1 Corinthians 3:1-4
1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
We expect babies to be immature, but it’s tragic when adults act like children. It’s cute when say a 1 year old tries to walk but continues falling down, eats baby food and spills it all over the place, drinks out of a bottle still….but really, it would be tragic if the same baby acted that way at 10 years old.
In this passage, Paul is addressing the immaturity of the Corinthian believers. The Corinthians had been believers for some time, but they were still acting as spiritual babies. Paul in essence is telling them, “It’s time to grow up!”
What does Paul mean by the word “carnal”? We know the natural man is not saved, but the spiritual man in Christ is! What about the carnal man? Is he saved? (carnal here meaning someone who’s accepted Christ, but still acts like the “natural man”…the unsaved sinner…one who embraces the things of the world).
Notice how Paul addresses the Corinthians, “Brethren”, “babes in Christ”. The carnal person is saved, but something is wrong in his/her walk. The problem is this: Though saved, he/she is not walking in the Spirit, they are walking in the flesh.
That is why Paul calls them “carnal.” “Carnal” means “of” or “dominated by the flesh.” He also calls them “babes in Christ.” They shouldn’t have been babes at this point.
Paul was their spiritual father, so to speak. He had planted the church there, had spent 18 months instructing them and nurturing them in the faith. They had had a great start and should have gone on to maturity, but they were still acting as infants act.
What were the Corinthian believers doing that made Paul realize they were so far off base? What marks of carnality and spiritual immaturity marked them as babes?
The first mark of spiritual immaturity is the believer’s diet. Think of a child: when they are a baby, they drink milk from a bottle; they are unable to digest solid food; but as they mature, they move to more mature food. This more mature food, like meat, takes a bit more work to digest, but it also provides more nutrition for growth. Children also go from being fed, to feeding themselves as they mature.
The problem in Corinth is that long after the time they should have gone on to solid food, they were still sucking on the milk bottle. But what does Paul mean when he speaks of milk and solid food?
The answer to that is found in Hebrews 5; in that passage, the writer is dealing with the same problem of spiritual immaturity
Hebrews 5:12-14 For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food. 13 For everyone who partakes only of milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, for he is a babe. 14 But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.
Then in the next two verses, the Hebrews writer goes on to explain what he means by milk as opposed to solid food.
Hebrews 6:1-2 Therefore, leaving the discussion of the elementary principles of Christ, let us go on to perfection, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, 2 of the doctrine of baptisms, of laying on of hands, of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment.
So, in other words, spiritual milk is the very most basic things of the gospel; it’s a looking back to what Christ has already done, while solid food is more about what Christ is now doing, in and through us.
Another way to look at this is to say that milk is evangelism while solid food is edification. The baby wants to be entertained while the mature wants to be effective for the Lord.
So the first mark of their spiritual immaturity was their spiritual diet.
The second mark of their spiritual immaturity was their disunity. Part of the process of growing up is learning that life isn’t about always being entertained – it’s about being responsible.
The Corinthians Christians were broken and divided among themselves because of their allegiance to their favorite teachers. Like little children on the playground they were saying, “My dad’s better than your dad.” Of course, what they meant was their spiritual leaders – Paul, Apollos, Peter, and others. The real core of all this disharmony was that they were being selfish, and that is the biggest of all the marks of immaturity.
What’s amazing in all this is that, as we shall see, the church at Corinth was what you might call an extremely Charismatic church. They had all the gifts of the Spirit in operation: tongues, interpretation, knowledge, wisdom, healing, miracles, prophecy.
But Paul calls them carnal, immature. There are some who think that what it really means to be spiritual is to flow in the gifts of the Spirit. True spiritual maturity is not determined by the volume of worship or ministry in the gifts of the Spirit – it is determined by the amount of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control.
The spiritually mature realize the gifts are given for building with; the immature think they are for playing with and boasting about – which is exactly what they were doing in Corinth.
An important truth is revealed in these things for us. That truth is this: Our relationship with God is revealed in our relationship with others. We cannot say we are spiritual, and then live in disharmony with others. The truly spiritual Christian is in committed fellowship with other believers.
Let me challenge you to answer a few questions.
What kind of Christian am I / are you? Spiritual? Enjoying the deep things of God, feasting on spiritual tri-tip, enjoying close fellowship with other members of the body of Christ, seeing the fruit of the Holy Spirit born in my life?
Or am I/you carnal? Wanting to be entertained, waiting for someone to feed me, unaware and disinterested in the deeper things of God, constantly finding fault with others and being critical of who they are and what they do?
If this challenge makes you uneasy and defensive, chances are, you are indeed carnal. You see, the spiritual person will hear this and because their heart is tender to God, will take it and ask the Holy Spirit to apply it to them.
But the carnal person will immediately react to it and grow defensive because they see it as an attack. So, if this challenge makes you uneasy and defensive, it would be best for you to spend some time thinking deeply on these things and ask God to turn the searchlight of the Holy Spirit on your heart.
If you aren’t doing these things, you may be thinking, “Christians can be pretty messed up. Wow! So what makes them better than me?” Nothing, they aren’t “better” than you or anyone else.
But they are different; different in the most important thing of all. They have been forgiven of their sins and have the promise of eternal life.
Salvation is not an issue of who’s been good and who’s been bad. It’s a question of who has received the gift of God’s grace.