by Tom Wells
A much-debated passage in the New Testament reads as follows in the New International Version:
'Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? For when one says, "I follow Paul", and another, "I follow Apollos", are you not mere men?'
The debate centres on the question: Does Paul believe there are two kinds of Christians in the world, the spiritual and the worldly? A large number of Christians answer this question with a resounding 'Yes!' Frequently they add that the great majority of Christians fall into that second category, the worldly, or as they are sometimes labelled, the carnal. And at first glance the passage above might seem to bear them out.
The assertion that many Christians are worldly or carnal is often associated with a single note in the old Scofield Bible. That note is a footnote to 1 Corinthians 2:14. It says in part, 'Paul divides men into three classes'. Dr Scofield then lists these classes as he understands them. He speaks of a 'natural man', that is a man unrenewed by the Spirit, what we commonly call an 'unsaved man.'
Scofield goes on to divide Christians into two classes. First, a spiritual man, 'i.e. the renewed man as Spirit-filled and walking in the Spirit in full communion with God...' (Ephesians 5:18-20). He speaks also of a carnal or fleshly man, 'i.e. the renewed man, who walking "after the flesh", remains a babe in Christ' (1 Corinthians 3:1-4).
This note has suggested to some that a Christian might remain 'carnal' or 'fleshly' or 'worldly' or 'a babe' in Christ' indefinitely. Strictly speaking Paul does not say that. Perhaps Dr Scofield did not mean to imply it. But 'remains' has an ominous sound about it when it is used without any limitation.
Does Paul indeed mean to divide Christians into two distinct types, as Dr Scofield's note has been taken to suggest? The answer has farreaching consequences. This is not a trifle that can be safely ignored for the sake of peace among Christians. You will have to try to come to some conclusion on this matter, because it affects our whole understanding of what a Christian is.
The question of Paul's view of Christians generally would have to be settled, of course, by a comprehensive survey of his teaching in all his epistles. That is too large a task for a single article. But something important can be done here because 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 is often cited as a key passage in the discussion. Right here, it is said, Paul plainly makes a distinction between 'spiritual' and 'carnal' believers. And if he sees some believers in Corinth as characteristically or habitually carnal, he would have no difficulty in seeing the same kind of distinction in Christians of other times and places. What, then, is Paul's view?
The best way to see what Paul is getting at, is to remember some definitions we first learned in English grammar. I am thinking of two figures of speech, the simile and the metaphor. The dictionary at my desk defines them as follows:
Simile: a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, dissimilar thing by the use of like, as etc. (e.g., a heart as big as a whale, her tears flowed like wine): distinguished from metaphor, in that the comparison is made explicit.
Metaphor: a figure of speech in which one thing is likened to another, different thing by being spoken of as if it were that other; implied comparison, in which a word or phrase ordinarily and primarily used of one thing is applied to another (e.g., screaming headlines, 'all the world's a stage').
The quickest way to see how Paul is using his language here is to put his descriptions of the Corinthians in two columns, as follows:
EXPRESSED COMPARISONS PLAIN STATEMENTS 'as worldly' (v.1) 'worldly' (v.3) 'as infants' (v.1) (see discussion) 'like mere men' (v.3) 'mere men' (v.4)
The column on the left clearly contains a group of similes, figures of speech in which the Corinthians are likened to various kinds of people. On the other hand, the right hand column makes assertions that identify the Corinthians as being the very kinds of people that they are compared to on the left. It seems likely, then, that the right hand column contains metaphors. That is, it contains the same comparisons, but Paul is using a different figure of speech. I will show you the evidence for that conclusion in a moment, but first a word or two about the text that is before us.
Is there really a comparison in connection with the word 'infants'? The NIV translators have omitted the comparison word 'as', and I have supplied it to represent the Greek word 'hos'. 'Hos' is the normal NT word for 'like' or 'as'. Though Paul does not go on to call the Corinthians 'infants' in a later verse, it is clear that that is his meaning when he says in verse 2, 'You still are not ready (for solid food).' That is another way of saying, 'You are infants'.
To see that we are dealing with metaphors and similes, let us look at Paul's last comparison. In verse 4 he asks, 'Are you not mere men?' He expects the answer 'Yes' to his question. Now what does Paul mean by 'mere men'? The phrase is a key to all of his thought here.
Paul does not mean that the Corinthians were human. That would have been a truism of the most obvious type. And it would have been irrelevant to his argument. No, he means something far different. A 'mere man' is a natural man, a man untouched by the regenerating grace of God. Without apology the apostle calls his readers unregenerate men and women. To be a mere man is to be 'purely human', not sharing that Divine, regenerate life which is the special privilege of faith,
(J. J. Lias, in the Cambridge Greek Testament, in loc.). In a word, Paul calls his readers 'unsaved'. I do not need to labour the point that Paul was writing to Christians, to 'saints' (1:2). That lies on the face of the letter. Of course, there may have been unconverted men among the Corinthians, but Paul was not singling them out. He was speaking to the same people that he had called 'infants in Christ', that is, he was speaking to believers. Yet he called them 'mere men'. He could not have been speaking literally, then. He was using a metaphor, a figure of speech. In verse 3 he used a simile when he asked, 'Are you not acting like mere men'. In verse 4 he dropped the expressed comparison. Instead he implied it in asking, 'Are you not mere men?'
We must not be surprised to find metaphorical language in Paul. He has the example of the Lord Jesus Himself. You will remember Jesus' statement to Peter, 'Out of my sight, Satan!' (Matthew 16:23). Surely Peter was not Satan! But when he was like Satan (simile), Jesus did not hesitate to use the bold metaphor. Paul, by inspiration, was prepared to speak in the same graphic way.
Were the Corinthians 'worldly' or 'carnal'? Not if we mean to take those words in their straightforward literal sense. A worldly man, or a carnal man, is an unregenerate man. That is why Paul says elsewhere, 'If you live according to the sinful nature (Greek — carnally), you will die', and 'Those controlled by the sinful nature (Greek — Those who are carnal) cannot please God' (Romans 8:13, 9). A man who cannot please God is a faithless man (Hebrews 11:6). Such a man is lost. If he does not change he will remain lost forever. We see, then, Paul's meaning in this passage. Without denying that there may have been both carnal men and babes in Christ in the Corinthian church, Paul was not speaking to those select groups. No, he was characterizing the entire church as 'worldly', 'infants', and as 'mere men'. But he adopted these figures of speech to let them know how much he abhorred their attitudes. Little could he have guessed that later in history men would take these figures literally to divide the people of God into two distinct types.
Whatever merit or demerit there may be in such a division, it cannot be made to rest on this text. Paul no more taught us to believe that some Christians are really 'carnal' than Christ taught us that some Christians are 'Satanic'. In each case the sharp language is intended to rebuke a particularly repugnant attitude. Nothing more than that should be read into the text.
Source: The Banner of Truth, 1985.