The letters to the Corinthian church are often mined for Paul’s approach to various problems: divisions, immorality, and what used to be called “charismania” (“strange fire” is more in vogue now), among other things.
Because of that, it’s easy to forget how Paul commended the church at the beginning of 1 Corinthians. They were “enriched in every way—in all [their] speaking and in all [their] knowledge.” They did “not lack any spiritual gift” (1:6-7). They had no shortage of “name” ministry: Paul, Apollos, Priscilla, Aquila, Silas and Timothy.
And this was no fallow field. At one point during Paul’s 18-month stay, the Lord spoke to him in a vision, encouraging him to continue ministering without fear, “because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:10).
Nevertheless, the problems were real—and serious. I didn’t realize until I did a little research that Paul wrote four (or possibly more) letters to the Corinthians.
To address the cracks in this spiritual edifice, Paul emphatically stated this: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 3:11). But what does this mean?
In my first few years as a Christian, I basically thought that the doctrines based on Jesus Christ were the foundation. So, to make Christ our foundation meant believing the foundational propositions about his life and sacrificial death. That’s good as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
Surely after 18 months of the apostle’s ministry—the apostle that wrote much of the New Testament, for goodness’ sake! –this church understood the doctrinal basics.
But just a few verses prior to his “foundation” metaphor, here is Paul addressing this “enriched” and “spiritually gifted” church: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual, but as worldly—mere infants in Christ . . . for since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men?” (3:1-3)
What’s going on here? Is Paul just a flatterer in the opening verses of the letter, making so much small talk to ingratiate himself with the local church before launching into his main message?
Hardly. Paul’s range, from gentle correction to stern and uncompromising and even blunt, is well known (e.g., “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong”, Gal 2:11).
I realize that for some the disparity here is too big to reconcile, but I can assure you that there is no contradiction. It’s just that many of us have never lived in the context that Paul found in Corinth.
It can be explained partly by the shift that has taken place in ministry in the course of my lifetime. (I became a Christian as a college freshman 43 years ago.) Whereas ministers were once known more for their academic competence in handling theological concepts, ministry now has more to do with being gifted.
A larger number of believers than ever before are much more interested in (and attracted to) a minster’s gift than a distinctive denominational identity. Contrary to what some think, that doesn’t mean that doctrine is unimportant, just that the gift adds a dimension that has been largely absent but is now seen as vital.
My introduction to this came in 1980, when I worked with an American missionary family for several months in India. As a vocation, David was enrolled in an Indian university doing graduate study in education. But in the church, he was a teacher gifted in the sense that Ephesians 4 speaks of: “He [i.e., Christ] gave the . . . shepherds and teachers.”
His facility in handling and teaching the word transcended mere academic training. It’s a worn-out cliché, but he really “made the word come alive.” It was eye-opening, or, to put it in biblical terms, a revelation of the meaning of “He gave some to be . . . teachers.”
But as Paul takes pains to demonstrate, neither knowledge nor spiritual gifts automatically produce character–a Christlike life, really–in the way a rising tide raises all boats at anchor. When knowledge or gifts become the center of attention, the house is no longer on its one true foundation.
When Paul says that he’s heard persons declaring “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Paul,” he’s talking about an attraction to (and even “boasting” of) a truly gifted minister. Apollos was “eloquent” and “fervent in spirit” (Acts 18:24-25) even before Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and corrected some of his understanding. But after that, “he greatly helped those who through grace had believed” and “he powerfully refuted” opponents, “showing by the Scriptures that the Christ was Jesus” (vv. 27-28).
Paul, of course, needs no introduction. But though he “did not come proclaiming . . . the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom,” nevertheless his speech and message were “in demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1 Cor 2:1-4). This attracted some to him—and some of them said, “I follow Paul”–while others said “his speech [is] of no account” (2 Cor 10:10).
To those “enriched in knowledge” who compared the two ministers, Paul said simply: “But when they measure themselves by one another and compare themselves with one another, they are without understanding” (2 Cor 10:12).
It’s not that gifts or knowledge ought to be jettisoned. Paul is very critical of the chaos caused by the misuse of spiritual gifts, but he doesn’t suspend their use.
And at the same time he calls himself just a “servant through whom you believed” (1 Cor 3:5), he also reminds the church, “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom . . . a secret and hidden wisdom of God . . . interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual” (1 Cor 2:6-13).
You can build many ways—“with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw”—but there is only one foundation. At the summit of his argument, to those “enriched” in knowledge and spiritually gifted, Paul simply says, “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:2).