Church Leaders are Co-Workers in God’s Service (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

In 1 Corinthians 1-2, Paul argues God has inverted the thinking of the world by choosing the foolish to humble the wise; by choosing the weak to humble the strong. The one who is in Christ has the Spirit of God and the Mind of Christ and ought to be thinking differently than the world, especially when it comes to leadership within the Church.

Unlike Greek and Roman philosophers, the Christian should not to think of themselves as a disciple of any teacher or leader, nor should a leader think they are developing prestige or honor by attracting many followers. In contrast to the way the world things, the one who is in Christ ought to think of themselves as co-workers busy at work in God’s service.

Paul is primarily addressing the leaders of the church. This is in fact the longest discussion of the relationship of church leaders to their congregations in the New Testament (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 142). They are not like leaders in the Roman world who are adored and honored, they are simply co-workers in God’s service.

Divisions over leadership are immature (3:1-4 ). The church at Corinth are not maturing like they should have, they are not “spiritual” yet, they are still “fleshly”  Spiritual (πνευματικός) refers to a person who has the Holy Spirit, someone who is led by the Spirit of God.  “People of the flesh” (σάρκινος) refers to the fact they are still thinking as they did before they came to faith in Christ. The noun refers to physical human attributes, often the weakness of human flesh (contrasted with spiritual life, Rom 7:14, 2 Cor 1:12).

The irony is that the church at Corinth made the most use of the gifts tongues and prophecy of the Spirit in the New Testament (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 109). It is possible members of the church thought of themselves as “spiritual” because the manifestation of the Spirit characterized their worship. They are not spiritual simply because they have those spiritual gifts.

Baby Eating MeatIn this section, Paul uses the metaphor of caring for a child. When he was with the church, he fed them milk, since that was appropriate for a child. But as a child matures they are ready for solid food. Paul’s point here is the church is not progressing toward maturity in a normal way, they are spiritual stunted and still need “milk not solid food.”

Everyone has an idea what the “meat” is as opposed to the “milk.” Usually it is “the hard doctrines I understand but you do not because am more spiritual than you are.” First, this cannot be a “secret doctrine” Paul holds back until people are more mature. There is no secret or hidden teaching Christianity holds back until people can handle it. 1 Cor 2 made this point very clear, the secret mysteries of God have already been revealed!

Second, Paul’s point is not that there is a mix of spiritual and unspiritual in the church at Corinth. The whole church is immature and infantile in their thinking because they have these divisions. It is not that Apollos their teacher is highly advanced spiritually and the others are lagging behind. Because there are divisions, the whole church is not growing properly.

Third, Paul is not exhorting the “slow people” to catch up, but the whole church to come together in unity and grow spiritually. He is not pointing fingers at individuals in the church that are bringing the average down, he is saying the local manifestation of the Body of Christ at Corinth is stunted and not growing properly. The whole Body has to grow, not just a part.

This view of church leadership has the potential to transform the way a local church does ministry. In fact, there are many examples of selfless leaders humbly serving their congregations. How could Paul’s vision for the Corinthian change the way churches function? How does the milk.meat metaphor work when applied to church leadership in a modern context? Is “meat” always “hard doctrine”? Should we only ordain people to ministry who properly understand Calvinism?

9 thoughts on “Church Leaders are Co-Workers in God’s Service (1 Corinthians 3:1-9)

  1. I think that the milk-meat metaphor could be applied today in how we teach in the churches. I think that the gospel acts as the “milk”; the message we give to new converts to help them understand God’s love and Christ. To understand that we are all God’s children. It is possible that some modern church leaders stop at the milk, possibly because they do not want to push the congregation too far or to “overload” them with information, but we have to continue with the “meat”. Paul states that he fed them with milk, not solid food, because they were not ready for the meat, for they were still “of the flesh” (1 Cor 3: 2-3). The milk is the foundation (1 Cor 3: 10), and advises the leaders on what they build onto it (the meat), to be careful that it is not of the flesh but of solid work for God (1 Cor 3: 11-13). Paul advises that there will be a day where our work will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work we each have built onto our foundation (be it of precious stones, gold, or straw and hay)(1 Cor 3: 12-15). I think this reveals the kind of “meat” we have built upon the “milk” .


  2. I think that churches today could benefit greatly from having a firm lesson in “not acting worldly” by being jealous and quarrelsome and causing problems by pride in who they follow or what gift they have. It seems that all these problems can be traced back to pride in something or for something. As I grew up in church, I was hardly ever encouraged to not have a prideful heart. But if we turn around and bury the faithful church in the ‘meat’ while still ‘pouring the milk’ over the new Christians, it will weed out or convert the hypocrites and the church will be better for it. 1 Cor. 3:5-9 helps the Christian to see past any and all reasons to have pride in earthly leaders. Because it is all by God and for God in the end. It seems that the Corinthians either misunderstood Paul’s message or simply disregarded the main thrust of it. Christians today do that too. We see the Christian life as sin management and don’t focus on not having divisions among us because of pride. We just try to hide our pride. Pastors should preach about things that bother their congregations not just things that make them keep donating their money.


  3. Many people are still acting like humans, as in living in the flesh and making everything a competition. This view that Paul has is the only way that a church will function properly. I like what Natalie says about how many churches stop at the milk because they do not want to push the congregation too far. However, the “meat” is what is going to push us to go farther and learn more and more. People who stop at the ‘milk’ or the basics of faith, begin to fight over worldly things and not understand it from a biblical point. They state their opinion and what they think is right rather than what God says about it. “You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans?” (1 Cor. 3:3). The foundation of a church is what is going to hold it together. That foundation being Jesus Christ. (1 Cor. 3:10-12). When the people in the church can all be built on this foundation and work together, the church will run much smoother and there will be less fighting and quarreling. The church will not grow if the leaders of the church are ‘humans’ rather than leading by the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:21).


    • I think what Allyssa is saying here is simply that church today has an opposite problem than the one posed in the question; “Should we only ordain people to ministry who properly understand Calvinism?” It is really unlikely anymore to see this in an American Christian church. We value easy milk like doctrine because our churches are less like places to learn and disciple but rather a place to find comfort, and to rest and fellowship. While neither of these ideas are complete standing alone, the Western American Church could stand to consume a bit more “meat.” I think we often see this purely as controversial doctrine but really it is an understanding that all Christians should be philosophers and theologians of sorts. It is best that we ,maintain a balance so not to become complacent or stagnant.


  4. The way Paul’s vision for the Corinthian could change the way churches function in a variety of ways. I think it would strengthen the church immensely, and encourage individual believers to strive to grow more in their personal faith, rather than simply relying on the church leaders to help them grow. I think this is a major problem in the church today. If people took more responsibility for their faith, the church would be thriving, so much healthier, and reaching so many more people.

    Longenecker and Still seem to think that in the Corinthians’ times it was rhetorical ability that caused the division and reliance on the church leaders (TTP 118-9). Today, people also like to have good speakers to look to, but I think it is knowledge they seek in many ways, but want it given to them, not to be found on their own. I believe many Christians do rely primarily on their pastor for knowledge and growth, churches have to ‘water down’ the Gospel, messages, and theology in order for people to understand. Many times, churches do not get to the ‘meat’ of the Bible, and remain extremely superficial. As Paul said, meat is not always ‘hard doctrine’, but simply a deeper understanding of God, Jesus, and what they are doing.

    I definitely would not say that we should not only ordain people to ministry who properly understand Calvinism. The church is not about comprehending certain denominational doctrines, but a healthy understanding of the Bible and the ability to teach soundly from its teaching. Obviously, this also depends on the particular church and people, but I do not agree that a proper understanding of Calvinism is necessary for ministry. Paul says stewards of the Bible need to “faithful” (1 Cor. 4:2).


  5. I think Paul is right in his thinking. I think if the church today read 1 Corinthians 3, it would help them to see we are just like the Corinthians. Many pastors and churches are all about “We don’t judge,” and “We are all about love.” Then they give the Gospel message, which is like the “milk.” That is as far as they go. Many don’t want to tell the hard truths of the Bible, especially if it’s controversial. That is why they either don’t talk about or they condone behavior such as homosexuality and being pro-choice. If churches start coming together, having fellowship and not avoid hard topics, they could grow spiritually, and have the “meat.” The Corinthians were “quarreling” and were “jealous of one another” because they spiritually were still so immature (1 Cor 3:3). “God’s plan… involves patterns of lifestyle that run contrary to the way of “honor” defined by those who benefit from established societal structures,” (TTP 119). This means that life isn’t always going to be how we want it to be. We can’t grow if we live our lives “controlled by [our] sinful nature.” God looks at life differently than all of us, and has better plans than we could imagine if we would just stop following the rules made by men (the established societal structure), and follow what God wants us to do.


  6. I think there are too many churches that believe that they just need to be comforting and non-confrontational. These churches who like to focus on grace and mercy but choose not to teach on how we are all sinners are the churches whose people are not ready for the meat. If their congregations have not been taught about sin then they haven’t even been introduced to the milk yet in their church experience. I agree with previous posters about the fact that the Gospel is the milk. You cannot move to the meat without having a firm foundation in the gospel. I think that a lot of churches focus too much on the milk without diving deeper into the meat so there is barely any growth beyond the ground level of their relationship with God. There needs to be a well-balanced mix of the milk and meat so that new people can grow in the gospel while the more “experienced” people can still learn and grow at the same time with the new believers.


  7. I think that the milk/meat metaphor applied to modern day church leadership might mean that these churches become more confrontational. I think that they can start eating more meat rather than just milk, by doing this. Also I think churches can start focusing on how to get deeper and deeper into scripture and growing deeply spiritual. I do not think that meat is always hard doctrine I think it can be as simple as dealing with sexuality and other things like that. No, I do not think that we should only ordain people to ministry who properly understand Calvinism. I do not think that there is one person out there who properly understands Calvinism without a flaw of some sort. People always see some sort of difference or understand something just a little different. None of us are the same and to one person something could mean one thing and to another person that same thing can mean something different. Who then decides which person is right? So no I do not think we should only ordain people who properly understand Calvinism, because who will be the judge of that.


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