This short essay is an exegetical analysis of 1 Corinthians 3:1-9. It centres on Apostle Paul’s challenge in dealing with a plague of factionalism in the Church at Corinth.



 The Apostle Paul considers himself not just a founder of churches, but a spiritual father who remains responsible for the churches ongoing spiritual growth and their formation in becoming like Christ.  In Galatians 4:19, Paul likens the responsibility and work with the church like, “the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.” Similarly, the church that the Apostle Paul founded at Corinth was no exception.  Paul believed he had become their father through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15).  He considered it his apostolic responsibility to see the church at Corinth grow up into the head which is Christ and that Christian success was in becoming mature and no longer being, as Paul depicted, ‘infants’ tossed back and forth.  Furthermore, Paul believed but that the church would be built up to reach a unity in the faith and a common togetherness as the body of Christ (Eph 4:12-15).  The church in Corinth, however, was not unified in Christ.  It was plagued with a factionalism in which differing groups within the church sided with different Christian leaders.  At the beginning of the third chapter of 1 Corinthians the one called to be the Apostle to the church (1 Cor 1:1) describes their partisan mindset as being worldly, fleshy, and that of mere humans.  He then explains to them that mature Christians, those of the Spirit, understand that growth comes from God alone and will produce in them unity rather than quarrelling and jealously (1 Cor 3:1-9).  

This paper will show that the factionalism in the church was only a surface issue or a symptom.  Further analysis reveals that Paul was attempting to parent a problem child church[1], which was suffering from chronic immaturity as evidenced by worldly mindsets, behaviours and most concerningly the aforementioned factionalism that was resulting in division among the congregation rather than manifesting unity in love.  Spiritually the church in Corinth was stuck perpetually at the infant stage.   


The City of Corinth

Corinth was one of the most important cities in the Roman world. Destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC it was rebuilt by Julius Caesar exceeding Athens in importance during this early Christian era.[2]  Corinth had a reputation for immoral living.  For example, to become “Corinthianised” was the equivalent of being sexually immoral.  “The trip to Corinth is not for every man,” observed several ancient travellers.  Despite this, Corinth was important to the spread of the gospel as it sat between two major harbours in the province of Achaia and connected southern Greece to the mainland.[3]    


The church in Corinth

In Acts 18:1 Luke tells us that, “Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.”  He was most likely there from the autumn of 50 CE to the summer of 52.[4]  Upon arriving in Corinth Paul meets Aquilla and Priscilla and begins to live and work with them as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3). After unsuccessfully preaching to the Jews (v. 6) Paul commits to preach only to the Gentiles and subsequently many Corinthians came to believe in Jesus.  After receiving a word from the Lord encouraging Paul by saying, “he has many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10), Paul remains in Corinth for 18 months laying the only possible foundation in the church, Jesus Christ himself (1 Cor 3:10-11).[5]  Once the church was well established he left for Ephesus.   

It was from the city of Ephesus that Paul wrote what we call his first letter to the Corinthians.  It appears that this letter was in fact his second letter to the church, due to the suggested existence of what scholars refer to as “letter A.”[6] The evidence for this is found in references to this earlier letter such as in 1 Corinthians 5:9 when it states, “I wrote you in my letter…”.  Letter A has not survived to the present day.  The correspondence continues from Apostle Paul to the church at Corinth as described in 2 Corinthians 2:4 and 7:8, which reference a “sorrowful” letter, likely written after Pauls self-described “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1).[7] Subsequently, 2 Corinthians is the fourth letter to the church.


The Father and the Problem child

To use Paul’s own words, the relationship between himself as the father of the church and its members was painful and at best very strained (2 Cor 2:1).  Like a parent with a problem child, it can be posited that the church in Corinth was likely the most challenging of the churches that he had birthed.[8]

Both of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians can be considered occasional letters, meaning that the letters were not merely utilised as a means by which Paul was able to record and publish his teachings, but they were motivated by genuine church issues and addressed to real people.[9]  The situation that appears to lead to Paul writing 1 Corinthians are the reports from Chloe’s household concerning the quarrels over who was following which Christian leader (1:11-12).  The appeal of Paul’s letter is found in the preceding verse (1:10), that they would be “perfectly united” without division.  Paul’s appeal echo’s that of any good parent calling their children to love one another, sort out their differences, and live by the principles of the training they received at home.  The purpose of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is to insist as the founding father of the church that they move away from infant Christian living that is in fact worldly and unspiritual, and grow up and spiritually mature. Gundry describes the purpose of 1 Corinthians, stating that “Aberrant beliefs and practices of astonishing variety and vulgarism flourished in the Corinthian church. It is to solve those problems that Paul writes this epistle.”[10]  Gundry is correct in the pointing out of the many inaccurate beliefs and practices operating in the church, as a long list of issues are addressed in the letter including concerns attributed to disunity and divisions, sexual immorality, lawsuits among brothers, marriage, food offered to idols, the order of public worship, communion, spiritual gifts, and finally eschatological questions concerning the resurrection.  Gundry’s exploration of the letter from Paul to the church, however, only acknowledges the bad fruit and not the root cause from which these problems arise.  The church is as a sick child needing healing of its immaturity.  Gorman describes this fundamental problem of the church at Corinth as, “a failure to understand the real-life consequences of the gospel of ‘Jesus Christ, and Him crucified’” (2:2). Possibly the climax of Paul’s appeal is the famous “love chapter,” found in 1 Corinthians 13.  At the heart of this chapter we find verse five describing love as “not self-seeking.”[11]  Love is not selfish and therefore does not insist on its own way.[12]  Jesus Christ taught that great love was in laying down one’s life for his friends (John 15:13), which is ultimately what Jesus did this for the believers in Corinth when He was crucified.  Paul in his letter reminds the church of this gospel truth and that to be mature and spiritual is to imitate Christ (1 Cor 4:16, 11:1).[13]      


Immaturity leading to factionalism

The 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 passage is written in the context as the first among a long list of issues that Paul addresses.  He spends the first four chapters confronting the cancer of factionalism that has spread throughout the church, which is in complete contradiction to his appeal that the Corinthians be unified in love (1 Cor 1:10).  The passage can be broken into two parts; the core issue and underlying sickness of the church, followed by the church’s immaturity (vs. 1-3) and the consequences of factionalism (vs. 4-9).

Moffat postulates of the immature Corinthians that, “the church was in the world as it was meant to be, but the world was in the church, as it ought not to be.[14]  Paul, before emphasising this worldliness, softens his rebuke by addressing the church as “brothers and sisters.”[15]  He then unequivocally diagnoses this problem child church as immature as evidenced by their juvenile spirituality.  Paul does not even address them as spiritual, rather highlights their lack of preparedness for solid food and again reiterates their worldliness as evident in their quarrelling, which Paul bemoans as mere humanness.   

The immaturity of the church is labelled by Paul as worldly and appears twice in verses one and three.  For the first occurrence of the label ‘worldly,’ Paul utilises the Greek word sarkinos, which means fleshy or made of flesh.  He describes their Christian state as infants in Christ, likening them to new converts who are still learning how to put aside the misdeeds of the body and live according to the Spirit (Rom 8:3).  For the in the second use of the label worldly, however, Paul writes the Greek word sarkikos, which means to be characterised by the flesh.  Tyndale defines this as meaning, “you could help it (being flesh-like) but you don’t.”[16]  Paul clearly expects a spiritual maturity that ought to be demonstrated by unity rather than quarrelling.  Paul deducts their infant state as a result of choice to not help themselves to solid spiritual food, but rather indulge in an unwillingness to grow up and living according to the Spirit.

Sandwiched between chapters one and three of Paul’s criticism of the church’s factionalism is a glorious chapter that compares living by the Spirit to operating as a mere human, one that does not have Christ.  1 Corinthians 2 talks of the, “message of wisdom spoken among the mature.” Those who live by the Spirit discern the message of wisdom through the Holy Spirt, they are mature in faith not wise by the standard of the age.  Mounce describes the type of Christians dominating the church in Corinth stating that “there are Christians who, long after they receive Christ, prove themselves unable to receive solid knowledge of the Scripture, mature theological dialogue, and seasoned Christian behaviour.”[17]  Had the church in Corinth functioned in line with the teaching of Paul and subsequently the message of Christ, they would have avoided the quarrelling that led them to the cancerous spread of factionalism among the believers.


Christian leaders and growth

In the same way that two children may argue over toys and experience great difficulty cooperating, the Corinthian churches immaturity produced dissent and quarrelling amongst the church that in turn prevented them from partaking in perfect unity of mind and thought (1 Cor 1:10).  The factionalism addressed in 1 Corinthians 3:4-9 is initially raised in the first chapter of Paul’s letter where he specifically says that the quarrels are concerning the following of four Christian leaders including Paul, Apollos, Cephas (Peter) and Christ (1:12). Gundry suggests that the Corinthian factionalism is a product of hero worship, suggesting that the followers of Paul were loyal to him as the founder, the admirers of Apollos for his famous eloquence (Acts 18:24) and finally Peter who had won the affection of the Jewish section of the diverse congregation.[18]  Hero worship, however, is a strong indictment.  The church does present as somewhat idolatrous in nature throughout Paul’s letter, although this is never one of his specific concerns.  Carson affirms the obvious division of the church in Corinth but notes that the bible does not suggest that the ministry of Apollos (3:6) and Peter in Corinth (if he came to Corinth at all), promoted a party spirit.[19]  Fee minimises the factionalism even further, turning his attention to the entire church’s opposition to its founder Paul.[20]  It is suggested by Hagner that the most serious division is actually between Paul and the entirety of the church and that the key issue is actually the challenge to his authority.[21]  Hagner’s hypothesis complements the problem child identity of the church to its father Paul, who birthed the church through the gospel (1 Cor 4:15).  Paul’s defence of his apostleship in chapters four and nine articulate Paul’s right to speak into the life of the church.  The “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1) and the “sorrowful letter” (2 Cor 7:8) also demonstrate Paul’s affinity with the church and his obvious freedom to speak into the churches issues like a father figure.

Paul does not address the purpose of the factionalist groups as their claims are unimportant along with the entire issue of church divisions, they exist only as a symptom of a church stuck in the infant stage of its development.  Paul does take the opportunity, however, to teach the truth concerning Christian leaders.  He intertwines this teaching with an explanation of God’s modus operandi for maturing believers and churches, utilising a farming illustration to divide the worker or farmer from God, who is the source of all growth.  In this illustration the workers are Paul himself and Apollos, who are described as mere servants.  Ironside aptly states “the servant cannot take the place of the master… for the servant has no power to cause the fruit to produce.”[22]  Paul’s explanation places himself, the father of the work, on equal standing with Apollos, explaining that the waterer and the planter are equal, co-workers and far inferior to the source of growth being God Himself.  Through this explanation from Paul, both he and Apollos lose any significant standing and the respective opinions of the quarrelling parties are annulled.

Paul is a true Apostolic Father and servant to the church of Corinth. He understood he was their Father through the gospel, they were his dear children and the purpose of his writing was not to shame them but to warn them (1 Cor 4:14-15). Regrettably, like an adolescent rejecting the wisdom and good will of a parent the Corinthians did not know who they were to Paul.

Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 diagnose the underlying sickness of the church, spiritual immaturity, he then rebukes them concerning the factionalism that is dividing the church. The paper has shown that partisan issue as one of a long list of dirty laundry addressed by Paul, but it was not the sole reason for his letter. The purpose of his letter was to address the infantile Christianity producing the factionalism, the worldliness in the church and to appeal to the church to move on to maturity which would in turn be evidenced by love, unity and a oneness in mind and thought.

The church struggled with the same issue of immaturity for some time. We know this because more than 40 years after Pauls letter,[23] Clement writes to the same church urging them to, “take up the epistle of that blessed apostle, Paul… since you were even then engaged in partisanship.”[24] 1 Corinthians 3:1-9 is highly applicable today, the issue of the Corinthians is still common today. Much of the body of Christ is not unified but is splintered and continues to figurately cry out, “I follow Paul,” and “I follow Apollos.” All believers must choose to live according to the message of Jesus, that is love toward brothers, neighbours and even enemies this mature spiritual behaviour will alleviate our immaturity and worldliness. 




[1] Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord (Grand Rapids: Eerdams Publishing, 2004), 227.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 478.

[3] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 228.

[4] Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, 477.

[5] D. A. Carson, Douglas J Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1992), 264.

[6] Carson, Moo, and Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament, 265.

[7] Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, 479.

[8] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 227.

[9] Carson, Moo, and Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament, 259.

[10] Robert H. Gundry, A survey of the New Testament (Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), 359.

[11] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 228.

[12] Leon Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 180.

[13] Gorman, Apostle of the crucified Lord, 237.

[14] J. Moffatt, An Introduction to the literature of the New Testament (T & T Clark, 1927), xv, quoted in Leon Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary.

[15] Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary, 61.

[16] Morris, The first epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: an introduction and commentary, 61.

[17] Mounce’s Complete Expository Dictionary. “Infant”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+cor+3&version=NIV (accessed November 2, 2017)

[18] Gundry, A survey of the New Testament, 362.

[19] Carson, Moo, and Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament, 264.

[20] Gordon D. Fee, The First epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 5.

[21] Hagner, The New testament: A Historical and Theological Introduction, 483.

[22] H. A. Ironside, Address on the first epistle to the Corinthians (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1969), 121.

[23] Early Christian Writings. “First Clement.” http://www.earlychristianwritings.com/1clement.html (accessed November 3, 2017).

[24] 1 Clement 47 (translation J.B. Lightfoot).