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.