The Church’s One Foundation
The Church’s One Foundation
1 Corinthians 3:3-17
For since there is envy and strife among you, are you not worldly and behaving like mere humans? 4 For whenever someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not acting like mere humans? 5 What then is Apollos? What is Paul? They are servants through whom you believed, and each has the role the Lord has given. 6 I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So, then, neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s coworkers. You are God’s field, God’s building. 10 According to God’s grace that was given to me, I have laid a foundation as a skilled master builder, and another builds on it. But each one is to be careful how he builds on it. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than what has been laid down. That foundation is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 each one’s work will become obvious. For the day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire; the fire will test the quality of each one’s work. 14 If anyone’s work that he has built survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will experience loss, but he himself will be saved—but only as through fire. 16 Don’t you yourselves know that you are God’s temple and that the Spirit of God lives in you? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is holy, and that is what you are. 1 Corinthians 3:3-17, CSB
A house divided against itself cannot stand. The problem of disunity is not a new challenge to our movement. Even the disciples of our Lord were known to have argued among themselves. The early church as well was often challenged by internal conflict and that description fits the Corinthian church. The troubled church was facing adversity on many fronts, even as we who gather here are facing challenges as great as any we have ever faced before.
In First Corinthians, we observe a church that was marked by doctrinal confusion over such fundamental issues as the resurrection, the return of Christ, and the use of spiritual gifts. They are not only marked by doctrinal confusion but also moral compromise. Issues such as drunkenness and immorality had plagued their fellowship of a sort that Paul would write, is not even known among the Gentiles. Yet, beyond the doctrinal confusion and moral comprise, perhaps most troubling of all was their internal conflict. It is this topic to which Paul first turns his attention. Hardly had he begun his first letter before he addressed the problem of dissension. In the 10th verse of the first chapter he made his appeal that “there be no divisions among you” and “that you may be united”. He continued by revealing that the Corinthians had divided into competing tribes within the church. Four different factions are identified in verses 12 and 13, with each one professing their allegiance to a different leader, a different label. One claims allegiance to Paul, another to Apollos, still another to Peter, and a final group appeals to our Lord Himself. Yet none are commended, including neither the group that swore allegiance to Paul himself nor the group that claimed to be loyal to Christ.
By the 3rd chapter he returns to the subject and more fully addresses the sobering reality of their dissension, the reasons for it, and what should be done about it. He exhorts them with truths that we need to hear today. Our very future may depend on it.
Be Clear (Be Corrected) about our Identity
The first exhortation dealt with the unhealthy fixation on personalities that had divided the Corinthian believers. They had focused their attention on human leaders, good leaders, but in a way that splintered their fellowship. Thus they needed a reminder about who those leaders really were and where their allegiance should lie. Paul’s first exhortation is to be clear about our identity.
Who We Are
Now of course there is a healthy allegiance and an appropriate honoring of the Lord’s servants, and there is no indication that any of the named leaders in the first chapter had done anything wrong. Yet, clearly some leaders within the Corinthians fellowship were using unhelpful labels and were promoting division. Each tribe was professing its allegiance to a human personality at the expense of the unity of the church. Here was Paul’s group, there was Peter’s and still another followed Apollos. It was an emergence of a kind of celebrity culture and Paul quickly condemned it.
He describes himself and Apollos with an agricultural metaphor. One plants, and another waters…they are like hired hands working in the field. He specifically says in verse 7, so then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything. In the next verse he says the one who plants and the one who waters are one…they are doing the same work for the same outcome and in verse 9 he calls them coworkers.
The metaphor shifts in verse 9 from a field to a building. The point is still the same. The leaders are servants (diakonos), they are like laborers working in the field or on a construction site.
In one sense they are insignificant, they do the simple work of watering and planting and it is God who does the miraculous work of creating life. In another way their work is gloriously significant because they are coworkers with God. It is a significant insignificance. And besides that, they are doing the same work, working together, in the same field, on the same building.
While Paul and Apollos seem to have done nothing intentionally to create this fracture, it is certain that others in their name were acting in divisive ways. Paul reminds the church of the larger mission and of their important, but smaller role in it.
It is logical then to conclude that one of the factors of tribalism is the unhealthy exaltation of human leaders and the tendency we have to fixate on certain groups and certain voices. It seems to be a focus on men, rather than God that produced this discord. Am I in this group? Do I wear that label?
In exalting human leaders above Christ we are in a sense exalting ourselves. Is this problem of pride and inflated importance the reason for some of our division?
We have seen the product of a celebrity culture where we have become the stars of the show, photo-bombing Jesus at every turn. What does it say about us that we have more green rooms than prayer rooms?
Some of us can strut sitting down. I heard of one preacher who hugged himself to death and thought it might be the most common means of pastoral demise.
We don’t need stained glass icons, preachers in designer sneakers, and “wanna be” celebrities obsessed with building their social media platforms or personal brands. Sirs, we would see Jesus!
We need to remember who we are. We do not own the field. We do not own the house. We labor in the Lord’s work and He gives the increase.
Who They Are
As noted, the metaphor shifts from a field to be planted to a building under construction. We would do well to remember that field, that building. We sometimes forget where the real work is. It isn’t in here. It’s out there. Hell does not quake in fear when the Southern Baptist Convention approves another resolution and heaven does not rejoice because we raise our ballots in the air. I understand our ecclesiology well, but the real work of Southern Baptists doesn’t happen in here.
The work of Southern Baptists happens in some small town in Tennessee where tonight a student pastor will unfold some chairs, open a Bible and tell a handful of students about the beauty of the gospel. It happens this summer in hundreds of churches you’ve never heard of where little children will gather and learn that God’s word is a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. It will happen in an urban neighborhood ransacked by hopelessness where a church planting couple will gather some people in their house and lead a Bible Study with a dream of planting a gospel preaching church. It happens in some far away land where a young family has left all they know to carry the message of salvation to those who have never heard. It happens when that next person shares the hope of Christ, serves a broken soul, and becomes the hands and feet of Christ in a world that is lost and broken. This is what it means to labor in the field. This is what it means to build upon the foundation. This is the work of the church. It’s what happens out there, not what happens in here. And everything in here only matters if it sustains and provides for the work out there.
Who He Is
It is God who does the work. He gives the increase. Oh, if only Jesus were the real star of the show, if only His glory was the object of our deepest affections, if only His will were the great desire of our hearts. It is not a new human leader we need as much as a fresh filling of The Holy Spirit and a repentant return to our first love. We are his laborers, the Church is His building, and He is the only one deserving of our praise.
Be Careful about our Ministry
A second exhortation captures our attention in verse 10. We must not only be clear about our identity, we must be careful about our ministry. By verse 10 the metaphor becomes exclusively about building. The church is a building, and we are the laborers building upon the foundation of Christ. The foundation is true and timeless. It is our Lord Himself. The foundation of the church is what Jesus is and what Jesus did. He is the foundation.
Here the servants of God are described as laborers building the building. Paul describes himself as a “master builder”. The word used here is where we get our word architect. Paul is not boasting of his prowess as much as he is highlighting the importance of the work and deep care he gave to it. Being careful is not a call to be paralyzed by undue caution, but it means to give great importance to our ministry. It means to treat it as our highest priority and to approach our work with a godly fear and trembling.
While there is one foundation, there are two approaches to building that are described. They differ in the building materials used. One approach involves gold, silver and costly stones (jewels) and the other involves wood, hay and straw. The difference is obvious. The gold, silver and jewels are materials of wealth and beauty. These are used for important buildings of grandeur that are meant to last for many years. The second grouping, wood, hay and straw, are the common, less valuable materials. These were used in modest homes and possessed little beauty. They are not meant to last very long.
Some work in the ministry is beautiful, eternal, and valuable, while other work may be common and the results short-lived. In this case that is precisely the point, not all ministry is the same and not all of it is enduring. Paul describes a coming day where the fire of God’s judgment will reveal that which is lasting and destroy that which is not. Only the work that survives the fire will be rewarded.
The true value will be revealed not in our time but beyond time. In the current moment what is fleeting may be seen as something eternal, and vice versa. It is the fiery judgment of God that will reveal the difference.
This of course leads us to ask, in view of the coming judgment, what separates the gold, silver and jewels, from wood, hay and straw? Why will the labors of some be ruined and others be rewarded? What labors will truly last and what will not?
First we should look at our message. The gospel is described as a treasure that we carry of jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7). It is a treasure indeed. The glorious news of Christ, his incarnation, his sinless life, his sacrificial death, his triumphant resurrection, his victorious ascension, his reign and His return are the treasure we proclaim. This is our gospel; Jesus saves.
Our message is rooted in the authority of Scripture. We have an authoritative message because we have received an authoritative message. We draw our authority from God’s word and no movement that ever begins by diminishing the authority of God’s word ever ends up exalting the majesty of Christ.
Today as in every day, in this generation as in every generation, the issue of truth must be confronted. Do we really believe God has spoken or do we not? If so, do we possess the courage to take our stand upon His truth regardless of the costs? Momentous choices will determine the outcome for generations to come.
Whenever we substitute the message of truth for worldly ideologies or flawed philosophies, we trade gold, silver and precious jewels for wood, hay and straw.
It was known as theological liberalism, and then the emergent church, and now it is called sometimes called Progressivism. Call it what you will, but when we substitute our authority for God’s authority the outcome is always the same. As Dr. Criswell once said, “A skunk by any name still stinks.”
We know where the road to theological liberalism leads. It leads to death. Theological liberalism, or progressivism, is not an on-ramp to Christianity it is an off-ramp. Theological compromise to accommodate the whims of culture is just a halfway house on the road to unbelief. David Young wrote, “Marry the spirit of this age and you will be a widow in the next.” What appears shiny, glamorous and popular today may be later revealed as wood, hay and straw.
We have faced an unusual debate regarding Critical Race Theory. I have thought never have so many spoken so loud and so long about which they knew so little. It is a serious discussion though and we should not dismiss the concerns.
Critical Race Theory at its core, as popularly understood and commonly applied, offers a flawed diagnosis, a hopeless prognosis, and writes a powerless prescription rooted in materialistic humanism and political power. It is powerless because it cannot cure the deepest ills of the human heart. It brings no transformation, produces no love, and results in no justice. It cannot produce what only the gospel can produce, a changed heart and a new humanity. The Church is that glorious picture where out of the beautiful diversity of humanity, God has made something new. Despite our flawed history, there is no movement in the entire world so diverse as the church of Jesus Christ. He is our peace. He tore down the dividing wall of hostility, made of no effect the law, and created in Himself one new man. This is the gold, the silver, and the jewels and human ideologies and godless philosophies are the wood, hay and straw.
Every idea, every teaching, must be tested against the message of Scripture and we must anchor ourselves to those truths or we will surely drift where we do not want to go. Grass withers, flowers fade but the word of God will endure forever.
It is not our message alone that determines the true value of our work. Our motives matter as well. God looks at the heart. The one who seeks to convert others but is only interested in drawing people to Himself, is laboring with wood, hay and straw, but the one who shares out of a heart of love Christ and a burden for the lost is laboring with gold, silver and precious stones. The man who works to build a church so that his colleagues may esteem him, builds with wood, hay and straw, but the one who labors to glorify our Lord is building with gold, silver and precious stones.
We have seen from within our own movement the inferiority of worldly motives and the shame of wickedness exposed. We have seen ministries imploded that we once applauded. Leaders whose worked glimmered with fame, applause and success, have even in our time been revealed as wood, hay and straw. Yet fearfully much is yet to be revealed and God promises a day when our work will be revealed for what it is. Paul wrote, the day will expose it.
Character matters and there is no greater test of character than how we treat one another.
This past season has been marked by unusual strife, name-calling, and even slander. As Paul wrote “there is envy and strife among you”.
As we contend for the truth must we be contentious? You can be right and still wrong. If you don’t believe it, remember the words of Paul from later in this same letter,
If I speak human or angelic tongues but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so that I can move mountains but do not have love, I am nothing.
1 Corinthians 13:1-2
Something is wrong when we spend more time tearing down than we spend building up. Something is wrong with those who relish attacking others who profess the name of Christ. When we cast false assertions, make untrue accusations, speak harshly, demean others, obsess over disputable points, and turn brothers into adversaries are we not acting, in Paul’s words, like mere men?
You and I both know that there is a profound difference between honest debate and carnal controversies, between brotherly engagement and worldly strife. You and I know the difference and it is time we called it out and say to those whose voices seem constantly motivated to produce dissent and unrest that this will not go unchecked. We should not surrender this convention to strident voices that want to play the playground bully hoping to tear others down so they can build themselves up.
Sadly, the Corinthian Church was known for this. At the end of the first century the early church leader Clement of Rome wrote in another letter the Corinthian church and said,
We consider that we have been somewhat tardy in giving heed to the matters of dispute that have arisen among you, dearly beloved, and to the detestable and unholy sedition, so alien and strange to the elect of God, which a few headstrong and self-willed persons have kindled to such a pitch of madness that your name, once revered and renowned and lovely in the sight of all men, hath been greatly reviled. 1 Clement 1:1 (Lightfoot translation)
Could this not be said of us? Seriously, that very statement could have been written in recent days and how tragic is that?
CRT is a thing. Marxism is a thing. Socialism is a thing. I’ll tell you what else is a thing: being a jerk is a thing.
I do not care how sound your doctrine is, how razor sharp your intellect and how snappy your retorts are on Twitter, if you do not mirror the character of Christ then your words and your work are nothing but wood, hay and straw.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If you seek to contend for the truth but you do not do so in the fullness of the Spirit, has it occurred to you that you may be doing more damage to the truth than the most virulent adversary? What a reproach we are to the cause of Christ when we war in the flesh instead of walking in the Spirit.
In all honesty, would any observer having watched us in this recent season conclude, “Those are the people of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?” Look at how gentle they are with one another? How kind? How patient? How loving? Even with those they disagree…especially with those they disagree. How careful they are to not do harm to their reputations! How patient they are with others mistakes. How self-controlled they are with their social media posts. My, but they manifest a character that comes from another place. They give off an aroma of another world. I’m afraid we give off an aroma all right, but not the one our Lord desires.
So yes, a skunk by any name does stink and there are some foul odors in our midst; the foul odor of arrogance, of unkindness, of impatience, and even untruthfulness.
In the account of the women caught in adultery, we all know what was really happening. The angry mob was not motivated by a desire for righteousness. Their aim was to make someone look small so they could look big. They knew the sin. They knew the Scriptures, but they did not know the Savior. I do not want to compromise the truth but neither do I want to be known as the church of the angry old men with rocks in their hands.
I don’t want the destructive path of a corrupted message, but neither do I want a devilish heart or a corrupted mission. We don’t need the leaven of the Pharisees or the Sadducees. Why would we allow secular forces and unspiritual voices to force us into a binary choice between equally unbiblical options? As the prophets reminded the Israelites, the answer to Babylon is not Egypt.
Yes, secular ideologies need to be critiqued, but does that mean we ignore the very real cries for justice that are all around us and sometimes come from our own brothers and sisters?
Justice is not an idea born in the halls of Ivy League schools and atheist philosophers. Justice is an idea born in the heart of the God who is just. You wouldn’t even know what justice is if it weren’t for God. Look you can put whatever adjective before the noun you want, but justice comes from God and from His word and Jesus told us to pursue it.
We are for biblical justice. But we must be for biblical justice. And if we are for biblical justice then we must value the voices of those who have suffered injustice including many of our black brothers and sisters. It is beyond the pale of comprehension, that a Christian body, against the all too familiar backdrop of a not too distant history, would try to shut down, shut out and shut up the voices of our own brothers and sisters in the faith, who don’t care 2 bits for CRT, but do want to know that we stand against racism, that we care about their pain, that we will help bear their burdens, that we will bind up the brokenhearted, and grow together to be the kind of churches the reflect the plan of God for His people in this broken world.
If you say that you reject social justice in order to stand for biblical justice, but you refuse to stand for biblical justice when the moment demands it, then your voice condemning social justice sounds a lot like noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
God is not on the right, God is not on the left, God is not in the middle, He is above all, He is over all, and He is Lord of all. In the Southern Baptist Convention we don’t need Jesus to take a side, we need Jesus to take over.
And while we’re at it we should also remember that this convention did not build the largest missionary force in the history of Christendom by telling Lottie Moon to “go home.” Most of our sisters, our daughters and our mothers, only desire to obey the command of the risen Christ and to joyfully submit to His authority. They have washed the feet of Christ’s body with their tears of affection. Yet many grow disheartened when shepherds in the church become more agitated over peripheral debates about modern titles and positions, most of which aren’t even found in Scripture, than they are over leaders who have betrayed their sacred duty to care for the flock. When we are more interested in protecting our turf than protecting the vulnerable is that not the very definition of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel? I’ve sat through a lot of gnat straining sessions in this convention and I fear we have swallowed more than our share of camels. There are a lot of bloated bellies in Baptist land and I ain’t talking about the fried chicken.
Gold, silver and jewels, or wood, hay and straw? God will judge, rest assured of that, so let us take heed to be careful about our ministry. Finally, let us…
Be Certain about our Eternity
God is watching and eternity is coming. There will be a day when all things will be revealed by fire. As believers we live with one eye always scanning the horizon of eternity. We live for a kingdom that is both here, and yet to come. Only an eternal perspective grants us both wisdom and courage to face the challenges of this present moment. We know that eternity is coming and with it a day of both reward and ruin. Paul speaks of both in our passage.
There will be reward. When the fire comes we will see the gold, silver and precious stones for all they are. More precious will they be then than we ever dreamed or imagined today. The reward will be worth it. You may labor in a forgotten place. You may labor in a hard place. You may be tired. You may limp into this assembly wondering if it is worth it to stay faithful in the work of the Lord. It will be worth it all when we see Jesus.
Dear friend let us get to the fields again. Let us get back to building again. There is work to be done and the humblest among us, the simplest among us, the poorest among us, the least known among us, may with the gold, silver and jewels of the gospel do the work of the Lord. And God will give the increase and God will be the judge. He who labors faithfully will receive a reward as verse 14 proclaims. Let us never doubt in the darkness of this current age that it is so.
And there will be ruin. The final verses of our text, verses 16 and 17 remind us that we are the temple of the Lord. The Lord is building His church and the Spirit of God dwells there; He lives in you, verse 16 proclaims. Then verse 17 gives an ominous warning. Mess with the temple at our own peril.
The church has many problems, but the faithful worker labors according to an eternal plan, knowing that God is working through it all to build His church. Woe, be it to that person who works to destroy the temple of the Lord. Say what you will about this ark, but I’d rather be saved in here than drowning out there. I’d rather live with the drama and difficulty inside the church than perish in the lostness of unbelief as an enemy of God.
Let us too, heed the reminder to be careful how we treat the temple of the Lord, the body of our Savior, the bride of Christ. Whoever destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. Be careful before you take a careless sledgehammer to the house of God just to build a name for yourself. Eternity is coming and God is watching.
My heart has been grieved in these last days. We’ve embarrassed ourselves by our conduct and I think we have grieved our Lord. I have thought so many times, “We’re better than this.” I want to believe that.
We’re better than this. But then again maybe we’re not. Maybe this is who we are and maybe that is what makes this so hard. But I’ll tell you this, we may not be better than this, but Jesus is. Jesus is better than this.
And that is why I have hope today. My hope isn’t in me. It isn’t in you and it isn’t in us. My hope is in Him. And the same fire the burns the hay and straw refines the gold and silver. And because Jesus is better than this, we can be better than this.
Underneath this mess of hay and straw is a foundation and that foundation, the message of Jesus, is what we’ll endure after our mess has been cleaned away. And because that foundation endures so will we. And because that foundation will hold, we continue the work, not with wood, hay and straw, but I pray with better stuff than we have shown of late.
Let us gather the gold of the gospel, the silver of the Scriptures and the jewels of Jesus and get to the work of laboring for our King.
So Southern Baptists let us be done with the wood, hay and straw of posturing and politicking, of carping and criticizing, and let us get to the field. To the fields! Others may leave, but we have work to do. To the fields. Let us labor for the master from the dawn to setting sun, let us talk of all His wondrous love and care. There is work to be done, work that lasts. Eternity is coming and we can work with confidence knowing the foundation will hold. The church’s one foundation will hold. Against apostasy it will hold. Against dissension it will hold. Against secularism it will hold. Again false ideologies, false teachers, and false agendas it will hold. Presidents will come and go, but it will hold. Nations will rise and fall but it will hold. Saints will live and martyrs will die but it will hold. It will hold us through this storm. It will hold us in the coming ages. The foundation will stand. God will finish His work, He will build His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.
Let us stay in the fields. Let us stay at the work and let us trust Him with the results for the church’s one foundation will endure.
It was in a stormy season in his church that Samuel John Stone penned the words to the great hymn that serve as a reminder to us all and a call to continue the work together. Speaking of the troubled church he said,
Tho’ with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed, yet saints their watch are keeping, their cry goes up, “How long?” And soon the night of weeping shall be the morn of song.
The church shall never perish! Her dear Lord, to defend, to guide, sustain, and cherish, is with her to the end; tho’ there be those that hate her and false sons in her pale, against the foe or traitor she ever shall prevail.
‘Mid toil and tribulation, and tumult of her war, she waits the consummation of peace for evermore; till with the vision glorious her longing eyes are blest, and the great church victorious shall be the church at rest.
The Church’s One Foundation, Samuel John Stone (1866)
Let it be for this mission we unite, let it be for this hope we endure and let it be for this movement that we give our lives.