When my daughter was in Christian school, the high school students complained that the school secretary treated them like small children. While waiting to take my daughter on an appointment one day, I observed the behavior for myself. The high school was located across the parking lot from the main building and so the secretary was used to dealing with small children all day. When she encountered the high schoolers, she tended to treat them just like one of the kids. They objected because they were more mature than this … but some of them actually were pretty immature.
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? 1 Corhinthians 3:1-4
The Corinthians felt like those high schoolers toward Paul. He was too elementary and simplistic. They were insulted by his message and his methods. In these first four verses of chapter 3, Paul exposed the reason for his content and method of preaching. It wasn’t that Paul was incapable of going deeper or grasping secular wisdom. A student of Gamaliel, Israel’s greatest rabbi of that generation, Paul was quite capable of going deeper. It wasn’t that apostolic preaching had gone as far as it could go. Paul hadn’t get written Romans and the writer of Hebrews hadn’t produced that letter yet. The gospel could and did go a lot deeper in the future. The problem was that Paul’s Corinthian readers were carnal, fleshly, not spiritually minded. Paul dealt with them in an elementary fashion because, figuratively speaking, they were still elementary school students. These “kindergarten Christians” wanted to boast that they are taking graduate level courses.
We’re not horribly different today.
In some sense, any observer could agree the Corinthian Christian fell short of the mark. They were childish and immature, quarreling among themselves, incapable of in-depth teaching. What picture should come to mind when we hear the term “carnal Christian”? The subject passage tells us a great deal about the characteristics of a carnal Christian. The rest of the book (and 2 Corinthians) has much to add to the topic. For now, let us make some initial observations about the carnal Christian.
In general terms, the carnal Christian is the Christian whose thinking and actions are prompted by the flesh. Conversely, the spiritual Christian is the saint whose attitudes, thinking, and actions operate under the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The spiritual Christian’s life indicates that he or she is walking in the Spirit, in accordance with the leading and the power of the Holy Spirit. The carnal Christian possesses the Spirit, but he or she chooses to follow the impulses of the flesh.
Because the carnal Christian lives in accordance with the flesh, at times it may be hard to distinguish him from the unsaved, “natural,” man, who also thinks and walks according to the flesh. The difference between the carnal Christian and the natural (or unregenerated) person is that the former has the means to live a godly life, while the latter does not. The difference between the carnal man and the natural man is that the former is saved and going to heaven, while the latter is lost and doomed for an eternity apart from God, unless he becomes saved.
Carnal Christians are like babies. When Paul first came to Corinth, he had to speak to these pagans as to “natural men,”unbelievers, who did not possess the Spirit. He thus proclaimed the gospel at an elementary level. Even after they were saved, Paul still had to speak to the Corinthians as brand new believers. Paul would explain the specifics of their immaturity later in the letter, but let us ponder what babies are like, and then compare this to the spiritual realm.
Babies are little and immature and must begin to grow up quickly. The Corinthian newborn saints were immature babies who needed to grow up. Babies are weak and vulnerable, completely dependent upon others for food, cleaning, clothing, and protection. Being weak, vulnerable and dependent, babies take a great deal from others, but they do not give to others. As babies begin to grow up, they become more independent. Every parent knows about the “terrible two’s”! Children have trouble getting along with other children because they are self-centered and selfish, and so they fight and squabble over toys and attention.
Carnal Christians are little babies who stay babies; they never grow up. We must be careful when we think about “carnal Christians” as babies, because newborn saints may have serioius weaknesses, but they also have capabilities. New Christians often put us more mature Christians to shame. They have a zeal for the lost, and they share boldly about their new-found faith. They have a deep sense of what they have been saved from. They have a hunger for the Word, often devouring it as they discover its riches for the first time.
Paul was not critical of the Corinthians for being immature right after their conversion. His criticism stemmed from their having remained children. They had not grown up and matured into adult, serving saints. Growth is normal and natural, and when children do not grow up, it is considered a tragedy. Spiritual growth is expected also, and when it does not happen, it is abnormal:
It was he [God] who gave some as apostles, some as prophets, some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, that is, to build up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God – a mature person, attaining to the measure of Christ’s full stature. So we are no longer to be children, tossed back and forth by waves and carried about by every wind of teaching by the trickery of people who craftily carry out their deceitful schemes. But practicing the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Christ, who is the head. From him the whole body grows, fitted and held together through every supporting ligament. As each one does its part, the body grows in love.(Ephesians 4:11-16). See also 1Peter 2:1-3 and Hebrews 5:11-14.
Paul simply states that the Corinthian believers have never grown up. It is not wrong for them to digest only simple truths as newborn babes, but it is wrong for them to fail to grow up and not to take solid food. To stay immature is sin. The Corinthians are guilty of this malady.
Carnal Christians are “Wimps in the Word.” The Corinthian Christians were only able to handle “milk” when Paul was with them. Their condition had not changed because there was no growth toward maturity, no movement from “milk” to “meat.”
What is “milk,” and what is “meat”? Paul does not spell this out for us in our text, but the writer to the Hebrews does:
For everyone who lives on milk is inexperienced in the message of righteousness, because he is an infant. But solid food is for the mature, whose perceptions are trained by practice to discern both good and evil. Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God, teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. (Hebrews 5:13–6:2).
According to these words, “milk” is the elementary truths necessary for salvation, and the taking of the first steps in a Christian’s walk in the Spirit. When the Christian moves from “milk” to “meat,” he is not moving from “Christ crucified” to “deeper truths.” He is moving from a basic grasp of the meaning of Christ crucified to a deeper understanding of Christ and the gospel and the implications for godly living.
Both the “milk” and the solid food, the “meat” of the Christian’s diet is the Word of God, centered in Christ crucified. As I understand Paul’s words, it wasn’t that the Corinthian saints were still trying to digest the “milk” of the Word. They had turned up their noses at “milk” and were seeking “wisdom” from those teachers who were offering teachings that appealed to their fleshly natures.
The carnal Christians of Paul’s day disdained doctrine. Since human nature hasn’t changed much, carnal Christians today also disdain doctrine. They do not want any diet which requires study, hard work, and thought.
They are infants still and display their wretched immaturity even in the way that they complain if you give them more than milk. Not for them solid knowledge of Scripture; not for them mature theological reflection; not for them growing and perceptive Christian thought. They want nothing more than another round of choruses and a ‘simple message’—something that won’t challenge them to think, to examine their lives, to make choices, and to grow in their knowledge and adoration of the living God. D.A Carson, The Cross & Christian Ministry, Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1993, page 72
A very substantial “market” exists in the Christian community for sermons, tapes, radio and television talk shows, and Christian gurus who pre-digest truth for us and then tell us exactly how to do everything. The books on Christian marriage, child-rearing, facing life’s problems, and handling money are endless. It is not that all of these books are wrong. Some of them are quite informative. The problem is that many of today’s Christians seem incapable of thinking for ourselves.
Our goal shouldn’t be to teach people in a way which causes them to come back again and again with every new question, every new wrinkle to their problems. Education should provide people with the tools, methods, and motivation to learn for themselves. We are never completely independent of others, nor should we be, but as we grow up in the Word, we should become less dependent. We should not have to be told every “answer,” because we should begin to find the answers for ourselves. In this sense, “milk” is the product which has been produced by someone else, the nourishment we get “second hand.” The plethora of books, tapes, and materials can be either a blessing or a curse to us, depending on whether they aid us in finding the truth in the Scriptures, or whether they give us an excuse not to search out the Scriptural truth for ourselves.
Carnal Christians are not those who think of themselves as carnal, but those who think of themselves as spiritual. Paul started his letter by identifying the Corinthian believers as Christians ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, recipients of ‘the grace of God’, enriched by Christ ‘in all utterance, and in all knowledge’ (1:2-5). He rebuked in chapter 3 not for failing to be saved, but for acting with immaturity and like non-believers in one area of their lives.
The Scriptures don’t give comfort or encouragement to professing Christians who manifest no evidence of spiritual life. In my study of the “carnal Christian” in Corinthians, I reached the surprising conclusion that Paul viewed the carnal Christians of Corinth in a completely different way than we do in modern times.The carnal Christian is not the person who once made a profession of faith, who has done nothing since. The carnal Christian is the person we think of as spiritual—the kind of person who thinks of himself (or herself) as spiritual. When Paul used the term “worldly” Christian, he didn’t mean someone who had made a profession of faith, carried on in the Christian way for a short while, and then reverted to a lifestyle indistinguishable in every respect from that of the world. The Corinthian believers were still meeting together for worship (1 Corinthians. 14) and calling on the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (1:2). They were extraordinarily endowed with spiritual gifts (1:5, 7; 12-14) and wrestling with theological and ethical issues (1 Cor. 8-10), and they were in contact with the apostle whose ministry brought them to the Lord. Far from being sold out to the world of the flesh, they still pursued spiritual experience.
The “carnal Christian” is one who may well be regarded as “spiritual” by others:
This is the solemn pronouncement of the one who holds the seven spirits of God and the seven stars: ‘I know your deeds, that you have a reputation that you are alive, but in reality you are dead. (Revelation 3:1).
The carnal Christians at Sardis were not rebuked for having done no works. God indicates that He is aware of their deeds. It seems the saints in Sardis had a reputation for being “alive” (let’s say “spiritual” and not miss the point) on the basis of their works. But in spite of this apparent evidence, God exposed them as being “dead.”
In the same chapter, we see that the saints in Laodicea also thought they were “spiritual,” but God informed them that they were not:
To the angel of the church in Laodicea write the following:
“This is the solemn pronouncement of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the originator of God’s creation: ‘I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either cold or hot! So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of my mouth! Because you say, “I am rich and have acquired great wealth, and need nothing,” but do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind, and naked, take my advice and buy gold from me refined by fire so you can become rich! Buy from me white clothing so you can be clothed and your shameful nakedness will not be exposed, and buy eye salve to put on your eyes so you can see! All those I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent! (Revelation 3:14-19).
How can the ones who consider themselves “spiritual,” who have a “spirtual” reputation with others, be the very ones God designates as “carnal”? We humans have the wrong criteria for judging spirituality. We judge by appearances of spirituality. But Jesus warned about making judgments on the basis of externals: “And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15). The “false prophets” Jesus warned about are those who perform very impressive works, and Jesus calls them those “who practice lawlessness”:(See Matthw 7:15-23)
Immediately after, Jesus emphasized that those who are “wise” (an interesting word in relationship to the Corinthians) are those who do what He has taught. (See Matthew 7:24-27)
Addressing the “carnal” Hebrew Christians, the writer to the Hebrews indicates that their immaturity is due to their lack of use of the Word, while the mature are those who are wise concerning good and evil because they have put their biblical knowledge to use. “But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14 emphasis mine).
What is the difference between the “works” of those who are unspiritual (even unsaved), and the “works” of those who are “spiritual”? It’s simpler than you think. The works of those who are “fleshly” or “carnal” are those prompted and empowered by the flesh. The works of those who are spiritual are prompted and empowered by the Spirit. Seemingly spiritual people may hustle and bustle around the church, doing so much they appear to put others to shame, while in reality their works are fleshly. The “fleshly” Christian may even prostitute his or her spiritual gifts, employing them in self-serving and self-promoting ways. The Corinthian church was well-endowed with spiritual gifts, and yet Paul’s description of the church worship services implies that the gifts were being misused. More on that later.
Being carnal is not indicated by the absence of what might be called “good works,” but the absence of the Spirit in these “good works.” I can imagine the shock wave that hit the church at Corinth as the saints read and reflected upon Paul’s letter. Paul not only called many of the Corinthian saints carnal, he was calling those carnal who were most highly regarded as spiritual. One more surprise concerning the carnal Corinthians. The carnal Corinthians were not only those who were regarded as spiritual, they were also those who had the audacity to claim that Paul and his fellow-apostles were “carnal”:
Now I, Paul, appeal to you personally by the meekness and gentleness of Christ (I who am meek when present among you, but am full of courage toward you when away!) – now I ask that when I am present I may not have to be bold with the confidence that (I expect) I will dare to use against some who consider us to be behaving according to human standards. For though we live as human beings, we do not wage war according to human standards. (2Corthians 10:1-3)
The two Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians deal with the fruits of carnality. Paul sought to point his readers to “true spirituality.” As we continue on in our study, we will gain insight into why “spiritual saints” are often considered “carnal” and why “carnal Christians” are thought to be “spiritual.” We will become increasingly aware that times have changed, but people have not. The pages of Paul’s epistles read like the pages of our daily newspaper.