In 1866, Anglican pastor Samuel Stone wrote the words to one of the church’s most beloved hymns, taking a stand against the liberal theology of his day:
The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord / She is his new creation, by Spirit and the Word / From heaven he came and sought her to be his holy bride / With his own blood he bought her, and for her life he died.
We might see him as following in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, who centuries earlier had written these words to the fractious church in Corinth:
I laid a foundation like a wise master builder according to God’s grace that was given to me, but someone else is building on top of it. Each person needs to pay attention to the way they build on it. No one can lay any other foundation besides the one that is already laid, which is Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 3:10-11, CEB)
One verse earlier, Paul had likened the church to a building owned by God. Here, God is more the architect (at least in our way of understanding the role, since the word translated as “master builder” is actually architekton), whereas Paul and Apollos are construction workers with different duties.
Through his preaching of the crucified Christ (1 Cor 2:2), Paul laid the foundation for the church. We probably shouldn’t push the metaphor too rigidly: elsewhere, Paul says that the apostles and prophets are the foundation, and Jesus is the cornerstone by which the foundation is aligned (Eph 2:20). That image, of course, draws from Jesus’ own claim to fulfill ancient prophecy (cf. Matt 21:42; Ps 118:22), and is similarly picked up by Peter in his teaching (Acts 4:11; 1 Pet 2:4-8).
But whether the entire foundation or its crucial cornerstone, Jesus Christ is the one upon whom the church’s health and existence rest. Paul is not shy of reminding the Corinthians that as their founding pastor, he is the one who laid the foundation. But he never claimed to be the foundation. Nor, presumably, did Apollos. But the problem in Corinth, given their habits of thought, was to build on the reputation of the men they most admired.
No, insists Paul: only Jesus can be the foundation of the church which is his body. We should remember that Jesus himself spoke of both wisdom and foundations:
Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall! (Matt 7:24-27, NRSV)
The Corinthians, with their love of worldly philosophy were pursuing false wisdom and building on sand. The result was a church divided by spiritual arrogance and petty rivalry.
If we’ve ever been part of a church torn by strife or personality cults, we might be able to look back and see where we lost our way. But hindsight, they say, is better than foresight. We can’t change the past, but the pursuit of true and godly wisdom in the present could open the way to a better future.
Are we building on the right foundation now?