1 Corinthians 3:1-9
And so, brothers and sisters,a I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human? What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.
1 Corinthians 3 is primarily a passage about unity, Paul is criticizing the Corinthian church for creating factions around himself and Apollos. Paul’s point here is that our differences cannot be used to divide the Church that God wants to be united. A quick aside, I do not think Paul would necessarily condemn denominations, but I do think he would be very saddened when denominations and individual congregations do not work together or worse create animosity between Christians. We can clearly see in this passage that he and Apollos taught Jesus differently and were different enough for people to rally around which doctrine they preferred. Paul calls such behavior infantile and says that it reveals a complete lack of Spiritual awareness in the church, and he roots this immaturity in the Corinthians jealousy and quarreling.
Paul then returns to this theme in 1 Corinthians 13, where he tells us that love is not burning with envy (to use Anthony Thiselton’s phrase). Paul wants his Corinthian audience to recognize that the presence of envy is destroying their ability to love, which in turn is stunting their spiritual growth, and causing a breakdown in the whole community. The concept of envy is not one we should trifle with, there are grave consequences to the church. But the idea of envy is not as easy to pin down as I thought it was at the beginning of the week. When I normally think of envy, I think of wanting something another person has, and honestly that is not a truly difficult struggle for me at this moment. Right now, adding to the amount of stuff I have and must care for seems rather stressful and I can take a hard pass. But I looked up the word behind “envy” in 1 Corinthians 3 & 13 and it turns out Paul uses the sane word that is translated “zeal” or “passion” in other places. Now this was a problem for me because I have read some about John 2 where Jesus’ zeal leads him to overturn the tables of the money changers. Further, there are times in the Old Testament when God is described as “zealous” or “passionate”. In English the words “jealous” and “envy” are not closely associated with the words “zeal” and “passion”, so what are we to say about how this word is used in 1 Corinthians?
To be honest I am not sure I am completely comfortable with what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 3, and I am also that is a good thing right now. I tend to be a passionate person sometimes, I can be passionate for explaining what I see as truth, I get excited by discussing some topics and I want to prove I am right. And that is precisely what the Corinthians were guilty of doing, they were passionate about proving they were on the right side of the issue and that passion led to divisions within the community. I think what Paul wants us to understand is that our zeal for a cause can overtake us, and when this happens, we are blinded to the true responsibility to love one another. The difficulty comes in when we recognize that Paul himself had heated debates and some very harsh words for his critics. There are even times when we understand that some beliefs are beyond the pale of Christianity. There is a further reality that Christians are meant to emulate God and Jesus, and this means to have a passion for what is true, good, and righteous. We are meant to burn with passion against the evil in this world and we are meant to burn with passion in our commitment to the God and Church. Yet, even this can as Corinthians shows somehow cross the line. The Corinthian church was envious of one another, they were burning with passion to prove their own side right and the other side wrong. I think if you would have asked the Corinthians their divisions were more than simply a popularity contest between Paul and Apollos, I think they would have said the truth of the Church was at stake. But that is not what Paul saw, Paul saw a passion over secondary issues that had become a crisis of identity, the side issues had become a clique and people’s identities had been tangled in this conflict. The Corinthians were not envious in the sense they wanted some one else’s position or power, they were jealous that their side would be prove right and the others wrong.
I think what Paul would say is that were the passion gets skewed is in the need to be vindicated. Our passion should be to see that people are in loving relationships with God, and this might mean allowing them to disagree with us on issues. As I think about Paul’s language I see where sometimes my zeal for being right gets in the way of creating a truly loving conversation. When this happens, I am in danger of creating a fracture in the Church that causes harm. Being Spiritually mature is, at least in part, being able to control my passion and zeal in order to maintain a brother or sister.