Gardeners and builders: Co-workers in God’s service

1 Corinthians 3:1–11

Photo: Lisa Hamm

Photo: Lisa Hamm

Growing up is important. 

We don’t have much control over the physical process of maturing – our bodies grow and change and get older whether we want them to or not. But spiritual, emotional, social and intellectual maturing involves more choice. We can decide if we want to mature in these areas or simply stop growing. Unfortunately, we sometimes choose to remain immature.

Immaturity in the local church has many expressions. Paul addresses the issue in several letters to the churches, and we’ve probably all experienced immaturity in our congregations. 

Why is maturity in the church so important? Because the local church matters! The local church is the bride of Christ. Without maturity, what’s been called an “unstoppable force” becomes very “stoppable.”

Unity as a sign of maturity

In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul calls the church to walk toward maturity because, ultimately, maturity leads to mission. 

One of the great schemes of the enemy is to distract the church with all kinds of secondary issues, taking our focus away from God’s mission in the world. Arguments around secondary issues – even subtly different perspectives on really good biblical things – can create disunity and stall the church in its growth process.

Paul rebukes the Corinthians for how they’ve created camps around human leaders. “What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe – as the Lord has assigned to each his task” (v. 5). 

Paul says that when we become champions of individual human leaders instead of staying focused on the unity and mission of the church, we’ve lost our way.

We are second

Paul then makes an even more significant point around the question of roles – not between human leaders, but between us and God. Even as the Lord calls us to be his co-workers, we must remember that God always comes first.  

In verses 5–9, Paul makes it clear that God is the one who makes all things grow. But although it doesn’t matter who does the planting or watering, it does matter that somebody plants and waters. Our participation matters – as long as we remember we are second.

Two helpful metaphors

Paul goes on to suggest two metaphors to help us understand the different roles we might play in kingdom work – gardeners and builders.

If we think of these metaphors in terms of discipleship in the local church, we realize we need both in order to mature as the body of Christ.

1. The gardener

The gardener is someone who’s a little more “hands off” and mostly concerned about environment – ensuring proper soil, nutrients, water and sunlight. The gardener is patient and future-oriented, knowing growth takes time and doesn’t always happen the way we expect. The gardener may ask questions like: Are the conditions right for spiritual growth? Do you like the person you’re becoming? What needs to change in the growth environment, and how do we change that?

2. The builder

The builder is more “hands on” and likes to work with clear plans and the end in mind. The builder doesn’t mind starting with demolition (even blowing things up!) before beginning construction with tangible materials and favourite tools. The builder likes to see real progress at the end of the day, focusing on results toward a clear future. The builder may ask questions like: What are you doing right now? How does that help us toward our defined goal? What are your plans for tomorrow? While future-oriented, the builder focuses on tangible, short-term objectives to get there.

The church needs both gardeners and builders. It’s not that one is good and the other bad – they’re simply different approaches to our work in the kingdom. In fact, the impact of one is weakened without the other, as each approach has a “shadow” (negative) side that must be revealed and managed for a healthy, effective approach to discipleship. 

Back to our foundation

In verses 10–11, Paul again reminds us that our work has only one foundation – Jesus. Whether we’re gardeners or builders, the hope and promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ is the foundation of all we do. 

When we acknowledge our foundation, we can enthusiastically embrace our unique roles in the church. When we learn to work alongside those who are very different from us and cheer each other on, we will grow in maturity. And, ultimately, God’s mission will gain traction. 

We are builders and gardeners working with the same purpose, each one doing the work the Lord gave us – proclaiming and living the hope of the gospel through the local church.

Bruce Enns has been pastoring since 2000 and is currently lead pastor at Forest Grove Community Church, Saskatoon. He delivered this message at Gathering 2014 during Friday night’s celebration service.

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