The Christian Playing Field
Imagine that you were visiting your local farmer’s market and you overheard one of the farmers talking about how great his produce was because he caused them to grow up to be so beautiful, so succulent and so nutritious. First you’d think him an arrogant egotist, and secondly you might think him a madman because you know instinctively that the farmer does not and cannot control every chemical and biological reaction necessary to cause his crops to grow. He can plant, he can harvest, he can use the best insecticides, he can even artificially water, but he simply cannot control the growth of his crops.
I believe this is the same point Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 3 regarding spiritual growth. The Corinthian believers began turning spiritual growth and discipleship into a game, trying to place Paul and Apollos on opposing sides of an imaginary playing field–as if the process of disciple-making was a contest. So Paul took immediate action to dispel such thinking. He says,
“5What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one.
6I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.
7So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.”
Who causes the growth? God. Growth is not a result of our clever devices. Spiritual fruit is never our work, it’s God’s work alone. So, it’s no contest.
But someone might argue, “Yea, but you didn’t read the rest of the passage where Paul talks about rewards for labor.” Sure, rewards for labor is absolutely a biblical principle. That’s why Paul says in verse 8, “but each will receive his own reward according to his labor.”
But here’s a key distinction that must be made:
Rewards for faithfulness in the work and rewards for the effectiveness of the growth are two completely different things.
Paul is arguing for the idea that the laborer is, indeed, rewarded for his work. And Paul is likewise arguing against the idea that rewards happen as a result of the subsequent growth. Paul says, “No! God alone causes the growth. And God alone brings about the increase.”
In 2009, not much has changed–especially in the Bible belt. We still make this thing a contest. We still have a tendency to think that we have done something to cause the growth. So we continue to construct our imaginary playing fields and set up our pastors and shepherds and spiritual gladiators against one another in a battle to the death. We choose sides. We wear our colors. We sport our bumper stickers and t-shirts and fancy logos believing that in them we have the victory. And all along the world laughs at us and asks, “Wait a minute, aren’t you all on the same team?”
But Billy Baptist might ask, “Are you saying that I shouldn’t be proud of my church?”
Certainly not. We absolutely should celebrate and be proud of what God is doing among individual bodies of believers–also biblical. However, the problem arises when pride for a particular church, denomination, or entity due to measurable success, visual growth or extraneous results causes the type of schism, segregation and ridiculous division that we see taking place among the Corinthian believers. That’s why Paul pounded into their thick skulls the fact that God causes the growth. And that’s why he concluded this whole section reminding us that our primary devotion and belonging is not to our church or organization, it is to God.
23and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.
When we forget this crucial fact, unnecessary division lines are drawn. And in the words of Billy Graham, “THAT is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.”