I have so thoroughly enjoyed teaching 1 Corinthians this semester. It’s been a blast to participate in wonderful discussions with students keen to kick around every aspect of the text and its theological implications.
At point after point, Paul stresses the unity of the church and the corporate character of Christian discipleship.
His statement in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 stands over many of the topics he addresses. Those that divide the church or exploit the weaknesses of others run the risk of judgment. It’s a stark warning.
In light of its importance, it’s unfortunate that many English translations don’t do it justice. It ends up being synonymous with 1 Corinthians 6:19, where Paul states that individual bodies are temples of God’s Spirit.
In 3:16-17, however, Paul is speaking of the corporate body, the church. The three appearances of “you” are plural:
Do you not know that you (plural) are a temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells among you (plural)? If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, and that is what you (plural) are.
The NASB and ESV note this in the margin, but the translations don’t capture Paul’s sense and leave the impression that it’s singular.
The updated NIV, however, nails it:
Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for God’s temple is sacred, and you together are that temple.
One could quibble with the choices of “you yourselves,” “in your midst,” and “you together” (and I’m sure the translation committee considered several options), but they should be commended for rightly representing Paul’s corporate intention.
In light the prominence of this notion throughout the letter (and its importance for Paul’s thought in general), it’s crucial to get this right. How much more so for those who read Scripture in a culture that can only imagine being Christian as an individual pursuit and that marginalizes the place of the church.