We could say that, for Paul, the Corinthians were building a short-term church for a long-term faith. One of the central themes of Scripture is the necessity of endurance. The church’s responsibility is to build enduring Christians for an enduring house. This happens through the means that God has ordained, especially the Word and sacraments. In these opening chapters, Paul focuses his attention specifically on the Word and the church’s teaching and preaching ministry. The context of these chapters help us to see what Paul desires this to look like.
The first is the pure teaching of the Word, not corrupted by a worldly message or a worldly method. The focus is Christ and the cross (2:2). That is a simple message, but one whose depth belies its simplicity. It assumes the incarnation and deity of Christ because we need God to save us; we cannot save ourselves. It assumes the term Paul uses elsewhere, “propitiation” (Rom. 3:25), which tells us that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God and that God’s wrath must be turned away from us. It leads to a humble, cruciform life of serving God and others, not seeking self (unlike the modus operandi of the Corinthians). And all of this is for the glory of God. These truths run contrary to the world’s way of thinking and acting.
Second, the church’s preaching and teaching ministry must give solid food, not milk (1 Cor. 3:1–2). Milk is for the immature, and living in a continual state of immaturity leads us away from Christ, not to Him (Heb. 5:11–6:6). This requires teachers and preachers who have depth and breadth in their teaching and preaching. It requires preachers who are teachers of the Word, not entertainers. It requires expository preaching of the whole counsel of God. I once heard a megachurch pastor chastise those in his congregation who were complaining that they were not being “fed,” telling them that they just want to get fat and lazy. This misses the point. No one can survive on milk alone.
Pastors must preach substance. This does not mean that they must speak over the heads of the young and immature in their congregation. It is possible, indeed necessary, that preachers preach in such a way that, to borrow a phrase, is shallow enough for a child to play in and deep enough for an elephant to swim in. Pastors may say, “Well, my people are not ready for solid food.” Where does the responsibility for that lie? Paul’s warning here is aimed primarily at those teachers and preachers in the church who are building on his foundation. The blame, at least in large part, lies with them. If we are building churches where we can only continue to give milk, something is wrong with how we are building.
What kind of Christians are we building? What kind of durability do they—and our ministry—have? Paul ends this section by focusing on the long term, on the need for substantive teaching and preaching so that the work “survives” (1 Cor. 3:14). The church, its ministers, and its people are in this for the long haul.
The day of judgment will reveal what kind of work each has done (vv. 13–15). There will be reward for the one who builds well with substantive materials that survive the fire. For other ministers, their work will be burned up, even though they themselves may be rescued from the fire (v. 15). They will lose their heavenly reward, perhaps because they sought an earthly one. Yet, they themselves will be saved.
Clearly, Paul is not simply warning against the teaching of heresy. The preacher himself will be saved (v. 15; contrast Gal. 1:6–9). Rather, there is a kind of preaching and a kind of ministry that, while not heretical, lacks substance and durability. God’s servants must exercise care not to build with worldly philosophy and methods. Neither content nor medium is biblically neutral. The houses that some build, even ones that seem to be thriving, will ultimately go up in flames. Some will say, “All that I have worked for lies in ashes.” That will be sad indeed.
My dad’s homes, while still standing firm, will eventually be destroyed. Worldly methods and philosophy are transient. The church is the only house that Christ said He would build, and God’s building will last forever. We, however, need to be careful how we build on the foundation that is Christ.