Paul’s Restraint in Exercising His Liberty
Paul’s Rights (I Corinthians 9:1-6)
Having mentioned in I Corinthians 8:13 his willingness to forego his rights to benefit others, Paul now illustrates the extent of what he does. He asks a series of rhetorical questions. In each question, the answer is the opposite of what is being asked. Paul is an apostle, he is a free man, he has seen Jesus, and the Corinthians' existence as a church is the result of Paul’s efforts. Each of these points means that Paul has rights because of the position he holds. Yet, we get a hint that it is in the exercise of those rights – or more specifically, his choice not to exercise his rights – that some seek to claim that Paul is less than who he is. Thus, this chapter is both a defense of Paul’s apostleship and an illustration of how Christians can show restraint in exercising their liberties. The latter point is the primary one. The former is actually more incidental.
The reason Paul points out that he has seen Jesus is because this was a critical characteristic of an apostle. The apostles were eyewitnesses of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:32; 10:39-41; I John 1:1-3). When selecting a replacement for Judas, having witnessed Christ was a critical qualification (Acts 1:21-22). Paul, too, was a witness, though born out of due time (I Corinthians 15:8).
Paul points out that even if other people claim to doubt his apostleship, the Corinthians are one group who should have no doubts since their existence is proof of his apostleship. He claimed to be an apostle while he was with them and God supported that claim with the signs that Paul did in their present. They, too, had responded to the gospel message he brought, showing their acceptance of what he taught.
Thus, Paul gives a defense as to his rights as an apostle against those who claim he is not an apostle. As a human being, he has the right to meals. Implied in this is the argument that a laborer has the right to be supported by his work. He also had the right to marry a Christian woman, just as the other apostles and leaders in the church had done.
Neither Paul nor Barnabas exercised that right to be supported by those they were teaching. But Paul makes it clear that it wasn’t because they didn’t have a right to support. A right can exist without it being used. Paul had chosen to support himself and others at times (Acts 18:3; 20:34; I Thessalonians 2:9; II Thessalonians 3:8).
- What does the fact that the apostles and other leaders had married Christian women do to the Roman Catholic idea that their leaders remain unmarried?
- Why do you suppose Paul qualified his right to only a sister in Christ and not claim a more general right to marry?
A Preacher’s Right to Support (I Corinthians 9:7-14)
The basic idea of being supported by one’s labors is well established. A soldier defends his country by waging wars against the country’s enemies, but no one expects a soldier to pay the cost of the war. Those who benefit from the defense are the ones who finance the effort. A farmer plants his crops and eats of their yield, even though you could say that those crops could have grown on their own without the farmer. The herdsman does make the milk, but because he took care of the animals, he has a right to some of the animal’s production.
Each example shows that even though the laborer’s efforts are not directly for producing a livelihood for himself, those who benefit from the laborer’s efforts help to support the work. Each example also illustrates the work of a preacher. Preachers are at the forefront of battling Satan (I Timothy 1:18; 6:12; II Timothy 2:3). They plant the word of God in people and cultivate their growth in the Lord (I Timothy 4:6, 16; I Corinthians 3:6-8). And they tend to God’s people protecting them and caring for them so they might have a good life (II Timothy 4:2-5; Ephesians 4:11-16).
Paul’s point isn’t merely his opinion or a man-made argument; this something God has always taught. There was a law in Deuteronomy 25:4 that required oxen not to be prevented from eating while working to thresh the wheat. Paul points out that this command has far broader implications than how to harness oxen to a threshing sled. The point behind the law is that since an ox is laboring to produce food, it has a right to partake of some of that produce. If that is true for an animal, how much more is it true for people? The law was not meant to be limited to only animals but was for the benefit of people as well.
A farmer ought to have expectations of benefits from the plowing he has done. The thresher also ought to share those same expectations. The laborer expects to benefit from his labors. And such is no different with a preacher. Preachers labor to sown spiritual things among people, so it isn’t that hard to understand that they should get physical benefits from their work (II Timothy 2:6). Seen in this way, the preacher is getting far less than what he is imparting (Romans 15:27). “Men, in other things, cheerfully pay those who labor for them. They compensate the schoolmaster, the physician, the lawyer, the merchant, the mechanic; and they do it cheerfully, because they suppose they receive a valuable consideration for their money. But is it not so with regard to ministers of the gospel? Is not a man's family as certainly benefitted by the labors of a faithful clergyman and pastor, as by the skill of a physician or a lawyer, or by the service of the schoolmaster? Are not the affairs of the soul and of eternity as important to a man's family as those of time and the welfare of the body?” [Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes].
Having firmly established a right to be compensated for his work, Paul points out that he chose not to exercise that right. In order not to hinder the teaching of the gospel, he chose to endure the extra hardship of supporting himself.
- How would accepting wages while teaching in Corinth hinder the gospel?
- If a preacher had other ways of supporting himself, does that mean he doesn’t need to be compensated for preaching?
- Are people paid by the value of their service or by what someone thinks they should be able to live on? Would it be right to cut a preacher’s pay because he has a second job?
Yet Paul isn’t done with his argument. He points out precedence. Under the Old Covenant, the priests partook of the offerings (Numbers 5:9-10; Deuteronomy 18:1). This is particularly interesting because many priests and Levites often had other work and only served the Lord a portion of the year.
As a cap to his arguments, Paul’s third point is that compensating a preacher was commanded by the Lord (Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7). In other letters, Paul had taught this as well (Galatians 6:6; I Timothy 5:17). Since this was the Lord’s command, Christians are not at liberty to withhold support from a preacher who is laboring on their behalf. A preacher might choose not to take support, but a congregation isn’t at liberty to make that choice for him. Nor can it be viewed as a charitable donation. It is a debt owed.
- Paul’s third point is also his strongest. Why didn’t he just state it and be done with it instead of making other points and saving this one for last?
- Is a preacher an employee of the church? Can a preacher be hired or fired?
Paul’s Method of Giving Back to the Lord (I Corinthians 9:15-18)
Though Paul had the right to receive compensation for his work, he personally chose not to use that right (Acts 20:33-34; II Thessalonians 3:8). In talking about his right to be paid, he is not asking anyone to start paying him. In fact, he would rather die than for someone to take this freedom to choose not to be paid away from him. Paul finds advantages in not being paid that are useful to him and he saw it as a hallmark of his work.
Remember that Paul’s preference was to go to areas where the gospel had not been preached in order to start new works. In doing so, he could meet opposition by stating that he was not doing it for the money. People were more willing to listen to his teachings when they understood that he wasn’t trying to make converts to support him (II Corinthians 11:7-10). Especially in the Achaia region, this made Paul stand out from teachers of other religions and philosophies.
In preaching Paul had nothing personal to take pride in because he was required to preach (Acts 9:15-16; 26:17-20). But in foregoing compensation, Paul had a small way of freely giving back to the Lord something that was his own to give (II Samuel 24:24). By not taking compensation from the area in which he is preaching he proves that he is obeying the Lord willingly and gains much joy from his work. If he preached solely because he had no other choice, then he would like a steward in a household – there would be pride in his work, but much less enthusiasm (Luke 17:10).
Paul’s reward, his sense of joy, is being able to preach without charge because in this manner he is doing something for God that is not required of him. Paul did not want to overuse the rights the Lord had given him.
- Some use this passage to say that if a preacher wants to be paid for preaching, then he doesn’t have the right attitude to be a preacher. Does this passage apply to all preachers? What makes Paul’s situation different from most preachers?
- If a congregation chooses not to support a local preacher or pays him little, who is making the choice? Can their choice make the preacher feel rewarded for his work?
- Why was it proper for Paul to take pride in his choice not to be paid?
- How important is it to give to the Lord something of your own free will? (See Psalms 110:3). Why does it matter?
- Does this mean that Paul refused all support while preaching? What verses can you use to support this? What made the difference?
Paul Adapts to the Situation to Further the Gospel (I Corinthians 9:19-23)
Paul is focused on his goal of winning people to the gospel. So if not taking compensation made him a better preacher, he willingly did so. He is a free man, but he voluntarily behaved like a slave to others. In doing so, when he was among Jews, he kept Jewish customs even though he isn’t under the law (Acts 16:3 compared to Galatians 5:1-4; Acts 18:18; 21:23-26). A Jew would be less likely to listen to someone who did not follow Jewish customs, so to get a more open audience Paul did what was necessary though he knew it wasn’t required. When he was among the Gentiles, he behaved as a Gentile in following their customs. Yet, that should not be taken as his following the Gentiles into sin. He still remained under the Law of Christ. But in following customs which were not wrong in themselves, Paul did what he could to be found acceptable to a Gentile audience. To those who are weak, Paul avoided doing things that might shock those around him even though what he might do would be perfectly acceptable to God (Romans 5:8; 15:1). “Weak” here does not necessarily mean a weak Christian because Paul is talking about reaching people to be saved. More likely Paul is talking about those who are weak in regards to resisting sin. He allowed others to see his struggles so that they would be encouraged to live for God as he has done. Paul accommodated the people around him so that he would have a better chance of saving some with the gospel.
Paul did all this, not because he had to, but because it helped further the gospel message so that he can partake of the joys of the Lord with those he saves.
The Need for Self-Control (I Corinthians 9:24-27)
Paul now applies the principles he has been living by to a general conclusion that every Christian can follow. We are all in a race where there is a definite goal. We want salvation for ourselves and for those love and know. How badly do you want to reach that goal? People who run a race don’t haphazardly run. They give it their all, not only in the actual race but also in their preparation. A runner watches what he eats, not indulging in everything he wants. He manages his time, spending a lot in training and not always doing what he wants. He does all of this for a prize that doesn’t last. Why? Because that is his goal.
Christianity is no different. We have a definite goal in mind, so again, how badly do you want to reach that goal? Like the runner, we know what is needed to win (II Timothy 2:5). So we don’t give in to the things we want now so that we might be better prepared to move forward (I Timothy 4:7-8; Philippians 3:14). Too many think that they should have anything they want and indulge in anything they desire and still somehow be able to reach heaven. If getting to heaven means giving up a particular pleasure that I enjoy, is it worth it (Hebrews 12:1)? If helping someone else reach heaven means being personally inconvenienced, is it worth it (Philippians 2:16)? The focus should not be on our “rights” but on doing what is necessary to obtain the reward. Successful Christianity is about self-control (Acts 24:25; I Corinthians 7:9; Galatians 5:23; II Peter 1:6). The reward does not come by accident but by diligent pursuit (Luke 13:24; I Peter 4:18).
Unlike an earthly race, our prize is a permanent one (James 1:12; I Peter 1:4; 5:4; Revelation 2:10; 3:11). Since it will not pass away, it is worth the effort in obtaining it. Therefore, Paul has his eye firmly on the goal and strives directly for it (Hebrews 12:1-3). He doesn’t waste effort in things that won’t lead him closer to what he desires. He disciplines his body and keeps it under control. The words here are harsher in the Greek than the English translations render them. The word for “discipline” is the Greek word hopopiazo, which literally means to strike under the eye, that is to give it a knock-out blow. The word for “subjection” is the Greek word doulagogeo which means to be a slave driver. Paul was willing to go to extreme lengths to make sure he did not miss out on the reward. What a shame it would be to have led others to Christ and then personally miss out on the promise because of a lack of discipline.