Fifth in a series
So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future – all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
Over lunch, several friends were discussing a church that had been so decimated by internal strife that it had become common knowledge in that community. Some members had no stomach for the fight and were drifting into neighboring churches. Those who remained were being pushed by the opposing groups to take sides. The whole affair was becoming very unpleasant.
What was the issue that had precipitated such a furor? Believe it or not, the whole upheaval was over the changing of the job description of the organist. She had been there for years and had built a small empire in her area. She had developed great skill in using a loyal following as a power base for budget, program and calendar advantages. So when a special lay committee brought a report to the congregation suggesting a slight change in her duties, she took it as a personal rebuke and declared war.
None of the friends who were discussing this at lunch were members of that church. Therefore, they didn’t have to deal with the situation. They quickly agreed with one who said, “That doesn’t sound like a big enough problem over which to split a church!” Then one of the group reminded the others of a truth that is too easily forgotten, “Any problem that has to be dealt with by people who are spiritually immature can divide a church, no matter how small a matter it may appear to be.”
Think back to the issues you have experienced that have torn apart brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. It’s often the little matters that divide-issues over the color of the walls in the sanctuary, who will play the piano at the retreat, moving of a Sunday school class from one room to another, should the pews be padded or not, or should the choir sing from the front or the back of the sanctuary?
What actually divides churches? The answer is simply this: Spiritual immaturity divides churches.
What do we do with spiritually immature people? What do we do with people who claim to be Christians but live in sin? How do we explain persons whose conduct rips and tears at the fabric of Christian community? At one time in their lives, they may have made a profession of faith in Jesus Christ and were counted as healthy members of the church. Now their lifestyle contradicts a biblical lifestyle.
There are two inaccurate answers to explain this phenomenon.
One says that these persons never really believed in Jesus Christ. They were never saved in the first place. They went through religious motions that were empty of the power of God.
I will not deny that there may be some such persons, but I don’t believe that this is the answer.
The second person says that the person was saved but has fallen from grace.
That’s an easy answer to a complex question. How long does a person have to live in sin until they have fallen from grace? Is there some particular sin singled out above many others that makes it clear that this person has fallen from grace? Would it be one of the big cardinal sins that would designate a person as having lost their salvation, or would it be an accumulation of many smaller sins?
We Presbyterians have a doctrine that we refer to as the perseverance of the saints. It says that you cannot fall from grace. This Calvinistic doctrine is strongly contested by those on the Arminian side of the debate.
Instead of pursuing the speculative dimensions of these two possible answers, let’s focus on what Paul is writing to the church at Corinth and see how it applies to our present times.
The Bible describes three distinct types of persons.
The first person is the “natural person.”
This person is a walking spiritual corpse. This person lives without faith in Jesus Christ. She is ruled by an old nature. He does not welcome the things of God. This person cannot understand things of God, even if he or she wants to, because they are living in the kingdom of this world, unattached to the kingdom of God. Paul describes this person in the following words: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (
This person has never been “born again” by the Holy Spirit of God.
This person may go to church every Sunday. This person may be a marvelous contributor to the welfare of the community. This person may be involved in spiritual meditative disciplines. This person may be very active in following some religious teachings such as those of unorthodox Christianity or Buddhism or Hinduism or Islam or Judaism. But the fact is that salvation comes only through faith in Jesus Christ. Religious activities and good works do not bring salvation. The Bible says, “. . .if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (
The second person is the “spiritual person.”
This person lives in daily fellowship with the Father. This person possesses the very mind of Christ. He or she has the assurance of God’s Word. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (
This person has come to an awareness through personal trust in Jesus Christ of an eternal wisdom that goes beyond the wisdom of this world. This person has the Holy Spirit in his/her life and is instructed in the things of the Spirit. You can say that this person has spiritual depth perception. This spiritual person sees things differently than does the natural person. Paul writes, “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny. ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ” (
Now in addition to the “natural person” and the “spiritual person,” there is a third person. This we’ll refer to as the “fleshly person.”
This is a Christian person saved by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ who is dominated by his/her old nature. This person is not controlled by the Holy Spirit. This person has quenched the activities of the Holy Spirit in their life. A fleshly Christian is also called a “carnal” Christian.
In the past couple of months, I’ve been playing golf occasionally with someone I just happened to meet on the course at Mile Square. He is a professing believer in Jesus Christ, and we’ve talked a lot on the golf course about our Christian faith and many other topics. Just this last week, he declared how he needed to talk with me about a tough problem. He described how he was living his life on two separate tracks. One was his Christian life that he experienced at church, at home and with his Christian friends. The other track, like a parallel train track, was his secular life with people in business and on the golf course. He said, “I don’t know what to do. I’m so embarrassed. It’s only recently that I’ve discovered how I have failed the Lord. I’m afraid that I’m in that category that Jesus described on the Judgment Day and God would say, “Depart from me. I never knew you.”
At that point, I forgot my game and began to talk very honestly with him. I told him how the greatest victory Satan could make in his life is to discourage him into thinking he’s not a Christian. His response was, “But the other day I was playing golf with some of my long-term golf buddies, and when I told them that I’m a Christian, they all laughed. That’s what a lousy testimony I have had.”
And at that point, I said, “You ought to come to St. Andrew’s this Sunday. I’m talking about what it is to be a ‘fleshly’ Christian or a ‘carnal’ Christian. You’ve simply compartmentalized your life. What you need is to become congruent. The great breakthrough for you was actually telling your friends that you’re a Christian. No matter how shocked was their reaction, now you can go to work on living the life.”
Let me share four facts about fleshly or carnal Christianity.
Fact #1: This person is a Christian.
Paul is writing to carnal Christians at Corinth. As we have already seen, he opens his letter referring to them as “saints.” Now he calls them “brothers and sisters,” people who are “infants in Christ.” He puts it in these words, “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ” (
Fact #2: A fleshly Christian lacks spiritual growth.
Paul writes, “I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for sold food. . .” (
He’s talking about food. You give breast milk and formula to babies. You don’t feed a two-month-old an 11-ounce sirloin steak like Anne treated me to this past Thursday night. However, if that same person is now 50 years of age and is still sucking formula from a bottle and has never eaten solid food, you realize that you’re dealing with a tragic personality disorder. He is still a human being, but he has developed mentally impaired. It is legitimate to be a baby at one time. It is not healthy to forever remain an infant.
What goes for physical and emotional development also goes for spiritual development. The apostle Peter makes the same observation in
Fact #3: A fleshly person has unconfessed sin.
We see this in the Corinthian church. Paul writes, “. . .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?” (
Fact #4: Fleshly Christians resemble nonbelievers.
Paul says that this party spirit that had developed among them was a sign of carnal Christianity. Such fleshly Christians look like nonbelievers. He writes, “For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ and another, ‘I belong to Apollos,’ are you not merely human?” (
But remember something. We are talking about Christians. Don’t forget that. If you have received the gift of God’s love in Jesus Christ, you are a Christ follower. You may be a fleshly, carnal Christian out of fellowship with the Lord.
My friend, Norm Loats, sent me this bit of dogeral that seems to fit the season. It’s titled From One Pumpkin To Another!!!!!!!
A woman was asked by a coworker, “What is it like to be a Christian?”
The coworker replied, “It is like being a pumpkin. God picks you from the patch, brings you in, and washes all the dirt off of you. Then He cuts off the top and scoops out all the yucky stuff. He removes the seeds of doubt, hate, and greed. Then He carves you a new smiling face and puts His light inside of you to shine for all the world to see.”
This was passed on to me by another pumpkin. Now it’s your turn to pass it to other pumpkins. I liked this enough to send it to all the pumpkins in my patch.
Now what does all this have to do with the topic this morning? A lot! Because Paul, in chapter 1, was talking about divisions in the church, how some were following after him, some were following after Apollos, some were following after Peter and even others, in their own conceited way, were claiming to be exclusivistic followers of Christ. He then, in chapter 2, describes how his was the simple message of the cross. It was divine wisdom, not human wisdom. It was a language of eternity, not a language of time.
What is it about their life and conduct that makes Paul level such a rebuke at them? The proof of it is their party spirit, their strife, their factions, their divisions. This is extremely significant because it means that you can tell what a man’s relations with God are by looking at his relations with his fellow men. If a man is at variance with his fellow men, if he is a quarrelsome, competitive, argumentative, trouble-making creature, he may be a diligent church attender, he may even be a church office-bearer, but he is not a man of God.
One writer tells of a renewal conference at which a leader gave each participant several pipe cleaners and instructed them to spend several minutes thinking about where they were spiritually in their lives. Then they were to shape the pipe cleaners into something which symbolized their condition. When the time for the activity was over, each person was given a chance to tell a small group what he or she had made and how it symbolized his or her own spiritual condition. One middle-aged man had made a cradle. He explained with a tone of shame and regret, “I am a Christian who has never grown, so I thought this cradle best told the story.”
His was a condition of many of the Corinthian Christians, and it created a tremendous obstacle to Paul’s leadership with them.
You see, the flaw of much evangelism today is that we offer the gift of God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ, but we don’t take the time to take people deeper. We don’t take the time to help them really grow in the things of the faith.
Many of us worked in the Billy Graham Crusade in Anaheim back in 1985 or more recently in the three-night crusade last November at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Literally thousands of persons went forward to receive Jesus Christ as Savior. How many of them now are developing into spiritual maturity? Those who have found a church home and are taking advantage of all that that Christ-centered church has to offer are growing to spiritual maturity. Some may very well remain spiritual infants throughout life.
And some of us here at St. Andrew’s who have been here for many years may still be spiritual infants. One of the greatest fears I have for us as a church is that we can increase our “outreach” without deepening our “inreach.”
I remember when I came here as your pastor back in1978. We established a Long-range Planning Committee to analyze the present and future needs of our congregation. Ken Williams, now the chairman of our Building the Future program, was the chairman of that project. The big question was, “Do we want to be a ‘growing’ church?” The tendency was to become preoccupied with the “quantitative” aspects of growth. Should we get larger? Should we have a building program? If we are going to get larger, we’ll have to have a building program.
Then the committee stopped short in its tracks. It realized that growth for growth’s sake is not healthy. All growth is not good. Some of us forget that cancer is a growth. Unhealth can grow just as quickly, if not faster, than true health. So we concluded that we wanted to grow but that that growth must be “qualitative” as well as “quantitative.”
We knew that we did not at that time have the financial resources for a building program. That was just fine. Before we could expand, we needed to deepen. Growth is not easy.
Qualitative growth has pain. Moving from the “milk” of the Word to the “meat” of the Word was a challenge for many of us.
I did one of the most daring things I’ve ever done in my years of pastoral ministry. I decided that we needed to deepen as a congregation. I spent one whole year preaching out of the book of Romans, one of the most difficult books in the Bible. We dug it out verse by verse. It was as painful for me as your pastor as it was for you who had to listen each Sunday. Our attendances dropped off substantially. But those of us who stayed grew, and we matured in our knowledge of Jesus Christ.
About the same time, we began the development of the covenant groups. That did not come easy. But as we have committed ourselves to each other in growing Christian relationship, we have as a congregation deepened. We have matured.
I can remember annual meetings where heated and sometimes personality-oriented arguments went on over whether local mission and buildings were most important or world mission was most important. As we have matured in the faith, some of that quarreling, some of those petty divisions have fallen by the wayside. We have a deeper spirit of love and unity.
As we grew in our “inreach,” we then began to grow in our “outreach.” We went ahead with the building program, knowing that if we were faithful to the Lord in inreach, we would begin to outreach more into the community. Many people came to our church as they saw how serious we were about not just playing church.
I have a fear of “success.” I see nothing in the Bible that teaches about success in ministry. I see much in the Scripture that talks about “faithfulness.” I see nothing in the Bible that puts a quantitative criteria on growth. I see much in the Bible that emphasizes a qualitative criteria. I see nothing in the Scripture that talks about the size of budgets, the largest of membership rolls and how many people attended church on a Sunday. My own tendency is to become paralyzed with fear if the statistics fall off or to be overjoyed when they increase. I confess this as my own struggle with fleshly, carnal Christianity. You see, when I get caught up in the criteria of the world of the flesh, I am using the wrong instruments for measurement.
When I stand before Jesus Christ, He is not going to compliment me on our large membership, big attendances, hefty finances. Instead, His assessment will be on whether or not we were faithful. Did we hold high the Bible as our authority? Did we love people in the name of Jesus Christ? Were we willing to avoid the tendency to entertain instead of call people to true repentance and faith in Jesus Christ? That’s what it’s all about and, in the process, we will have our times of numerical, quantitative growth. But at the same time, we dare not be surprised that there will be times when our concentration on quality minimizes our appeal to some.
I’m not saying that small is beautiful. We are told to go into all the world and to preach the Gospel to every creature. The New Testament does use numbers regarding the Day of Pentecost. Luke tells us that there were added to the church some 3,000 souls. And, as the church continued to prosper in qualitative growth, it experienced quantitative growth. Luke goes on to add as he writes the history of the early church, “. . .And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (
Would you like to know whether or not you as an individual are growing in spiritual maturity and whether St. Andrew’s is growing in spiritual maturity? The answer is in whether or not you as an individual and we as a church are evidencing the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Writing to the church at Galatia, Paul contrasted the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit in
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
When we don’t grow in Jesus Christ, we look more and more like persons who are not believers. The church becomes just another organization. We suffer both as individuals and as a church. We become divided by our spiritual immaturity.
Well then, what brings unity? Unity comes when believers with growing maturity understand that they are equal servants of Jesus Christ.
One of the basic pathologies of both natural persons and fleshly, carnal Christians is a tendency to invest too much importance in human leadership. We see this in the Old Testament times. God did not want Israel to be governed by kings. The Jews wanted to be like the rest of the nations. They wanted a king. God warned them through the prophets that, if they had a king, they would have heavy taxes. There would be burdens placed upon them as they put their trust in human leadership instead of the sovereign God of the universe. They insisted on having kings.
The Bible takes leadership seriously. At the same time, it warns against leadership that becomes too important to the point that it divides brothers and sisters from each other.
A picture is worth a thousand words. Expert communicators use pictures to convey truth. Jesus did this with great expertise. He could have written a theological treatise on His theology of salvation. He could have filled two or three volumes, as have some theologians, on that topic. Instead, He said, “‘I am the door.'” The picture is clear, isn’t it? Salvation is available only through Him. He could have waxed eloquent about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, filling several more volumes. Instead, He said, “‘I am the vine. You are the branches. Abide in me and I in you.'”
Paul, who had enormous intellect and could argue at great length theologically, stopped at this point and painted three pictures.
Each of these pictures stresses what it is to be spiritually mature in a way that produces unity, a healing of divisions in the church.
Picture #1: A field.
He uses this analogy from agriculture to get across just who Paul, Apollos and Peter really were. You see, the fleshly human tendency is to revere leaders to the point that we follow the leader, forgetting that the leader is not the message but the messenger. We are to respect the office of the leader but not worship the leader.
The church is like a field. God owns the field. God raises up the workers to be active in His enterprise. Some plow. Some plant the seed. Some water. Some cultivate. Others harvest their crop. We are partners in this together. That’s why he writes this:
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 (
The church was never designed to be a personality cult. Thank God for every person who has impacted your life for Jesus Christ. Every Sunday school teacher, parent, pastor has brought something special, something unique into our life. It is a sign of spiritual immaturity if we focus on the human leadership and brag about or put down any Christian leader who is faithfully serving Jesus Christ. I am in competition with no other pastor or preacher. God has strategically placed each of us in His ministry.
One of the great pastors of this church, Jim Stewart, felt he needed to move on from St. Andrew’s because so many people were beginning to focus on him instead of Jesus Christ. Every one of your program staff has been brought together for a reason. Look at the back of the bulletin. You’ll see each one listed. We are all here to present a balanced ministry. No one of us has the corner on the market. Broaden this to include each of the elders and the deacons and move right on through our entire congregation.
The fact is each of us is in ministry. Each of us is crucial is to the spiritual agriculture work of Jesus Christ. It is His field. Let us never forget that! The harvest is His. We are God’s fellow workers.
To mix the analogy momentarily, I love the way Charles Swindoll puts it. He says if you’re going to stalk wild game in Africa, you need a guide. The guide has the expertise. Assume you had one guide in Zimbabwe and another in South Africa and another in Kenya. Each one leads you to the wild game that interests you the most. When you get there, he is not the one who takes the pictures or fires the rifle. He wouldn’t be a good guide if he did that. He is not there to add one more trophy. He is there to guide you. When you come back to the United States, you don’t come with five hundred slides of your guide. You don’t take your guide to a taxidermist and have him stuffed. What a sign of immaturity it is when we focus too much on the personality of the preacher or the teacher, who is there to lead us to personal relationship with Jesus Christ, to help us grow in our knowledge of His word and to enable us to live in daily relationship with the Lord.
Picture #2: A building.
You and I are fellow workers in building an edifice. That edifice is the church of Jesus Christ.
Yes, there is physical aspect to this building. I think back to when we put in this new sanctuary in the early 1980s. It took months and months to do the excavation, soil testing and impacting and, ultimately, the building of the foundation. I wondered if there ever was going to be a super structure. But when it came, it came quickly. It seemed to be a disproportionate amount of time that went into laying the foundation. And now aren’t we glad they took the time to do the job right.
Paul states, “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ” (
Remember that the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord. Remember the best masonry will crack and even fail if the foundation is unstable. There is no church but what is built on Jesus Christ. Let Him be the foundation. Let Him be the support of all we do. Let Him, as the foundation, determine the shape of the building. Let me stress as I’ve never stressed it before, it is not a physical facility that makes up the church of Jesus Christ. Not even the greatest coming together of creative men, women and children makes a church. If Jesus Christ is not the foundation, the best persons may come together in good spirit and form human affiliations for good and useful purposes, but they are not a church, not unless Jesus Christ is the foundation upon which they rest. There is no gospel but that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There is no hope of salvation but that which is built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. There is no Christian person but that man or woman is built on Jesus Christ.
Once the foundation is established, let us be careful what we build on that foundation. Paul knew what he was doing when he wrote to the Corinthians urging them to build with gold and silver and precious stones, not with wood, hay and straw. He warned them of a day in which the materials with which we build the church of Jesus Christ will be tested by fire. It had happened before in Corinth and would happen again. There were those marvelous marble columns, already generations old, when Paul wrote this letter 2000 years ago. Corinth had been invaded and destroyed. Houses had been built up against some of those columns, producing a kind of ancient shanty town. Huge slabs of costly and carefully chiseled stone lay stable as a rock on which they rested. Now the glory of such foundation was dishonored by squalid superstructures. Paul had seen this while walking among the strange assortment of buildings in Corinth. There was a wall propped up with rotten planking. There was a hole stopped up with straw. On one side was a richly decorated gateway with gold and silver profusely wrought into the design. On the other side was a clay partition or loose boarding. The church at Corinth looked the same way to him. One great fire would destroy the wood, hay and straw, but it would not destroy the marble columns and not those additional materials of a lasting quality. We are warned not to build in superficial ways, but our work is to be that of quality. When the Building Inspector comes, may He say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”
Picture #3: A temple.
Paul writes, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (
The bottom line is clear, isn’t it? We are not to boast of other humans. We are servants of God, together with equal status. We are urged not to deceive ourselves, thinking of ourselves as wise. The wisdom of this world is futile. Our tendency to latch on to human leaders is futile. The fact is, as Paul writes, “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (
In the silence of this moment in the sacred intimacy of this sanctuary of God’s people, I urge you to open your life as never before and ask yourself the question, “Am I a natural person, a spiritual person, or am I a fleshy, carnal person?” If you are a natural and unregenerate person, I urge you now to receive the gift, putting your faith and trust in Jesus Christ. If you are a carnal, fleshly person, I urge you now to open your life in confession of sin in a deep desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit, taking your eyes off of human leaders, and allow Jesus Christ to be the foundation of your life, individually and for your church.
See yourself as one who yearns to worship in that sacred temple made up of fellow-believers. I urge you to move from being a spiritual infant, and that immaturity that divides, to a growth toward maturity that brings unity and healing of the divisions in the Body of Christ!
John A Huffman, Jr. is Senior Pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, CA.