Warnings about Doing Harm to the Church (3:17)Because of the sacredness of God's temple, anyone who does it harm will be severely punished. Paul is probably thinking of the harm done to the church in Corinth by their divisions.
"If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple." (3:17)
"Destroy" (NIV, NRSV), "defile" (KJV) occurs twice in verse 17, in both instances using the verb phtheirō. Literally, the verb means, "to cause harm to in a physical manner or in outward circumstances, destroy, ruin, corrupt, spoil."87 The word is used to describe ruining financially, seducing a virgin, bribing an official so as to corrupt him, tracking dirt on a carpet to ruin or spoil it, breaking the rules of a contest, etc. The second time the word is used ("God will destroy him") it has the idea of "to inflict punishment, destroy," in the sense "punish with eternal destruction."88
This verse is sometimes applied to the punishment of those who commit suicide because they destroy the "temple." While I'm sure suicide grieves the heart of God, this verse isn't talking about the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit -- that reference is in 6:19. To apply this verse to suicide is careless interpretation. God, who knows the heart, is the Judge, not we.
Perhaps a better sense of this verse might be, "If anyone harms or corrupts God's temple, the church, then God will punish him." An offense against the church is an offense against God himself!
Once I served as pastor of a church where a very influential member had a particular agenda and saw the retirement of the previous pastor as the best time to accomplish it. She gathered her followers around her and turned them against the new pastor by means of a series of false rumors. Then she tried to force her agenda outside the duly instituted government of the church. When she failed, she and about one third of the congregation literally walked out of the church. This hurt the remaining congregation badly -- as it was intended to do -- and crippled the church for years to come. Since that time there has been no apology or repentance.
What punishment will God visit on this woman, and the thousands like her in churches across the world, who either deliberately or unknowingly, by their selfish and divisive actions, harm the church? "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" (Hebrews 10:31).
My dear friend, God holds you responsible to do everything in your power to protect the church of Christ and do nothing to harm it. It's so easy to be caught up in our own ego -- or some leader's rhetoric -- that we take actions that hurt the church. God help us! If God has shown you that you have been party to such a thing, I urge you in the name of Jesus to repent and earnestly seek forgiveness! Otherwise, you lie under a terrible punishment from God himself.
God's temple, the church, is sacred. And we must not defile or harm it!
Q4. (1 Corinthians 3:17) Division and church splits injure people, especially tender new believers. Why do you think there is such a harsh punishment for those involved in hurting Christ's church? What are better ways to deal with differences in the church?