The deception of spiritual vs. carnal Christian

For much of my Christian life I have heard this distinction made between the spiritual Christian and the carnal Christian based on what Paul writes in 1 Cor. 3:1-4 in addressing the missteps of the Corinthian church. This goes back to what he says previously in 2:14-16 where he makes this contrast between the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christ. Unfortunately, what gets missed is that in context of vv. 6-12, he is making a contrast between those who are not Christians (of the world) and Christians (of the spirit). Yet, his admonishment in 3:1-4 has been taken to mean there is a 2-tier type of Christianity: spiritual Christians and carnal Christians.

I’ve come to reject this notion of creating such a hierarchy. All Christians can behave in ways that are carnal even when it looks spiritual. And you can bet that creating such a hierarchy can lead to pride, elitism, and partiality. I love what Gordon Fee says in his commentary on 1 Corinthians about this particular passage;

The paragraph has endured a most unfortunate history of application in the church. Paul’s own point has been totally lost in favor of an interpretation nearly 180 degrees the opposite of his intent. Almost every form of spiritual elitism, ‘deeper life’ movement, and ‘second blessing’doctrine has appealed to this text. To receive the Spirit according to their special expression paves the way for people to know ‘deeper truths’ about God. One special brand of this elitism surfaces among some who have ‘special revelation’ from the Spirit their final court of appeal. Other ‘lesser’ brothers and sisters are simply living below their full privileges in Christ. Indeed, some advocates of this form of spirituality bid fair to repeat the Corinthian error in its totality. What is painful about so much of this is not simply the improper use of this passage, but that so often it is accompanied by a toning down of the message of the cross. In fact one is hard pressed to hear the content of ‘God’s wisdon’ ever expounded as the paradigm for truly Christian living.

Hear what he is saying. An elitism built on this hierarchy basically is no different than what Paul is admonishing. I have found you don’t even have to ascribe to ‘higher life’ theology to create this kind of two-tier Christianity. A telling sign is how much you separate your ‘spiritual’ Christianity from those ‘carnal’ Christians. Fee’s admonishment continues and gives much food for thought in this regard;

Paul’s concern needs to be resurrected throughout the church. The gift of the Spirit does not lead to a special status among believers; rather, it leads to a special status vis-a-vis the world. But it should do so always in terms of the centrality of the message of our cruciefied/risen Savior. The Spirit should identify God’s people in a way that their values and worldview are radically different from the wisdom of this age. They do know what God is about in Christ; they do live out the life of the future in the present age that is passing away; they are marked by the cross forever. As such they are the people of the Spirit, who stand in bold contrast to those who are merely human and do not understand the scandal of the cross. Being spiritual does not lead to elitism; it leads to a deeper understanding of God’s profound mystery–redemption through a crucified Messiah.

Yes, we are called to holiness and to have lives that run contrast to the world. And it seem that Christians exhibit a range of what this means. I’m also not suggesting that having a carnal mindset or behavior is acceptable. That’s where discipleship comes in and also with the reminder that sanctification is a process. Maturity is where our lives are marked more by spiritual behavior than carnal behavior. But we do well before judging that brother or sister as being a ‘carnal’ Christian if in fact we are adopting a ‘carnal’ mindset too, just in another way.

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