Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Misquoting Paul: A Correction to the Use and Abuse of First Corinthians 3 in the Lordship Debate

I sometimes think that evangelicals have two Bibles: one major one and one minor one that is largely used to support the major one. The major one is their experience, comprised of both their inherited beliefs/traditions and encounters in daily life. Their minor one is the actual Bible. The minor Bible is then used to support their major source of authority (or primary Bible) of experience.

This can be seen in the way they interpret biblical passages. They tend to have views of texts long before they ever really study them. When they do get down to study them, they often cannot see past the wall that has already been constructed through experience. It becomes rather frustrating for the teacher who attempts to teach the Bible within a sea of alternate interpretations that are born not of diligent study, but of rumor and opinion.

One of these texts, which is a common one cited by the non-lordship camp, is First Corinthians 3:10-15. The text states as follows:

According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man's work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is [to be] revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man's work. If any man's work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.

To many evangelicals and non-lordship advocates this passage argues that one may not live a godly lifestyle, but he will just suffer the loss of extra rewards for it. He himself will be saved "as through fire." So the foundation which is laid is the gospel of Christ (we all agree on that point), and the way that one builds his or her life upon it (i.e., which in their interpretation is doing good, which is gold, silver, and precious stones, or doing wrong, which is wood, hay, and straw) does not in any way indicate the nature of their status with God. They may be saved even if they have lived a life of wood, hay, and straw. This is an interpretation you will hear in numerous churches around the world.

However, as always, context rules the day in letting us know what Paul is actually saying here. Let's look at the context, then, for a moment. Paul has been arguing against factions that like certain teachers over others. His point is that everyone should be teaching the same foundation (i.e., the gospel), and that some have different roles to play in the discipleship of the church. Some plant, some water, but God causes the growth. Here is what he says in the verses preceding:

For when one says, "I am of Paul," and another, "I am of Apollos," are you not [mere] men? What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave [opportunity] to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth. Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building.

Notice the labor being discussed and the rewards being spoken of. His topic of discussion is not good and bad works. That's not the context at all. The topic instead is what a teacher teaches, i.e., whether a teacher is teaching human wisdom (i.e., his own experience and opinion) either mingled in or above the wisdom of God (which I will assume in Pauline theology is the Scripture--see 2 Tim 3:15-17). If he teaches human wisdom, his teaching is wood, hay and straw, and it will not last for eternity, but that teacher may still be saved nonetheless. All human wisdom is not heresy. It's just not profitable for the same things that the Scripture is profitable for. However, Paul does give a warning to follow that since the church is God's building, His temple, any teacher that destroys that temple with his teaching will, in fact, be destroyed himself. So false teaching in terms of doctrine and practice is not what Paul has in mind when he speaks of the wood, hay, and straw. The teaching may be true, but irrelevant to one's salvation. It may be good advice, but not bring one closer to being transformed by Christ. It may be false, but be something false about an irrelevant or minor issue. But it cannot be something destructive toward the faith of others and the church as a whole, as Paul continues in vv. 16-23:

Do you not know that you are a temple of God and [that] the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him, for the temple of God is holy, and that is what you are.  Let no man deceive himself. If any man among you thinks that he is wise in this age, he must become foolish, so that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness before God. For it is written, "[He is] the one who catches the wise in their craftiness"; and again, "The Lord knows the reasonings of the wise, that they are useless." So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.

Notice that Paul has not left his subject. He's still discussing the factions that like so and so's teaching over the teaching of the others; but Paul's point is that all of the truth taught by these teachers belongs to them. If everyone is teaching the Scripture in light of the gospel, and not just teaching human opinion/wisdom, then there is no need to be divided. The problem seems to be that many were getting into philosophy and teaching that instead of the Word, or at least, mixed in heavily with it (perhaps even using it as an interpretive guide of the Scripture, as evangelicals use their experience as their interpretive guide rather than using the orthodox teaching of the gospel and other texts of Scripture as their guide to interpretation). In any case, the point is that this text has absolutely zero to do with whether one will be saved, even if he lives a disobedient life toward Christ.

Instead, what Paul does say about that matter can be found in numerous texts, such as First Corinthians 5-6. In Chapter 5, Paul places a sexually immoral man under church discipline in the hope that he will repent and be saved, even though his flesh might be destroyed through the discipline of handing him over to the devil. In other words, the only hope of salvation that man has is repentance after having been disciplined. If he doesn't repent, there is no hope for him, as Paul will continue to say in 6:9-11:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor [the] covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

When speaking of this subject in Galatians, a book that many might leave thinking that one's works didn't matter in regard to evidencing salvation in a person's life, Paul corrects antinomianism by saying:

Do not be deceived, God is not  mocked ; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary. So then, while we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, specifically speaking, to those who are of the household of the faith.

Hence, Paul does not teach that a person who lives his or her life under their own self-direction is still saved. They evidence that Christ is not their Lord, and thus, He is not their Savior either. What he argues in First Corinthians 3 is that it is possible for a teacher to lose his reward for faithfully teaching the Scripture, which is the wisdom of the Spirit, and yet still be saved. But teachers who do so ought to think carefully about whether they are teaching human experience and good practical advice over the transforming Word of God that transcends human experience and philosophy. They ought to especially take care because if their teaching works toward destroying God's people, as they are God's temple, these teachers themselves will be destroyed.

The great irony, then, of this passage is that it speaks against the very human experience and tradition that is often used to interpret it. The question becomes, Is the false teaching about this passage one where the teacher will still be saved as through fire, or will he be destroyed for undermining the necessity of the Lordship of Christ for salvation? Either way, however, what we do know is that if the teacher repents, he will be saved. So perhaps we might just advise that such is the best course of action to take, and leave it at that.

This is, yet again, another display of why context is important. The best thing evangelicals can do in interpreting the Bible is to stop removing it from its context, start reading whole books, and not just individual texts, and start reading the entire diatribe within the book within that context. If this is done, we are sure to see a proper building of God's temple in the unity of truth, and a church that is growing toward maturity in Christ.

And He gave some [as] apostles, and some [as] prophets, and some [as] evangelists, and some [as] pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;  until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all [aspects] into Him who is the head, [even] Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love. (Eph 4:11-16)

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