A Different Look at Leadership (1 Cor. 3:5-17)
Christianity has had its share of “Pied Pipers,” those charismatic (in personality) individuals who seem to be able to lead a group of followers anywhere they wish. We are all too familiar with the names of men like Jim Jones and David Koresh, and we wince at the memory of what they did to their followers, not to mention the name of our Lord. Then there are some whose sins have devastated others, and at times have wrought financial havoc for many Christian ministries.
It is not just the “way out” fringes of Christianity which are plagued with leaders who have nearly total control over the lives of their followers, but whose personal lives are out of control. I know of several men whose failures have caused great damage to the church and to the cause of the gospel. There seems to be one common element in these disasters—the men who fell were so powerful, and their control so great, that they seemed almost “unstoppable.” The reason for this: these leaders were so elevated and revered in the minds of their followers that they were considered beyond the temptations and sins of mankind. When men are elevated too highly in the minds of their followers, the people begin to think their leaders are infallible, that they are above the sins we see in ordinary people. And so they refuse to believe the evidences of sin, even when they are compelling. Even if they are guilty of known sin, no one seems to feel sufficiently qualified to attempt to rebuke or correct them.
The problem of esteeming leaders too highly starts very subtly and innocently. It begins with a deep respect and appreciation, often because this individual has led them to Christ, or that he (or she) has significantly contributed to their spiritual growth. This one person is given excessive credit for the work of God and elevated to a position of authority above what should be given to men. Allegiance to this leader becomes a status symbol in which followers take great pride. Out of this misguided allegiance, they feel obligated to ignore or even oppose other Christian leaders.
This is precisely the problem at Corinth, as described in its incipient stages in the early chapters of 1 Corinthians. But by the time we reach the end of 2 Corinthians, it is a much more developed and dangerous matter. People are not attaching themselves to one apostle as opposed to the others; they are attaching themselves to false apostles, who are not servants of God, but servants of Satan:
12 And I will keep on doing what I am doing in order to cut the ground from under those who want an opportunity to be considered equal with us in the things they boast about. 13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, masquerading as apostles of Christ. 14 And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. 15 It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve (2 Corinthians 11:12-15).
Paul exposes the problem of divisions (1:10-12) and indicates that these are contrary to the gospel (1:13-17). He writes that the gospel does not divide saints from one another, but it does divide true believers from the unsaved. To the lost, the gospel is both foolish and weak, and they are in pursuit of “wisdom” and “power.” This is the reason so few of the cultural elite are found in the congregation of the saints (1:18-25), and also the reason those who make up the church can be identified as the non-elite—indeed the rejects of society. When God saves and uses the weak, the foolish, and the insignificant to accomplish His purposes, the glory must go to Him (1:26-31).
Those who identify themselves with a certain leader do so in pride, confident that his (or her) message and methods are highly esteemed by the culture of that day. Paul reminds them that this was not the way they began their Christian life. He came to them in weakness, fear, and much trembling. He did not come with a “powerful” message or method of presentation, but with the simple proclamation of Christ crucified. While that message and method may not have won the praise of the lost, it was the means of their salvation (2:1-5).
Paul is not willing to concede that his message is really foolish and weak; it only appears that way to the lost. And no wonder, for the lost are unable to grasp the wisdom of God. It is only for those who are saved and who are mature in their faith. The unsaved find God’s wisdom completely beyond their comprehension. Left to themselves, lost men will never know God (2:6-9). What men can never know about God by their own reasoning or searching, God chooses to reveal to men. He does so by means of the Holy Spirit, who inspires and enables the New Testament writers to put the “spiritual thoughts” concerning the deep things of God into the “spiritual words” recorded in the New Testament Scriptures (2:10-13). The natural man, devoid of the Spirit, can never know these truths, even though revealed in the Scriptures, but the Christian, enabled by the Spirit, has the “mind of Christ,” enabling him to understand this present age and the one to come (2:14-16).
The “problem” the Corinthian Christians have with Paul is really their problem, not his. Their failure to grow up through the Word to mature Christians causes them to turn from the “milk of the Word” and return to the teachings of men and the wisdom of men. The carnality of the Corinthian Christians is not evident by their lack of religious talk or activity, but by shallowness in their knowledge and practice of the Word of God, and in their distorted dependence on one person, whom they proudly claim to follow (3:1-4).
Now at verse 5, Paul commences to show the folly of exalting one leader so highly that all others are rejected. He will do so in verses 5-17 by the use of three analogies. In verses 5-9, Paul speaks of the church as a farm, and the apostles as farm workers. In verses 10-15, Paul speaks of the church as a building under construction. Paul is the “master builder” who has laid the foundation. Others now work to complete the building on his foundation. He speaks of the standard for building and the rewards for those who build well. Finally, in verses 16 and 17, Paul speaks of the church as a temple, the dwelling place of God, and the severe consequences for defiling it.
Our text is one we must carefully study (as with all Scripture), for it is misused as a proof-text by many:
Here is another paragraph that has suffered much in the church (cf. 2:6-16; 3:1-4): from those who would decontextualize it in terms of individualistic popular piety (i.e., how I build my own Christian life on Christ), to certain Protestants who have used it as grist for the Calvinist-Arminian debate over the security of the believer, to those in the Roman Catholic tradition who have found in it the single piece of NT evidence for the doctrine of purgatory. Paul addresses none of these issues, not even indirectly. His concern is singular, that those currently leading the church take heed because their present work will not stand the fiery test to come, having shifted from the imperishable ‘stuff’ of Jesus Christ and him crucified.44
Let us listen well, for we are all builders. Paul’s words offer great encouragement to us to be good builders, as well as a reminder that our building must be on the foundation laid by the apostles, and according to the standards Paul has set down. The quality of our work will be revealed at the coming of our Lord. The rewards are great, but so are the consequences for living in such a way as to defile the dwelling place of God.
The Apostles and God’s Farm
5 What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. 6 I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. 8 The man who plants and the man who waters have one purpose, and each will be rewarded according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Notice that Paul speaks of himself and Apollos alone, omitting Peter for the moment (compare 1:12). Paul is the first to come to Corinth with the gospel, followed later by Apollos. These were the two apostles most intimately associated with this church. Contrary to the translation found in the new and the old King James Versions (which render “Who?”), Paul begins his question with the word “What?”. By asking “What?” rather than “Who?”, Paul focuses on the place or position to which the Corinthians’ leaders have been elevated, rather than upon the personalities of each. “To what position or place have you assigned your leader?” Paul asks.
Their answer to Paul’s question is something like: “My leader is my everything! My leader is my teacher, my counselor, my guide, my confidence, my pride.” Paul brings the Corinthians back down to earth. Speaking of himself and Apollos, the two greatest leaders the Corinthians have known, he says, in effect, “We are not heroes, to be adored; we are not gods, to be worshipped; we are not masters, to be blindly followed. We are simply servants of God, servants who by God’s grace and appointment were allowed to be instrumental in your coming to Christ.” These two men are the means by which many of the Corinthians came to faith, but they point these folks to Christ, to trust in Him and to follow Him, to be His disciples. Whatever was accomplished by their coming, it is God who accomplishes it; it is God who is Master; they are but servants. How then can the Corinthians place them on a pedestal?
God did not choose either Paul or Apollos to be the single instrument to achieve His purposes in Corinth. Each has his own task, his own calling. Paul, as the first to come to Corinth, is the seed planter; Apollos, who follows, is the “waterer.” The ministry of each, Paul and Apollos, is dependent upon the other. They are not competitors or rivals, but teammates, fellow-workers. They work in complementary roles, rather than competitive roles. Both are engaged in the same work, in the same goal of making disciples, those who trust in and follow our Lord Jesus Christ. They are “one” (verse 8), so how can their alleged followers and supporters (“I am of Paul, … I am of Apollos”) be divided?
Both unity and diversity can be seen in the complementary ministries of Paul and Apollos. Both serve the same Master; both are engaged in accomplishing the same task. Both are brothers in Christ. But each one has his own unique calling and contribution to make to the overall task. Each will receive a reward, granted according to his own labor. This is not spiritual socialism, where each member contributes what he wills and all are rewarded alike, regardless of their faithfulness, diligence, or personal sacrifices.
Verse 9 plays a critical role in this passage by serving as a transition from the analogy of the “farm” to that of “construction.” When Paul says, “For we are God’s fellow-workers; you are God’s field, God’s building,” he is telling us two very important things. First, he is indicating that all the saints belong to God, and none of them belongs to any apostle. Second, he distinguishes himself and Apollos, as apostles, from all the rest of the saints in Corinth. He and Apollos are apostles; the rest are not. The translation of the King James Version best expresses this: “We [the apostles] are laborers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.” The apostles play a unique role in the founding of the church, a role not to be duplicated by any other. In a unique way, the apostles did “labor together with God” in their intimate contact with Him, and in being witnesses of His resurrection, but especially in the “laying of the foundation of the church” by being the human authors of the New Testament Scriptures. This occurred through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as previously described by Paul in 2:10-13. Paul speaks of this apostolic foundation in his epistle to the Ephesians:
19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, and are of God’s household, 20 having been built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the corner stone, 21 in whom the whole building, being fitted together is growing into a holy temple in the Lord; 22 in whom you also are being built together into a dwelling of God in the Spirit (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The writer to the Hebrews also speaks of this unique group of men through whom God chose to reveal Himself in the New Testament Scriptures:
1 God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, 2 in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. 3 And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power. When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:1-3).
1 For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. 2 For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, 4 God also bearing witness with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will (Hebrews 2:1-4).
God has spoken in various ways and at various times. He has spoken through the prophets. But the Word we hold in our hands, the Bible, was given to the saints of various ages as God spoke His inspired Word in such a way as to permanently record it for men of a later time. The “word spoken through angels” (2:2) is the Old Testament. The word spoken through His Son (1:2) is that which the apostles heard, and which they, by divine inspiration, recorded. God accredited these “foundation layers” by enabling them to perform “signs and wonders and various miracles” and “by gifts of the Holy Spirit” (2:4). Paul claims this same apostolic authority, and thus he played a significant role in laying the foundation:
11 I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. 12 The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles (2 Corinthians 12:11-12).
As Paul moves on to his second analogy, that of “God’s building” which is under construction, he underscores the necessity of building upon this foundation and of not forsaking it for another.
10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Before we look at Paul’s words here, let us take note of Peter’s words in his first epistle, words which closely parallel those of Paul:
1 Therefore, putting aside all malice and all guile and hypocrisy and envy and all slander, 2 like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, 3 if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord. 4 And coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected by men, but choice and precious in the sight of God, 5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ (1 Peter 2:1-5).
Let us look also at a different but related image from Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:
11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love (Ephesians 4:11-16).
These texts show how the same basic topic of the church is addressed by means of a variety of images. Peter speaks of individual spiritual growth as the result of dependence on the Word of God, and then moves on to the corporate growth of the church as God places individual believers (“living stones”) into the structure. This “spiritual house” is the dwelling place of God, and the temple from which spiritual worship is offered to the glory of God.
Like Peter does in 1 Peter 2, Paul speaks of “church growth” in Ephesians 4. Be warned, however, for it is nothing like the “church growth” of today. Paul’s imagery in Ephesians 4 is not that of a house or a temple, but of a body. The apostles’ task was to equip the rest of the body to fulfill their individual tasks (as enabled by their spiritual gifts) within the body, so that the whole body grows up to maturity, the standard and goal of which is “the Head,” Jesus Christ. The whole body grows up to the image and character of Christ as each member of the body carries out his or her assigned task.
Paul speaks of this “growing” of the church, the body of Christ, in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. The church is likened to a building which is under construction. Paul calls himself a “wise master builder,” who has laid the foundation on which others build. When Paul refers to himself as a wise master builder, it is with a very deliberate goal in mind. The Corinthians think themselves wise, and they consider Paul and the other apostles simple, foolish, and weak. Their thinking is wrong! Paul is wise whether or not the Corinthians believe it to be so.
In verses 5-9, Paul spoke of himself and of Apollos. Now, Paul speaks only of himself. He is a wise master builder. This word “wise” (unfortunately obscured by the rendering “skillful” in the NIV) is purposeful and pointed. The Corinthians think themselves to be wise, and Paul to be foolish (see 4:10). But it is they who are foolish, and Paul and the apostles who are “wise.” If they would be wise, let them recognize Paul’s unique role as a “wise master builder,” and let them build only upon the foundation he has laid. Paul is not boasting in his role, for this is “according to the grace of God” and not according to his innate abilities (3:10).
Here, Paul speaks not in the plural (“we,” “us”) of himself and Apollos, but only of himself (“I”). Paul distinguishes himself from Apollos. Paul is the one who planted; Apollos is the one who later waters (3:6). Paul alone is the foundation-layer in Corinth, and others like Apollos built upon that foundation. Apollos is a powerful and eloquent speaker, a man mighty in the Scriptures (Acts 18:24), but also a man who built upon the foundation Paul laid in Corinth. Paul came first to Corinth with the gospel as the sower of the seed. Apollos is the one who watered. Paul laid the foundation in Corinth, and Apollos and others built upon it. You will remember that it was Priscilla and Aquila, those whom Paul taught, who “explained to him the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Since Priscilla and Aquila are students of Paul, it seems self-evident that Apollos learns second-hand from Paul. He builds on Paul’s foundation.
In the previous example of the “farm,” the apostles like Paul and Apollos are primarily in view. It is their work which Paul seeks to show as “one work,” pressing toward a common goal, so that the apostles are working in cooperation with each other, rather than competing with one another. Now, in verses 10-15, the entire church is in view. At the outset Paul refers to his work, that of laying a foundation on which others will build. It is a unique work, a work reserved for apostles like Paul, and for those who articulate the gospel in the New Testament Scriptures. Paul’s work of “foundation laying” is represented as a finished work, as a work which is not to be repeated, and most certainly not to be revised. Even he cannot change the foundation he has laid:
6 I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; 7 which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you, and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even though we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we have preached to you, let him be accursed. 9 As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed (Galatians 1:6-9).
The Apostle Paul looks upon his mission of laying the foundation for the Corinthian church as complete. What remains is for the saints at Corinth (and elsewhere) to engage themselves in completing the construction. The proper function of each worker is Paul’s primary focus. In construction terms of our own day, Paul gives us three general guidelines. First, we must build according to the building code. Our city of Richardson, Texas, has a building code, a very strict one. One must follow all kinds of rules when building. For example, if my memory is correct (and the code hasn’t changed), electrical wiring must be stapled within 12 inches of the box, where an outlet or switch is placed. God’s “code” for building is the “foundation.” No building can take place that is not on the foundation; that is, not in accord with the foundation. The apostles’ doctrine (the New Testament Scriptures) is the building code, according to which we build (minister).
Second, the builder must use the best materials. Not only are we to be careful to build according to the code (on the apostles’ foundation), we are to build with the best materials. Some materials are cheap, but they don’t last. The church is God’s building, built not only to last for time, but for eternity. The materials which last are those which are eternal. That which is eternal is of God, of His Word, and of His Spirit. As these well-known words express, “Tis only one life, T’will soon be past. Only what’s done for Christ will last.”
Third, the builder must build skillfully. A friend of mine is a master craftsman. His woodworking is perfection. When he needed a new house, he did not have time to build it himself, so he had a contractor build it for him. A good friend advised him not to go out to “see how it was coming” until after it was finished. He was right. My friend could not have endured watching his home being built the way they are so often built today. I have gone to the construction site to see countless nails which missed their mark, not even close to the joist or rafter they were supposed to strike. God does not want His building built sloppily. He is the “building inspector,” watching every stage of construction, every bit of labor we invest. Thus, Paul exhorts us to build well.
As is evident in verses 13-15, there is good reason to take Paul’s urging seriously. The “building” will have its final inspection when our Lord returns. It will be tested by fire, and that which endures will be the basis of each builder’s rewards. If his work remains, he receives a reward. If his work does not remain, there will be no reward:
12 If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. 14 If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15 If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames (1 Corinthians 3:12-15).
Paul is not talking about salvation here. This is not a proof-text for the doctrine of purgatory. Paul is saying that a Christian’s works may be burned up by the fire of divine judgment, but not the believer. The believer will be saved, but only by the “skin of his teeth.”
Someone might think Paul’s words encourage the “carnal Christian” to live a careless, self-indulgent life, knowing he will get to heaven regardless. A very few Christians whom I have known actually dare to state: “I know that if I sin as I plan to, I may not get any rewards in heaven, but I know I will get to heaven, and that’s all that matters.” They think that they are getting the “best of both worlds.” How foolish! How dangerous! Paul’s next words are aimed right at those who might try to pervert his teaching in practice, so that a life of sinful self-indulgence is based on the “comfort” of his words in verse 15.
Don’t Tamper With the Temple
16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple.
What a sting Paul’s words, “Don’t you know … ?” must be in the ears of the Corinthians! They are so wise. They know so much. Yet Paul asks with seeming bewilderment, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit lives in you?”45 The building described by Paul as under construction in verses 10-15 is “God’s building” (3:9). And now, as Paul indicates, it is God’s temple, His dwelling place. While elsewhere Paul speaks of each individual believer as God’s dwelling place (1 Corinthians 6:19), here he speaks of the whole church as God’s dwelling, through the Spirit. We are not the temple, but we are a temple, a place where God dwells. Because God dwells there, the temple is holy, and it must remain holy.
Since this is the case, we should understand the seriousness of the implications for defiling God’s temple. When we live godly lives, in obedience to His Word through the power of the Spirit, we display God’s glory (1 Peter 2:9). In so doing, we are good workers, building up the church in accordance with our calling. But when a Christian fails to fulfill their mission, then they become a detriment to the church. In the symbolic terminology of Paul, we “destroy” (NASB) or “defile” (KJV) the temple of God when we are not building well.
The consequences for such defilement are severe, because we are defaming the reputation of God by defiling His temple. Those who would do damage to God’s dwelling place should expect severe consequences. Paul does not hold back when he warns, “If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are” (verse 17). Just what does this mean? We know from the preceding verses (especially verses 13-15) that a Christian will not lose his salvation, but that he will lose his reward. Lest one feel too smug and secure in sin, however, let him ponder the meaning of the word “destroy” in verse 17. Paul does not seek to comfort any Christian who purposes to sin willfully. This passage cannot be construed to encourage a sinful, carnal, lifestyle, unless it is greatly distorted, for Paul’s words of warning are clear.
Just how does one defile the temple of God? Paul gives a very strong word of warning for defiling the temple, but he does not define for us just how one defiles it. Let us pursue this matter as we conclude our study of this text.
(1) A person can “defile the temple of God” by doing the things for which Paul rebukes the Corinthians. One can defile the temple by dividing it up into little groups and factions. One can defile the temple by forsaking the simplicity of the gospel and seeking wisdom elsewhere. He can defile the temple of God by sexual immorality (chapter 5) or by taking a brother to the law court (chapter 6). God’s temple can be defiled by divorce (chapter 7) or by causing a weaker brother to sin through the insensitive use of your rights as a Christian (chapters 8-10). One can defile the temple of God by misconduct at the Lord’s Supper and the meeting of the church (chapters 11-14). One can also defile the temple by false teaching (chapter 15).
(2) A person can “defile” or “destroy” the temple by failing to perform their part in its construction. Can you imagine a building under construction where there are whole sections missing? A partially constructed temple is a reproach to the God who dwells within. According to Ephesians 4, each believer contributes to the building up of the body (the temple in our text). The body does not function as it should unless every member of the body is doing its part (Ephesians 4:15-16). When Christians fail to fulfill their part in the construction program, the temple is adversely affected.
My reader friend, let me ask you a pointed question. If, as Paul teaches in our text, every Christian is to build upon the foundation of the apostles, if each believer is to build skillfully, using only the best materials, then how is your contribution to the building going? Do you know what part you are to play? Do you know what part of the temple is yours to build? You cannot build well if you are not building at all. If you are not building at all, you are defiling the temple.
We live in a consumer age. By and large, the church growth movement caters to members, or seekers, as consumers. It finds out the kind of church people want to attend, and then seeks to provide this kind of church. Consequently, some churches may have many of their pews filled, but with people who expect, even demand, to get what they want from the church in terms of services, yet at a bargain price—at little or no cost to themselves. They want to get much and give little.
Paul knows nothing of this kind of church. Paul knows only of the kind of church where every member is a worker, and where there is no such thing as a shirker. Paul’s words here have a very clear inference. He assumes we know that we have an obligation to build the temple, to play an active role in the building up of the church, the body of Christ. Why then in most churches do a few members give much, some members give a little, and many to most members do not give at all? Why does the church have so much trouble getting volunteers to teach in Sunday School, and to help with the many tasks in the church? It is simply because many consider themselves a part of the church (rightly or wrongly), but fail to grasp the fact that God requires every member of it to be a working member, contributing to the growth and ministry of the church.
(3) We defile the church when we do not build on the foundation of the apostles, or when we fail to build well. Not only are we obliged to be an active contributor to the construction of God’s temple, we are to build well. We are to build upon the foundation of the apostles. That foundation is referred to as the “apostles’ doctrine” in Acts 2:42. It is now what we know as our New Testament. If we are building, we are to build well. This means that we must know the foundation well, for all of our building must conform to it, conform to the “code” the Bible sets down. Some people seem to think that “working hard” in the church is enough. Paul would not agree. We are to work hard, but only in compliance with, and in submission to, His Word, the Bible. For the builder who would work so as to please God and to obtain His approval and reward, he or she must build in accordance with sound doctrine, the apostles’ doctrine. Workers must work in accordance with sound doctrine. Doctrine is therefore important to every Christian, and not just for the theologians.
Sound, apostolic doctrine is foundational. Using the construction analogy, sound doctrine is not enough. A building consists of more than a foundation. But a building is only as good as the foundation on which it is constructed. Sound doctrine is not required just for those who teach; it is required as the basis for each and every ministry which takes place in the church. Those who show mercy should do so in accordance with sound doctrine. Those who give must give in accordance with sound doctrine. For example, they must not give to the support of those who are false teachers (2 John 7-11). Those who serve should serve in accordance with sound doctrine. Those who “love” must love within the confines which sound doctrine defines:
9 And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ; 11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God (Philippians 1:9-11).
Sound doctrine is the basis for all ministry. We dare not seek to serve God apart from sound doctrine.
At Community Bible Chapel, those in leadership positions have spent many hours laying out a curriculum for adult and youth education. We believe that if sound doctrine is foundational and fundamental to all ministry and to spiritual growth, then we must offer teaching which provides the essentials for sound doctrine. But this must also include a commitment on your part to take advantage of this teaching. You need not get all of your teaching in our church, but you do need to get it somewhere, and from a source that is based upon the Scriptures. Do you know the subject matter which is essential to having a firm foundation in doctrine? Do you have a curriculum for your own program of spiritual growth? My fear is that most of us are better prepared for our retirement than we are for our present growth and ministry. This is a responsibility which you must assume, along with us.
When we serve in a sloppy, haphazard fashion, we defile the church. I frequently hear people ask, “How do we motivate people to serve in the church?” I think Paul has answered this one for us already. We teach them that they will stand before God and give an account of their ministry, and that they will be rewarded or put to shame on the basis of their faithfulness. But another question is asked as well: “How do we get people to serve well, to serve with excellence?” All too often, those who do serve minister in a way that may pass as “volunteer labor,” but which would never be acceptable in the work place. Paul’s words should do the trick. Paul tells us that we are going to be judged on materials and craftsmanship. A sloppy job for God is most certainly going to defile the temple of God, and this is a most serious matter.
(4) Disunity and divisions are destructive and defiling to the church, and thus a most serious matter. Divisions, often the result of following a particular leader and rejecting all others, are a very serious offense, an act of destruction and defilement so far as the upbuilding of the church is concerned. For saints to be divided and to oppose one another is a tearing down of the church, not a building up of the temple of God. Let us see the evil of divisions, and also the serious consequences which it brings to us personally.
May God grant that we see the crucial role which the apostles played in New Testament times, by laying the foundation for our faith and ministry in the Scriptures. This was a one-time, once-for-all role, one that does not need repeating. And may God grant that each of us may see the crucial role which we have to play in the building up of the church. May each of us do our task, and do it well, to the glory of God and to our benefit as well. And may we see that divisions are destructive to the church, and thus taken most seriously by God.
44 Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary, F. F. Bruce, General Editor (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 1987 [reprint, 1993]), pp. 136-137.