A series of articles born out of critically thinking on the works of several Catholic Apologists and comparing their work with Scripture.
Wood, hay, stubble
Works being burnt up
I have been told that this passage is a proof text for purgatory. A careful study shows that it doesn't speak of purgatory at all. I would like to put forth a possible meaning of what Paul was probably saying. Perhaps it is worth considering, perhaps not. Here is a kind of play by play exposition of the verses in question.
Corinthians I 3:8 Now he that plants and he that waters are one: and every man shall receive his own reward according to his own labor.
Corinthians I 3:9 For we are laborers together with God: you are God's field, you are God's building.
Scripture defines that we (His saints) are His building (Corinthians I 3:9, Peter I 2:5), His temple (Ephesians 2:19-22). The question is "can we call the external (professing) church (in which His eternal saints exist as a subset - see article discussing this here) on earth a temple or dwelling of God?" I think we can based upon Timothy I 3:15, Timothy II 2:20, and Peter I 4:17. I believe that this is the "building" that God (through Paul) is referring to here.
Corinthians I 3:10 According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise master builder, I have laid the foundation, and another builds thereon. But let every man take heed how he builds thereupon.
Corinthians I 3:11 For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
The Foundation which Paul refers to here is Jesus, Himself. Upon this Foundation is built the apostles (Ephesians 2:20, Revelation 21:14). And upon them are we built (Ephesians 2:19-20, Peter I 2:5.) We are warned take heed upon how we build upon that foundation. That is, we must take heed on who is to be given church membership. or, we are to take heed that we examine who is allowed into a local congregation (church). I do not mean that it is a club where only exclusive members can join, but I believe that prospective members should have at least a minimal confession of faith so that the church can take heed on whom is built into the building of God. These people have the potential to become teachers or leaders within the local congregation and/or represent the local church and even represent Christ to the world as a Christian. This seems to become especially important and applicable when examining elders and deacons. Exceeding care should be taken to try and keep the weeds (Matthew 13) out of these important positions.
Corinthians I 3:12 Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;
Precious stones are sometimes found to be a symbol for saints in Scripture: (Revelation 21:19, Peter I 2:5, James 5:7) Whatever is being built upon this foundation is either flame proof (will withstand God's fiery refining Judgment in that Day) or is flammable (will not withstand God's Judgment. Will perish forever.) Could these items being built onto the foundation be people? The eternal church (possessing church) are the flame proof because Jesus has already taken the punishment for their sins in their place. The weeds within the external church (professing people within the church) are the flammable objects. Each category has varying degrees of faithfulness or unfaithfulness. However, they are and remain two distinct categories: the saved, and the unsaved.
Corinthians I 3:13 Every man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is.
Can these precious stones (saved people) and stubble (unsaved) be considered as a man's work? While that may not necessarily be the way a work is typically defined, I think they can be called a work in some circumstances. Paul called the Corinthian church his "work in the Lord": Corinthians I 9:1. When a someone brings someone else to faith, that could be their "work in the Lord". The true identities of the precious stones and the weeds may be hidden from us now because we cannot see men's hearts, but they will be revealed in that day when it will be revealed by the fire of Judgment.
Corinthians I 3:14 If any man's work abides which he has built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.
Could this man's reward be to rejoice as he welcomes into Heaven a fellow Christian to whom he either planted the seed of the Gospel in, or watered his faith - his work? The man's work (Christian) would remain (abide) even after being subjected to the flames of judgment.
Corinthians I 3:15 If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
Likewise, could a man be grieved to see a weed that he thought was a Christian be found to not be a Christian at all? And he didn't know it until it was revealed by fire. All of the time he invested into planting and watering has gone for naught like Paul had feared with the Galatians (Ga 4:11). The weed is gone forever - burned.
Corinthians I 3:16 Don't you know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?
Could the "you" above be referring to an assembly of believers at Corinth in this case? Could the church be called a temple (or house) of God? The Spirit of God would certainly dwell within that assembly of believers.
Corinthians I 3:17 If any man defiles the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple you are.
Could this verse be speaking of false prophets (wolves) creeping into churches (the temple of God) bringing in with them defiling doctrines? Woe unto those who bring damnable heresies (Peter II 2:1) into His churches and therefore defiling not only His Name, but defiling also the churches that claim His Name (His temple on earth). We (the members of a local congregation) are set apart just by claiming His Name on the sign out in front of our church building.
In my opinion, the whole passage in question is very likely teaching churches to be cautious as to how they add to their numbers. An examination process (as found in many Evangelical churches) is appropriate (Prov 27:23) to keep the church as pure as possible. Wolves will creep in, but we have no excuse not to be cautious about how we add to the church. In no way does the passage speak of purgatory.