TEXT: 1 Corinthians 3:1ff
TITLE : When Your Thoughts about the Church are to Human
[ Please note : This series was interrupted by a two month sabbatical and a month of 25th Anniversary celebrations of our church. This then continues the series of expositions in 1 Corinthians ]
At the time of the Reformation there lived a great Dutch Scholar called Desiderius Erasmus ( 1466 – 1536) . He is best known for some important writings during the Renaissance period – that period before the Reformation . Among many things he wrote an important new Latin and Greek edition of the New Testament . Like everybody else in this time he was a Roman Catholic , and when the Reformation started in 1517, he was , for a short while quite sympathetic to Martin Luther’s Reformation . As they began writing to each other , Luther thought that he could win Erasmus for the cause of the Reformation , for this man wielded such a mighty pen . But Erasmus was never a firm and consequent theologian . He was an academic , but not a practical , robust , and courageous theologian . As they corresponded, Luther began to see increasingly that Erasmus was far too steeped in humanism , and in a letter which he writes to him he says : "Erasmus , your thoughts of God are too human"! Erasmus is grouped in a category of people called “the humanists”.
I quote this because the subject that we have before us deals with a similar matter . The apostle Paul takes the Corinthian church to task concerning their man centeredness , and he says something similar to what Luther said : “Corinthians , you thoughts about the church are too human !” The problem that Paul is addressing here is of course not new . It is one of the oldest problems found in the church. We tend to look at the church too much through human eyes . The church is of course both , a human and a divine institution ? It is a human institution because human beings constitute the church. But the church is also a divine institution , because God has designed and instituted the church . And it should be clear that His design rules ! That design is described in His Word . God rules the church by His Word. He always has the last Word .
So , if the human members of the church begin to have conflict in the church , there is the real danger to deal with the church according to human wisdom , or “the wisdom of this world” ( 1:20) instead of “the wisdom of God” (1:21) . Now it is clear that the Corinthian church did not address the problem of conflict in the church through God’s wisdom , but through the wisdom of this world . Let us study the case before us .
Paul’s analysis of the division in the church
If you still remember the flow of thought in Paul’s letter so far , you will remember that he wrote it because he heard from those in Chloe’s household that there was division in this church . He pleads with them that there should be no divisions among them , and that they should be united in the same mind and the same judgement . ( 1:10,11). He pleads with them that divine wisdom and not human wisdom should rule them . (cf 1:18- 2:16) .
When churches face division ( and they will because of the nature of Satan’s work in this world) then it is particularly important that we should pay attention to the principle of employing divine wisdom in such conflict situations . The expressions of conflict in the church were many ( see the entire tone of the letter) , but the way they tried to solve the problem is to start ‘parties’ in the church - Paul , Apollos, and Peter parties ( 1:12 ; 3:5) . And so ,the church was split up into factions , with each party appealing to a human leader , and probably putting words into his mouth . The total effect was a hopeless polarisation and a drifting apart of the membership .
HOW PAUL DEALS WITH THE PROBLEM
1. He helps them to see what they are doing at the moment : He shows them that they are not acting like spiritual people (Gr. pneumatikois) . They are acting like people of the flesh ( Gr . sarkikois) , like babies - infants in Christ (3:1) . He is telling them that they are dealing with each other in worldly wisdom , rather than in godly wisdom .
Please note that Paul is talking here to Christians . He makes it very clear when he says : “ You are like infants in Christ” . “In Christ” , mind you ! They are clearly not the ‘ natural person’ of 2:14 ( Gr psuchikos). The natural person is another name for being a “non Christian “ . The terms of reference qualify that . The natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God (2:14) . He is not born again . We are not dealing with that kind of person here . We are dealing here with Christians that have fallen into the trap of fleshly thinking and therefore behaviour .
Now if they are not natural people , then neither are they spiritual people . The spiritual man is described in 2:6. He is the mature man who can discern spiritual truths , through his sensitivity to the Spirit of God, who opens our eyes to the things freely given us by God. ( 2:12)
And Paul has to say to them , “you are not in that category. I cannot address you as spiritual. I can only call you "fleshly." I can't call you "mature" (2:6); I have to call you babies in Christ. “
So we have three types of people here :
(i) The "natural person" in 2:14—the person who has no spiritual life and who thinks that the gospel is foolish or stupid .
(ii) The "spiritual ( or mature) person" in 2:6,15 —the person who is so controlled by the Holy Spirit so that he can receive and appreciate biblical truth.
(iii) The "fleshly person" or " infant in Christ." Before you get confused  by this group let me say that the Bible teaches us here that this third group is not in another class . These are Christians . But at this moment they are not acting like Christians are supposed to act . They are like babies .
So we need to understand then that not all divisive behaviour in the church is merely as a result of ‘ unregenerate people’ or simply by saying ‘it’s the devil’ . The devil does exploit our weak flesh , our immature behaviour , to be sure – but if we are in this category we have the power of Christ in us and with us to resist the trap of falling into worldly thinking patterns and not godly wisdom .
The dilemma of the fleshly Christian ( how do we allow ourselves become fleshly Christians? )
Going back to the testimony of the Corinthians , we take note that in the early days of the gospel there were promising signs of spiritual life . In 1:6 Paul says that "the testimony of Christ was confirmed among you." They were "in Christ." (1:30) .
When you become a Christian that means that you are justified and made righteous ( 1:30) , but it doesn’t mean that you are perfected yet in your moral nature.
It is possible , after your conversion to become fleshly . Most Christians feel the pain of loosing their first love at some time after their conversion . (The devil will make sure of that , and he will stir the desires of the flesh in us until we may get quite despondent) .
It is at this point that I must give you some encouragement . This is a normal Christian experience . And this battle will last a lifetime. I know that it sounds like a paradox : In one sense the flesh is crucified with Christ and we are saved ( Gal 5:24) and yet we must be careful that our flesh (desires) does not take us back to the point when we begin to look like a non Christian . Biblically speaking , you can, of course not become a non Christian again , after you have become a Christian . “Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world “ ( 1 Jn 4:4) . But there is such a thing as the battle of the flesh . The Bible teaches us about spiritual warfare . Once we are born again and justified we are safe BUT we must not be careless . The Bible teaches us “ to work out our salvation with fear and trembling” ( Phil 2:12,13) . The bible teaches us that we must not be ignorant of Satan’s schemes (2 Cor 2:11) . The Bible teaches us that we must put the full armour of God on so that we can take our stand against the devil’s schemes (Eph 6:11) . You must think about these things !
So how did this fleshly thinking take over ? In 3: 2 Paul says : “ I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not ready …”
Why are the Corinthians, even after having been Christians for some time now still unable to digest solid food? Here is the answer : "You are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh?"
What was the cause of their being like weak babes ? It was the presence of jealousy and strife ( 3:3) .
Now let us learn from this example : if in our common life in the church we are still possessed with a spirit of self-exaltation, or lack of submission ; if we struggle with pride and think that somehow we are above the rest ( we do that mostly by separating ourselves ) ; or if we think in terms of solutions to problems as “ of men” , then we are not able to digest solid food. John Piper says : “ The throat of pride is too narrow and non-pliable to handle the solid food.”
And , dear people , the taking in of solid spiritual food is not just a matter of becoming more intellectual , or by developing a better grasp of good doctrine. No! It is a matter of being able to handle your jealousy and your pride .
We have all met people who are theologically so astute and biblically well versed , but they cannot get along with others ! What is that - if not a spirit of jealousy and pride ?
We have seen that the Corinthians were not spiritual persons and they were not natural persons. They were infants in Christ ; they were fleshly. They were controlled by an immature impulse of jealousy and pride which led to this strife .
And here comes the vital point : “ are you not behaving only in a human way ? (3:3) …Are you not being merely human ? (3:4) (Literally: "are you not walking according to man?” ) .
Paul is asking a very serious question here . He is not challenging their salvation . He leaves it as a question. Could it be that the reason you have not made any progress beyond those early days is that you really are no different than ordinary natural men?
And so we must make a vital observation here : Lack of progress in spirituality / maturity is dangerous !
What we learn from this text :
- We need to teach ourselves to think about the church with God’s wisdom , and be very careful to use conventional worldly wisdom . The church is God’s and needs to be dealt with godly wisdom .
- When divisions occur therefore , let us ask ourselves (apart from the ever present work of Satan against the church) what is the cause of divsions ? What does the Word of God say ? The answer is “fleshliness “ . But what fuels fleshliness ? It is a spirit of jealousy and strife among Christians who fail to see that this is an ungodly , immature reflex to problems that comes from our old nature .
- When this continues for a long time it is a serious problem . It could be a sign that no true spiritual life was ever present and that the professing Christian is only a natural man after all. This is very rarely for us to decide. Let us be like Paul and hope for the best . Let us not be quick to write off a struggler . But it is our responsibility to warn such who are displaying such signs of immaturity .
Next week we will consider some more of Paul’s masterly pastoral advice to this divided church , as he helps us to understand the importance of laying a proper foundation for the life of the church : the foundation of Jesus Christ !
 I am not going to get into that senseless debate which has maintained that there are three categories of people in this world : natural , spiritual and fleshly . There are essentially only two kinds of people in this world : Christians and non Christians , sheep and goats . The fleshly group belongs to the sheep of Christ , but they need to be treated as spiritual babies at this stage .