Two Christians meet for the first time; soon, they fall to discussing their church experiences. Says one, “Actually, I’m sort of in transition now. The preaching is a little shallow. So I’m looking for another church, where my family and I will be spiritually fed.” The other nods sympathetically, as if to say, “I know what you mean.”
But what does it mean? True, some preaching seems to draw little to nothing from the riches of God’s word. But people have many reasons to be dissatisfied with the preaching at their respective churches, and not all of it has to do with the preacher.
Paul had to deal with a problem of divisiveness in the church he had founded in Corinth. A Christian teacher named Apollos had come to Corinth after Paul left. Some of the believers were so impressed with Apollos’ eloquence that they abandoned their allegiance to their founding pastor and declared themselves followers of Apollos instead. Some remained loyal to Paul; others declared themselves to be for Peter. Still others claimed allegiance to Christ alone, but apparently in an arrogant way that fueled the rivalry.
Each group was no doubt convinced of its own rightness, thinking itself more wise, more mature than the others. But Paul takes them all to task. Without mincing words, he tells them they’re acting like babies:
Brothers and sisters, I couldn’t talk to you like spiritual people but like unspiritual people, like babies in Christ. I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, because you weren’t up to it yet. Now you are still not up to it because you are still unspiritual. When jealousy and fighting exist between you, aren’t you unspiritual and living by human standards? When someone says, “I belong to Paul,” and someone else says, “I belong to Apollos,” aren’t you acting like people without the Spirit? (1 Cor 3:1-4, CEB)
As Christians, they have the Holy Spirit–but they’re behaving as if they didn’t. The rivalry between those who throw in with Paul as versus those who prefer Apollos is evidence enough. Some looked down on Paul for his lack of sophistication, while others defended him in a way that continued to promote division. “But,” Paul seems to say, “I’m not the problem here. You are. You’re impatient to have meatier teaching, but you’re obviously not ready yet.”
We have to tread gently here. One could read Paul’s distinction between “milk” and “solid food” as reinforcing the existence of some special spiritual knowledge that was the province of only a privileged few. Given the arrogance regarding worldly wisdom in Corinth, you would think Paul would be at pains to avoid such a perception.
The issue is not that Paul lacks knowledge or is holding something back, nor is it a matter of Apollos being a better teacher. No, the real issue is their spiritual readiness. Already, although the gospel of a crucified Messiah is easily understood at an intellectual level, it cannot be appreciated for the divine wisdom it is without the work of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 2). But beyond understanding, beyond appreciation, comes actual discipleship, a life of following in the footsteps of the Crucified One.
So I confess to getting a little nervous when I hear people saying that they need to go somewhere to be “spiritually fed.” As I’ve said, I know full well that there’s such a thing as weak preaching and teaching; it is a sacred responsibility to be properly prepared in the pulpit and to handle the Word rightly.
But the proclamation of the Word is not a one-way affair; it’s a communal event in which a message is worshipfully given and worshipfully received. And to be honest, I am constantly tempted to arrogance myself. So we should ask ourselves: are we expecting others to teach us the Bible, without studying the Bible ourselves? Are we looking for something “deeper” in the messages, without bothering to obey even the simplest of spiritual directives with which we agree?
Yes, we must hold preachers to high standards. But all believers in a local congregation must hold themselves to high standards, else division and disunity may follow.
And what standard should that be? Here’s one: “God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13b, CEB).
An astounding goal indeed. But the alternative is to be “Pampered” for the rest of our lives.