1 Corinthians 9:1-14
Relinquishing Our Rights
As you have no doubt witnessed by now, the church at Corinth had so many problems that it’s genuinely hard to keep up with them all. One problem that seeps in between the lines of much of this letter, but which now comes rushing to the fore, is that these Corinthian believers, who were gathered together as a church under the Lordship of Jesus Christ, were originally called out of darkness and into God’s marvelous light through the ministry of that servant of Jesus Christ known as the apostle Paul—AND YET, it was his very apostleship they were now questioning! Reconstructing exactly what happened at the church that made them act this way is difficult, but one matter stands out and that has to do with Paul’s mention of “others” in verse twelve.
I’ve said before that the ancient world was full of traveling preachers, philosophers, and charlatans galore, who preyed on people for money in exchange for their “knowledge” and “wisdom,” two things which we have noted previously that these Corinthians valued very highly. It seems sensible to believe that such men had come to Corinth and found sympathetic ears. And when they compared Paul to them, well, Paul appeared wanting: unremarkable in appearance, inelegant in speech, and one more thing, he would accept no patronage but instead worked with his hands like a common laborer. How gauche!
Well, Paul’s first objective was to establish with these Corinthians that he did indeed have a right to their material support. Perhaps they thought that by taking on the trappings of a common man who worked with his hands, he forfeited such a right. “Not so,” says Paul. And he certainly believed that he and his companions were much more worthy of their support than those traveling hucksters. Then Paul employs illustrations from both common life and the Old Testament to show what Jesus, himself, commanded: “That those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
However, though Paul certainly received support from churches from time to time (e.g., Philippians 4:10-20), it seems he did so only from those churches when he was on mission in another field, and not from those in the field where he worked: 1) To provide an example against idleness (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12), and, 2) To preach the gospel free of charge, unlike the peddling, babbling philosophers. Paul relinquished his rights for the sake of the gospel; what shall we forego for the gospel’s sake?
I should now be careful to add that this passage provides all the proof we need that ministers of the gospel may and indeed should make their living by the gospel. In another place, our Lord said, “The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7). That Paul refused his wages was his choice and is not an exemplar for us. Of course, if a man called of God desires to do as Paul did, that too is his choice. But if we want men to devote themselves to the ministry, to the word and prayer (and women as well, though not in positions exercising headship over men), then we shall have to relieve them of earning a living in more worldly ways. But all of this should be under the ministration and oversight of a church or churches, or at least church-related organizations, and with such churches providing credentialing, which we usually refer to as licensing or ordination. This helps to cut down on “traveling salesmen” whose doctrine and motivations we do not know. To some, this might sound too “bureaucratic,” but we live in a day much like Paul’s. I believe the Church should guard the deposit of the faith while both proving and relieving ministers to preach the gospel. God calls the man, but he is commissioned and supported by the household of God, that is, the Church.