The Bible uses a number of striking agricultural images when speaking about God’s people and God’s relationship with them. Isaiah 5 includes the song of God’s vineyard that yields only wild grapes, and God gives it over to be destroyed. The psalmist compares the righteous man to a fruitful tree planted by streams of water (Ps. 1:3). Jesus tells parables about a sower, seed and soil, about wheat and tares, and about a mustard seed. He also compares Himself to a vine and His disciples to branches. These images are powerful tools, not only because they are memorable, but also because they vividly portray how God works and how His people are to respond.
The Apostle Paul uses an agricultural metaphor for the church in 1 Corinthians 3, calling it “God’s field” (v. 9). In that same chapter, he also refers to the church as “God’s building” (v. 9) and “God’s temple” (v. 16). All of these images teach us something about the church, and each metaphor brings out a different feature about the church and our responsibility as members of it.
Agricultural images in Scripture typically carry connotations of growth—or lack thereof. We often use them the same way today when, for instance, we speak of a child as “growing like a weed.” The idea of growth is also inherent in Paul’s imagery of the church as “God’s field” in 1 Corinthians 3. Paul’s point is twofold: first, he chastises the Corinthians for their lack of growth; second, he points to the church, when functioning properly, as the place of growth for God’s people.
Paul begins this chapter by comparing the Corinthian Christians to infants who still need milk, not solid food (my high school English teacher would frown on the mixing of metaphors). Their immaturity is evident in their divisions, their self-centered individualism, and their worldly mind-set. The church is divided into factions: “‘I follow Paul’ . . . ‘I follow Apollos’ . . . ‘I follow Cephas’ . . . ‘I follow Christ’” (1:12). They act only with regard to self, not for the good of the whole (as the rest of the letter painfully demonstrates). Furthermore, their actions and attitudes reflect the culture around them.
To counter this, Paul begins by pointing them to the cross. The cross, while foolish and weak in the eyes of the world, is the wisdom and power of God (1:17–25). It should humble believers because it says that only the death of God incarnate can pay the penalty for our sins and bring reconciliation with God. We cannot save ourselves. It should also lead to a “cross-shaped” life, living for others, not self. In chapter 3, Paul also subtly points the Corinthians away from self and away from the cult of celebrity to God Himself. In this chapter, there are twenty-one references to God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit in twenty-three verses. The Christian life is a God-centered, not a self-centered, life.
These are lessons that the church needs to learn again today. Much of evangelical Christianity has degenerated into a self-focused, consumerist religion often driven by a worldly mind-set. Many individual Christians have become consumers in their approach to churches, remaining in a church only as long as that church “meets my needs.” Many churches themselves foster this consumerist mentality, gearing their philosophy of ministry and their worship services to attract a particular demographic. Thomas Bergler’s book The Juvenilization of American Christianity helpfully shows how the widespread, churchwide embrace of methods originally designed to make Christianity attractive to young people has ended up producing a largely immature church that has lost its power to influence our culture. This is eerily similar to what Paul was addressing in the church at Corinth. The church today is fostering “infants in Christ,” not mature believers who can withstand social pressure to conform to the world.
This leads to the second implication of the image of the church as “God’s field,” namely, the church itself is—or at least should be—the place of growth for God’s people. How does this take place? Paul gives the formula: Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gives the growth (3:6–7). How did Paul plant? He preached the Word, especially Jesus Christ and Him crucified (2:1). How did Apollos water? He preached and taught the Word. These are the primary means that God uses to cause His church to grow. These ordinary means of grace have extraordinary power because God Himself works through them to bring growth.
There are two caveats, however. The first is that those who preach and teach the Word cannot go on forever giving milk (3:1–2). Paul does not give detail here about what is “milk” and what is “solid food.” The writer of Hebrews, however, lays out six foundational tenets of the faith that are the “milk” that Christians need to move beyond so they can get to the “solid food” of the deeper teachings of the faith (Heb. 5:11–6:3). He then immediately warns his readers about falling away from the faith (6:4–8). In other words, the danger of living in continual immaturity is losing the faith altogether.
The warning for the church at large today is that as long as a particular church’s worship services, where the Word of God is preached, do not get beyond the basic gospel message or continually target a certain consumerist demographic, then that church will find it nearly impossible to move on to maturity. It also puts professing Christians at risk of losing the faith altogether.
The second caveat is that it is possible to be in a church that proclaims the whole counsel of God and still not grow. The Corinthians had the Apostle Paul as church planter and Apollos as one of their preachers. You cannot get better pastors than that. Yet the Corinthian believers were not growing.
Growth in the Christian life comes when we place ourselves under the ordinary means of grace, receive them joyfully, meditate on them, and faithfully and prayerfully put into practice what we learn. James warns that the one who is only a “hearer” of the word and not a “doer” deceives himself (James 1:22–25). In particular, we must apply a biblical mind-set to every area of our lives. This includes thinking critically about how the attitudes of the world infect our own ways of thinking and living. The Corinthians still embraced the world’s triumphalist, human-centered philosophy. This stunted their growth in Christ.
From a biblical perspective, nurture and growth take place primarily in and through the church. The great interpreters of Scripture throughout church history have recognized this. The church father Cyprian famously said, “You cannot have God as your Father if you do not have the church as your mother.” The great Reformer John Calvin used the same imagery, writing of “the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.” These great interpreters are only expounding what Scripture teaches. The Apostle Paul wrote that only together “with all the saints” will believers be able to grasp the love of Christ and to be filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:18–19). Growth in the Christian life requires growing together. The church is God’s ordained means of bringing this about.
The individualism and worldly mind-set of the first-century church is very similar to that of the evangelical church today. The church is peripheral at best for many evangelicals. This is contrary to God’s revealed will.
Individual Christians need to commit themselves prayerfully to a body of believers—one that is committed to the ordinary means of grace. “God gives the growth” through His ordinary, extraordinary means. And this takes place principally in and through the local church, God’s field where God’s people grow.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on April 10, 2019.