Men in Understanding
1 Corinthians 14:20
Brothers, be not children in understanding: however, in malice be you children, but in understanding be men.

In ver. 19 the word "understanding" stands for the intellectual faculty itself; here it refers to its state of development, to the mature condition of mind, heart, and general character. The word "children," which occurs twice in the text, first stands for boys, then for babes. The word "malice" may also be taken more generally as designating all evil dispositions and affections. Lastly, the word "men" signifies "perfect," and refers to maturity of age, fulness of mental development, fitness for the manly discharge of the duties of life. Thus looked at the text would seem to say, "Don't feel and act like a set of ignorant, conceited boys — with respect to all that is bad, indeed, be the veriest babes; but as to all that is good, be like those who, having gone through a long course of discipline, are at once ripe in years, and perfectly equipped as to knowledge and accomplishments, thorough "men."

I. IN THE TEXT THEN WE HAVE THE INFANT, THE BOY, AND THE MAN, AND SOMETHING BELONGING TO EACH USED FOR MORAL AND RELIGIOUS ENDS. A human being comes into the world as a combination of capabilities — so much raw material. By taking "malice" and "understanding" as representative terms we have the two great departments of human nature — the intellectual and the emotional.

1. A little infant, then, has wrapped up within it the capacities of the intellect and the forces of the passions. Without referring to the undeveloped state of an infant's understanding, the apostle fixes attention on the undeveloped condition of the passions — the one idea that he wanted, and which, therefore, he exclusively refers to. Looking at a little sweet babe the apostle seems to says, "Whatever capacity there may be here for what is bad, it is not manifested yet. How free from all that deforms society and degrades men! True, all the men in the world were once babes; would to God that, in one sense, they were babes again! But Christians, by the expulsion of corruption through the influences of the regenerating Spirit, ought "in malice to be children."

2. Next we have the picture of a number of youths, who have advanced beyond childhood, but who have not yet acquired the knowledge, dispositions, and habits belonging to riper years. They are necessarily inexperienced; they think a great deal of any small acquirement or advantage by which they are distinguished; there are often among them envyings and animosities; they like pleasure and excitement; they can hardly understand what is meant by self-sacrifice, and know little of the greatness and beautifulness of duty as duty. However promising they may be they cannot but be defective in those things which belong to disciplined virtue and manly worth. In infants the reason and the feelings are alike undeveloped; in youth both have unfolded to a certain extent, and the apostle directs attention to the want of proportion between the development of the understanding and that of the passions. The understanding needs to be opened and cultivated — the passions grow of themselves. If the intellect be let alone, it will not expand; if the feelings be let alone, they will expand the more. The one requires to be encouraged and stimulated; the others to be repressed and restrained. The consequence is, that in early life the inferior parts are strong and active, as by the force of an internal impulse. Hence we have the phenomena that so often distinguish immaturity of character, folly, vanity, selfishness, ignorance, the want of all those things which make up that moral "understanding" in which the apostle wished the Corinthians to be men, but which is seldom found to be the characteristic of boys.

3. The image of full-grown men, mature in character as.well as in years. The apostle supposes a number of human beings to have passed through a thorough course of culture and discipline, and to have acquired an intellectual equipment, and attained a moral fitness for what they are to be and to do in life.


1. The Corinthians were ambitious of personal distinction; they each wished to have the highest gifts conferred upon them; and those who were entrusted with any, especially with the power of unknown, or eloquent speech, were utterly regardless of order and propriety in their use and exhibition. The Christian Church became a theatre of display; and the Christian life, instead of being something serious and earnest, put on the appearance of a boisterous holiday, and was as little dignified as a plaything or a song. But, worse than this, with the immaturity, vanity, and folly of boys, there mingled at Corinth the passions of men. They could not all be first; some must listen if others speak; where some lead, others must follow. But this is difficult where all are ambitious; and hence the society was torn by dissensions, developed bad feelings, was combined with a narrow and childish intellect and heart.

2. It is to this state of things that the admonition in the text refers. The apostle endeavours to instruct them by laying down important general principles, and to reprove them by severe and appropriate censure; aiming thus at once to open their understandings, and to subdue their passions. "Be not mere boys, without deep and comprehensive views of duty. In malice, indeed, I wish you were even like babes, but in wisdom and knowledge, in mastery of yourselves, and in calm devotedness to the great business of the Christian life, I wish you to be men."


1. It is favourable to stability both of opinion and conduct. One who is really a spiritual man, may be depended on. His intelligence is large; his views are matured; his principles are established; his habits are fixed; he is not likely to become marked by the levity and inconstancy which are often seen in the ignorant and immature, the young and the superficial (see Ephesians 4:8-15).

2. It capacitates for entering into the profounder truths and for enjoying the higher forms of instruction. In some parts of the Church there is the constant reiteration of just the three or four truths which make up what we call the gospel. The people are thus always kept at the alphabet, or in the spelling-book, or in the shortest and easiest reading lessons, and are never introduced to the high arguments which lie beyond. Now without the culture of their own minds, the full development of their spiritual faculties, a congregation will listen to the higher forms of Christian teaching, not only without benefit, but with weariness and wonder. That it is not right for people to continue in this stale, you learn from Hebrews 5; Hebrews 6, and 1 Corinthians 3:1, 2, i.e., let me have hearers who "in understanding are men," and instead of their being fatigued by the demand upon them, or offended by the form in which I convey my thoughts, they shall feel refreshed and strengthened by the exercise, and find themselves wiser, better, and happier men.

3. It will correct religious taste, and elevate and improve the general character. The Corinthians preferred the showy to the substantial. Their character was flashy, superficial. The apostle wished them to be "men in understanding," that all this might be thoroughly corrected. And so it will be still if we, too, rise into the character that has been set before us. Christian men, who in some degree answer to this, are superior to dependence on flash and rhetoric, or any of the many and mean arts by which Christian teaching is often disfigured. Having got rid of the craving for distinction, learnt the more excellent way of being great, the extinction of selfishness, and the service of love, they will be free from those evil tempers in which small and contracted souls indulge. They will delight in the cultivation of all that is noble and dignified in the Christian character, and be distinguished and known alike for the strength and the beauties of holiness.

4. Those who are "men in understanding" will best know how to receive the kingdom of heaven like little children. But does not the New Testament demand the understanding of a child in order to the simple reception of the faith? No; it is not the childish, undeveloped understanding that is required, but the feeling in the child that is the effect of this — a readiness to rely on authority, and to receive the testimony of those whom it looks up to, without questioning. But this spirit is not, in a man, the consequence of ignorance, but the fruit of knowledge. Those who know nothing, and those who know a little, are often the most conceited. It requires the cultivated understanding of the man to know when he has arrived at an ultimate fact — where it is necessary to pause or stop in curious inquiries, and when it is proper to welcome the positive utterances of authority, and to rely upon them like a little child. The most mature Christian will live in the exercise of the most simple faith. He who knows most of God will know most of himself; he will, therefore, believe when others doubt, and will distrust when others presume.

(T. Binney.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: Brethren, be not children in understanding: howbeit in malice be ye children, but in understanding be men.

WEB: Brothers, don't be children in thoughts, yet in malice be babies, but in thoughts be mature.

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