1 Corinthians 9
I have been exploring the extent of Christian liberty as it relates to Paul’s teaching on the topic of eating meat sacrificed to idols from 1 Corinthians 8-10.
In review, Paul opens his argument in I Corinthians 8 by explaining how eating meat sacrificed to idols can be a danger for believers. He confronts and rebukes the Corinthian Christians for their egregious abuse of liberty that was damaging the testimony of their church and bringing reproach upon Christ. They believed that because they understood that idol worship really did nothing spiritually to a Christian, they had the right to participate as believers in the pagan temple rituals of Corinth. Paul spends three chapters in his letter explaining how they were wrong about their participation in pagan temples, and exhorted them to get out of those places and have nothing to do with them.
Beginning in chapter 9, Paul moves to correcting their abuse of liberty by drawing their attention to his personal ministry and missionary endeavors. His ministry as an apostle gave him the right, or freedom, to ask and receive financial assistance from those to whom he ministered. Paul instead relinquished his financial rights so as not to be an unnecessary stumbling block that would hinder the spreading of the Gospel. Likewise, he exhorts the Corinthian believers to not disqualify their ministry in Corinth.
Keep in mind that the pagan temple services were societal and cultural gatherings for those in Corinth. If a person wanted influence, social status, connections, and personal power within the Corinthian social ranks, that person received invitations to any pagan festivals, rituals, or feasts. If he were to forsake those invitations, he not only gave up social prestige and getting ahead in Corinthian society, there was also the possible forfeiture of financial gain.
Considering the argument that the Corinthians would personally lose there social benefit if they were to give up their so-called liberty engaging in temple ceremonies, Paul points to his own life and ministry. In chapter 9:1-14, Paul lays out his reasons why he not only had the freedom, but the very right, to ask for financial gain from the Corinthians, but yielding up those rights brought so much more spiritual benefit for the Gospel’s sake.
He starts out speaking to his apostleship, 9:1-6. Just as the other apostles exercised their right to financial support, and even the support of their wives, so too did Paul and Barnabas have such a right. Next, he points out how soldiers are taken care of by the army, farmers eat the produce of their own fields, and shepherds can partake from their own flock, 9:7. He then points out the scriptural principle that one who plows has the freedom to eat of what it is he plants, 9:9-10.
In like manner, Paul explains how the Corinthians were the product of his ministry and he had a right to ask them for financial support, 9:11-12. And then he states that those who perform sacred duties, which could include both pagan and believing ministers, regularly share from the altar, 9:13-14. In other words, they are supported financially by those who attend the temple or seek out their spiritual services.
Now the question may be asked, “What does financial support have to do with disqualifying someone’s ministry?”
A couple of thoughts,
First off, Greek and Roman culture valued oratory. In other words, an erudite speaker with the ability to articulate ideas and persuade with his words so that he compelled listeners with the philosophy he presented, would have the potential for a lucrative talent. In fact, he could be paid quite well.
Additionally, the educated leisure class, or those who commonly frequented the pagan temple festivities, believed that anyone who did not charge for his speaking abilities obviously did not have anything substantive to say. The message he presented was essentially worthless. A really good lecturing philosopher would charge for his philosophy talks. Paul countered that thinking frequently during his ministry. For instance, he responded to the Corinthians for this very attitude in 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:5.
Yet Paul chose not to charge for his preaching, nor did he care about his speaking talent at all. Instead, he refused his right to receive money from the Corinthians and supported his own way through tent-making and other means. He then points to his custom as an example as to why the Corinthians should put aside any liberty they believed they had with participating in pagan temple rituals and get themselves out of those places.
Paul, then, lays out three broad reasons how the Corinthians can disqualify their own ministry if they would not give up their misguided liberty.
Devalues God’s Calling – 15-18. God had called Paul to salvation; to be HIS apostle who carried the Gospel. However, if he preached the Gospel, as “under compulsion” (vs.16), accountable to others apart from the Lord, he would be beholden to a big donor or perhaps a group of donors. In other words, the Gospel he preached may not be the true Gospel, but the one his benefactors wished him to preach because they gave Paul money.
Paul on the other hand makes it clear that he is beholden to no living person. He is only accountable to God because he choose to give up his rights when it came to making a living at ministry. While he was entitled to financial support, he saw how it could possibly cause others to doubt the credibility of his overall ministry, thus discrediting God’s calling on his life.
Diminishes His Service – 19-21. Paul turns to explaining how surrendering his rights to be supported for ministry freed him for more service (vs.19). Freed from any obligation to a set of supporters provided him liberty to minister to a wide variety of people.
On the one hand, he made himself like the Jews, or what he describes as “those under law.” He wasn’t unnecessarily offensive to the Jewish people, but accommodated their practices for the purpose of having inroads to their synagogues.
An excellent example of Paul’s ministry in this fashion is seen in Acts 16:1-4 where he has his young disciple, Timothy, circumcised so as not to be an offense to the Jews. Paul certainly recognized that honoring certain Jewish tradition did not add anything to his salvation (vs.20), but it did provide him the ability to attend Jewish gatherings for the purpose of proclaiming the true Gospel.
Yet on the other hand, when necessary, he adjusted his ministry to reach gentiles, or those “without the law,” with the Gospel. He avoided the snobbery that Jews often displayed against the gentiles, like for example Peter’s separation from the gentiles when other Jews from Jerusalem visited with him at Antioch (Galatians 2:11-13).
And just so that Paul was clear to the Corinthians, when he states he is “without the law,” he is not saying he lives a lawless life with no holiness. He is submitted to the “law of Christ,” (vs.21). That doesn’t mean he lives under an entirely different expression of the law of God, but that his ministry is directed by Christ-likeness. Similar to what Paul will later write in this letter in 11:1 to be “imitators of me as I am of Christ,” or how the law of Christ constrains him to bear one another’s burdens in Galatians 6:2.
Damages Others – 22-27. Lastly, Paul explains how continuing with the participation in temple festivities can disqualify one’s ministry by losing the opportunity to present the Gospel to the weak.
Now the question among commentators at this point is who does Paul have in mind when he mentions “the weak?” Is it the idea previously discussed in chapter 8, a person with a weak conscience? A Christian who has a thin faith and lacks the knowledge of God like the strong, and who could easily fall back into patterns of sin from which he was saved? Or does he have something else entirely in mind?
The understanding that the weak is a person struggling with his conscience on matters like whether or not Christians have the liberty to eat idol food would make sense if Paul’s main argument in 8-10 is for the strong to show love for the weak in faith by giving up their liberty for their sake. But as was established in the previous articles in this study, Paul’s argument is for the Corinthians to totally remove themselves from pagan temples and idol feasts. He isn’t trying to settle a dispute between those with the freedom of knowledge to eat idol food and those still trapped by their weak consciences.
Considering the context here, it is better to understand the weak as not Christians with weak consciences, but as unbelievers who were the social underclass in Corinth and could never prosper from the participation in temple culture from their rituals. The primary reason for drawing that conclusion has to do with Paul’s overall discussion from 19-27.
The illustrations in chapter 9 are used by Paul for explaining how giving up his right to financial support helps him further the Gospel. His reasoning from 19-22 for giving up that right is so that he could reach the lost in all levels of society, Jews, Gentiles, and now the weak. If the weak were already Christians, categorizing them with unbelieving Jews and gentiles is strange.
The point he is making is meant to confront the Corinthians who used their liberty at the pagan temples as a means for their personal financial gain. Their right to be free in regards to temple rituals and feasts not only isolated them from those Christians who could be led astray back into idol worship, but also from the unbelievers who were of a lower social class with no economic ability to participate in those temple practices. For Paul, he relinquishes his financial rights for the weak so he can bring them the saving Gospel, (22-23).
As Paul concludes his thought, he notes the discipline of athletes, (24-27). A runner who wishes to win the gold medal will discipline himself so that he can obtain it. He denies himself leisure time, and instead runs to build endurance. He limits his diet, eating those foods that will strengthen his body. He takes care of his feet, perhaps spending extra money on well-made running shoes.
In the same way, Christians need to discipline themselves, and that would be centered squarely on limiting what perceived liberty they believe they have. In doing so, it will keep them from a disqualified ministry that limits the effectiveness of the Gospel.