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.
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 had experienced the same kind of power that we were experiencing.
Somehow we missed the fact, as we read selected parts of this letter, that the apostle Paul is desperately 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 should our attitude be to Christian leaders and to Christian leadership? That is the issue that Paul is tackling in this chapter. So you'll see that the three headings that make up my outline on the back of the service sheet 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.
First, 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:
Brothers [note that: he's not disputing the reality of their faith; they're in the Christian family], 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 . You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?
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:
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you?
But they're not keeping in step with the Spirit. They are listening to 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 havn't. They should be digesting the gospel and the Bible and taking into their system all their implications. But like a baby that won't take food that's offered they spurn solid spiritual sustenance.
Then thirdly, they are, he says, acting like mere men – not 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 that they think, in the way that they behave, and in their attitude to Christian leadership.
How do they think? They're jealous.
How do they behave? They quarrel. 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. In fact they come close to idolising leaders – giving them a place in their lives that only God should have.
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 had 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 overrun on Sunday afternoons. There was the venerable founder of a powerful evangelistic ministry. When he came, those of us who were courageous enough would line up to spend a few minutes receiving his counsel. I thought that if I spoke to him he would tell me all my sins and denounce me for a fraud. I never plucked up the courage to see him, but just looked on reverently from a distance. 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. And I can think of others.
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 what 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 is 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 amongst 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. We don't have to be young in years to display all the classic signs of spiritual immaturity. We find jealousies welling up within us that given half a chance will lead us into quarrels and before we know it, ever so respectably the battle lines are drawn up, with each army convinced that its author, its hero of Christian history, its favourite leader even within JPC, is the only one worth listening to. That dangerously immature spiritual infant is always lurking within us, ready to break out and reek havoc. We need to grow up and 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 sacred, 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. 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:
Secondly, 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 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 that 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 mere men? 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.
Then he goes on to spell out the tasks of leaders and the role of God:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labour. For we are God's fellow-workers; you are God's field…
Leaders, preachers and teachers have their part to play. And it is 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. 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. 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 went to the allotment and planted our broad beans. Previously, I had bought the beans. I had cleared the bed of last seasons crop. I had dug the bed over. I had manured it. Come to think of it, Vivienne just did the fun bit. It will only be fair when I take all the credit for our tasty crop of beans in a few months. Admittedly, Vivienne tells me she had to do some weeding first. But that was nothing to what I had done. On the other hand, the truth is that neither of us will do anything to those beans now. Maybe a bit of watering (though this year it's hard to imagine that being necessary). Maybe a bit of keeping the weeds down. Otherwise all we do is wait and hope. And year after year the beans come up. And up. And up. A few beans become hundreds of beans. And it never ceases to amaze me. Pity I don't like broad beans really, but there you go.
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 are 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 you have leadership responsibility (and come to that, if you don't) be united with your 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 by grace, 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.
Thirdly, 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. 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.
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, 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 any foundation other than the one already 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 is all too easy for a church to be built on something other than the gospel. It may look superficially OK – even thriving. But under the surface, under ground, there may be severe problems. And one day they will come to light.
I remember, in my engineering days, going to see an elderly couple in their home. They had had a terrible fright, and they were in a state of high anxiety. One night they had 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 had not 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 could not 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 the gospel of Christ. 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 has 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 is 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 hope and 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 is 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 Paul's terms, to build with gold, silver and costly 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:
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; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
We visited Castle Howard in Yorkshire 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 is 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 on the foundation of Jesus, with the gospel. 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.
Be careful how you build! Don't we know that we ourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in us?