Liberty & Responsibility with Regard to Christian Service
1 Corinthians 9
Christian Liberty in service. One of the things that becomes evident in this chapter is that some among the Corinthians had begun to doubt Paul’s apostleship. We see this seed grow into its full development in the second epistle. While the Corinthians were puffed up with high thoughts of themselves, insisting on their own rights, at the same time they had developed low thoughts of the Apostle Paul, and denied him those liberties that were his due. Paul writes this chapter as a sword with two edges (Heb. 4:12): on one hand he defends his rights as an apostle, and on the other hand he lays himself down as a pattern of grace in contrast to their pride.
- Verification of Paul’s Apostleship (vv.1-3)
- Three “Rights” Paul had as a Servant of Christ (vv.4-6)
- Four Sources that Establish those Rights (vv.7-14)
- Paul had Surrendered His Rights for the Blessing of Others (9:15-23)
- The Importance of Self-Control Coupled with our Christian Liberty (vv.24-27)
Verification of Paul’s Apostleship (vv.1-3)
¶ Am I not free? am I not an apostle? have I not seen Jesus our Lord? are not “ye” my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, yet at any rate I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are “ye” in the Lord. vv.1-2 In this chapter Paul asks a total of seventeen questions! Each question is very easy to answer, and yet the Corinthians had gotten way off the mark. The first is, “am I not free?” At the close of ch.8 Paul had stated that he would eat no meat forever lest he cause his brother to stumble. The Corinthians knew that carefulness characterized Paul’s lifestyle, and they had confused this carefulness with bondage. The truth is that Paul was free! He was free to enjoy his liberties just as any other Christian. “Am I not an apostle?” Some of the Corinthians were doubting Paul’s status as an apostle, and didn’t think he quite measured up to Peter and some others (v.5). When Satan cannot attack the truth itself, he next resorts to attacking the character of those who bring the truth. The next two rhetorical questions answer their doubt. “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” This was the primary qualification for an apostle. Others were pretending to have gotten authority from the twelve apostles in Jerusalem (a false premise), but Paul had gotten his commission directly from the Lord (read Gal. 1). An apostle had to:
But there was an additional proof (not a requirement) of his apostleship which should have meant everything to the Corinthians. “Are not ye [Corinthians] my work in the Lord?” In a certain sense, Paul could understand those from afar denying his apostleship, but that the Corinthians should deny it was illogical. They were the “seal” or visible proof of his being an apostle! How sad that their hearts, of all people, were so cold toward the apostle. Why should Paul, their spiritual father, have to defend his apostleship to his own children?
3 My defence to those who examine me is this: v.3 Paul now takes up a skilled defense of his rights as an apostle and a servant. These principles apply in general to all servants of Christ, not just apostles. His well-laid defense follows this simple theme: Paul had the right to enjoy his Christian liberty, but he had given up that right for the blessing of others.
Three “Rights” Paul had as a Servant of Christ (vv.4-6)
4 Have we not a right to eat and to drink? v.4 The right to nourish his body. Paul begins with the most basic of rights. If a servant cannot maintain his own body, how will his strength be preserved to accomplish the mission? Before he goes further to speak of other rights, Paul must establish a baseline with the Corinthians. Do not fundamental personal needs fall within the scope of a servant’s commission? They absolutely do. This is quite a rebuke to the tradition of the Church as to the monastic order, where the truly “spiritual” would be required to live in a state of perpetual starvation. Malnourishment is not a Christian virtue.
5 have we not a right to take round a sister as wife, as also the other apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas? v.5 The right to marry and travel with a wife. Generally with the apostles, they often married and traveled around with their wife, who was lovingly received by the saints along with the apostle. It was generally accepted that if the brethren were supporting a public servant, they should also support his wife. For some reason they thought Paul was beneath that right, and did not consider such a status as “within his rights”. How far from the truth! Paul had every bit a much a right to those things as Peter (Matt. 8:14), the other apostles, and the Lord’s brothers. The term literally translated is “sister-wife”. A sister-wife is a wife that was a sister in a spiritual sense first. The order is important! Notice also that it was the male servant that would “take round” the sister-wife. This is God’s order in Christian marriage, that the husband ought to lead and the wife to follow, though the husband is not superior to the wife.
Historical note. Some early Church fathers (e.g. Eusebius) taught that Paul was indeed married, and that he left his wife at home on his travels. This plainly contradicts ch.7 where Paul says he was not married, and Phil. 4:3 where he speaks of working with women in the mission field. Others (e.g. Tertullian, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome) out of zeal for Roman clerical celibacy taught that the women in this verse were not wives, but wealthy single women who traveled with the Apostles. Neither position is correct! It shows how wary we should be of the teachings of Church fathers. See W. Kelly’s commentary. Nothing precludes Paul having been married earlier in life, perhaps before his conversion. Although it is not proof by any means, one of the requirements for a man to sit in the council (Sanhedrin) was that he must be married.
6 Or “I” alone and Barnabas, have we not a right not to work? v.6 The right to be supported by those he ministered to. The servants of Christ also have the right to be financially supported by those whom they minister to. Paul and Barnabas were particularly careful about foregoing those rights, always working to support themselves. Paul could say: “I have coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me” (Acts 20:33-34). The Corinthians had taken advantage of that gracious sacrifice on Paul and Barnabas’ part, and had not stepped up to offer anything to these devoted servants. Judaizing teachers (false-teachers) had apparently arrived in Corinth, and while they were seeking to get money from the saints (Gal. 4:17), they wouldn’t ask for any at first, that they might gain some credibility with them. In Gal. 2:12 we read of certain ones who came “from James”, that is, purporting to carry James’ authority. Such would look down on Paul whose apostleship was “not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:1). The false-teachers would accuse Paul of desiring money from the saints, although Paul had been extremely careful not to receive money from the Corinthians. In any case, it is unquestionable that the servant of Christ has a right to be supported (with his family) by the saints to whom he ministers.
Taking money from unbelievers. While Christian servants have the right to be financially supported, they ought never to take money or receive it from unbelievers. In 3 John 7 we read of those servants who were commended “Because that for his name’s sake they went forth, taking nothing of the Gentiles.” To have a collection at a gospel meeting would effectively give a cost to the gospel. On one hand, some might be put off by the cost. On the other hand, some might willingly pay the price to ease their conscience about sin. In either case, it should be avoided. Paul’s boast (v.15) was that the gospel was “costless” (v.18). It is God’s mind that believers financially support gospel efforts, that the gospel remain free.
Four Sources that Establish those Rights (vv.7-14)
Source #1: Examples from Nature (v.7)
7 Who ever carries on war at his own charges? who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? or who herds a flock and does not eat of the milk of the flock? v.7 Nature itself bears witness to the suitability of believers financially supporting those who minister to them in a spiritual way. Paul gives three examples from nature:
- A Soldier. “Who ever carries on war at his own charges?” Who would expect a soldier to pay for his own uniform, food, and weapons? It would be preposterous to expect a man to carry on war on behalf of his country while draining his bank account. The least a government can do is pay its soldiers.
- A Husbandman. “Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit?” Who would plant a vineyard not expecting to enjoy some of its fruit? It would be ridiculous to undertake such a proposition.
- A Shepherd. “Who herds a flock and does not eat of the milk of the flock?” Who would deny a shepherd the milk of his flock? In a spiritual sense, a shepherd does not serve to get something from his flock, but still… it is only natural that he might enjoy some byproducts of his own labor.
These three examples are unquestionable. The simple truth Paul is bringing out cannot be denied. But Paul goes a step farther to bring the Word of God to bear. This is an important lesson. Examples from nature are helpful, but they must not stand independently from the Word of God.
Source #2: Principles from Old Testament Scripture (vv.8-12)
8 Do I speak these things as a man, or does not the law also say these things? v.8 Not only do the Old Testament scriptures go along with the examples in nature, but they even more strongly confirm the right of the laborer to partake of his fruits.
9 For in the law of Moses it is written, “Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that is treading out corn.” [Deut. 25:4] Is God occupied about the oxen, 10 or does he say it altogether for our sakes? For for our sakes it has been written, that the plougher should plough in hope, and he that treads out corn, in hope of partaking of it. vv.9-10 Paul quotes from Deut. 25:4 to bring out a principle from the Law of Moses. It would not be morally right to prevent the ox from eating some of the corn he was treading out. Paul applies this to the servants of Christ who labor to feed the people of God. We find here a tremendous principle for understanding the Old Testament. “Is God occupied [merely] about the oxen, or does he say it altogether for our sakes?” The meaning of the quotation from Deut. 25 is not limited to the oxen. It was written “for our learning” (Rom. 15:4)! The Old Testament scriptures contain ordinances pertaining immediately to natural things, but we have liberty to read them and can glean the spiritual applications contained therein! No, that scripture is not limited to oxen, but rather it was written for the servant of Christ, that he or she might labor with the prospect of enjoying some of the fruits.
11 If we have sown to you spiritual things, is it a great thing if “we” shall reap your carnal things? v.11 Paul is using Argumentum a fortiori to show that if, under the law, the natural laborer reaped natural fruits, how much more under grace should the spiritual laborer reap natural fruits. He is countering a potential objection about the application of Deuteronomy 25 to spiritual things. How can you apply verses that govern natural things to spiritual things? Answer: if it is true in natural things, so much more in spiritual things. Why? Because spiritual things transcend natural things.
12 If others partake of this right over you, should not rather “we”? But we have not used this right, but we bear all things, that we may put no hindrance in the way of the glad tidings of the Christ. v.11 Paul then points out that the Corinthians had recognized the rights of others, and it was only fitting that Paul and Barnabas, who had an even greater claim, should use that right. But by contrast, they didn’t take the right, and instead “bear all things” (i.e. support themselves, work hard, suffer trials that could be avoided with money, Ecc. 7:12) “that we may put no hindrance in the way of the glad tidings of the Christ.” Look at the example of Elisha, Naaman, and Gehazi. The Corinthians were the opposite of Naaman, and Paul was the opposite of Gehazi. If Paul and Barnabas had insisted on their rights for financial support, it could open an opportunity for the devil to hinder the gospel. For example, if Paul had been living off the abundance of the Corinthians, it could have opened a door for the flesh in him to go soft on the disorderly assembly. Others might detect this partiality, and Paul’s ministry might be tainted.
Source #3: Application of the Levitical Order (v.13)
13 Do ye not know that they who labour at sacred things eat of the offerings offered in the temple; they that attend at the altar partake with the altar? v.13 Paul’s third support is drawn from the Levitical order in the Old Testament. He is likely referring to Deut. 18:1-2, where we read: “The priests, the Levites, and the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no portion nor inheritance with Israel: Jehovah’s offerings by fire, and his inheritance shall they eat, but they shall have no inheritance among their brethren: Jehovah, he is their inheritance, as he hath said unto them.” In exchange for having no geographical inheritance, the tribe of Levi was to have the Lord, and all that was offered to Him for their inheritance. In a similar way, those who minister the gospel are entitled to live off those who receive the gospel!
Source #4: The Direct Teaching of the Lord (v.14)
14 So also the Lord has ordained to those that announce the glad tidings to live of the glad tidings. v.14 In Luke 10 we have direct teaching of our Lord on this matter. “And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. … And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house” (Luke 10:5, 7). There it was the glad tidings of the kingdom, but the same principle applies to the gospel of the grace of God.
Practical note: If my local assembly is aware of a servant laboring in the vineyard of Christ, we ought to assist him. In fact, not only is it our responsibility, but it is our privilege. The Philippians were a positive role model of this. Although they were poor, they were eager to give what they had to the work of the Lord (2 Cor. 8:1-4). The letter to the Philippians is a letter of thanks for that gift. On the other hand, the assembly must remember that the servant, as a servant, answers to Christ alone. As a brother, he does answer to his local assembly. But the point I’m making is this: funds for a servant of Christ are not to be funneled through the brother or sister’s local assembly, as if the assembly controlled the servant. This is the financial model that much of Protestantism has adopted.
Paul had Surrendered His Rights for the Blessing of Others (9:15-23)
15 But “I” have used none of these things. Now I have not written these things that it should be thus in my case; for it were good for me rather to die than that any one should make vain my boast. v.15 Paul’s surrender. Paul had established the principle, but now hastens to add two points: (1) he had not “used these things”, the rights of a servant, and (2) he had not written this chapter “that it should be thus”, to coerce the saints to begin supporting him. He had written this for the good of others, not himself. Paul would rather die than see his ministry derailed (“make vain my boast”). There were those (“any one”) in Corinth who would have loved to get Paul under their control through financial influence. Paul shunned it like the plague. He lived what he preached. He preached Christ crucified and justification “freely by His grace,” and so he wanted nothing to compromise the free grace of his own ministry (“costless”, v.18). Paul’s “boast” was that salvation was free; “Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters; and he that hath no money, come ye, buy, and eat: yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!” (Isa. 55:1). Paul was driven by divine love to expend himself to keep the gospel free. This is the highest path a servant can take. Yes, as servants we have the right to be supported (and Paul doesn’t deny the option for others), but the highest path is to not use that liberty. Note: not every supported servant serves to please their sponsors. We cannot make a broad-brushed judgment. But, with sponsorship there is an opportunity for the flesh to subtly act.
Did Paul accept financial support? Yes, but not from the Corinthians. We read in Phil. 4:10-17 that the Philippians, who were very poor, had ministered to Paul’s financial needs over and over again. However, Paul would take nothing from the wealthy Corinthians, although he could really use the money. In 2 Cor. 11:8-9 Paul says “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service. And when I was present with you, and wanted, I was chargeable to no man: for that which was lacking to me the brethren which came from Macedonia supplied: and in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome unto you, and so will I keep myself.” My point is, Paul did accept financial support, but he had discernment about who to receive it from. In all these arrangements Paul was sure to remain “free from all” (v.19). This is similar to the Lord, who allowed Mary to use the alabaster box of ointment on Him, and received support from “Joanna, wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, who ministered to him of their substance” (Luke 8:3).
16 For if I announce the glad tidings, I have nothing to boast of; for a necessity is laid upon me; for it is woe to me if I should not announce the glad tidings. v.16 Obligation to Christ alone. Paul did not view his ministry as an honor, or something “to boast of”. He viewed it (properly) as “a necessity” or obligation that was laid on him. It was not an exalted position, as the Corinthians viewed ministry. The assembly does not send servants (except when it comes to assembly business; Acts 11:22; 15:2,25) into the mission field… only Christ has the right to send laborers into His vineyard (Matt. 9:38; 1 Cor. 1:17; John 13:16). This makes it truly an obligation to Christ, and not to the Church. How the Church has gotten this mixed around! The obligation was real: “woe to me if I should not announce the glad tidings”.
17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with an administration. v.17 Willingly and Unwillingly. Paul served freely, but he also had a stewardship. He had the stewardship (“an administration”) but he was also free. He was free in one direction; he was free to serve, but not free to slack off. If he, like Jonah, was not willing to fulfill his commission, he had no choice. But Paul was not like Jonah! He had to do the job, but if he did it willingly he would get a reward. All servants of Christ are stewards, and the key quality to have in a steward is faithfulness (1 Cor. 4:1). But there is something beyond stewardship; to serve out of a willing heart.
18 What is the reward then that I have? That in announcing the glad tidings I make the glad tidings costless to others, so as not to have made use, as belonging to me, of my right in announcing the glad tidings. v.18 Laboring for reward? Paul had mentioned reward… the natural question might be, how is laboring for reward any better than laboring for financial support? Paul now clarifies what reward he was aiming for; the reward of getting to the end of the path without tainting the gospel message through self-indulgence. It was an unselfish reward! His reward was not to get, but to give. His goal was this: preach the gospel, and keep it free. The rights of an apostle belonged to him, but he wouldn’t avail himself of them, lest he lose the reward. The word improperly translated “abuse” in the KJV should really be “made use”. Paul is in no way saying that to receive financial support from the saints is the abuse of his rights.
19 For being free from all, I have made myself bondman to all, that I might gain the most possible. v.19 In vv.19-23 Paul speaks of the tremendous liberty that he gained from forgoing his right to be financially supported by others. In being “free from all” (not obligated to fellow-man by financial ties) he had actually become “bondman to all” (able to serve every ethnic group and social class) for the end result of gaining “the most possible” for Christ. What an attitude! He would give up his rights so that he would be the most efficient and profitable servant he could be! This is the principle of adaptation without compromise.
20 And I became to the Jews as a Jew, in order that I might gain the Jews: to those under law, as under law, not being myself under law, in order that I might gain those under law: v.20 To the Jew Paul became a Jew; i.e. he became a Jew ceremonially. It is remarkable how flexible Paul could be. In Acts 16:3 he circumcised Timothy because of the Jews, but in Gal. 2:3 he didn’t compel Titus to be circumcised! Wherever the Word of God would permit, he would be flexible to gain the Jews. There is a difference between becoming “as a Jew”, and Judaizing. Paul would behave himself “as under law”, although he was not himself “under law”; that is, he would not get into arguments about the Sabbath, etc. with the Jews. He wanted them to get saved first, then see that they were no longer under law. But to believers who were putting themselves under law, he issues them a scathing rebuke (Gal. 3:1). The point here is that Paul’s goal was to gain them. We might see in Acts 21:17-29 an example of behavior that went too far, when Paul compromised under pressure from James to make himself acceptable to the Jews. Rather than gain the Jews, Paul ended up in chains as a result of that compromise. These things take real discernment and dependence on the Lord.
21 to those without law, as without law, (not as without law to God, but as legitimately subject to Christ,) in order that I might gain those without law. v.21 To those who were Gentiles, he would behave as without any legal principle, in order that he might gain them. If he behaved himself as under law, he would never have reached the Gentiles with the gospel! No, when he was among the Gentiles he was not ‘Saul of Tarsus, Pharisee of the Pharisees, etc.’. He could be a “regular guy” to the Gentiles as well as to the Jews. But he is careful to add “not as without law to God”, lest anyone get the idea that he felt free to act lawlessly. Some believers think it is acceptable to cast off all restraint in order to reach the lost (e.g. going into a bar). This is not a right idea, and it was not Paul’s way. Instead, while his actions made it clear he wasn’t under legal bondage, he still remained “legitimately subject to Christ”. Two nice examples of this are Acts 8 and Acts 17. In Acts 8 v.5 Philip preached “Christ” to the Samaritans who looked for the Messiah, but in v.35 he preached “Jesus” to the Ethiopian man who was a stranger from the covenants of promise! Then in Acts 27, in the early part of the chapter Paul was speaking to Jews, and for three Sabbath days Paul “reasoned with them out of the scriptures”. But at the end of the chapter he came to Mars Hill and spoke to the Pagans. There Paul chose to use the witness of creation and of man’s conscience rather than the written Word of God! He was adaptable in his teaching and preaching style.
22 I became to the weak, as weak, in order that I might gain the weak. To all I have become all things, in order that at all events I might save some. v.22 He has spoken of his flexibility among Jew and Gentile non-believers, but how about his conduct among new converts? The “weak” here are like those in ch.8, who had a bad conscience about eating food sacrificed to idols, or like the Jew in Romans 14. Around those weak in the faith, Paul would happily modify his behavior to gain them. In summary, to “all” people he would set aside his natural desires and rights to become “all things” – whatever made him the most effective – and in “all events” that he might “save some”. You can’t save everyone, and Paul knew that. The Bible doesn’t teach universalism, that everyone will be saved. But Paul wanted to be used for the maximum possible benefit. That requires surrendering one’s rights. We might apply this to children as well. Am I willing to adapt my teaching style and the way I carry myself to better relate to children? Anecdote: my only memory of Don Bilisoly (a gentle servant of the Lord who was greatly used in eastern Canada) was when he stayed in our childhood home. During the day he helped us kids build a bike jump out of earth! He gave a special address that night, but I can’t remember what he spoke on. I do remember his willingness to work on that bike trail! It was a nice example of one what was willing to be flexible to “gain” even children.
23 And I do all things for the sake of the glad tidings, that I may be fellow-partaker with them. v.23 Paul wanted to be a “partaker” with the glad tidings. He wanted his life to be a practical reflection of the gospel. If the gospel was flexible to admit Jew and Gentile, then Paul would be flexible too. This is the attitude of grace that ought to characterize every servant of Christ.
The Importance of Self-Control Coupled with our Christian Liberty (vv.24-27)
¶ 24 Know ye not that they who run in the race-course run all, but one receives the prize? Thus run in order that ye may obtain. v.24 Paul next turns to the related subject of self-control. He draws from the common knowledge of the Olympic games which took place not far from Corinth. In a foot race, there are many contestants, but only one receives the prize. If you want the prize, you cannot meander aimlessly along the race track. Note: in spiritual things, the prize is not limited to one contestant! But the same urgency ought to characterize us in the Christian race.
25 But every one that contends for a prize is temperate in all things: “they” then indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown, but “we” an incorruptible. v.25 Those who are serious about getting the prize are “temperate in all things”. That is, they do not over-indulge themselves in the pleasures of life. A runner does not stop for a feast, a long nap, a movie, a game of chess, etc. He takes only what he needs to preserve his strength, and keeps running. Again, Paul compares stakes in an Olympic race with the Christian race. Athletes compete merely for a corruptible crown. How much more serious ought we to be, who are competing for an incorruptible crown! The prize is Christ (Phil. 3:14).
26 “I” therefore thus run, as not uncertainly; so I combat, as not beating the air. v.26 Paul did not run uncertainly, by doting on earthly pleasures, or insisting on his rights. We are certain about what lies ahead. But “I combat”… he was running as a man fights in the heat of battle. Not as one who is shadow-boxing (“beating the air”), or training with wooden swords. To Paul, this was the real deal, and that seriousness was reflected in his life.
27 But I buffet my body, and lead it captive, lest after having preached to others I should be myself rejected. v.27 The word “buffet” could be translated “keep under”. The idea is to keep your balance. Don’t let your body (lusts, tendencies, etc.) get you off point. Your body is the “captive” of your soul, not the other way around. Some people try to deny that the word “castaway” (KJV) means someone who goes to the lake of fire. Clearly, that is not the case. A castaway is someone who God casts away. It is the same word translated elsewhere “reprobate”, meaning ‘worthless’. On the other hand, some use this verse to teach that a believer can lose their eternal salvation. Both viewpoints are wrong. What many misunderstand here is the way Paul is writing. The Apostle is saying that he is not only a professing believer, but he is practically living out his faith like a believer. He was “walking the walk as well as talking the talk.” But if he only preached, he might be cast away as well as any unsaved person. Paul gives the end of the path for those who live without conscience. This is not saying Paul was in doubt of his Eternal Security, but rather that he was using himself as the “guinea pig” in his warning. We speak in this way quite often. It is a way of being less pointed with an exhortation… you exhort yourself and effectively exhort the listeners. We get this principle in 1 Cor. 4:6, where Paul says that he had “transferred in a figure” certain things to himself and to Apollos rather than name names. We get a nice example of this in Gal. 2:18, where Paul says “I”, when it was really Peter in the wrong. He let Peter apply it to himself… a real lesson on how to rebuke. It was the Judaizing teachers that were in danger of being cast away! But Paul doesn’t soften the rebuke or limit its scope. This was the sharp prick that the Corinthians needed, who were insisting on their own rights without regard to others.