In his article “Rethinking a Much Abused Text: 1 Corinthians 3:1-15” Brian Borgman provides a great summary of the background and elements of the “carnal Christian” teaching. I will provide you with just enough material from his article to whet your appetite, and then you can read the entire article at the following link:
Here then are some quotes from the article:
The Carnal Christian Teaching (3: 1-4). The founder and first president of Dallas Theological Seminary (originally The Evangelical Theological College), Lewis Sperry Chafer (D.D.), published He That Is Spiritual in 1918. In tha t work, now dubbed in its reprinted subtitle, “A Classic Study of the Biblical Doctrine of Spirituality,” he gave full exposition to the “carnal Christian” teaching, which had been briefly articulated in the Scofield Reference Bible, just one year before. In Chafer’s work, he opens up the first chapter with “Three Classes of Men.” Chafer based his teaching on 1 Corinthians. 2:9-3:4. He states:
The Apostle Paul, by the Spirit, has divided the whole human family into three groups: (1) The “natural man,” who is unregenerate, or unchanged spiritually; (2) the “carnal man,” who is a “babe in Christ,” and walks “as a man”; and (3) the “spiritual” man.”
In that opening chapter, Chafer describes the “carnal Christlan” in the following terms:
“Though saved, the carnal Christians are walking “according to the course of this world.” They are “carnal” because the flesh is dominating them (see Romans 7:14) . . . . The objectives and affections are centered in the same unspiritual sphere as that of the “natural” man.”
According to Chafer, Paul, in 1 Corinthians 3: 1-4, is teaching that a saved person can be under the dominion of sin. Amazingly he uses Romans 7:14 to support this idea! Further, he asserts that a regenerate man may have his objectives and affections completely untouched by the regenerating grace of the Spirit! Finally, he summarizes,
“There are two great spiritual changes which are possible to human experience – the change from the ‘natural’ man to the saved man, and the change from the ‘carnal’ man to the ‘spiritual’ man.”
Unfortunately, Chafer’s “carnal Christian” teaching from 1 Corinthians 3:1-4, gained widespread acceptance, and has been given new life time and again. One of the most popular heirs of the Chaferian interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 is Charles Ryrie. Ryrie even marshals Herman Bavinck and John Calvin in support of making a distinction between the carnal believer and the spiritual believer. [Neither would agree with Ryrie]
What is important to notice is that Chafer, and those who have followed him, have taken 1 Corinthians 3: 1-4 and used it to justify that there are actually three classes or kinds of people: natural, spiritual, and carnal. In Chafer’s scheme, there are two types or kinds of Christians, those who are spiritual and those who are carnal. Furthermore, what characterizes this “carnal” Christian is that his life can be completely unchanged; his objectives and affections can remain untransformed. There is no observable difference between him and the natural man. He can be walking according to the course of this world. In fact, he can even be completely indifferent to the work of the Holy Spirit. Certainly there are other related problems with Chafer’s teaching- for instance, regarding the nature of man, the nature of regeneration and sanctification. However, for our purpose we are simply focusing on his use of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 to justify the “carnal Christian” doctrine.
Borgman gives some pastoral observations: [emphasis is mine]
My personal evaluation of these two teachings, derived from 1 Corinthians 3:1-15, is that they are not only exegetically indefensible, but also pernicious doctrines. The exegetical observation will be dealt with in the next section, where we will closely examine the text in its context. The other observation, that these are both pernicious doctrines, comes from a theological and pastoral perspective. These doctrines have been used to instill in people the notion that they can have true faith and yet be carnal and fruitless. The worst thing that can happen to such people is that they lose out on millennial rewards. This is not a hypothetical observation, it is one that I have heard many times over the years. A presumptuous laziness can creep in, making people comfortable with their carnality and fruitlessness. What makes this so dangerous is that it gives ground for people to think they are converted, when in fact they may well be unregenerate and hellbound.
My contention is that 1 Corinthians 3:1-15 has been abused by Chafer and others. The abuse of this passage has been tragic and remains with us to this day. It is my purpose in the next section to layout a clear exegetical exposition of the text, and then conclude with some doctrinal and practical implications.”
I encourage all of our readers to take the time to read this article. This kind of thinking, along with the hyper-covenantal Roman Catholic teachings of the Federal Vision theology in some Presbyterian churches (i.e., that if a person is baptized then they are a Christian), is bringing great grief and suffering to Christians who are victims of “Christian” abusers.