I was recently reading through 1 Corinthians and had to park on this passage. I think the tendency when reading this passage is to impose an individualized meaning on it. If fact, I read it that way for years. I better watch how exactly I build for the Lord, since my work will be tested for the authentic and authorized service. However, I believe Paul’s indictment here has much broader implications, which is for the church.
The problem at the Corinthian church is that their focus was on self-focused and man derived formulas on how to conduct the church. He addresses them as a group beginning in 3:1 as those who are carnal and not spiritual. What was the problem? Divisions were caused because members of the Corinthian congregation were following the teachings of particular people and taking sides (3:1-4). I think the tendency might be to just relegate this to a matter of folks causing divisions. But there was something more going on. The divisions were based in on what men espoused that were not necessarily rooted in foundation of Christ but may have been man-made assertions about what was important. When Paul indicates to them that they could not receive meat (vs. 2), it was not an indictment of their inability to receive some more advanced doctrine but rather to accept and build on the truth rooted in the gospel. As one commentator puts it,
…the fundamental contrast in Paul’s mind is not between two quite different diets which he has to offer, but between the true food of the gospel with which he has fed them (whether milk or meat) and the synthetic substitutes which the Corinthians preferred. They hankered after the more exquisite charms of clever oratory to tickle their ears, which made the simplicity of the word of the cross seem bland and elementary. (David E. Garland, I Corinthians: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, pg 108)
The work that these men were building were not individual tasks that pertained only to them. It was how they were building the church. That is why Paul starts off by talking about what he has built, which is the foundation laid by Christ and references them being God’s building (vs. 9). This correlates with Ephesians 2:19-22
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2:19-22 NASB)
The building Paul speaks of in Ephesians is the same building he speaks of to the Corinthians, the church. So when Paul speaks of how this work will be tested, he is speaking of how they are building ministry since he starts vs. 12 off by saying “now if any man builds on the foundation”; that is the foundation laid by Christ. What is built upon the foundation will become evident (vs. 13). If it is flimsy and incompatible to the foundation begun by Christ and laid by the apostles and prophets, the work will have no value. The wood, hay and stubble describe materials that have no substance in properly developing what Christ established. Given Paul’s description of the problem (3:1-4), flimsy material would equate to inadequate education of the gospel, insufficient equipping of the saints (cf Ephesians 4:11-13), and an indulgence in teaching and programs that will promote the individuals rather than Christ and have no meaningful substance in the gospel. As Garland notes, the gospel became boring to these men and other teaching was needed to gain support.
This problem was not just restricted to the Corinthian church but provides a sobering admonition for present day application. I believe this creates a compelling case to examine how we are building upon the foundation of Christ. Most significantly, it highlights the responsibility that leaders have to insure that the foundation is developing upon the work and person of Christ and not man directed initiatives. According to what Paul writes further down in vv 18-21, there may be ministry and methods that seem wise and practical according to the philosophies of this age but have no practical value for developing God’s program, leading to equipped and spiritually mature saints.
I believe this creates a compelling case for leaders to take on the responsibility of assuring for their own training in pastoral care, theological education and integrity. As I indicated in my recent post here on what it means to be spiritual, it is not a promotion of an esoteric experience but a development of character, knowledge and experience that exemplifies and exhorts Christ. It takes more than a person believing they have been called to pastor, teach or preach but a modeling of the traits outlined by Paul in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 and an affirmation of the community they are building. Who do leaders care more about – themselves or Christ and his body?
This ought to create a humbled approach to the task of ministry for each individual as they contribute to the collective whole. The problem in the Corinthian church was arrogance – they relied on persuasiveness of men rather than the power of God through the gospel of Jesus Christ and a committed submission to it. In modern day application, I believe this describes the leader who has no need of learning, training or accountability but who compels others to follow him. It is the leader who allows self-focused activity and applause of men to permeate the church that bears little to no reflection on Christ. It is promotion of the ‘vision’ of the organization over the preaching of Christ.
This consideration is serious because it is how the ministry of Christ is promulgated – through the church. When Paul speaks of the temple in vs. 16, this is not a reference to individuals, but draws on the building imagery to describe the place where Christ is established. As one commentator puts it “as Jesus speaks of his earthly body as the “temple” (John 2:19-21), so his redeemed people, indwelt by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 6:19), can be called individually and collectively, God’s temple.” (W. Harold Mare, “1 Corinthians” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, pg 208).
Arrogance, pride, divisions and promotion of man derived philosophies will destroy the church and its purpose for revealing Christ to the world. As Fee puts it, “as God’s temple in Corinth, the church was to be his alternative to Corinth, both its religions and vices. But the Corinthians, by their worldly wisdom, boasting and divisions, were in effect banishing the Spirit and thus about to destroy the only alternative God had in their city” (Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pg 148). Paul issues a stern admonition in vs. 15 – destroying God’s temple will draw not only loss of rewards but will be destroyed by God. Every man’s work will be judged by Christ. If this seems harsh, please don’t shoot this messenger. It is a sobering reminder of whose church it is and should be handled with care.