Striving for Unity: Musings on 1 Corinthians Part 6 – “Let No One Boast in Men”

By Jenny Fulton

In this Series

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Acts 18: How It Began

Part 3: A Prominent City (Overview)

Part 4: Where Unity Begins (Chapter 1)

Part 5: In Demonstration of the Spirit (Chapter 2)

Part 6: “Let No One Boast in Men” (Chapter 3)

Part 7: Traits of a Godly Servant Leader (Chapter 4)

Part 8: Addressing Immorality in the Church (Chapter 5)

1 Corinthians Chapter 3

In 1 Corinthians Chapter 3, Paul chastises the Corinthians for their spiritual immaturity, briefly describes the symptoms and consequences of being in such a state, identifies one of the key sources of their divisions, and then lifts their attention to a greater, spiritual, godly perspective that unites God’s people. In order to better illustrate the spiritual principles, Paul uses three different analogies: infants, planting and plants, construction.

Analogy: Infants

Paul first compares the spiritual state of the Corinthian church to the physical maturity and development of infants.

Infants are incredibly fragile and wholly dependent upon their mother. Their digestive systems can’t handle more than their mother’s milk. Anyone who has ever tried to give a baby solid food before she’s ready knows the consequences: the baby will either choke on the food, spit it out, throw it up, or demonstrate incredibly smelly and unpleasant consequences from the other end. In other words, the baby can’t handle the solid food. What is incredibly nutritious to an older child is of no benefit to an infant and may, in fact, be harmful.

According to Paul, this was the spiritual nature of the Corinthian church. When he first came to them, he gave them the basics – the foundational spiritual truths they needed to know God and begin to grow. This infant state was to be expected of new believers. However, it’s clear that enough time had passed that Paul expected this group to have progressed and matured more in their faith.

“You are still not ready,” he said.

How did Paul know they were still infants and not ready to receive the deeper spiritual wisdom of God?

He knew because there was jealousy and strife. Now, an interesting tidbit of information about the word jealousy, is that the Greek word and definition contains the idea of great zeal and passion. The same word is used in other passages to describe the zeal of God for His people. In this instance, combined as it is with the word strife, it carries the idea of not just casual disagreements, but of zealous, passionate arguments. The Corinthians weren’t just meekly disagreeing with one another, they were fervently, passionately striving against one another. According to Paul, this characteristic identified them as being immature, spiritual infants in Christ.

Take-Away: One consequence of giving in to fleshly desires is that it produces strife. When we’re focused on ourselves – on our desires, thoughts, opinions, etc. we can’t see beyond the ‘me’ to the lives and values of others or even to the heart of God for us and for the other.

Take-away: Heated, passionate arguments are a mark of spiritual immaturity.

In this situation, the Corinthians were passionately  arguing about which pastor they followed. “For when one says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another ‘I follow Apollos,’ are you not mere men?” (1 Corinthians 3:4, NASB)

Take-away: Heated debates about which human leader is the best spiritual leader to follow is a mark of spiritual immaturity.

Analogy: Planting and Plants

After acknowledging the argument that is dividing them, Paul lifts their attention to what should unite them: Paul and Apollos are both servants of God. Whether the people were introduced to the gospel under Paul’s teaching or under Apollos’, they were all introduced to the teachings of God.

In this analogy, the teachers are shown as the farmers, the church is the field, and their spiritual life is the plants.

“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field…” (1 Corinthians 3:9, NASB).

“I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6, NASB).

Just as a farmer can’t take full credit for making the plants grow, so also human teachers and leaders can’t take full credit for the spiritual growth of those in their care.

“So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.[1]

The leaders, if they are whole-heartedly devoted to God, though they may be different in their personalities, wording, and teaching styles, are united in their pursuit to help believers grow and mature in their walk with God.

 “Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor.[2]

Take-Away: Human pastors and teachers each have a role in helping God’s people grow. However, we need to remember that our faith doesn’t reside in the leaders, but in God.

Putting our loyalty and faith in human leaders rather than God leads to division, but remembering that our loyalty and faith is in God unites us.

Analogy: Constructing a Building

The third analogy Paul uses is that of building a temple. To the best of my understanding, in this comparison there are:

  • the builders = the teachers
  • the foundation = Jesus Christ
  • the tools and materials = the teachings, practices, and ministry of the teacher
  • the work = the faith and lives of the people
  • the completed temple = the gathering of believers (the church).

“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it.[3]

What determines the quality of someone’s teachings? From the context of the previous chapters, it seems clear that the Corinthians were judging the goodness and rightness of the teaching by the cleverness and speaking ability of the teacher. Using this analogy of construction, Paul provides a different standard by which these leaders will be judged.  

“For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.[4]

The Day: The first question in these verses is, what does Paul mean by “the day?” Is he talking about some near future day in our time in which the strength and effectiveness of the teachings will become known and evident in the lives of those who have been taught or is Paul referring to the final Day of Judgement in which God will determine the quality of the work? I’ve found commentaries that suggest both and both seem to fit into the context of this passage, though most tend to lean towards the Day of Judgment interpretation.

Fire: Fire is used throughout scripture to represent both tribulation and God’s judgement. In both cases, the fire serves to eliminate that which isn’t of God and to reveal or refine that which is.

Regardless of which day or which fire Paul is referring to, the meaning is the same: the quality of the teaching isn’t based upon the words of the speaker but on the substance of what is being taught. It will be revealed by God at a future time through a painful and purifying process. If the teachings are founded in Jesus Christ, they will withstand the fire and produce a faith which is strong and firm, but if they aren’t founded in Christ, they will produce a weak faith that is destroyed in the face of adversity and God’s judgement.

Take-Away: If you want to know the quality of a leader’s teaching, don’t listen to them speak. Instead, look at the lives of those who have been under their teachings. Are those people steadfast in their faith? Do they display the fruit of the Spirit in their life?

Take-Away: We may never know or be able to prove the full effectiveness of a teacher in this life. Therefore, we shouldn’t be too hasty in either approving or condemning one who is preaching God’s word.   

All Things Belong To You

Paul ends this chapter by reminding the Corinthians that they – the church – the gathering of believers – are the temple of God. Those who have been laboring have been producing the work that together makes up the dwelling place of God.

“Do you not know that you [plural] are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you [plural]?[5]

Finally, Paul reminds them, again, that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God[6]” therefore, “let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.[7]

Final Take-Away: We all have this in common: we belong to Christ who belongs to God. Therefore, we all belong to God who has given all things to all of us. Since our faith rests in God and not in the words of men, we shouldn’t be divided by our preference for one theologian/speaker/preacher over another. We shouldn’t be divided by our preference for the teachings of Calvin or Luther or the Wesley’s or the Catholic church or…  Instead, we should remember that we are all followers of Jesus Christ and servants to God our Father. In God’s eyes, we are all His children.  This is the foundation of our unity as believers.

Since our faith rests in God and not in the words of men, we shouldn’t be divided by our preference for one theologian/speaker/preacher over another.

What Do You Think?

  • What stands out to you from this passage?
  • Is there a way to disagree and discuss disagreements without it turning into a heated argument? Can you be passionate about your beliefs and choose not to argue about them?
  • Have you ever seen or experienced instances in which Christians have been divided based on their preference for a human spiritual leader (emphasis on spiritual/church leader as opposed to political leader — not getting into politics here, which I understand is definitely another source of division among Christians).

Women, Join In!

For the last few months, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

_ _ _

*Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:7.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:8.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:9–10.

[4] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:11–13.

[5] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:16.

[6] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:19.

[7] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 3:21–23.

9 comments

  1. I love the detail you’ve put in each part of the chapter and in Paul’s analogy.

    I agree with most part except for the takeaway statement, ‘If you want to know the quality of a leader’s teaching, don’t listen to them speak. Instead, look at the lives of those who have been under their teachings. Are those people steadfast in their faith? Do they display the fruit of the Spirit in their life?‘

    As a teacher myself, we can guide and scaffold people and being a preschool teacher, my students are easier to mould and shape. BUT, in saying that, people who are older, as much as you teach them, it is still up to them to decide whether they heed to your teachings. Teachers and leaders can guide, but it is still up to the individual whether they follow. What we speak into them is under our control. It is not under our control what they do or don’t do after listening to our teachings.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that’s very true. Thank you for pointing that out. I think a key distinction to make on that point is, if the student does follow and adhere to the teacher’s teaching, what does their life look like? If an elementary student actually learns what we teach them, then we should expect them to demonstrate that knowledge in some form (test, project, etc.). Similarly, if the teacher’s teaching is of God and the student follows their teachings, then shouldn’t their life display the fruits of the spirit?

      Like

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