1 Corinthians 3 • One Work, Many Servants


The church seems to go through various “phases” historically in terms of how it recognizes and deals with its leaders. Not long ago, a single pastor or ministry director might have been revered to the point of idolatry, being assigned the absolute control and accountability over the entire congregation or ministry; today the pendulum seems to have swung in the other direction and we have the veneration of “specialists”, people assigned in the character of a consultant to whom is attributed a narrow band of expertise, be it music, discernment, or what have you. Much of this is the result of seminaries whose curriculum teaches how to run a church more like a retail business rather than according to the wealth of information and standards provided in God’s Word. This chapter actually dovetails with the following one to describe not just the defining biblical characteristics of a true Christian leader, but how every member of the Church individually is to contribute to the whole growth and health of the entire Body of Christ.

Read verses 1-5

Q: Although we know that Paul and Apollos possessed the office and role of apostle, what job description does Paul instead use to describe them in v.5?

A: “Servants”.

Q: What does the term “servants” actually describe?

A: The underlying Greek word is “daikonai” which is sometimes translated as “deacons”, and ordinarily describes the working laity of the Church. In other words, he is not describing them as the “bosses", but co-workers on an equal level.

And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant.

— Luke 22:25-26

Q: How would you describe the Corinthians’ main problem?

A: They were immature in their spiritual character.

Q: How does Paul specifically define their immaturity?

  1. “…still fleshly…” (v.3)
  2. “…there is jealousy…” (v.3)
  3. “…and strife among you…” (v.3)
  4. “...walking like mere men” (v.3)

Q: What do all of these behavioral traits have in common?

A: They all have to do with their mistreatment of each other.

Point: Spiritual maturity (or immaturity) is measured by the quality of our personal relationships.

Concerning him we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.

— Hebrews 5:11-14

Application: Spiritual leaders are not dictators, but servants whose goal is producing spiritual maturity, defined biblically as quality relationships.

Read verses 6-9

Q: How has Paul’s imagery changed?

A: Whereas previously he addressed them in general as a kind of family—children whose care is entrusted to the Master’s servant, here he portrays them as a field—a crop tended by various different workers for each phase of their development.

Q: What issue does Paul seem to be dealing with here?

A: Their understanding of the spiritual growth process for obtaining maturity is hampered by not understanding that a variety of gifts and offices are active in the Body of Christ to bring the whole work of discipleship to completion.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

— 1 Corinthians 12:4-7

Observation: Sometimes an individual or even entire program or congregation operates in the character of a “self-eating watermelon”—it plants itself, waters itself, grows itself, harvests itself, and then conveniently eats itself, all without need of any intervention or assistance!

Q: What is Paul’s point about receiving one’s own reward in relation to this discussion?

A: No single person, not even apostles like Paul and Apollos, are ever intended to be the sole proprietors or overseers of a congregation or ministry. They are part of a team contribution who is ultimately held accountable and rewarded by God for their role in concert with others—not called to operate independently and over everyone else.

Q: What are all the roles needed to operate a successful farm? How does this relate back to the operation of the Body of Christ?

A: [Open for group discussion.]

Application: Spiritual leaders are not specialists independent from everyone else, but co-laborers with skills that can only be fully realized as part of the whole team.

Read verses 10-17

Q: How does Paul’s imagery change yet again?

A: It progresses from harvesting a field to building a foundation for the temple of God.

Q: To whom is Paul’s teaching being directed?

A: His opening point in v.1-5 was directed at the whole church, as was his second point if v.6-9 about their collectively being a field. Paul continues to address the church corporately as the temple of God.

Q: Why is it important to make this distinction as to whom Paul is addressing?

A: Although there may be aspects of these things which may be applied to us individually, what this is addressing in its original context is our collective work to build up the Body of Christ. What is being described are the contributions to the edification of the entire Church, not simply our role or rewards as an individual workman going through life independent of it.

Q: So what is this first and foremost attempting to describe?

A: That the only proper foundation for a church is Jesus Christ (v.12) as established by the Gospel, and that each person who comes along to build upon that foundation is to use the very best materials possible.

Q: What do you think might be the biblical definitions of the materials mentioned: “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw”?

A: [Open for group discussion.] [Hint: Galatians 5, and its list of fruits of the flesh vs. the Spirit is great place for discussion.]

Q: What are the three kinds of builders identified by Paul?

(v.14) A Biblically Wise Builder—he uses materials which are lasting and can stand the test of fire. [Ask the group: How would you describe this kind of builder in the Body of Christ?]

(v.15) A Worldly Builder—he uses materials which cannot stand up to the test. [Ask the group: How would you describe this kind of builder?]

(v.17) The Destroyer—the underlying Greek term “phtheirei” conveying the meaning of to destroy through corruption. [Ask the group: How would you describe this “anti-builder”?]

Q: What is the difference between these three types?

A: Both the wise builder and worldly builder are Christians who will both be saved in the end, but whose rewards will be dramatically different based on how they carried out their responsibilities; the destroyer is an enemy of the cross who will suffer ultimate and eternal destruction by God.

Application: Spiritual leaders are ultimately judged according to the spiritual quality of their results, whether eternal for rewards, temporal for a loss of all except their salvation, or permanently should they be revealed to actually be false shepherds.

Read verses 18-23

Q: How might this concluding section fit with themes Paul established in the opening chapters of this Epistle?

A: Paul has warned about trusting in men (2:5) and resisting the urge to glorify them. (2:18-23) Throughout these chapters he has established the case for seeking to know and apply the wisdom of God and not the wisdom of the world, often co-equally described as “foolishness”, the opposite of biblical wisdom.

Q: What is the “wisdom” Paul summarizes here which he would like to see a mature church take hold of?

A: It’s not just that we are not the community property of a single teacher, but that our teachers belong to the collective whole, and additionally that all together we belong collectively to Christ.

Q: What is especially profound about the short list of things Paul says belong to us?

A: It’s not just this world AND the next, not just life AND death, but both the present AND the future. (v.22)

“He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.

— Revelation 21:7

Application: Do we sometimes see ourselves more like a corporate organization chart, belonging to a department rather than the company as a whole? Spiritual leaders never claim it is “their” church alone, but facilitate everyone’s understanding that “all things belong to you”.

Overall Application