The views of a spiritual church

1 Corinthians 3

30 May 2010

Woodley Baptist Church

First morning service


What does it mean to be a spiritual church?

Perhaps it's a church that gets through a lot of candles. Or a church that sings Gregorian chant. Or a church that has lively music and where people often pray in tongues. I've heard it said that the Holy Spirit is more likely to show up at our second, "celebratory" morning service than the first "reflective" service. Does that reflect a right view of spirituality?

What makes a spiritual church?

This question is really the main theme of the letter of 1 Corinthians, and without wanting to give too much of a spoiler, the bottom line is that a truly spiritual church is fundamentally characterised by love—chapter 13. But here in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 we see another aspect of Christian spirituality: we see that a spiritual church is a church that rightly evaluates its leaders.

Now, you could be forgiven for thinking "that's not very exciting!". "Rightly evaluates its leaders"—Is this really spirituality? Have you lost the plot, Ben? We want to hear about praying in tongues, about healings and miracles and revivals!

But this is where the Apostle Paul starts the practical application in his letter: a spiritual church has a right view of its leaders and of itself. If we don't grasp the importance of this, then perhaps our understanding of spirituality is wide of the mark.

A spiritual church does not take a worldly view of its leaders

Point 1: A spiritual church does not take a worldly view of its leaders, verses 1 to 4.

Look at Paul's argument: verse 1, Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldlyref. They are, verse 3, acting like mere menref (meaning, of course, men and women: I don't think he's having a go at us chaps in particular!). They point is that they were not acting like a church filled with the Spirit.

What were they doing to elicit this judgement? Well, verse 3 again, there is jealousy and quarrellingref among them. The source of this strife is the fact that they have broken up into factions around different leaders. And Paul tells them that this is profoundly unspiritual: verse 4, For when one says, I follow Paul, and another, I follow Apollos, are you not mere men?ref

Paul is returning here to the theme he began the letter with: Chapter 1 verse 11, My brothers, some from Chloe's household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, "I follow Paul"; another, "I follow Apollos"; another, "I follow Cephas"; still another, "I follow Christ."ref

Although the Holy Spirit had been poured out on them, the Corinthians were not behaving like a spiritual church, and one of the symptoms is that they have an incorrect evaluation of their leaders.

I think the Corinthians would have enjoyed the old pre-election ding-dong of two party politics. A good rowdy fight at Prime Minister's Questions; a nice bit of one-upmanship. Which party leader bashes the other most effectively? Who's got the best one-liners? And who is Nick Clegg anyway?

I think the Corinthian church would have enjoyed organising a series of television debates between their leaders. Paul, Apollos and Peter slugging it out: who speaks the most authoritatively? Who keeps eye-contact most effectively? Who does have the shiniest skin? Judging as the world judges.

In the world of ancient Corinth, appealing to some link with a Big Name leader would have conferred some status, or borrowed prestige, on an individual. When they claimed "I follow Paul" or "I follow Apollos", this is more than simply a statement that I prefer Paul's teaching, or I prefer Apollos's style. That's just normal. What they meant was "my leader is better than your leader"; "I've aligned myself with the most influential person". It's divisive factionalism, just like the politics of the world. As the Labour Party leadership contest plays out, I'm sure we will see plenty of examples of this kind of positioning and manoeuvring.

In the church, we are not to evaluate our leaders as the world evaluates their leaders. We have fundamentally different criteria. A spiritual church evaluates its leaders from a spiritual point of view.

A spiritual church does not take too high a view of its leaders

So, if the church should not judge its leaders as the world judges, then how should we evaluate them? That brings us to points 2 and 3. Point 2: A spiritual church does not take too high a view of its leaders, verses 5-9.

In these verse Paul gives us a picture: the church is like a field. And the church leaders—Paul and Apollos here— are simply labourers.

Verse 5, What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.ref

These leaders are not working on their own initiative, they are simply servants of another, doing the duty to which they had been appointed.

Verses 6, I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.ref

We like to take the credit when we grow some nice fruit or vegetables in the garden, don't we? But the truth is that our contribution is minuscule: we sow the seed, water it and keep down the weeds and pests and that's about it. We take for granted so easily the extraordinary miracle that causes a plant to grow. Moment by moment thousands of cells are dividing and multiplying and differentiating. Each one finding its own place and function in the plant. The astonishing design of the stem, the roots and the leaves supporting and nourishing the plant. Some parts perfect for sucking up water and minerals, others for harvesting the sunlight. The perfection of the flower and the pollinators who fertilise it. The slow but sure growth of nutritious fruit. We can't begin to do any of this, yet, somehow, we still manage to take the credit when our tomatoes turn out nice, don't we. The truth is, we contributed almost nothing.

Verse 7, So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.ref

The church should not be arguing about which of the farm labourers is most important: they should be lifting their gaze to the One for whom they work; the One who works the miracle of growth. To focus on the labourers is to miss the point entirely. And to divide over the labourers is more foolish still, for, verse 8, the man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose.ref They are not divided; their purpose is to glorify God in serving the church.

This is a spiritual church: a church that recognises that it is the Holy Spirit of God who does all the work of growth. That it's leaders are merely servants and labourers. It does not think too highly of its leaders.

A spiritual church does not take too low a view of its leaders

On the other hand, a spiritual church does not take too low a view of its leaders. This is my third point, and is from verses 10 to 15.

In these verses, Paul changes the illustration. Here he is likening the church not to a field, but to a building. Now the leaders are builders rather than farmers.

Verse 10, By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds.ref

We should not take too low a view of our leaders, because they are engaged in skilled work. And it has to be skilled work because it is eternal work.

Verse 12, If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work.ref

Paul and Apollos and all others who seek to serve the church are doing the only work in the universe that has the possibility of being eternal.

There will be a Day—the day when Jesus returns—when everything in the world will be judged. Everything will be destroyed. Only that which is built with eternal materials will survive.

When the fire of God's judgement comes, if we have built with gold, silver, and precious stones, our work will be eternal. If we have built with wood, hay, or straw, we'll have wasted our time.

When we lived in Reading, people locally employed a cowboy builder to repoint the chimney on their house. The work was quickly done, and it looked fantastic, at first. Only when it rained a while later—and the builder was long gone—did it become obvious that, instead of repointing the chimney, he'd just wrapped it in brick-effect wallpaper.

There is no place for cowboy builders working in God's church. Christian leaders need to be skilled craftsmen, building with eternal materials: the gospel of Jesus Christ. Only that within the church that is of Jesus will survive; to build in any other way is pointless.

Do your small group meetings focus on Jesus? Do your conversations revolve around Jesus? Are you praying for people to know Jesus better? Does your service for the church seek to glorify Jesus? Anything else is wood, hay, and straw. It's pointless; a waste of time.

So, a spiritual church does not take too low a view of its leaders. God has skilled them to do an eternal work—the only eternal work in the universe, if they are building with gold, silver and costly stones: the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Think for a moment with me about the implications of this.

Do you want to do something significant with your life? Do you want, when you come to the end of your life, to be able to look back with satisfaction, to say that you've achieved something worth doing? Something that's never going to fade or decay or be forgotten?

Do you want to hear, when you face our heavenly Father, the words, "Well done, good and faithful servant" ? Does it worry you that he might say "Oh, dear, you seem to have wasted your life" ?

If so, then throw yourself into building God's church. Build us up with gold and silver and costly stones. Build us up with the gospel of Jesus Christ, to make us strong and beautiful and glorious. This is the only permanent work; this is the only eternal work in the world.

Verse 14, If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.ref

A spiritual church takes the highest possible view of itself

The fourth and final point from 1 Corinthians chapter 3 is that a spiritual church has the highest possible view of itself, verses 16 to 23.

Do you not know, Paul asks, Do you not know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?ref

The temple in Jerusalem was the holy place where God manifested his presence. To worship God—to do business with him—you would travel up to the temple. There was no holier or more significant place on Earth.

After Jesus' death, the temple curtain was torn in two: God was on the loose. And in A.D. 70—actually, well after this letter was written—the temple was finally destroyed by the Romans, never to be rebuilt. At least not physically.

Later on in 1 Corinthians, Paul will say that we each individually are temples of the Holy Spirit, but here he is referring to the church collectively. Together we are the temple of God. We are now the place where God's Holy Spirit has chosen to dwell. It is through us—through you and me—that the people of the world can encounter the Living God. There is no holier or more significant place on Earth than among the people of God. This is where God lives! Not in this building, but in this people.

Verse 18, Don't be deceivedref, Paul says. Worldly wisdom will not tell you this! Look around without the eye of faith this morning and you will not come up with a true view of the worth of the church. By any worldly standards we are a pitiful bunch, aren't we: an overweight IT consultant lecturing a bunch of misfits with nothing better to do on a Sunday morning—it's pathetic, isn't it? No sane person would judge us to be of any great significance whatsoever.

But God has chosen to dwell among us. He has chosen to make us the place where he is worshipped. He has chosen to make us the place where the world encounters him: whether in this building or out and about during the week. And nothing in the universe is more important than that.

If we will think spiritually, then we will have the highest possible view of the church.

The root of the Corinthians' problems was that they thought highly of themselves in worldly terms, but not nearly highly enough of themselves in spiritual terms.

Verse 21, So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.ref

If this is reality—if all things are ours—then what is the point of squabbling over petty one-upmanship? It's like a couple of billionaires fighting over a grubby five pence piece they found lying in the street.

All things are ours! A spiritual church takes the highest possible view of itself.

Points for reflection