Maybe you’ve heard the term “carnal Christian”. It comes from this section of 1 Corinthians.
Brad and I began this Bible study because of a Christian friend’s carnality, so when we reached this passage, it seemed we should pay it particular attention.
So, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but instead as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready. In fact, you are still not ready, for you are still influenced by the flesh. For since there is still jealousy and dissension among you, are you not influenced by the flesh and behaving like unregenerate people? For whenever someone says, “I am with Paul,” or “I am with Apollos,” are you not merely human? (I Corinthians 3:1-4)
The word “carnal” comes from the King James, which was influenced by the Latin Vulgate. It translates the Greek work sarkinos as carnal. Later versions have translated it as “fleshly” and “worldly”. The NET Bible uses “unregenerate”.
We’re only going to focus on these four verses because there’s a lot of debate over what constitutes a “carnal” Christian and because you can’t really understand the church at Corinth unless you understand that Paul applied this term to many of the Corinthian Christians. Both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are about true spirituality, which he contrasted with the carnality of the Corinthian Christians. That carnality affected their understanding of spirituality. Thus, understanding what Paul meant by “carnal” becomes crucial to understanding his letters to the Corinthians.
Just a quick review of the road so far. Paul laid the foundation for this letter at the outset (1 Corithians 1:1-9). He indicated his letter was written not only to the Christians at Corinth, but to all the saints. He assumed his readers are true Christians and gave thanks to God because he knew God has abundantly provided for their salvation, sanctification and future glorification. Paul’s confidence did not lie with the Corinthians, but in the God Who saved them and Who will perfect them (verses 4-9)
And then he turned his attention to the problem of divisions within the church. He exhorted them to live in unity and then dealt with the known factions, which he strongly rejected as contrary to the gospel. He pointed to how his own ministry focused on preaching rather than secondary matters like baptism (verses 14-17).
He explained that he had not come to them as a great orator, because that would be detrimental to the proclamation of the cross of Christ. God did everything to make salvation possible. Paul rejected preaching that relied on human skill and talent in an effort to stay out of God’s way.
Men and women who boast that they are followers of a certain prominent leader or of Christ Himself, are exhibiting pride. Paul reminded his readers that the preaching of Christ crucified is diametrically opposed to worldly pride. He encouraged his readers to look around the church and remind themselves that the culturally elite (who the world prizes) were mostly absent, because the gospel is an offense to them, appearing to them as foolish and weak. Conversely, they were and are attracted to worldly wisdom and power.
God chooses to save those the world’s elite despise and reject — the weak, the foolish, and the “nobodies.” Through them, He accomplishes His purposes so that God’s power is revealed, and He receives the praise and the glory, rather than men. Paul came relying wholly on God’s strength and gospel, rather than prestige and wisdom.
However, just because the world regards the gospel as foolish didn’t mean Paul and the other apostles had no wisdom to teach. Paul taught wisdom, but only to those who were mature in Christ (2:6). Paul’s kind of wisdom cannot be grasped by those who are “wise” in this present age. Paul reminded us that God’s wisdom has been revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, Who the rulers of His age crucified (verse 8).
If the culturally elite “wise” of Paul’s age and of ours, don’t recognize the Savior of the World. They crucified Him instead. We must not deceive ourselves into thinking they can be won through worldly wisdom and worldly methods. The natural senses cannot discern the things of God.
If men are not capable of knowing God by their own efforts, how can God ever be known by men? In verses 2:10-16, Paul explained that God chose to reveal Himself to men through His Holy Spirit, who inspired the human authors of the New Testament to write them down. Through the Scriptures, the wisdom of God is revealed and, the Holy Spirit guides believers to understand the wisdom of God. The natural, unconverted man, does not have the Spirit within, and thus he cannot understand the Scriptures. The Spirit indwells the Christian and thus he is able to understand this current age and the mysteries of God revealed in Scripture (verses 14-16).
The Corinthian Christians had begun to look down upon Paul and the other apostles and the gospel message he preached because they found it simplistic (Christ crucified) and proclaimed in a less than entertaining way. The Corinthians had turned from Paul and his kind of preaching to others who the world considered wise and prestigious. Their excuse was that Paul failed to measure up to the new standard set by the cultural elite.
Paul had already hinted at the real problem. In chapter 2, verse 6, Paul wrote that he and the apostles spoke wisdom to those who were mature. The Corinthians were not mature. He couldn’t speak words of wisdom to them because they were carnal, or “fleshly,” or “worldly”. So we have to deal with that term.
C. I. Scofield’s note in the Scofield Bible articulates a definition of the “carnal man,” which some embrace and others eschew:
Paul divides men into three classes: psuchikos, ‘of the senses’ (James 3:15; Jude 19), or ‘natural,’ i.e. the Adamic man, unrenewed through the new birth (John 3:3, 5); pneumatikos, ‘spiritual,’ i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God (Ephesians 5:18-20); and sarkikos, ‘carnal,’ ‘fleshly,’ i.e. the renewed man who, walking ‘after the flesh,’ remains a babe in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-4). The natural man may be learned, gentle, eloquent, fascinating, but the spiritual content of Scripture is absolutely hidden from him; and the fleshly, or carnal, Christian is able to comprehend only its simplest truths, ‘milk’ (1 Cor. 3:2).
Not everyone agrees. Ernest C. Reisinger delivers a strong rebuttal to Scofield’s interpretation:
Many who regularly occupy church pews, fill church rolls, and are intellectually acquainted with the facts of the gospel never strike one blow for Christ. They seem to be at peace with his enemies. They have no quarrel with sin and, apart from a few sentimental expressions about Christ, there is no biblical evidence that they have experienced anything of the power of the gospel in their lives. Yet in spite of the evidence against them, they consider themselves to be just what their teachers teach them—that they are ‘carnal Christians’. And as carnal Christians they believe they will go to heaven, though perhaps not first-class, and with few rewards.
Reisinger argues that the category of “carnal Christian” leaves a lot of unregenerate people sitting in the pews, assured they’re going to heaven, so comfortable with their lack of faith.
Reisinger believed that the preponderance of Scripture teaches only two classes or categories of men—regenerate and unregenerate, converted and unconverted, those in Christ and those outside of Christ. He was uncomfortable with the ‘carnal Christian’ teaching, feeling it conflicted with the whole emphasis of Scripture and of the New Testament in particular.
In 1Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul appeared to divide the world into two groups – spiritual (saved, possessed of the Spirit) and natural (unsaved, those who do not have the Spirit). But now, he speaks in three categories. Which is true?
Having both experienced periods of carnal Christianity ourselves, Brad and I believe there is such a thing, but we’ve also seen some people add some truly bizarre twists to it — twists like our friend who we are currently confronting.
It’s an important question that affects every church, so it’s probably important enough to spend some time looking at it. I think there are degrees of carnality. I don’t know any Christians who have never acted in worldly ways. We all struggle with our flesh (Galatians 5:17). And, 1Corinthians 3 is not the only place in the Bible where Christians are referred to as falling sort of the goal of being “spiritual”:
Brothers and sisters, if a person is discovered in some sin, you who are spiritual restore such a person in a spirit of gentleness. Pay close attention to yourselves, so that you are not tempted too. (Galatians 6:1).
Paul instructed “spiritual” Christians that they should aid those caught in a particular sin. This Christian is not spiritual, so there must be some other category for them to be placed in.
By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, [Abraham] received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy. So in fact children were fathered by one man – and this one as good as dead – like the number of stars in the sky and like the innumerable grains of sand on the seashore. These all died in faith without receiving the things promised, but they saw them in the distance and welcomed them and acknowledged that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth. For those who speak in such a way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (Hebrews 5:11-14).
Hebrews was not written by Paul, though his name was attached to it by Bible organizers. Whoever wrote it (possibly Barnabas or Apollos, the two together, or even Priscilla and Aquila) was well-acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures, so was likely a well-educated Jew of the 1st century. This writer used very similar terms to Paul’s of those who are unable to handle the spiritual “meat” of his teaching on Melchizedek. Their immaturity caused them to still be dependent on others and to continue to require “milk.”
There are things in Christianity that are either or, but there are also topics that don’t have such black and white depictions.
Perhaps the best analogy is how Jesus dealt with divorce. In Matthew 19, the Pharisees ask Jesus what grounds for divorce are acceptable to Him. Their question is not sincere, and the Pharisees held a much more liberal view on this issue than God taught. Jesus’s response is very instructive. Paraphrased, Jesus’ answered: “I refuse to talk about exceptions, because for you, divorce has become the rule, and keeping your marriage vows the exception. There are exceptions, but you have so abused these that one can divorce for the most casual and insignificant of reasons. I want to emphasize the rule; I want to speak about the ideal, and the ideal is that one man and one woman remain husband and wife until one of them dies” (see Matthew 19:4-6).
The ideal is that all Christians should be “spiritual”. Every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit, and every Christian should walk in the Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2:14-16, Paul wrote of two categories of men, those with the Spirit and those without. Now, in chapter 3, Paul introduced a sub-category of those who are saved and indwelt by the Spirit: those who are saved, but who do not live in accordance with who they are and what God has adequately provided for them to be. Whether this category is called “sub-standard Christians,” “carnal” or “fleshly” or “unspiritual” does not matter that much. Paul dealt realistically with unspiritual saints while at the same time, not setting aside the broader division of men into two simple categories.
The “carnal” issue isn’t just an academic topic to be debated by theologians. It effects our everyday lives. The “carnal Christian” is not that far removed from the “spiritual Christian”. Every Christian’s daily life manifests the constant battle we face between the flesh and the Spirit (Romans 7:14, 18-19, 24-25; 8:1-4; Galatians 5:13-24). The “spiritual” Christian and the “carnal” Christian both struggle with the pull of the flesh and its opposition to the Spirit. The difference between the “carnal” saint and the “spiritual” saint is that the “carnal Christian” is losing the battle, and the “spiritual Christian” is, by the grace of God, holding his or her ground.
Reisinger spoke for many of a pastor and saint when he objected to the concept of the carnal Christian, believing it justifies or inadvertently encourages professing Christians to live a life of minimal commitment and obedience to Christ, all the while confident that they will get to heaven because they at one time made a profession of faith.
I agree with Reisinger that this abuse of the doctrines of the grace of God is deplorable. Nevertheless, abuse of a doctrine does not prove that doctrine wrong. In Romans 5, Paul concluded by saying that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). Some had concluded this meant one could, maybe even should, sin that grace might abound (6:1). Paul was horrified at this thought and strongly rejected it. But the perversion of this doctrine in its application by some doesn’t prove the doctrine itself is wrong. We must beware of rejecting the category of the carnal Christian just because some abuse it.
More in a second post