Youngsters growing up in church usually receive a good bit of encouragement and guidance in their young spiritual lives. Traditionally, that came (and still does) with a steady stream of advice, admonitions listing the “dos and don’ts” of those who would be truly faithful.
It was a part of growing up in a Christian family, and in Baptist church, where the other adults often treated children in other families like nieces and nephews and even grandchildren. It may take a village to raise a child, but even in the earliest days of the church, it took a congregation to raise children as faithful and productive Christ-followers. This seemed (seems) especially true in congregations of 200-300 attenders or less.
The “advice” was drummed into young people over and over: Don’t smoke; don’t drink (or even taste) alcohol; don’t lie or cheat; don’t hang around with unbelievers; don’t do anything with a member of the opposite sex that should be reserved for marriage; and, of course, do not disobey or otherwise disrespect your parents!
Quite often, parents and others backed up their instructions for faithful living in paraphrases of scriptural admonitions like “don’t be unequally yoked,” taken three generations ago to mean that a Baptist young person should neither date nor marry an unbeliever OR, in many cases, even a non-Baptist.
Warnings against engaging in self-destructive physical behavior like smoking, use of alcohol or drugs, and pre- or extra-marital sexual relations were often accompanied by the citing of 1 Corinthians 3:16: “Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?” — as translated in the King James Version.
The verse was evidence that God himself desired a person to live a holy life in a world full of unholy (and unhealthy) temptations. Rightly, young believers often drew strength from this admonition from the Apostle Paul when tempted.
This week’s Word&Way cover story is a reminder that Paul’s reference in the original language was not simply to individuals among the Corinthians but to the whole congregation, an outpost of believers in a foreign land of many religious influences. They functioned as a faith community acknowledging there was only one true God even though they lived among people that believed there were many gods with different specialties, expectations and, in many cases, licenses to engage in immoral behavior with the approval of their gods.
While Paul would have approved godly living on the part of each believer in this early community of faith, his words call on the membership to collectively see themselves as a temple of God that would demonstrate superiority to the pagan temples scattered all around them.
Some of us never heard this corporate aspect of the much-quoted your-body-is-a-temple passage, but it made sense for the community of faith that had accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, especially since, in some cases, some acknowledged other gods to perhaps play it safe.
Different ideas were flowing about in the church among the converts in the church at Corinth, and the congregation was divided, at odds with one another and not united on the distinctives of the faith. Paul’s letter was to encourage the Corinthians but it was also to manage damage-control for a “temple” that was not living up to its uniqueness in Christ.
To be sure, a faithful believer can make a great difference for Christ. However, Paul understood that the impact of two-or-more gathered together and committed to serve faithfully multiplied the good for Christ that could be accomplished, especially in a setting that could be apathetic and even hostile. Establishing a beachhead — whether military or spiritual — is virtually impossible with a single person but more than possible with a committed contingent. Paul understood the principle and the need for an effective mission outpost in Corinth.
Paul also understood that a Lone Ranger approach to the Christian faith was not God’s plan. And he knew that division within the body — even if fomented by only a few — had the effect of undermining the strategic witness of the “temple” outpost in places like Corinth, where the gospel required a foothold if it were to begin to permeate the population and then advance to the surrounding territory.
The application should not be lost for individual believers today. All of us who call ourselves believers are important to Christ and have every reason to care for God’s creation, including our own bodies, not only physically but spiritually. Certainly, Christ’s spirit lives within us. It prompts us to live Christ-centered lives.
But Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians must not be lost on the church and each local expression of the temple of God. Faithful congregations empower members, and their corporate faithfulness impacts those around them who benefit from the church’s ministry and hunger for Christ themselves.
Each church is God’s temple.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.