Paul makes it clear that the Christians in Corinth—and all believers by extension—constitute “God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9). But what kind of building are they? We had some clues in verses 12–15, which speak of gold, silver, precious stones—building materials that can survive a fire—alongside other combustible items. Such fine things are commonly associated with the Old Testament tabernacle and temple (see Ex. 25–26; 1 Kings 6–7), giving us a hint that Paul has in mind that Christians are God’s temple. Today’s passage confirms this, for Paul tells the Corinthian believers that “you are God’s temple and . . . God’s Spirit dwells in you” (1 Cor. 3:16).
Importantly, Paul speaks of the church as a whole in 1 Corinthians 3:16–17. Certainly, individual Christians are also temples of the Holy Spirit, as the Apostle tells us in 6:19–20. Nevertheless, the body of Christ as a whole is the temple of God in whom the Spirit dwells (3:16), and this temple can be destroyed (v. 17). Of course, Paul is not speaking of the destruction of the temple or church in an ultimate sense. Christ is building His church, and not even the gates of hell itself can prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). As Westminster Confession of Faith 25.5 explains, “There shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” However, individual visible churches can be destroyed by false doctrine that makes them Christian in name only or by divisiveness over petty issues.
Scripture warns us frequently that false doctrine can destroy the church; for example, the book of Jude is devoted to that theme. Yet, we dare not forget that Scripture also warns us that people with orthodox doctrine can also destroy the church. This, as we have seen, was perhaps the greater danger the Corinthians faced. Their factionalism as described in 1 Corinthians 1–3 had less to do with doctrine—though some of them had some poor doctrines—and more to do with people who, although they held doctrine in common, were seeking to advance themselves in ungodly ways. Love and service born of humble reliance on God’s otherworldly wisdom was not governing Christian conduct in Corinth, and it was causing many problems.
Many of us have seen churches split when orthodox believers stopped loving and serving one another and petty disputes escalated such that different factions separated from the body. We must take care not to let this happen, for as 3:17 teaches, such destruction can invite God’s judgment.