Have you ever heard someone speak only to realize that by the end you have generally no idea what they meant? I feel this way about Scripture sometimes, about sermons, about astrophysics, and about women (mysterious, I tell you, and I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the same in response). Some experiences and some uses of language are disconnected from my current understanding, and though I can’t always exactly explain why, I’m certain there are a few pieces missing. I might comprehend 80% of what I heard, but am confident the extra 20% would set everything in place.
The reason I’m unable to understand? Broadly speaking, it’s maturity, at least maturity in a sense. Maturity can mean a few different things, but here I mean maturity as level of depth in understanding a particular topic, often brought about through a sustained commitment to knowing said topic. Our spiritual maturity grows as we study Scripture more, as we tend to prayer, as we meet with healthy and fearless accountability groups, as we repent, as we look outward in service, and as we gaze at the heart of God, among other means. The product of these means of grace is what we call maturity, and this maturity is on display for all to see when the circumstances of life meet our everyday decision making opportunities.
Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 3 seems stark, a sound combination of love and truth, letting the Corinthian church know where they stand on the spectrum of spiritual maturity. Paul couldn’t’ even speak to them as spiritual. He calls them unspiritual. He gave them milk instead of solid food, knowing their babe-like tendencies would cause them to choke and spit out that which was too much to handle. They deserved this treatment, of course, since jealousy and fighting won the day, the means by which Paul identified their unspiritual nature.
It’s easy to see from our vantage point how silly it is to take sides. Why not leave Christ at the center? The draw, though, perhaps began in subtle ways. The church, much like today, was filled with those who came from all walks of life. Those entering the church primarily influenced by Greek philosophy may view Paul, Apollos, and Cephas through a lens which elevated the value of rhetorical ability. We find Paul conscious of the northern Mediterranean rhetorical climate from our reading of 1 Thessalonians 2:1-5. Perhaps these and other unnamed conditions subtly contributed to the peoples’ allegiance to one godly servant over another.
Today the same subtle draws can tempt us. The draw toward lights and fog, toward the show, toward the building, toward the comfort, toward the speaking ability of pastor X, toward the coffee, toward the level of commitment expected of church Y, and so on. I don’t think they’re so bad in and of themselves, but when the show replaces the gospel, when the speaking ability of pastor X replaces the Word and worship, when Paul and Apollos and Cephas replace Christ, the sirens blare. Perhaps the most pertinent question to ask ourselves in periodic moments of meditation, prayer, or spiritual conversation is the following: who saved me?
What then is the purpose of Paul, Apollos, Cephas, the lights, the smoke, the coffee, the music? They are servants who helped you believe (1 Cor. 3:5). They are resources to help you believe. When a leader becomes the primary draw, we have given in to a Christian sub-culture. When things become the primary draw, the main motivator, the cause of division, they are no longer servants but have taken the starring role reserved for Christ alone. The Lord gave each person in the early church a role, and they fulfilled this role as either one who plants or one who waters (in this case), but Paul reminds the Corinthian church that the only one who is anything is God who makes [the seed] grow.
God, by His power and wisdom, can use any resource to bring a person to faith. Many reading this have no doubt heard about the droves of Muslims coming to faith in Christ through dreams wherein Christ himself appears. I believe it’s Dr. D.A. Carson of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School that tells the story of a man who came to faith after hearing someone reason through how it is that the existence of dinosaurs can coincide with the biblical narrative. The use of smoke, coffee, and a pastor’s speaking ability may be the very resource needed to break down a barrier that’s existed in someone’s heart for years.
Yet the thing itself cannot become the object of worship, and the leader cannot replace Christ. Christ unifies; things are servants. People, too. To understand otherwise is to be unspiritual, to be immature. Maturity means seeing clearly the order of things and the source of salvation.
Finally, Paul reminds us as leaders of the way to approach spiritual matters within the church. Paul takes into account the current spiritual condition of the Corinthians, mentions their condition to the church, and proceeds to correct their condition. The nature of his writing would indicate that he may still be approaching them with milk rather than solid food, a healthy approach and reminder for leaders tending to their flock. (1) Identify the condition, (2) speak the condition into the life/lives of the church member/s, and (3) correct the condition.