SPECIAL TOPIC: CARNAL CHRISTIANS (from 1 Corinthians 3)

1 Corinthians 3:10-17 has long been viewed as describing individual, carnal Christians. This is possible by comparing the larger context of 1 Cor. 3:12 through 4:4-5. Another evidence for this view would be that Paul is addressing the church (plural "you") in 3:1 and 16. The recurrent use of "each man," "no man," "any man" in 1 Cor. 3:10,11,12,13,14,15,17,18 also gives credence to this interpretation.

However, it is also possible to relate this text to church leaders (cf. 1 Cor. 3:10). The factious groups do not refer to all Corinthian Christians (i.e., mature of 1 Cor. 2:6), just some of them (i.e., "men of flesh," "infants in Christ," 1 Cor. 3:1). It is the leaders of these factious groups (probably house churches) that Paul is comparing to himself and Apollos in 3:6-9. The immediate context relates 3:10-15 to leaders, to how they use their spiritual gifts in serving the church. This is the thrust of the warning of 1 Cor. 3:17.

It is difficult to decide between the two views: (1) the NT does not discuss the spiritual status and consequences of carnal Christians and (2) the "destruction" of 3:17 is not clarified. 1 Cor. 3:15 and 17 must be held in tension. All the "ifs" in this context are first class conditional sentences, which are assumed true for the purposes of the author. 1 Cor. 3:14 assumes they are true believers, while 3:15 assumes some will suffer the loss of all reward. The term for "test" in 3:13 implies a test resulting in approval (see Special Topic: God Tests His People). However, the context implies that Paul is accusing them of not understanding the gospel, of being unspiritual, jealous, and factious.

It seems best to me not to relate this text to all Christians, but also, neither to restrict it to leaders. This text specifically relates to those who promote factions and divisions within the church. All believers will give an account to God of their service to or damage to His body, the church (cf. 2 Cor. 5:10; Gal. 5:10).

 

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