1 Corinthians 3.10-15:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned up, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire.
Teaching and writing about theology and spirituality is often taken as a joyful practice. It is something people find great pleasure in, for a great many reasons. One’s love for God can be expressed through theology. Reflecting on theology and spirituality can be a source of intellectual stimulation and learning. This wrestling with theology and spirituality can help us to resolve inner struggles that people have had in their own faith journey. Sometimes, people dream of helping others through their studies and reflections. And sometimes, there may be other motives such as appearing wise in the eyes of other people. On occasion, the study and theology and spirituality can be motivated by anger and contempt for those we feel get it wrong. There are many reasons people are motivated to study and learn about theology and spirituality.
Whatever the motives behind such a pursuit, it is important to heed the words of the Apostle Paul. When we as Christians believe in Christ crucified as the Gospel foundation and seek to teach others, we are building upon this foundation. Paul’s words to us is: “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” As we work through theology and our understanding of spirituality, it is not a time for us to simply float around whatever idea we think accomplishes whatever goal we want. We should take care to consider the nature of the material we are building with and to consider if it is gold, silver, and precious stones, or if it is wood, hay, and straw that God will purge with fire.
The context of Paul’s exhortation is that many of the Corinthians seemed to have embraced a Stoic wisdom. From the various mottos we see Paul quote, it is quite likely that they were pulling from the mottos and commonplaces of the day that they would have heard in the marketplace of Corinth from Stoic teachers. Or, maybe some of the wealthier Corinthians may have had a private education in Stoicism and they were repeating what they learned there. Whatever the source, it seems that the Corinthians were pulling from the wisdom of the age to try to understand what the Christian life is about. So, Paul’s exhortation should best be heard against this backdrop. Many people may have thought themselves wise in this age (1 Cor. 3.18) and used its wisdom. Paul urges them to show greater care in what they use to teach the people who believe in and worship the crucified-and-resurrection Savior.
The motivation for this exhortation, however, isn’t simply some sense of demands of rightness and precision. In 1 Corinthians 8, we see that Paul’s concern is that the way some of the Corinthians seem to be reasoning from their understanding of wisdom is actually leading them to cause great harm. They were justifying their dietary practices, all the while they were causing great harm to other believers who were not as “strong” as they were. Paul reminds them that Christ died for them (1 Cor. 8.11), not just to be some emotional play upon their feelings, but as a reminder that Christ’s own death is the source of wisdom for the Church (1 Cor. 2.6-8). Love and service for the “weak” stand at the heart of Paul’s concern for how to build upon the foundation of Christ. Is one’s wisdom, is one’s teaching consistent with the attitude of the Savior who was crucified?
Unfortunately, pride can so easily take us when we get into the idea of wisdom and truth. Unfortunately, such pride may lead to contempt for people who they consider beneath them. As Proverbs 16.18-19 says:
Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall.
It is better to be of a lowly spirit among the poor
than to divide the spoil with the proud.
Some of the Corinthians had such a pride about themselves that they in a similar manner disregarded the lowly, “weak” people among their fellowship. Not embracing the attitude of Jesus, who said “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” they built a wisdom of this age to tear others down. They showed little care for what their words and judgment were doing to their brothers and sisters in Christ.
I had to come to reflect on this myself when I originally posted my poem “To lose is to win.” Originally, I had a line that I repeated twice: “Fools!” However, upon reflection, I was reminded of Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:21-22:
You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister,e you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
While my intention was not to actually insult and call anyone a fool, and even Jesus called the Pharisees fools in Luke 11.40,1, I had to reflect on the possibility that someone might hear what I say with an intent to insult people by calling them fools. So, even though the poem was not intended to be taken literally, I changed my words to “foolishness.” Even though the odds of me insulting someone were not likely, the Spirit of God convicted me to show greater care with how I build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ. While I wasn’t in risk of punishment of eternal punishment, I didn’t want what I was building to risk being burnt to the ground in God’s judgment, even if I myself was saved. I value other believers, including the lowly in spirit, as part of the Temple of God in whom the Spirit resides, and it would grieve me to know that something I said or did could cause damage to those who struggle with weak faith. Having had to deal with a damaged faith myself in the past, I know the damage that can be potentially caused by those who are not convicted to take care to be attuned to the heart of wisdom in Jesus Christ.
None of us are perfect; we all have to learn which comes by listening to those who do not get listened to, and not simply listening to those who everyone already listens to. Let us be people who listen and from there learn how to build with great care on the foundation of Jesus Christ so that what we build is not burned up and lost.