As always, it is important to study the bible in context. Remember that last week, Paul was tackling the issue of whether it was OK or not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. In chapter 8, he more or less bypassed that question, and said, “the point is, not what you are free to do, but how your actions affect your fellow Christians.”
Chapter nine, our text for this week, is a continuation of that theme, however Paul continues it with very personal examples. He describes for the Corinthians how he himself has refrained from exercising his freedom in order to encourage them in their own faith.
As we saw in the first section of the letter, and particularly in chapters 3 & 4, a little bit of Paul’s personal frustration comes out here. Paul went to Corinth and ministered to these people. He sacrificed so much that they never even knew about. And now, they sort of disrespect him. His underlying attitude is a little bit like this:
Don’t you see that I myself am free? I am an apostle, for Pete’s sake, and if anyone disputes it, at the very least I am your apostle. I’m free to do all kinds of things that I refrain from doing – and I refrain from them for your sake. The least you can do is have a little concern for your fellow believers.
So the main point is really a continuation and an illustration of what he said in chapter eight: that they ought to be willing to adjust their behavior in order to encourage and strengthen others in the church. In addition, however, because of the illustrations, Paul uses, there is much valuable teaching here about other subjects as well. Since we got the main point last week, this time we’ll look at the specific subjects that Paul brings up in chapter nine.
In Paul’s frustration with the Corinthians, he begins to enumerate exactly what his rights and freedoms are. First, he reiterates that he is an apostle, a leader in the church. The implication is that they owe him some respect, and that they ought to willingly support and follow his leadership. The New Testament is full of instructions for believers to listen to, and follow their spiritual leaders:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.1 Timothy 5:17
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who will give an account, so that they can do this with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you. Hebrews 13:17
Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly. James 3:1
Paul is an apostle, and especially, he is their apostle. They owe him their respect, though clearly, by his tone here, he has not insisted on it previously, nor have they really given it to him.
Next, Paul adds that he has the right to be married. This is another right and freedom that he has not insisted upon. In fact, he gave up that right in order to more fully dedicate his life to preaching the gospel (remember 7:8 & 7:32-35). It is a right that he chose not to exercise so that he could better serve people like the Corinthians.
I just want to mention a historical note here. As I’m sure you are aware, the Roman Catholic church forbids ordained priests from getting married. Sometimes they use the example of Paul, and the things he wrote here, and in 1 Corinthians 7 as justification for that. However, Paul’s entire point here is based on the fact that he could get married if he chose to. This passage in fact, teaches that pastors/priests and church leaders are certainly free to marry. And the Roman Catholic doctrine, though it cites biblical passages, actually came from the Pope, not the bible, and the Pope did not make that decree until around 1000 AD.
Paul’s next right is the right to financial compensation for his work as a teacher and preacher of God’s Word. I might as well just get this out in the open: obviously, this part of text is somewhat personal for me. I make my own living by preaching and teaching the bible. I might get a few hundred extra dollars from writing every year, but my profession and livelihood come as a pastor. I also want to say that I feel tremendously blessed that this is so. In addition, I am not teaching on this because of some lack that I feel from New Joy Fellowship. This is in the text for this week, and so I want to teach it faithfully, as I try to do every week, no matter what the topic is.
I have heard some Christians (not many, but certainly some) suggest that this text means that there should not be any such thing as a paid pastor, or at least, not one who makes his whole living from teaching God’s word. But just as it was with Paul’s words about marriage, the entire point Paul is making depends on the fact that he does have a right to be paid for preaching. In fact, he makes the case quite strongly. He says the claim is from the scriptures (meaning, for him, the Old Testament) and not from human authority. It can’t get much clearer than verse 14:
In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
This isn’t the only place Paul teaches this. He writes to Timothy (keep in mind, the term “elder” is interchangeable with “pastor”):
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)
There is clearly a principle here that God’s people have responsibility to financially support those who are called to preach the Bible. I say that not in an angry, demanding way, but rather in a sort of happy wonder that I get to do this for a living, and that it really is a good and righteous thing.
Paul’s point is that he had a right to receive a salary from the Corinthians, and yet he never did. This is not to say that Paul never received financial compensation from any church. It is almost certain that the church at Antioch helped support his missionary efforts. We know that at on more than one occasion he received financial support from the church at Philippi (Philippians 4:14-20). Even when he was at Corinth, after Silas and Timothy arrived, Paul stopped making tents (his other profession) and devoted himself fully to preaching (Acts 18:5). This means that someone was paying for his food, lodging and other expenses. It just wasn’t the Corinthians.
The following is a succinct summary of what Paul is saying overall:
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. (9:15)
Again, his arguments depend on the fact that he actually has these rights, and that the normal thing would be for him to make use of them. Remember the context is about what freedoms or rights the Corinthians have. Basically, Paul is saying “Look at me! Look at all I’ve given up for you. Why don’t you take the same attitude towards each other?”
In verse 19-23, Paul expounds on the lengths to which he is willing to go so that people could become faithful disciples of Jesus. Though he is free, he’ll act like a slave. Though he is a Jew, he’ll become as a Gentile; though he is free from Jewish law, he’ll behave according to it. His whole focus is on how he can bring someone closer to Jesus. His heart is focused on heaven, and the reward he will have there (see 1 Corinthians 3:1-23, and the accompanying sermon notes [1 Corinthians #4]), and so he is willing endure discomfort here and now for the sake of others. He’s running to win the prize (verses 24-27).
There is a great missionary principle here. Paul never compromised on the message of the gospel. But he is willing to present it in different ways that are culturally relevant to those whom he is trying to reach.
Now, I want to offer a brief explanation here. I had a conversation with someone last week about chapter 8. If we don’t think about this carefully, it sounds like we need to submit to any stupid little rule in order to not put any obstacle in front of our fellow Christians. It seems almost like someone with a bunch of petty spiritual neuroses could control the way we live. We’ll talk about this a little more at the end of chapter 10, when Paul wraps up the whole discussion. But I want to point out now, the issue is not whether you offend someone – the issue is whether your actions hurt their conscience.
Suppose someone thinks it’s a sin to wear blue-jeans in church. Unfortunately, I’ve learned that this is not a hypothetical situation. Now, if you wear blue-jeans, and this causes the other person to also wear them – while he believes in his heart it is wrong – then you have injured his conscience. For his sake it would be better to stick with the dockers.
But often times people who have these ridiculously restrictive ideas are not in danger of violating their own conscience. They just want you to behave according to their conscience. If you don’t, it won’t change their behavior or their mind. They’ll think you’re sinning in Levi’s but they would still never put on a pair. In that case, wearing blue jeans will not damage the person’s conscience – it will just offend him.
Paul himself didn’t back down from offending people. Such people are not weak, but rather proud. Paul’s main focus here is to tell us to care for each other, and encourage one another in faith, and not do anything that would endanger the faith of someone else.