"Worldly - or Workers?"

Jan.30, 2011 1Cor.3:1-15


Suppose you're visiting the neonatal intensive care unit. You're walking along seeing nurses and anxious parents hovering over tiny pink bodies inside warmed incubators with see-through lids. But suddenly you turn the corner and here's a healthy full-grown man with his head stuffed through one of the access holes into an incubator, inhaling deeply the oxygen-rich air, slurping up the liquid in one of the feeding tubes because he's too lazy to work...Would that raise your ire? "Get that idiot out of the incubator!"

Don't get me wrong, incubators are wonderful inventions and do have their place. Babies born prematurely or with complications benefit from respirators that help them breathe, higher oxygen content, feeding tubes, warmth, and so on. But the goal ideally is to remove the supports one by one until the baby is able to leave the hospital and feed and grow on its own with only the parents' assistance.

Unfortunately some churches are like spiritual neonatal wards full of grown-ups with their heads in the incubators and mouths on the feeding tubes. They've bought into a 'chaplaincy' style of ministry where they expect the pastor to bottle-feed them and meet their spiritual needs. These infantile Christians refuse to accept responsibility for their own growth and maturity in faith. They eke by on sermons and worship from week to week but don't learn to self-feed by their private devotions and obedience, let alone learn how to feed or serve others.

The apostle Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for being spiritual babies when they should be autonomous responsible grown-ups in faith. Chapter 3 vv1-2, "Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly-- mere infants in Christ.I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.Indeed, you are still not ready." Other New Testament passages describe something similar. Ephesians 4(14), "Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming." And Hebrews 5(13f), "Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness.But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil."

Where do you fit in? Are you a self-feeder, or still on the milk bottle? In today's passage, Paul gives some hints how to move along the path to maturity in Christ.


First, before we talk about the marks of maturity - how to recognize it - here's what spiritual maturity does NOT look like. As we saw in 3:1 Paul uses the term 'worldly', literally 'fleshly' - a lexicon describes this as 'under control of the animal appetites'. Appetites - desires - primitive drives: the lower, carnal urges of our being taking charge. Vv3-4 expand on this: "You are still worldly[fleshly].For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, "I follow Paul," and another, "I follow Apollos," are you not mere men [walking in humanness]?" You can sense the rivalry here, envy, bickering, competition, pride. The focus is on "I", myself, trying to get one-up on others.

Other NT passages flesh out (ha!) what worldliness looks like. Chapter 6 reveals there are lawsuits against other believers, they are wronging and cheating each other. 2Cor 12(20) discloses what Paul's afraid he might find when he visits: "I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder." <gasp> In the church? No way!

James (4:1f) writing to the church at large says, "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don't get it...You quarrel and fight." Desire / wants seem to play a big part in conflict. Paul writes to Titus (3:3), "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures.We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another." Passions that deceive and enslave lead to interpersonal conflict. What is it we're wanting? Peter writes that someone who is truly in Christ "...does not live the rest of his earthly life for evil human desires, but rather for the will of God." (1Pe 4:2) Not my desires, my wants, but God's will. Was Peter recalling Jesus' rebuke to him, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (Mt 16:23)

So the worldly or fleshly 'babyish' mind is focussed on my human desires and passions rather than having in mind the things of God. Romans 8(6f), "The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful [carnal/fleshly] mind is hostile to God [enmity against God - God's hostile hating enemy]."

Probably the fullest portrait of worldliness or fleshliness is the 'deeds of the flesh' passage in Galatians 5, which along with sexual immorality and drunkenness highlights things like idolatry, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, and envy. So it can look very civilized, smug and hoity-toity, or it can look like a debauched orgy. But it's all 'worldly', carnal, desires that become destructive.

And yes, there are worldly churches and so-called Christians. Often the issues that cause conflict turn out to be very petty. Kenneth Chafin recalls one church split triggered by the changing of the job description of the organist. She had been there for years and built a small empire in her area of work. She'd developed great skill in using a loyal following as a power base for budget, program, and calendar advantages. But when a committee suggested a slight change in her duties, she took it as a personal rebuke and declared war. As a result, some members began drifting into neighbouring churches. Chafin recalls one observer remarked, "That doesn't sound like a big enough problem to split a church," to which another replied, "Any problem that has to be dealt with by people who are spiritually immature can divide a church, no matter how small it may appear."

So, there are some examples of what infantile worldliness looks like. What are the marks of maturity? How can we recognize those who are becoming complete / adult in Christ?


One mark of spiritual maturity is that I'm not looking at myself or comparing myself with others, but looking to God. It's about Him, not me: I'm just His child, His servant. V5A, "What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe..." Paul uses the word 'servant', diakonos, a waiter, one who hastens through the dust. V5 continues, "as the Lord has assigned to each his task." The Lord does the assigning, literally, 'as the Lord GAVE.' It's the Lord's deputation and empowering and resourcing - all from Him. 1Cor 12(7,11), "Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good...the same Spirit...gives them to each one, just as he determines." We are stewards charged with exercising the gifts God entrusts to us.

See Paul's humble emphasis on God's sovereignty and Lordship in v7: "So neither he who plants [referring to himself!] nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow." God is the important one, not Paul or Apollos - they're just God's hirees out in the vineyard. Paul recognizes the significance of what Jesus was getting at in John 15(5), "I am the vine; you are the branches...apart from me you can do nothing."

They may be 2 different workers, but Paul and Apollos were united in a common God-given mission. V8, "The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose [literally, are one]..." They're together in this project, this assignment from the Lord. They feel privileged to have a part in a much bigger project.

A gardener expressed his idea of a co-worker: "As I work in the garden with the flowers and vegetables I feel that I am having a share in creation." And when a mother says to a little child who carries some small item into another room for her, "You are helping me," what stature it gives to that child and what a sense of dignity and place in life's affairs. This ought to take away any sense of the worthlessness of the countless small tasks you perform day by day. Look beyond the temporal and limited as you work in partnership with God. Your attitude will determine your sense of satisfaction with your task.


There may be a sense of real oneness under a sovereign God in a common task, but there is also a sense in which Paul and Apollos have unique roles and gifts. V5, "as the Lord has assigned to each his task." In Matthew 25(15) Jesus told the parable of the master assigning varying quantities of money (talents) to 3 different servants: 5, 2, and 1. The big deal is not that one got 5 and the others got less; the point is, don't bury your talent! Put it to use, invest it for the Master.

Peter writes to the church at large, "Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms.(1Pet 4:10) President Obama can talk about his 'administration' in the State of the Union; how's the state of YOUR administration of the grace you've received from God? Are you administering faithfully, serving others?

Paul in v6 notes, "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it..." And v10, "By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it." He was one part of the equation, but there were others needed, and he was fine with that. He was more of an evangelist, Apollos was more the instructor/teacher.

Kingdom work takes many types. Chafin quotes Billy Graham who said, "I envy the work of the pastor.I'm called to preach the gospel and to ask for that first decision for Christ.But the pastor has the privilege of relating all the teachings of the Scripture to that convert as he grows." Billy's grace is different from a pastor's grace: each is unique and has its place.

Whatever your gift is - use it! Don't let it idle. Paul told the Romans, "We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith.If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully." (Ro 12:6-8) In Emily's blog this week she talked about passing a poor man sitting on a bench, buying an apple fritter for him, and what a big smile resulted from that little act of kindness...Who can tell what difference that may have made in his life?

Here in v9 Paul notes, "You are...God's building." In v16, "You [plural] are God's Temple", altogether. Buildings and cathedrals have many rooms, many different spaces, all needed and with their purpose. If you're a closet, don't be envious of the foyer! The bell-tower at the top of Memorial Hall would be lost without the unseen basement blocks. There are many different aspects of ministry, all needed.


V10B, "...each one should be careful how he builds." There are consequences if you do a conscientious job or a sloppy job. V8B, "each one will be rewarded according to his own labour." The 'reward' theme dominates the second half of this passage. Vv12-15 show the choice of what grade of materials we use is important: "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.If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward.If it is burned up, he will suffer loss..."

If you want to build a Taj Mahal or fine palace, you would use marble, gold, silver, precious jewels; if you're building a shanty for the pigs, you might throw up some sticks, thatch it with stubble, mix some straw and mud to plaster the sides. Question is, where would you rather live? And what will last through centuries? Is an earthquake going to shake it apart?

The Bible does not present a so-called prosperity gospel; in fact the apostles tell us we can expect trials and suffering in this life, it's not 'as though something strange were happening to you' (1Pet 4:12). But the New Testament echoes with the promise of reward in eternity for those who obey God. Jesus said, "if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward." (Mt 10:42) And, "For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done." (Mt 16:27) Paul exhorted the Corinthians, "Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain." (1Co 15:58) And to the church in Galatia he wrote (and note here the contrast again between fleshly and spiritual approaches), "The one who sows to please his sinful nature [flesh], from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up." (Ga 6:8-9)

Be very careful what materials you use to build into other people's lives. The New Testament lists several examples of false teachers building with combustible wood, hay, and straw. There were those who delighted "in false humility and the worship of angels" (Col 2:18); ascetics ordering "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" (Col 2:21); some who "forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods" (1Ti 4:3); those who specialized in "godless myths and old wives' tales" (1Ti 4:7) or "foolish controversies and genealogies and arguments and quarrels about the law" (Tit 3:9); others who said "that the resurrection has already taken place" (2Ti 2:18); then there were congregations who would "not put up with sound doctrine" but, "to suit their own desires," would "gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear." (2Ti 4:3) Unfortunately that still goes on, but it's not the gospel. Don't get waylaid into side issues or unorthodox teaching that caters to self-interest and may please people but doesn't represent Jesus as the solution to our root problems. There's no reward proclaiming anything else.

Pompeii in Italy and St. Pierre in Martinique can both teach us a lesson. On both of these, fire caused by a volcano brought unprecedented destruction. The museums that contain relics of these catastrophes dis play nothing that was made of wood. All that survived the fire were metallic objects. In Pompeii, pitchers, bowls, jewelry, and other ornaments survived the fire because they were composed of gold, silver, and precious stones. But no remains of wood, hay, and stubble have ever been discovered, for these things were completely destroyed in the heat of the catastrophe.


To review the marks of maturity Paul presents here: we are servants under sovereign control; discover and apply your unique gift; build carefully for lasting reward; and - strategically co-ordinate for overall impact. (That's a mouthful!) Or, more simply, 'Be a TEAM.' Recall that in v5 Paul noted how the Lord assigned to each his task - Paul planted, Apollos watered. Different roles but all part of the same enterprise, specialized according to their giftings. V9 says "we are God's fellow-workers": now it's easy to jump to the meaning "I am a fellow-worker or partner with God (along with Apollos)" but in context of these 4 chapters, the other sense is probably the more accurate one: "Apollos and I are fellow-workers - and we both belong to God." The 'fellow'-link he's emphasizing is fellowship with Apollos rather than with God. Paul's stressing he and Apollos are a TEAM: so the Corinthians' splitting up into factions behind them is really pretty silly. Paul and Apollos are not rivals or competitors, really it's a concerted effort they're putting out together as God's servants.

Paul is recognizing and validating Apollos' ministry, whose teaching talent compliments Paul's evangelism. Similarly, Barnabas left Antioch, and went to Tarsus looking for Paul because he felt he'd be a big asset to the ministry there (Acts 11:25f). Also, in Galatians 2(7f) Paul describes how the leaders at Jerusalem perceived Paul's and Peter's different taskings and target people-groups: "For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles."

So, in the church, it's not about comparing ourselves with each other, or the refreshments person being envious of the praise team stealing the limelight. In contentment we can grant each other grace to carry out whatever ministry God equips us for. We can respect and celebrate each other's taskings and talents, without rivalry; the main thing is co-ordinating our efforts for maximum impact, cheering on and supporting each other. That's a sign of spiritual maturity, making allowance for others' specialties.


It's important that in the church we work well and each do our part as fellow labourers. Visit a factory where thousands of persons are employed. There is the manager sitting in his central office where he directs all the operations of the factory. Everyone is doing his or her separate job. But they are all fellow labourers with the manager; they are all necessary. Not one could do without the other. If one does his work badly the whole organization suffers; if one does his work well they all benefit. Some feel they have important work, some less important. But there isn't one who is unimportant in the eyes of that man who is sitting in the general manager's office.

What happens when somebody starts to feel their role doesn't matter and lets obedience slide? This week Toyota announced a recall of 1.7 million vehicles. (To put that into perspective, their total annual output is about 7 million, so 1.7 million is about a quarter of the number they put out each year!) What causes recalls? Somebody didn't do their job right - whether in design or manufacturing. So it becomes international news; the reputation of the manufacturer is damaged (again), the name of Toyota is tarnished - and fewer people want to buy or drive one.

By contrast - when we pitch together and each do our part in the church, as the Lord has assigned to each his task: the name of Jesus is glorified! Let's pray.