1 Corinthians 3:1-4
What causes divisions among Christians? There are several answers to that question, but the one that Paul gives in chapter three has to do with Christians being immature and acting like non-Christians—
1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. 2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able. 3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men? 4 For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal? (1 Corinthians 3:1–4)
What does it mean for a Christian to be carnal and why does that cause divisions among Christians? What is the solution?
Let’s look at what Paul says about the Corinthian Christians and how it led to divisions within their church.
I) THEY WERE SPIRITUAL BUT NOT SPIRITUAL
1 Corinthians 3:1 And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ.
Notice that Paul addresses them as “brethren.” Remember, Paul considers the Corinthians to be fellow Christians—members of the same family—even though they had many moral and spiritual failings.
I was talking to some folks after church who told me about some of the churches that they had been in. They were so strict that you couldn’t read a newspaper, or have a radio in your car, or go to a rodeo, and on and on. Any sign that you were being worldly brought the pastor to your house for a good rebuke. If you didn’t shape up, you’d have to ship out—and they’d consider you to be bound for Hell.
I couldn’t help looking at these Corinthian Christians and wondering what they would have done to them. Would they had addressed them as “brethren”?
To be sure, Paul is going to get tough with these Corinthian Christians, but he doesn’t lose sight that they are in the same family as he. In chapter two, he referred to them as “spiritual,” but here he seems to say that they are not “spiritual.” So what does Paul mean by “spiritual”?
In the last chapter, Paul used the word “spiritual” to refer to any Christian, as contrasted with unbelievers. Every Christian is “spiritual” in the sense that they have had a spiritual birth and that the Holy Spirit lives within them.
The Bible uses the word “spiritual” (26 times) very often to simply mean not physical or belonging to the invisible realm. It talks about spiritual gifts, spiritual meat, spiritual drink, spiritual songs, a spiritual body, a spiritual house, spiritual sacrifices, and even spiritual wickedness. Those are all things that are not physical or somehow related to the spiritual, not earthly, realm.
There are about two places in the Bible, and this is one of them, that “spiritual” seems to be used in the sense that we commonly use it—to refer to a mature Christian as opposed to a immature Christian.
The Corinthians Christians were “spiritual” in the sense that they had a spiritual birth and the Holy Spirit lived inside them. But they were not being “spiritual” in a practical sense. They were not living as though they had the Spirit living in them. They had the Spirit in them, but the Spirit was not in charge of them.
II) THEY WERE CARNAL IN ACTION AND THOUGHT
Paul says that they were acting in a “carnal” way. The word “carnal” means “flesh.” They were behaving in a purely sinful, human manner instead of a spiritual, godly manner.
Now, before we go further, I must point out that the church—especially fundamentalist churches—has often been guilty of thinking of worldliness or carnal living in terms of certain activities: what clothes do you where (beyond simply being modest), do you smoke, do you dance, do you attend country music concerts, etc.
While the external behavior can indicate a problem with one’s heart, what so often has happened is that the church has never bothered with going deeper than the actions. The person is judged quickly based on appearances, and not where they might be in their spiritual growth. Worse yet, the judgment handed down—usually a “get out of here” or a shunning—does nothing to help the offending Christian to grow.
Carnality does include bad, external habits—but it goes deeper. It’s thinking the way that Satan and the world thinks. It’s buying into the world’s philosophies.
When it comes to relationships, what do worldly people do with those who disagree with them? We complain about the world being intolerant with Christians, but are we intolerant of one another?
So the ironic thing is: those church people who judge only the external habits of another, and then unlovingly kick them out or shun them, are actually carnal themselves because they behaving the way the world would act towards someone.
One of my professors gave us students a memorable story from his first year of being a Christian. It was Wednesday afternoon. He was playing tennis in the park when he realized it was time for church.
He was a new Christian and eager to be at church, but he was dressed in shorts. He went to church anyway. The next Sunday, there appeared a notice in the bulletin: “Persons should not wear shorts to any church service.”
Who has acting carnally? My professor or whoever at the church who put the notice in the bulletin? I would argue, that in their mindset, they were acting just like a worldly person would have if someone had offended their senses.
“Carnal” living is thinking and acting in a worldly, sinful, manner. It is buying into the world’s philosophy when it comes to moral issues, like homosexuality, living together, abortion, and so on.
And it’s also how we think and act in terms of treating one another. Do we treat fellow Christians like worldly people treat one another?
III) THEY WERE BABES NEEDING MILK
Paul calls the Corinthians, “babes in Christ”—nothing is cuter and more precious than a baby. Nothing is sadder than a twenty-year old baby.
In college, one often finds full-grown adults who are who are like children when it comes to how to live on their own.
They can’t wash laundry, they spend their money foolishly, they can’t organize their lives and priorities properly and end up sleeping through their classes. They are like toddlers who think that they can play all day.
Paul had to deal with the Corinthians like they were immature college students—he had to teach them the basics. He said:
1 Corinthians 3:2 I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able.
Paul uses the terms “milk” and “meat” to refer to types of teaching. It’s actually kind of hard to know exactly what he means. Is “milk” just the simple Gospel message and “meat” something like the timing of the rapture or the proper understanding of the Millennial kingdom? I doubt it.
Whatever “milk” and “meat” are, they have to be the difference between the Corinthian Christians being united in maturity and divided in immaturity. In addition, “meat” is going to be something that is essential for Christian living, not optional. The Gospel is going to be both “milk” and “meat,” but the difference is going to be on how you are applying it.
An unbeliever needs the “milk” of the Gospel. He needs to understand that he is a sinner, that his sin is an offense against God that will result in eternal damnation. He needs to come to see that God sent a Savior, Jesus Christ, to die for his sins and that by believing in Jesus, he can have eternal life.
Theologically, I suppose you could say that “milk” is more about justification. Practically, “milk,” is going to stick with basic stories from the four gospel accounts, and those familiar “gospel in a nutshell” verses like Romans 6:23 or John 3:16.
The idea of “meat” is that the Christian needs to understand how the Gospel can change the way we live, how it gives us freedom from legalism on the one hand, and freedom from living in sin on the other hand.
Theologically, “meat” might be more about sanctification. Practically, “meat” would be studying books like Romans, that delve into how our salvation is to be lived out.
In other words, it’s Gospel Level 1 versus Gospel Level 2. It’s the same thing, just going deeper.
If this is milk and meat, and the Corinthians are believers who are having issues with living out their salvation—then why do they need milk and not meat? They’re already saved, they need to get into some deeper truths about sanctification, not justification, don’t they?
Because the truth is, we all need the basics of the Gospel. It’s not all we should have, but most people don’t stop drinking milk after they become adults. We all need reminded of the truth that we are sinners saved by grace. It’s the foundation that helps us live for Christ.
So the Corinthian Christians were…
…Spiritual But Not Spiritual
…Carnal In Action And Thought
…Babes Needing Milk
IV) as A RESULT, THEY WERE CAUSING DIVISIONS
1 Corinthians 3:3 For ye are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are ye not carnal, and walk as men?
1 Corinthians 3:4 For while one saith, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollos; are ye not carnal?
1) Carnality Causes Divisions
Paul says that they are acting like worldly, carnal people, and the result was that there is among them “envying, and strife, and divisions.” The “envying” is an attitude that leads to the action of “strife,” which results in “divisions.”
One of the divisions in the Corinthian church had to do with who was the better teacher and pastor. Was it “Paul” or “Apollos” or someone else?
Apollos seems to have been a more dynamic speaker than Paul, but their teaching was essentially the same. Yet perhaps some thought that it was more fun to listen to Apollos than Paul. And some thought that since Paul was first, everyone should stick with him.
The Corinthian Christians were following worldly, carnal ways of determining who they should follow. It’s a poor testimony to the world when a church splits over things that aren’t things we should split over.
Oh, they may be important to us—they may be matters of conscience and conviction even. But what does Paul say to the Corinthians about a highly charged issue like eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols?
Does he say that they should spilt and make the First Idol Meat-Eater’s Church and the First I Don’t Idol Meat Eat Church? No—
8 But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse. 9 But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak. (1 Corinthians 8:8–9)
It’s hard to determine who is the “strong” Christian and who is the “weak” Christian in many issues, but don’t let those terms throw you off. Every Christian needs to be considerate of one another’s conscience.
You should not force another Christian to “grow up” and be like you (if indeed you are really the “grown up” one!). That’s acting carnally. That’s what the way the world treats Christians—don’t be Creationists, evolution is right. Don’t be anti-gay, support homosexual marriage.
It’s just as wrong to say to another Christian, “There’s nothing wrong with this, get over it and grow up.” Consideration, not conflict, is the key to living together peacefully as Christians. Conflict is a carnal way of resolving problems that leads only to divisions and not peace.
2) Divisions Don’t Help Christians Grow
I began my Christian walk in a Lutheran church and a Lutheran Bible College (which taught the Bible well enough for me to become a Baptist!). As I grew in my Christian faith, I became a Fundamentalist Baptist. I am happy to be called that (although some would not be happy to call me that!).
Fundamentalist Baptists, unfortunately, have had a tendency to separate in order to solve their differences, one classic story illustrates this:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well … are you religious or atheist?”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
Sometimes Fundamental Baptists separate without even talking to our opponents. Sometimes they just “quietly” (like that’s really possible) leave the church.
The passage here tells us that divisions are a worldly way of solving a problem in God’s church. It’s an evidence of a immature Christian, which is a slap to those who tend to leave churches because they feel like they are being mature.
By the way, if you leave a church, and you think that you are mature, then who are you leaving in the church? The immature! How’s that going to help anything? Divisions don’t help Christians grow.
If you can ask questions like…
- “Do I think my opponent is an unbeliever?”
- “Do I think my opponent is deliberately undermining the Gospel?”
- “Is my opponent involved in a clear immoral behavior (you could easily show them in the Bible if they don’t already admit it)?”
- “Have I gone to my brother and sister and explained the issue to them?”
…and answer “no,” to any or all of them, then you shouldn’t use division as a means to solve the issues between you and another Christian.
So what can help us in resolving differences of opinion and conscience between us? Paul, as I’ve hinted, will be addressing this as he goes through the letter. Let me put forth a couple ways of resolving our differences or at least living together until God does!
1) Be Considerate Of One Another
The Corinthian Christians failed to be considerate of one another. Instead, they asserted themselves against one another and divisions resulted. Paul was saying that this method was “to walk as mere men.” Instead, Christians are to…
10 Be kindly affectioned one to another with brotherly love; in honour preferring one another; (Romans 12:10)
Here’s one example. I think the majority here at this church uses the King James Version. Several years of my early Christian life was spent researching and coming to the conclusion that the KJV, despite it’s archaic language, is the best and most beautiful English version of the Bible.
Now, some Fundamentalist Baptists are very militant about the King James—to the degree they won’t talk to you, much less let you join their church, if you aren’t using the King James.
That’s because, for many of us who use the King James, it’s more than a choice, it’s a conviction that this is the best Bible to use.
Here at this church, we’ve been considerate of one another. We do ask that the KJV be used in the ministry, like the pulpit, the Sunday school ministries, choir programs, and so forth. Besides, it’s good for every church to have one main version used in its ministry.
But on the other hand, what Bible you use personally in the pew is your business. There are Fundamentalist Baptist churches where your Bible is checked by the pastor and others when they greet you—maybe peeking over your shoulder. If you have the wrong one, you are shunned.
That’s wrong, and it’s a carnal, worldly way of acting—it’s like these school principals who suspend 1st graders for making guns out of their sandwiches at lunch time—zero tolerance policy.
So be considerate of one another. Be mature enough to look out for your weaker brother. Be mature enough to admit that maybe you are the weaker brother.
Another way to help resolve differences between Christians is to remember that…
2) Church Is Messy, But Stick Together Anyway
Some people have the idea that a local church is going to be perfect, or close to it. I don’t see that in the Bible. The church at Corinth is one terrible example of a church. It was messy.
But even the so-called “good” church at Philippi had it’s problems—two women caught in a conflict were causing such a ruckus in the church as to have the apostle Paul weigh in on the matter—
2 I beseech Euodias, and beseech Syntyche, that they be of the same mind in the Lord. 3 And I intreat thee also, true yokefellow, help those women which laboured with me in the gospel… (Philippians 4:2–3)
These women had ministered with the apostle Paul and yet they were having problems. The church on earth is a messy affair. It always has been and always will be. There are wheat and tares, sinners and saints, the mature and the immature.
How do you deal with messiness in people in a church?
The letter to the Hebrews was written to a messy church. They were struggling, not so much morally, but doctrinally. In fact, they were told the same thing as the Corinthians about their understanding of the Bible—
12 For when for the time ye ought to be teachers, ye have need that one teach you again which be the first principles of the oracles of God; and are become such as have need of milk, and not of strong meat. (Hebrews 5:12)
Apparently, there were some in that church who thought that dividing was the way to solve their problems. Do you remember what they were told?
24 And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: 25 Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. (Hebrews 10:24–25)
Stick together. Encourage one another. Help one another. Give each other the time and room to grow. This isn’t just something the pastor is supposed to do, that verse includes everyone.
So find someone else to pray for (you are praying for the Christians you disagree with, right?) and maybe even get involved in discipling them or encouraging them in some way.
Get used the fact that no one grows up overnight. Give one another the grace that God gives to you. Hey, it’s exciting to have a church with all sorts of Christians at all sorts of points of growth in their lives. It would be boring if we were all perfect! Above all—stick together, grow together.
Tami has a thing for Carmel rolls. So, if I need some brownie points, I’ll go down to the place in town that makes homemade Carmel rolls. I’ll ask the lady for a couple rolls (both for Tami—I get chocolate Moose tracks ice cream—I’m planning a sermon on gluttony someday, but I’m afraid to preach it, lest God convicts me of my chocolate sins).
Then I watch as the lady goes over the big tray with all the rolls in it. Now, those rolls like to stick together. She will cut and slice and scoop and lift; it’s a messy business with all that Carmel oozing and gooing all over, but with effort, she can separate a couple rolls from the rest.
Yes, I have just compared a church to a pan of sticky Carmel rolls! That’s how I’ve come to view the local church—any local church. It’s a messy business, but we’re supposed to stick together.