Meaning of 1 Corinthians 3: The Testing of God’s Church Builders

When discussing the last judgment and the consequences of good and bad works, I have heard it often incorrectly taught that your deeds don’t have any affect on your eternal security. If you are a Christian and have good works, congratulations, you’ll get some heavenly presents. However, if your life was defined by sinful living, don’t worry, you will still be saved—albeit with no eternal goody bag. While you “should” behave yourself as a Christian, eternity isn’t at stake, just the amount of heavenly treasure.

One of the go-to verses used to justify this wrong teaching is Paul’s writing in 1 Corinthians 3 where he writes that if someone’s work “is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.” (1 Cor. 3:15)

A cursory reading of this verse without studying the context could understandably lead to this error. However, once you actually study the context and the flow of Paul’s thought, it becomes clear that this was not Paul’s point at all. In fact, Paul’s argument rather indirectly suggests that many in the local fellowship there are at risk of perishing on Judgement Day.

Before we get there, let’s take a look at the entire passage, I’ve highlighted particularly relevant portions to shed light on the true meaning.

What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. The one who plants and the one who waters have one purpose, and they will each be rewarded according to their own labor. For we are co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

10 By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care.11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

16 Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? 17 If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:5-17)

The greater context is dealing with those who have shepherded the Corinthian church—namely Paul, Apollos, and those who now lead the church. Paul describes himself and the other leaders as co-workers with God. They are servants, who are working with God (v 5). Each has their own task in cooperation with God (v 5), but all credit goes to God (v 7).

What are they working towards, what does their labor produce? Paul describes them as farm hands, planting and cultivating a crop. In verse 9, he expands upon the analogy. These leaders are laborers in God’s field, and also the construction crew of God’s building.

The field and the building represent the church—the fellowship of believers themselves. Paul says “you are God’s field, God’s building.” He’s not speaking to an individual here. “You” (este, ἐστε) is plural in the Greek. Paul is saying “you all”—that is, all you believers in Corinth—are God’s field and God’s building.

This is the first key to understanding the passage. The labor or work Paul describes here is not the totality good or bad works of our life, but rather the “construction” of the church itself.

In verse 10, this church building analogy continues. Paul laid the foundation, and the foundation was Jesus Christ (v 12). Now, after Paul has built the foundation of the church, other builders (church leaders) have come and continued the work. Paul explains that not all work is equal. Again, he’s not talking about general good and bad works, but specifically “church construction” work. Some build with precious and high-quality materials, others with not-so-good. In other words, some pastored their fellowship well and others poorly.

This work—the church itself—will be tested on Judgement Day (v 14). If the church doesn’t past the test, if it is burned up, these church leaders will suffer great loss, but will themselves be barely saved (v 15). The loss is not just rewards, but the loss of their congregation itself—the loss of people’s eternal lives. The pastors are largely to blame, as they did not train their church to the highest standard.

Paul does not stop there however. He has already addressed good leaders who’s work stands the test, and consequently are rewarded. He’s shown that those leaders who do a poor job shepherding their congregation will suffer loss, but they themselves will be saved. Now, in verse 16-17, Paul addresses those who are not builders, but actively tear down and destroy the church.

Paul writes, “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst?” (v 16). Before I studied this more closely, I always assumed Paul was saying that each of us individually are temples of God, an idea he expresses elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 6:19). However, that’s not what he’s saying here. Paul writes that “you all” (plural again) are God’s temple (singular). Paul is continuing with the building analogy. The church fellowship (“you all”) together constitute the singular building of God’s temple.

He continues, “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person.” (v 17) Paul has already talked about poor workers, but this isn’t just a poor worker. This is someone who is actively damaging the church. They are teaching false doctrines, leading people away from the truth. They are destroying the body of believers in Corinth. These destructive workers won’t be saved. No, God will destroy them.


To summarize, here’s what Paul reveals in 1 Corinthians 3 regarding church leaders and the quality of their work:

  1. Good church leaders: Church isn’t destroyed on Judgement Day. Leaders are saved and receive rewards.
  2. Poor church leaders: Their church is destroyed (congregants don’t pass the test and are destroyed). Leaders are barely saved, but suffer loss of their church and don’t receive rewards.
  3. Destructive church leaders: Work at tearing down the church, and so God destroys them.

Next time you hear someone use this passage to argue that works don’t matter, graciously point out to them that Paul is addressing something else entirely here. Paul teaches that in the last judgement, God will test the church. Some will stand the test, while others will be burned up. The church leaders will be held responsible for the quality of their shepherding. All those pastors whose teaching leads people astray, will be eternally punished for destroying God’s building.

A sobering passage, but a good wake-up call for all of us.

 

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