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). The leaders of the church at Corinth are not like leaders in the Roman world who are adored and honored. The leaders of the Christian communities are co-workers in God’s service.If they think of themselves as worthy of higher honors and adoration, then they are not fit to be God’s co-workers. This has far-reaching implications for contemporary Christian leadership throughout the world. Too many Christian leaders assume they are due some special honor from their congregations or demand respect beyond that of a humble servant.

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 Corinthians 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?

20 thoughts on “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.

  8. There is no doubt that Paul had his work cut out for him during his time in Corinth. However, one issue that he had to deal with was with the unity of the Church as whole in Corinth. As stated by Longenecker, the people of Corinth remained worldly and just acting like mere humans in the context of 1 Corinthians 3:3 (Longenecker, p. 119). In essence, the problem that is going on in Corinth is the lack of maturity amongst believers, which is related to the relationship of the unity in the Church. Moreover, it is also clear that Paul wants the people in Corinth to understand the foundation by which people should be relying upon when developing believers in the Church. According to 1 Corinthians 3:7, Paul makes it clear that the only way to grow is through God himself (NIV). When it comes down to it, Paul’s goal is to establish a culture that has the people of Corinth putting God first, and let every part of their lives build upon this value. Ultimately, this message connects to the numerous problems facing the Church today, as many aspects have been lost or distorted to worldly values, and false teachings. At the end of the day, Paul’s mission is one that is meant to give the prominence and value to the people of Corinth.

  9. I believe it is important that we do not hold positions of leadership in the church on pedestals, or any position in the church for that matter. Just because the worship leader is up on the stage along with the Pastor every Sunday does not mean that their Spiritual gifts hold more value than anyone else’s. We are all members of the body of Christ and each of us has obtained a very valuable Spiritual gift. One of us alone cannot grow the body of Christ towards Spiritual maturity with our single gift, but we must work together as unique members of one body (1 Cor 12:12-27). I agree that if a few members of the church are Spiritually immature, then we all have to grow together as one body. However, I’m not sure if that would mean that no one is Spiritually mature in the church simply because a few people are not. Does this mean that we are always to label ourselves as Spiritually immature because there will always be someone in the church who is not? Will we ever reach Spiritual maturity and how do we do that? I suppose it is because we make up ONE body that the BODY is not Spiritually mature if a single part of it is not. Ephesians 4:16 says, “From whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

  10. The difference between milk and meat is not Calvinism. It is whether we can discern right from wrong (Heb 5:14).

    The hallmark of maturity is not knowledge – whether of doctrine or anything else. It is whether we are doers of the word (Jam 1:22-25).

    Heb 6:1-2 lays out the six things that are considered milk (elementary teaching):

    1. Repentance from dead works
    2. Faith toward God
    3. Baptisms (washings)
    4. Laying on of hands
    5. Resurrection of the dead
    6. Eternal judgement

    I am not a Calvinist, and thus don’t consider Calvinist doctrine to be even milk, but Paul lays out the above list of six as the mere basics.

  11. It was not intended to be snarky. It was intended to suggest that “the doctrines of grace” address only two of the above items. It is thus incomplete milk, at best. Whether it is false milk is a completely different discussion and one that I will decline to engage in since I don’t think that is the purpose of this site.

    • No, I was the snarky one in the last line of the original post; I apologize if you thought I was calling you a snark.

      You are fine. My point was understanding the intricacies of a complex theological system is not necessarily a qualification for ministry.

  12. Detailed theological training should not be a qualification for serving – particularly service that doesn’t involve teaching or heavy discernment and application of doctrine. Too many Christians warm the seats Sunday after Sunday and never do much besides demanding to be “fed”. The result is much like our physical bodies: spiritual obesity.

    I heard something fascinating about a week ago that gave me reason to pause. I have not fully come to a decision about whether I agree with it, but it certainly made me think. It concerned the choosing of the seven deacons in Acts 6. While Stephen was clearly a man of incredible character and maturity, it is interesting that the matter of who the seven would be was put to a vote of the whole congregation (Acts 6:2-6) – which appears to have still been in its infancy and populated by at least some that were immature. This teacher’s contention was that this selection method (democratic vote by the whole church) was a huge mistake and would later cause serious problems because the same Nicholas selected for deaconship here would later become the father of Nicolaitanism – a doctrine that Jesus used extremely strong words to condemn. This teacher felt that the information given about Nicholas – that he was a proselyte from Antioch – is significant and means he had a background in paganism prior to his conversion to Judaism and then eventually Christianity. And this paganism showed up later in Nicholas’s doctrines as he gained more influence. Hard to know – but fascinating to ponder nevertheless.

    It makes one wonder if observing such problems from a distance perhaps made Paul especially keen to instruct Timothy with the list of qualifications in 1 Tim 3 – particularly v6 about not being a brand-new believer. And then a later admonition in 5:22 to not lay hands on people too quickly.

  13. “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants through whom you came to believe” (1 Cor 3:5). Paul is explaining here that the factions that the Church of Corinth was currently going through, with their various factions, should not matter. The Church of Corinth was letting their worldly and cultural matters get in the way of worshipping, and in the process was affecting the church relationships of all matters. In many ways it was childish, and Paul even calls them out on this, which was something that had needed to be done.
    This is something that can be done today. Personally, I believe there is definitely ‘factions’ of a sort within a church, and as a result, I have noticed that many seem to get caught up in the more ‘worldly’ aspect so to speak. This could be anything from the music style to a youth group, or otherwise. Essentially, people have left different churches simply because of these examples. While the Church in Corinth struggled with these, and Paul called them out, we now as Christians, should, instead of finding a church where we like the music, or a pastor that we like, should instead find churches that are preaching accurate versions of the Bible, and not to just fill a quota on Sunday, go home, and do not change after that. Instead, we should be going to Church for the Word, what it says, what it entails, and what we can do to further the Kingdom of God.

  14. Church leaders often see their role as shepherding and nurturing the spiritual growth of their congregation. They may begin by teaching “milk” or foundational doctrines to newcomers or new believers, focusing on fundamental principles like salvation, grace, love, and forgiveness. As individuals in the congregation mature in their faith, church leaders may gradually introduce more complex and nuanced theological effective church leadership often involves recognizing where each member of the congregation is in their spiritual journey. Not everyone is ready for “meat” right away, and some may never delve into the deepest theological complexities. Leaders must discern the needs and readiness of their flock and tailor their teaching accordingly. It’s important to say that the metaphor is not always a rigid distinction between “milk” as basic doctrine and “meat” as hard doctrine. The specific teachings categorized as milk or meat can vary between denominations and theological traditions. What is considered “meat” in one tradition might be considered foundational in another.

  15. This post was an insightful look at 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. Paul’s message about servant leadership and unity in the church is as relevant today as it was in his time. It’s a reminder that church leaders should prioritize humility, harmony, and the spiritual growth of the entire congregation. The milk and meat metaphor is a valuable concept for understanding leadership in a modern context—it’s not just about doctrinal knowledge but also about nurturing faith and wisdom, echoing Hebrews 5:12-14. This post encourages us to reconsider the role of church leaders and strive for a more selfless and trans-formative approach to ministry.

  16. The answer to the main question, do we only ordain those who are strictly follow Calvinism, is no, because i don’t follow that doctrine.

    I would say the message Paul preached has made a big difference
    One way is that in most churches spiritual leaders are only held in higher standards because they are teachers and need to held accountable for any false teaching. Another way is that now churches now that to grow we need to have fellowship Another way is that people are realizing that in order to grow spiritually churches need to work together because one persons weakness could be another persons strength

    Yes i would think it would because babies still drink milk or some form of it at first and as they get older and are able to handle more solid foods they are given what they need when they need it. For example, the message you would preach for a new believer will not have as must theological stuff and facts as one preached to older Christians. Another way to explain this is when i am teaching a group of 4 to 5 year olds I will keep the story shorter and less complex that i would have if i was teaching older kids because their brains and minds are able to comprehend things differently and better. So no the meat doesn’t have to be just hard doctrine but could concepts that are hard to comprehend for those who are young.

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