First Corinthians was written as a coherent work. We have broken scripture down into convenient bites–chapters and verses–and we tend to think the chapters and verses mean something, but they don’t. They’re only a convenient way of finding our place in a given letter or book. Chapter nine continues the theme Paul was talking about in chapter eight–our responsibility to “weaker” brethren. If you’re not familiar with this subject, you’ll probably want to go back and read my posts on chapter eight, which you can find here and here.
Paul has just said he would never eat meat again (the subject was meat offered to idols) if it would mean causing a weaker brother to sin by following Paul’s example. Now, in chapter nine, Paul gives an example of something he has given up in order not to offend the Corinthian church. As a concurrent theme with this example, Paul also defends his apostolic standing.
Paul starts out with a series of questions which imply a positive answer. “Am I not free?” What does that mean? I think it’s one of those cultural things. Obviously, Paul isn’t appealing to his non-slave status–no one ever said he was a slave to anyone but Christ and besides, it doesn’t fit with the subject at hand. I had to look at the commentaries for this one. The word free in this context likely refers to Paul’s right to the privilege of being “free of the house” or, in more modern words, allowed to partake of the resources of the church. As we’ll see later in this section, Paul chose not to take advantage of this privilege. It’s possible that, because he didn’t avail himself of the rights due to an apostle, some accused him of not, in fact, being an apostle.
Next, he attacks the issue more directly: Am I not an apostle? First off, there has long been in the church some controversy over what, exactly, an apostle is. The Greek word simply means sent one, but the special meaning of the word in the New Testament seems to be that of a missionary. Some would say that there were twelve apostles who had been companions of Jesus during His life, and Paul (these are sometimes referred to the apostles of the Lamb because they had seen Jesus.) Apparently, some in Corinth also believed it was necessary to have seen Jesus in order to be an apostle, because Paul’s next question addresses this subject. It should be noted that others besides these were referred to in the New Testament as apostles, among them Barnabas, Aquila, Apollos, and others.
It has been postulated that Paul’s mention of his experience in seeing Jesus as a part of this defence of his apostleship is proof that this was, in fact, a necessary prerequisite of apostleship. I believe that Paul was simply bringing in this fact to silence his critics and avoid arguing about a point he considered irrelevant to the present conversation. It would not be the first time he followed this tack. In the chapter just previous, he does the same with the argument that idols are nothing in the world, while in chapter ten, we will see that he believes, in fact, that the meat sacrificed to idols is sacrificed to demons.
Paul mentions the Corinthians themselves as proof of his apostleship, which supports the idea of the apostles as missionaries. The proof of their apostleship would be churches planted and new disciples to Christ baptised and trained, as was the case with Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian church.
Paul expands on the fact that he does not take support from the church at Corinth, nor bring along a believing wife, nor refrain from secular labor. Some said this was because he had not the right and that he knew it, yet insisted on calling himself an apostle nevertheless–silly man. Paul says, in effect, No. I have the right. And he includes Barnabas as a fellow apostle.
Giving examples the Corinthians could relate to, Paul talks about soldiers, farmers, and shepherds. Though the soldier certainly does not own the country he passes through and the vine dresser and shepherd likely have no ownership of the resources they work with, all of them are free to meet their needs from these resources. The law commands: “Don’t muzzle the ox as it treads out the grain.” No doubt God did intend for the oxen to have a bite of grain, but, as Paul says, the real purpose of this command is to apply to anyone working with resourses they do not own. They should have the privilege of partaking of those resourses as they work with them. Paul particularly applies this to religious workers.
There’s been a recent trend to discount professional clergy as “hirelings”, to imply that lay preachers and ministers are somehow better and more sincere. However, Paul, though he chose not to partake of the temporal benefits of his office, affirms that they are the right of those God has called to the ministry.
Things always happen for a reason. In this case, there are a number of reasons that people have begun a back-lash against paid clergy. First, many clergy have taken advantage and have worked for the money. It’s one thing to be supported by the Gospel so that one is able to work full-time in the service of the Gospel. It’s another thing entirely to work the Gospel for all it’s worth and make one’s living by fleecing the sheep. There are pastors who don’t believe the Gospel and who cannot honestly call Jesus Lord. There are those who cynically use “godliness” as a means of gain. Then there are those who have fallen into the “star” trap and truly believe themselves sent of God though they are working the sheep for all they’re worth, building monuments to themselves, and often as not teaching false doctrine. One day they’ll be saying something to the effect of: “Lord, didn’t we preach for You, cast out demons in Your name, and do many mighty works in Your name?” And Jesus will say, “Depart from me, you wrongdoers. I never knew you.”
Finally, plenty of lay people have gotten the idea that outreach is the job of the clergy. They pay the clergy and the clergy had better get off its collective underexercised hindquarters and reach the world–okay? Sorry to break the bad news (not really 😉 ), but that isn’t the clergy’s job. Well, all right. It’s the job of an apostle, but not necessarily the special provenance of prophets, pastors and teachers. These, with apostles, are given to prepare the saints (that would be the lay people–aka: most of us) for the work of service.
There are other arguments against professional clergy, but I won’t go into them here. The point Paul is making is that, Yes, clergy does deserve to earn its living from ministry, and Yes, Paul and Barnabas are included in this though they choose not to avail themselves of the support.
Paul hastens to add that he’s not saying he wants to use his apostolic prerogatives. He (probably tongue-in-cheek) insists that he doesn’t want to give up his one ground for boasting–that he offers the Gospel without receiving any financial recompence. He feels that he has no alternative to preaching, so he expects no reward for doing it. He doesn’t do it of his own volition, but is sent by God to preach. He dare not neglect this calling. Paul’s reward is in doing more than is required. That is, he preaches and does not take up an offering.
Mind, this is not required, nor is it expected of ministers. In fact, the opposite is expected. Paul never suggests otherwise. Most ministers cannot afford the luxury of working free of charge, as they have families to care for and financial obligations to meet.
Paul points out that though he has no obligations to any mere man, he has become a servant to everyone he meets in that he works for all, and without charge. Why? Paul wants to remove the obstacle to the Gospel that requiring support throws up. In the first place, the requirement of support limits the places one may go to preach. One must first raise support from a home church or find new believers willing to contribute to the cause. If no givers are found, there is a closed door. Secondly, many people are turned off by a Gospel presentation that includes a request for funding. Whether they are new believers, unbelievers, or even old believers (I don’t say mature–just old), many people balk at the idea of the preacher asking for money. This throws up an initial hurdle to accepting the Gospel which many people are not willing to leap.
So this is Paul’s example. Though he is an authentic apostle, he refuses the support due to an apostle in order to avoid hindering the effectiveness of the Gospel. If you think about it, that’s huge. Because of this, Paul and his companions had not only to preach and teach, but also to work full-time (which was longer back in the olden days–full time pretty much meant as long as there was sunlight to work by).
Paul ennumerates his adaptations for the sake of the Gospel. Paul talks about freedom and the problems of legalism frequently. Yet when he is with Jews, he behaves like a Jew. He doesn’t offend for the sake of showing off his freedom. No, it’s not necessary for him to keep the ceremonial laws, but as long as there’s no compelling reason to disregard them, he conforms for the sake of the Jews he’s hanging out with. Why offend them? There’s no point, and it will only harden them to the Gospel message.
On the other hand, when he’s with Gentiles, he doesn’t try to look superior by piously and haughtily keeping ceremonial laws that he is, in fact, freed from by the death and resurrection of Christ. He behaves in a way that Gentiles find seemly and polite.
Paul does not eat food offered to idols in such a way as to offend weaker brethren. I’ve elaborated on this elsewhere, so I won’t go into it here. His point is, “I don’t, if I know the food was sacrificed, and you shouldn’t, either. Just because you can doesn’t make it a good idea.”
Paul goes through all this so that he can contribute to the advancement of the Gospel. Nothing else matters. Paul points out that one must be focused, determined, disciplined, and dedicated. Think of the training an Olympic athlete goes through in our day. And for what? The possibility of receiving a title that, in a few years, most people will have forgotten about? And a bit of gold or silver or bronze on a ribbon? All those years and years and hours and days of training, sacrificng normal life and normal pleasures, spending the family’s funds on coaching, forgetting everything else for that?
But look at what we can win. Eternal life! Real life on a redeemed earth, spent hanging out with God our true King and loving Father, our Lord, elder Brother and Husband, Jesus the Christ, and with all our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We’ll spend our never ending days living the greatest of all adventures, having fun and never suffering trouble or pain or boredom or depression or exhaustion or sickness or any hurtful thing again, doing meaningful things, learning cool stuff, and most of all, constantly becoming closer and more intimate with our Lord.
Is it worth making a serious effort? Worth training and sometimes denying ourselves something we might legally have, except that our being seen to have it could hurt a weaker brother? Is it worth controlling ourselves and waiting to receive our good things? A thousand times Yes!