1 Corinthians 3:1-23 (You are God’s temple)


(1Cor. 3:1 ESV) But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4 For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

Paul now makes clear his point from chapter 2. While God has revealed in Christ the mysteries of the ages, the Corinthians are not spiritual enough to accept the deep wisdom of God.

In v.3, “of the flesh” means “dominated by your unredeemed, sinful natures.” Their fights — evidently over who is the wisest — demonstrated their foolishness and weakness. The mature don’t divide.

(1 Cor 3:5-9) What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building.

Again, Paul points the Corinthians away from their human evangelists and toward God. The humans — Paul and Apollos — only planted and watered. But growth — which they desperately need — comes from God.

Now, it’s common in church leadership meetings for someone to point out this passage and say something like, “It’s not up to us to make the church grow. God does that! So rather than discussing evangelism, let’s talk about how to shorten the sermons.” But the logic is wrong. God gives the growth. Therefore, if we aren’t growing, then we’re not doing our job planting and watering. It’s never God’s fault.

(1Cor. 3:10-15 ESV)   According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

As Paul will explain in v. 16, Paul is describing the congregation (not the building: the Corinthians had no church building) as a temple for the Spirit to dwell in.

The foundation is Jesus the King because this is the first lesson that must be preached: “Jesus and him crucified.” But it’s also true that it requires the work of the Living Jesus to keep the congregation intact. Jesus sustain the church.

The construction materials are divided between the flammable and inflammable. Fire was a common problem in those days. It wouldn’t be long before Rome itself would burn (whether caused by Nero or nature we’ll never know). But wood is much lighter, less expensive, and easier to work with. Building a temple of stone would be expensive, take much longer, and require far greater skill. And yet the ancients well understood that the gods deserved buildings made of marble — a substance that could withstand the elements for centuries.

And if the pagan gods deserved stone buildings, how more the One True God! And yet his temple would be built out of people, people who, properly instructed and matured, would last even longer than marble: an eternal temple for an eternal God!

Unfortunately, if the builder used poor materials — not bad people but good people poorly taught — they would not stand for long. Fire will come, the builder’s work will be tested, and if he built poorly and cheaply, the building will burn to the ground.

In short, while Paul and Apollos founded and built up a congregation, the division they were suffering raised doubts about how well the materials would survive. And the danger is greatest, not to the builders, but to the congregation. After all, if the converts leave Jesus, they’ll be lost. The missionaries will escape, but they’ll reek of smoke. The stench of their failure will be on them, but God’s grace will be with them.

In other words, while Paul and Apollos would suffer loss if the church in Corinth were to fail, their loss wouldn’t be nearly as great as the loss to the Corinthian believers. They’ll lose everything.

(1Cor. 3:16-17 ESV)   Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.

In each instance, “you” is plural. I keep waiting for the translation with the courage to say “y’all.” The NIV helpfully says “you yourselves,” but we Southerners know a better way to get the point across.

Paul will later speak of the Christian’s body as a temple, in chapter 6, but here it’s the congregation. Therefore, he is not speaking against smoking or drugs, but against division at the congregational level. To “destroy” God’s temple is to participate in the forces of division — even if you’re ever so certain that you’re the ones “of Christ.”

Now, the lesson is even deeper than that. You see, recent studies have concluded that the church in Corinth was a single congregation meeting in multiple houses. They were not autonomous house churches, contrary to countless books recently published in the evangelical popular press.

The solution to modern church problems won’t be found in dividing into smaller and smaller churches. In apostolic times, when the church was not officially sanctioned by Rome, it would have been much easier to form into house churches — maybe even safer because one congregation could be unaware of the membership of the other house churches. It was a police state, we often forget.

But it is becoming clear that the apostles saw the church as consisting of one congregation per city. Even in Jerusalem where the church grew to over 15,000 members, they remained a single congregation under a single eldership. Why?

Well, why not? Are we going to be united despite our differences and brokenness or not? To American ears, especially in the Churches of Christ, this sounds like heresy, in part because of our American, Postmodern distrust of authority. We don’t want to answer to anyone! Which is, of course, not a Christian attitude at all but rather a sign of worldliness. We are not our own keepers.

In 1 Cor 3, Paul makes clear that the refusal of the Corinthians to remain united is a sign of immaturity and a warning sign of damnation soon to follow. So what makes us immune from the same accusation?

And so, what duty do we have to seek the unity of congregations within the same city? And how might this be done?

Oh, and one more time: Paul says dividing a church damns. How would the history of the Churches of Christ have been different had we taken Paul seriously?

(1Cor. 3:18-23 ESV)   Let no one deceive himself. If anyone among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,” 20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.” 21 So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, 23 and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.

NT Wright explains —

In short, the Corinthians were like people splashing about in a muddy pool when the ocean itself was right beside them; like people drinking dirty water from a polluted tap when the finest wine, and sparkling mountain water, were theirs to command. Fancy indulging in personality cults, as though you were merely another bunch of squabbling sophists, when the entire cosmos and all its truth, mystery and wisdom were yours for the exploring! Temptations often promise more and give less — sometimes, in fact, nothing at all. Satan offers the moon, and then laughs at you when you don’t get it, while God promises you the sun itself.

… Paul didn’t take the time to write a long treatise about how this might all work out philosophically. He didn’t need to. Enough to state, again and again as he does, that when Christians look up from the world, and from their own lives, they see, not a distant or unapproachable deity, not a vague divine force that they couldn’t know much about, but the God of Israel, the creator God, who has made himself known in Jesus.

The point is that you don’t have to understand how it all works. You have to believe — on the evidence of Jesus’ resurrection in particular — that it works, and that you are called to be part of it. …

That’s why all human wisdom is overturned by the divine folly of the gospel. Verses 18–20 sum up, and buttress with further biblical quotations, the point Paul has been making from various angles ever since 1:18. And the sharp command which goes with this summing-up, which we need today as much as ever, is this: don’t deceive yourself (verse 18). It is easy to do, and the results are sad. And those who think they’re not likely to deceive themselves are the very ones who are about to do so.

 Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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17 Responses to 1 Corinthians 3:1-23 (You are God’s temple)

  1. Dwight says:

    This was overa ll T. and A. Campbell’s thought…unity. Put away human doctrine and only use God’s doctrine and unite in that. Most people think they started the coC, but in reality they were set against conventions that made them look or sound different than the congregations around them, unless there was real scriptural differences. The sad thing is that once you divide something up it is incredibly hard to put it back as one if you didn’t think of it as one to begin with.

  2. Ray Downen says:

    I live in a small Missouri city. We have two quite large congregations who seek to be undenominational as Christian Churches/Churches of Christ in our community. Four mid-sized congregations and five smaller. Each congregation is led by elected elders, For the elders of the smaller churches to be faced with the problems of the larger congregations would be daunting. If we were considered as simply one church, the leaders of the smallest congregations would be superfluous, I suspect. And yet the problems of those small churches would remain unless the elders of the combined churches were very wise indeed. Pondering this, the wisdom of some elders being paid and giving full time to leading surely makes sense. But would that be different from paying a preacher or preachers for each church?

  3. Jay Guin says:


    It’s increasingly common for churches to put an elder or two on the payroll. And you’re right: we often hire preachers to do the work of elders. In fact, it’s really hard to distinguish the job description of an elder from the preacher’s job description in most cases.

  4. Dwight says:

    When you breakd down the duties of the elders in most churches, much of the effort is spent on not the people, but rather the finances, building upkeep, etc. And then you have the preacher doing many elder duties. In the OT and NT the elders were reponsible for the spiritual well being of the flock or people in regards to matters of problems, helping the needy saints, etc. the preachers weren’t focused on the needs of the people, but the spread of the Gospel. Then the people abdicate knowing and helping thier brother to the church. The scripture has people recognizing the problems of thier brother, if sin, then approaching that, if that doesn’t work, then a few more people, then elders. Often the problem might get handled before it gets to the elder. We often forget that there were elders in the Jewish world and the functions they did and this was presumabely a pattern for the Christians. They weren’t micro-managers, but troubleshooters and teachers.

  5. Alabama John says:

    By far most of the churches of Christ here do not have elders or deacons. Very few can meet the strict requirements and even harder to live by those required by most congregations.
    Business meetings are the norm with every man that attends in that particular building regardless of his beliefs or actions invited to participate and vote.
    Sure makes for some interesting discussions.

  6. Larry Cheek says:

    Business meetings really do create discussions. But, the foremost problem with all of the men attempting any sort of spiritual guidance that an Elder is commanded to perform, is that the very men that obtain the power or are given responsibility through the majority are the exact men that are not qualified by scriptures to perform in that capacity. In this situation the men of the congregation exercise the complete authority of an Elder without any one of them being held accountable as an Elder would be, to the congregation or to God. I can hardly see that it is better to have the whole body of unqualified men overseeing themselves, than appointing a few men partially qualified who have an ability to mature into this position of responsibility expecting and holding them accountability to the congregation and God. Will each man of the whole congregation ask for God’s help in the guidance, or would you expect God to just endow all of the men of the congregation with the ability to fulfill the position of an Elder?

  7. Jay Guin says:


    You are quite right. The idea of a men’s business meeting is foreign to scripture. The challenge is what to do when God has not given a congregation men qualified to be elders. I have two suggestions:

    (a) Restudy what it means to be qualified to be an elder. The church may be excluding those whom the Spirit has qualified.
    (b) Merge with one or more other churches. Most churches that lack qualified leaders do so because they’re the product of division that has spread God’s leaders among too man tiny, ineffective congregations. That’s not God’s fault.

  8. Dwight says:

    If elders in the early Christian time followed the same pattern as the Jewish elders, then you had elders that were appointed city wide who rulled over the congregation of the Lord in that city. Otherwise we have every assembly in the homes, etc having an eldership, which is hard thing to do logistically. Part of the sad thing is what the elders have to deal with or what themen have to deal with in the business meetings…business. most of the business is seeing about the building and/or the churches finances. If we followed the scriptural pattern and command much of the business would be giving the money away and teaching against error. In many places the elders do more than they are supposed to and less than they are supposed to.

  9. R.J. says:

    The term Paul used to describe the root of their schismatic spirit was “eros”. A word denoting bitter strife of fighting and debating. No wonder he told them to compose their differences(couched in Greacen idiom)!

    Eloquence(or at least powerful speech) is a gift of the Spirit(at least according to 2 Corinthians 8). But the Corinthians were abusing it-turning it into a judge of character. Nevermind mixing in Greek philosophy like Platonism.

  10. As to Jay’s suggestion to merge congregations, I would stand on my desk and applaud if it were not for that creaky wooden leg (the desk’s, not mine).

  11. Jay Guin says:


    I think you mean eris rather than eros. My iPhone insists on correcting the first to be the second, but they are quite different kinds of striving.

  12. R.J. says:


    Opps I think you’re right.

  13. Dwight says:

    Of course eros has cuased quite a few schisms as well. As far as divisions go has anyone ever tried to join a worm that has been separated in two and has formed separate identities. I am not sure it can be done becuase you will have to give up something in the process in way of your own idenitity to form a new one with another who has to do the same. This is of course what Jesus asked of the Jews and gentiles, but as of now we have many more than just two groups. About the only way this would happen is if forced to by a depression or war or some outside influence that causes the churches to become less about themselves and more about God to where they bond over God and not man. It would be good overall, but would be seen as a bad thing initially as was the persecution of the saints.

  14. Jay Guin says:

    Dwight wrote,

    As far as divisions go has anyone ever tried to join a worm that has been separated in two and has formed separate identities.

    But the church has but one head. And one identity. The cure is to ignore the institutional level of denominations and consolidate at the congregational level under a single head with a single identity.

  15. Glenn Ziegler says:

    It seems to me that the problem is NOT identifying how to get from where we are to unity. It isn’t even identifying the differences between an elder and an evangelist. The problem is NOT figuring out who will shepherd a merged congregation. The problem is that we have so little understanding of Jesus, despite a myriad of programs and classes that serve as cheap bandaids for issues that have arisen because we have been indoctrinated by division and have little idea how to address the fallout. Unity is NOT the product of extreme agreement on the minutiae of religion as we know it. Unity is what happens when we have no other way to view the called-out people of God.

    Autonomy is near the heart of the matter, but it isn’t the heart. Autonomy is evidence of a divisive heart. It is a symptom. Unity is most characterized by the workings of Father, Son, and Spirit. If we elect by popular vote instead of appointing by Spirit-led prayer and fasting, we cannot help missing the target. We are NOT told to choose men to shepherd as a congregation. We ARE TOLD to appoint men led by the Spirit to work among us. Those led by the Spirit have certain verifiable character traits (not performance resumes). Failure by our popularly elected leaders is not positional nor is it even personal failure; it is congregational failure to listen to (heed/obey/wait for/be shaped by/recognize and respect) the Spirit. Following one Spirit ensures a city of believers pointed in one direction, acting as one Body, and led by men who are led by the Spirit.

    The Spirit of God is rarely the flavor of the week. The Spirit is God Himself working among His people. If you have trouble knowing how to, or feeling confident of, being led by the Spirit, then you probably aren’t being led by the Spirit. If this is you and you are an appointee to some work among the saints, repent and resign immediately. Unless you believe corporations and congregations are one and the same (a pathetic misreading of scripture AND of corporations), it will never be enough for you to belong to any one of many congregations of people who think they are being good Christians. God calls for but one gathering (Isaiah 56:8 and Matthew 16:18). When you find that you must make a choice, NONE of your choices can please God. We are NOT autonomous as people nor as a people congregated. God is our authority, period. The only possible alternative is eternal destruction. Autonomy is the Devil putting a PC name on division. If you believe in autonomy, making decisions for yourself (even if you are in a community that has only one congregation of any kind), then you have believed a lie of Satan.

    You want authority? Look to Father-Son-Spirit. You want guidance? Look to Father-Son-Spirit.
    You want doctrinal purity? Look to Father-Son-Spirit. You want growth? Look to Father-Son-Spirit. You want autonomy? Look away from Father-Son-Spirit and do whatever seems best in your own eyes. You have loads of company, for this is exactly how Israel acted all throughout the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings and Chronicles.

    Just remember, when you were called to Christ, you were NOT called to autonomy. You were called to confess with every fiber of your being, “Jesus Christ is LORD.” Nothing has truly changed.

  16. Dwight says:

    Autonomy is overrated. True churches had elders who ruled them, but you don’t find elders in relation to towns and not assemblies in homes and there is little evidence to suggest there was anything in between. The elders were answerable to God and the people within the congregation were answerable to God and while local congregations had issues they were not told to interfere with others congregations, but then again they were not told to distance themselves from other congregations that had issues, which we do. They were told to exist as Christians.
    The congregation of the Lord has one head and one identity, but many churhes have made a separate identity for themselves in having an identity and the head isn’t Christ, but the preacher who has the truth and imparts it according to the elders.

  17. Dwight says:

    Jay I dont think it is an impossible task to unify, but I dontl think you can do it at the level of the churches, but rather at the cellular level of the individuals. As I attend a conservative congregation, they do not believe they are a denomination, so how can you put away something you believe you are not, even if they are? Many in the congregation really know better, but the preacher and elders are convinced otherwise.
    When you go to all of the trouble to build fences for what you beleive is a good reason it is a hard thing to tear that fence down when you think the reason still exist. Maybe a cut here and pulling a post there and patience.

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