Text: 1 Cor. 3:1-8
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each one will receive his own reward according to his own labor.
The big news for this week was certainly Pope Francis’s visit to the United States. As Protestants we do not attach any particularly spiritual significance to this event, but as the head of a foreign state, an influential world leader, and a man who many do take to be a spokesman for Christianity, the Pope’s visit is noteworthy. During his time here, Francis spoke to the US Congress and to the United Nations, but he also preached a number of sermons at religious services. One of those services, however, stood out, and it did not stand out in a good way.
On Friday, Pope Francis led a prayer service at the site of the 9/11 World Trade Center disaster, and this service included representatives of all of the major world religions. There were Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Sikhs, and the Pope joined together with them in a prayer service which sought to create unity. They each prayed to their god and quoted from their sacred texts, and then the Pope gave a brief sermon. Here is the main point of his message:
It is a source of great hope that in this place of sorrow and remembrance I can join with leaders representing the many religious traditions which enrich the life of this great city. I trust that our presence together will be a powerful sign of our shared desire to be a force for reconciliation, peace and justice in this community and throughout the world. For all our differences and disagreements, we can live in a world of peace. In opposing every attempt to create a rigid uniformity, we can and must build unity on the basis of our diversity of languages, cultures and religions, and lift our voices against everything which would stand in the way of such unity. Together we are called to say “no” to every attempt to impose uniformity and “yes” to a diversity accepted and reconciled.
Now, this message was warmly received by the larger American culture, and it does sound quite nice and compassionate. Unity, after all, is a Christian virtue, and we should work towards “reconciliation, peace, and justice.” But the Pope’s message is actually a very troubling one because it calls for us to pursue these goals by directly marginalizing the Christian foundation for those goals. The Pope asks us to set aside our religious disagreements in order to find our unity, but those religious disagreements include the identity of God, the deity of Jesus Christ, and the atoning sacrifice of the Cross! Apart from these truths, “reconciliation, peace, and justice” are impossible, and any claims to have achieved them apart from the gospel are hollow and false. As Christians, we cannot join this unity because the only unity that we are allowed to pursue is unity in Christ.
This can be tricky, because in our desire to achieve an appropriate religious uniformity—a unity in Jesus—we can sometimes wrongly create division. Sectarianism, the formation of smaller in-groups or human tribes, really is a sin, and the Bible condemns it. The Apostle Paul does call us to unity. But as we have said, this is a unity founded on the gospel, in the name of Jesus. Our section from 1 Corinthians 3 will make this plain for us this morning. In it are three basic points. The first is that the Corinthian Christians are behaving immaturely and are thus not capable of hearing Paul’s more mature teaching. The second point is the result of their immaturity: they have fallen into a sectarianism which rallies around human personalities rather than the gospel. And the third point is the solution to sectarianism, knowing God. Sectarianism is wrong because human ministers are only instruments in God’s work of salvation. God is the true source and power of salvation, and so God is the only one who deserves the credit. The solution to sectarianism is thus found in putting aside sinful human desires and together seeing God for Who He Is and in seeing what He has done in Jesus Christ.
Paul begins chapter 3 by rebuking the members of the Church at Corinth. He has just finished extolling the wonders and riches of Christian wisdom, but now he says that the Corinthians are not wise and are not able to hear that spiritual wisdom. This is because they are immature. Paul writes:
And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; for you are still carnal. (1 Cor. 3:1-3)
The term carnal is being used mostly as a synonym for the word “natural” that Paul had been using earlier, but now he is adding an element of explicit sinfulness to it. “Carnal” means “of the flesh,” and specifically, it means the sinful desires and passions of this life. For the Corinthians, being “carnal” is what makes them immature and prevents them from being able to understand spiritual wisdom.
The Corinthians are “babes in Christ,” and as such they cannot eat the solid food of spiritual teaching. This use of “immaturity” appears at least two other places in the New Testament. We see it in Ephesians 4, where Paul says, “we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ” (Eph. 4:14-15). We also see it in Hebrews 5:13, “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.” The total picture is that Christians are called to a reasonable spiritual maturity but that, like all maturity, this takes time to grow into. Young Christians and untrained Christians will often fall into confusion, changing their doctrine frequently, and this will case them to sin in certain predictable ways.
Where Sectarianism Comes From
Paul lists three sins in particular that accompany Christian immaturity: envy, strife, and divisions. “For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:3). These three sins are connected, by the way. James tells us that wars and fights come from our internal desires (James 4:1), and so we should see that divisions in the church are the outworking of those desires. Thus the “divisions among you” come from the envy in your hearts and the strife that it creates.
What is envy? Envy is a violation of the 10th Commandment. Envy is covetousness, desiring something that belongs to your neighbor, and it is also the feeling of discontentment which comes from this sinful desire. Envy is something we see throughout the Bible. It appears among Joseph’s brothers in Genesis 37. After Joseph tells his family about his dreams of greatness, the text says, “His brothers envied him, but his father kept the matter in mind” (Gen. 37:11). We also see envy in the trial of Jesus. Matthew 27:17 states that Pontius Pilate knew that the Jews “had handed Him over because of envy.”
Envy brings people together who would otherwise not get along. People who are mutually upset, even if for very different reasons, will come together in order to place blame on a single object. This is known as scapegoating. The scapegoat may not have anything at all to do with the problem he is being blamed for, but he gets the blame because the other people envy him.
And envy creates strife, or violent fighting. In the case of Joseph’s brothers, they planned to kill him but instead decided to sell him into slavery. With Jesus, the Jews actually did put Him to death. And they joined together with the Romans, men who had previously been their enemies, in order to do this. This might seem like a sort of unity, but it doesn’t last. The Romans ended up destroying the city of Jerusalem in AD 70, and the Jews were scattered across the ancient world.
Envy creates strife which creates divisions, and when this happens in the church you get competing personalities and, eventually, church splits. And church splits don’t work either. You will notice that divisive personalities continue to be divisive, even when they go to new places with new people. They find new problems to be upset about, and they find new battles to fight. This tells you that they have a discontent heart. This tells you that they have a problem with envy and covetousness. And it tells you that they are immature.
If you see someone who is always angry with other people and always discontent with their life, then you’re probably looking at an immature Christian. If that’s you, then you need to be very real with yourself. Look back at your record. If you’ve had two or three big fights in your life, then I can believe that it wasn’t your fault. But if you got a chain of five, six, or ten major fights and breakups, then it’s much more likely that something is going on in your heart. Are you coveting? Have you really understood Christ’s satisfaction on your behalf? Have you matured into Christian spirituality, or have you allowed your flesh to hold you back?
Sectarianism Focuses on Man Rather Than God
Paul’s final point in this section is that sectarianism focuses on man rather than God. This is why it is “carnal.” He writes, “are you not carnal and behaving like mere men?” (1 Cor. 3:3). Notice that expression, “behaving like mere men.” Sectarianism is not spiritual because it does not focus on God’s invisible Spirit but instead only sees the men involved in the ministry. But this is immature precisely because it is wrong. It doesn’t see the whole picture at all. It misses God.
For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollos, but ministers through whom you believed, as the Lord gave to each one? I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase. So then neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase. (1 Cor. 3:4-7)
You can see the problem with dividing over famous personalities. This is a repetition of what Paul has already said in chapter 1. But here he makes it clear that the reason focusing on famous church leaders and teacher is so wrong is that those men are not the ones causing the spiritual growth. They are only ministers. This means they are instruments. They are instruments of God by which God does the work. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” This is why we shouldn’t put our focus on the men leading the churches or in the inspirational characters doing good works. “Neither he who plants is anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the increase.”
As mature spiritual people, we are called to see God at work in the ministry. It is not the ministers who “make things happen,” but rather God’s Spirit working in and through them. And so when we see a Christian doing great and mighty things for God, we should not see that Christian so much as we see God. This means that we cannot follow after Christian personalities. We shouldn’t be religious groupies or fanboys. We can and should appreciate good men who do good works, but we should never band together around them over and against other Christian men. To do so would miss the point that God is working on both of them.
This same truth is why unity apart from the gospel is impossible. It sounds nice to “set our differences to the side,” but if those differences include God Himself, then we are contradicting the Apostle Paul. We are actually still following men, even if we tell ourselves that we are following mankind. It’s fake unity. It is earthly and fleeting. It will only last as long as the people around us do what we want. But as soon as disagreement arises, there will be envy. And then their will be strife. And then there will be division. We will scapegoat. In fact, isn’t that what’s already going on by blaming the fundamentalists and those who would impose “uniformity”? Instead of seeing the sin which resides in our hearts as the chief cause of disunity, we are told to ignore the specifics and work together with those who hold to contradictory understandings of sacrifice and satisfaction.
Human unity is false unity. It is carnal.
People of God, it’s time to grow up. Set aside your spiritual immaturity. This means repenting of your envy and the strife that it causes. Stop trying to find heroes among men. Find your fulfillment in God and be satisfied in Him. And find your forgiveness in Christ, the true scapegoat who took on all of our blame in order that we might be justified forever. And as we grow up, we ought to then see unity as a good thing, as something that we do because we are Christians. We cannot and we must not follow after men. Please, do not follow after me. Do not follow after men.
Instead, see God in and through those Christian men who do good, and let the inspiration that they give you draw you nearer to God. As this happens, you also find that it draws you nearer to others. If we all, as Christian believers, seek to find God in the work of His men, then we will come together. This will not happen because we put aside all of our differences, however. No, it will happen because set aside our selfishness and our shortsightedness and create a common vision around a common God.
In the end this can only happen through the grace of God and the work of His Spirit in us. That is why it take faith. Know that God has already provided ultimate satisfaction through His Son, and trust that God has the power to overcome our sins and divisions through His Spirit. Trust God. See His work through His people. And give thanks when that results in the blessing of His people.
Let us pray.