucified. As with the agricultural analogy, so with the architectural analogy: we are God's fellow-workers in building the church; we have our part to play; and only God can do his part. God is the owner. God is the architect and the engineer. We are, if you like, the builder's labourers. And what is more, God has already laid the foundation of the church. The church only exists at all because God sent his Son who died for our sins and was raised to rule, and poured out the Holy Spirit to bring people to faith.
The church is built on Jesus. And yet at the same time, those who have responsibility for building a church have to ensure that it is indeed built upon the foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified. That's why Paul says in that rather paradoxical way in verse 11:
"For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. "
The church is built on the gospel. We have to lay the foundation that has already been laid by God. It's all too easy for a church to be built on something other than Christ – other than the gospel. It may look superficially OK – even thriving. But under the surface, underground, there may be severe problems. And one day they will come to light.
I always remember, in my engineering days, going to see an elderly couple in their home. They'd had a terrible fright, and they were in a state of high anxiety. One night they'd been sleeping peacefully, when they were woken by an almighty bang, like a massive artillery piece going off in their living room. They looked, and found that right through the walls of the house great gaping cracks had appeared. There hadn't been any problem before. Now suddenly they were afraid the house was about to fall down. We investigated and discovered that the house had been built on an old landfill site. The ground beneath the house had fallen away. For a while the house was rigid enough to survive. But in the end it couldn't take the stress any longer, and it broke in two. That was admittedly unusual. More common in my experience was for a building with a bad foundation gradually to fall apart over many years.
Any church – this church – must be built on Christ and his gospel. It is possible to build a church-like edifice without a gospel foundation. It is possible to remove the gospel from the life a church and for it to carry on little affected for some time.
We could be building this church as a social network – a good place to meet people and make friends. We could build this church on morality – a haven for respectable, good-living people who want a refuge from a world that's gone to the dogs. We could build this church as a place of entertainment – a cross between a theatre, a club, a café and a concert hall. We could build this church to be a centre of 'spirituality' – where you can come to get in touch with your spiritual side and soak up the atmosphere of peace.
We could build this church with an adulterated gospel that's really no gospel at all. We could cut and paste the Bible to leave out all the uncomfortable stuff and just tell people what they want to hear, peddling false comfort to those who want to be soothed with the knowledge that they don't have to change the way they think or act at all and they'll be OK.
Building a church on any of those things is like building a church on rubbish. Even if it thrives for a while, the time will come when it will fall apart. It might happen gradually, almost imperceptibly, until people wake up one day and find that it's gone. Or it might happen with a bang, as the back of the fake church is broken overnight, and the gaping cracks open up.
To build a church on the gospel and the word of God is to build a solid, immoveable, permanent structure. It is, in the apostle Paul's terms, to build with gold, silver and precious stones. To build with anything else is to build with wood, hay or straw. And what will be the consequence for the builders? Verses 12-15:
"Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire."
Castle Howard in Yorkshire featured on the Antiques Roadshow recently. A while ago, they had a terrible fire there. Structures that had stood for centuries without being severely tested were destroyed in a few minutes. It's when the testing time comes that the real strength of the structure is exposed.
The Day will come when the quality of our church-building will be revealed. What will survive will be all that is built by means of the gospel on the foundation of Jesus. Shoddy work will be destroyed. In the end, God won't tolerate jerry-building. What are the signs of poor quality work? Worldly immaturity. Jealousy. Quarrelling. Factionalism. A failure to grasp that leadership in the church is merely service, and that it is God who grows, God who builds, graciously using us as his fellow-workers.
So let's be careful how we build! Don't we know that we ourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in us? Let's bow our heads to pray:
Heavenly Father, have mercy on us, we pray. We praise you for Jesus your Son who has redeemed us by his blood. We praise you that by your Holy Spirit you live in us. Forgive us our worldly, infantile, immaturity. And teach us to play our part in growing and building this church on the foundation of Jesus that you have already laid, so that the world might look at us and see your glory. In Jesus' name, Amen.