Can a Christian Be Carnal?

Is it true that a Christian can be carnal (fleshy)? The Apostle Paul says yes in his letter to the Corinthian church.

 “But I, brother, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3)

 But what does Paul mean by that?

That has proven to be a more difficult question for people to answer. One of the most popular answers given after the turn of the 20th century has made this passage the main proof-text for a novel doctrine of the Christian life. As Bible expositor, D. A. Carson comments:

 “Certainly there is such a thing as a carnal or worldly Christian, but the ‘carnal Christian’ theory has in recent years taken on some fairly weird extremes that bear little relation to what this chapter actually says.”[1]

 What are the “weird extremes” that have developed in the form of a new theory that Carson mentions? Many proponents of this theory could be cited but one popular representative is found in the teaching of Charles Ryrie. Given his popularity, before we ask what Paul means by carnal (fleshy), lets be clear what Ryrie means.

Ryrie defines carnal this way: “To have the characteristics of an unsaved life either because one is an unbeliever or because, though a believer, one is living like an unsaved person.”[2] He clarifies that while a true Christian will bear some fruit at some point, that “does not mean that a certain person’s fruit will necessarily be outwardly evident”[3] In other words, Ryrie says that “a saving, living faith” may be “visible or not.”[4] Advocates of this teaching[5], such as Ryrie, say that 1 Corinthians 2-3 is teaching that there are three ultimate categories of people in the world: (1) the “natural man” (non-Christian), (2) the “carnal man” (Christian who lives like a non-Christian), and (3) the “spiritual man” (Christian).

 One ways that Ryrie defends this new theory on the Christian life is to invent a new kind of repentance that does not have anything to do with sin. I have written elsewhere to explain that this is not a biblical perspective [I Would Like To Add Jesus To My Pile Of Idols Please]. In this post, however, I want to focus on the nature of the Christian life that follows conversion. Here I want to correct the wrong idea that a person can live their life in a way that is no different from their non-Christian friends and still consider themselves a Christian. As Jesus said “you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matt. 7:20).

 So, the question is: were the Corinthians living with “the characteristics of an unsaved life,” as Ryrie says? What kind of people does Paul think he is dealing with when he accuses them of being carnal?

We can answer this question in two ways:

 First, the Corinthians lives were different than their non-Christian friends and neighbors. Although there were many sinful patterns in the Corinthian church, there was also much that showed God’s grace. Look how Paul starts off describing these ‘carnal’ or ‘fleshy’ people:

  • Those who openly and continually call on the name of the Lord (1:2).
  • They used to be “sexually immoral…idolaters…adulterers…men who practice homosexuality…thieves…greedy… drunkards…revilers…[and] swindlers” (6:9-11). But now they were different.
  • Now, they have been “washed…sanctified…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:11).
  • They had consistent church attendance, gathering with the church for worship on at least a weekly basis (11:17, 18, 20; 14:26; 16:2).
  • They were active in the ministry of the church and exhibited a rich diversity of spiritual gifts (1:7, 12-14).
  • They had an accurate knowledge of much biblical truth and a recognized ability to communicate it (1:5).
  • At times Paul could refer to them as “sensible people” (10:15).
  • Paul even commended them for how accurately they remembered his teachings and kept them diligently (11:2).
  • They were very interested in spiritual things and were eagerly asking questions about spiritual things, even to the point of writing letters to Paul looking for answers (7:1ff.).

 Now, let me stop to ask, does this sound like the description that Ryrie and company were giving of someone who is completely “living like an unsaved person”? It should be clear at this point that the Apostle Paul and Charles Ryrie mean two totally different things when they refer to the carnal Corinthians.

It is true that Paul recognizes many sins in their lives but he also notices many graces that evidence true conversion as well. This second point is precisely what Ryrie overlooks. Ryrie misinterprets these verses in 3:1-4 because he doesn’t interpret them in light of the context of the whole book. As a result, his perspective on the character of the Corinthians is lopsided and his subsequent teaching on the Christian life ends up out of balance.

But there is one more thing to notice which eliminates the possibility of Ryrie’s interpretation.

 Second, the biblical practice of church discipline eliminates the possibility that Ryrie’s interpretation could be correct. Paul says people who live sinfully should be put out of the membership of the church and considered non-Christians. One of the reasons that people say we have a lot of hypocrites in the church today, is because…we really do have a lot of hypocrites in the church today! But this is not how it should be according to Scripture. If a person talks a good talk but then walks a totally different walk, Paul tells the Corinthians that they cannot continue to keep him as a member of the church.

This is because the person whose lifestyle fails to live in light of the gospel shows that they are not really a Christian after all (15:2-3).  Even if they swear up and down that they have been saved by Christ, if their life doesn’t match their lips the church should not believe them. Paul calls them “so-called brothers” (5:11). In other words, they are pseudo-Christians, not “carnal Christians” in the way that Ryrie and others define the term. As a result of their unrepentant lifestyle, the local congregation has the responsibility of removing them from the membership of the church so that Christ’s name is not dragged through the mud (5:9-13).  

 Ok, so we know what Paul doesn’t mean. But what does Paul mean when he says the Corinthians are acting carnal?

Paul is teaching the Corinthians that the gospel changes the way a Christian views every aspect of their life.  

Paul’s point is this…Christians are truly different because of the gospel. Therefore the gospel should change the way the Christian views every aspect of their lives. So when Christians think and act inconsistently with the gospel, they are thinging and acting according to the wisdom of the world and their carnal flesh. So when Paul saw the Corinthians jealous of one another and fighting with one another, he pointed out to them that they were failing to think and live in light of the cross.

So may your reality be reconstructed by the gospel. And may you be able to say with John Newton:  “‘I am not what I ought to be. I am not what I wish to be. I am not what I hope to be. Yet I can truly say, I am not what I once was. By the grace of God, I am what I am.’”[6]


[1] D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry, p. 69.

[2] Charles Ryrie, So Great a Salvation, p. 143.

[3] ibid., p. 42.

[4] ibid., p. 43.

[5] Ryrie’s view didn’t start with him. He developed the view that was first advocated by his theological mentors Cyrus Ingerson (C. I.) Scofield, in the second edition of his Scofield Reference Bible (1917) and Lewis Sperry Chafer, in his book He That Is Spiritual (1918). More recent advocates of this doctrine are Chuck Smith of the Calvary Chapel movement and the Word of Life student ministry.

[6] Mark Dever, 9 Marks of a Healthy Church, p. 104.

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2 responses to “Can a Christian Be Carnal?

  1. i have a lot of thoughts !

  2. Thank you so much for blogging on this important topic. This is a real passion of my husband’s, therefore, I have come to understand this is an area of huge misunderstanding among most believers. Being raised in a Christian home and saved at the age of ten it was too easy for me to believe there is a third category for Christians called “Carnal”. It is spoken of as normal and so many accept it without question as I did. Thankfully my husband who was saved at age 40 (2002) came from a non-practicing Catholic background with no existing true Christian beliefs to have to filter through. He has a gift for understanding Scripture in such a simple way and he saw early on that this category called “Carnal” did not exist the way most think of it to be. Glad to see others on the ball, it is refreshing! Thank you!

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