To the Word

Reflections on the call to live by the Word of God

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Slave to All

1 Corinthians 9
Preached Sunday morning, October 8, 2006
Lexington Church of Christ, Milton Stanley

This chapter is the middle of a section in which the Apostle Paul is instructing the Corinthians on giving up their rights or privileges. In chapt. 8 he urged Christians not to eat meat if it causes a brother in Christ to fall away. In the last verse of that chapter Paul said he would rather eat no meat at all than to enjoy meat and call a brother to fall away. Now, this whole chapter is an elaboration of how Paul is doing that very sort of thing and more in his own life [1]. Chapt. 10, as we'll begin to see next week, contains more practical advice on how Christians should deny ourselves---because the Kingdom of God is not about rights but about indentured service.

First, let's make sure we understand one of the words Paul uses over and over in this section. The word translated "right" or "rights" in many translations can be very misleading to twenty-first century Christians in our culture. The word Paul originally wrote in Greek is ἐξουσία, a word having more to do with privilege and authority than what we usually associate with the word "right." Εξουσία refers to the perogative that goes with power. In fact, it is the same word Paul used in Eph. 6:12 to refer to heavenly powers when he told the Ephesians that "we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers (ἐξουσία) over this present darkness" [2]. In other words, "right" is not something we're entitled to simply because we're breathing. It has to do with power and privilege. In that sense, the King James Version is more accurate than most recent versions when it translates ἐξουσία as "power."

Why does it matter how we translate that one word? Well, it matters because in our culture, rights are gods. In our country, laws and public morality is based not on what we owe others (duties) but on what others owe us (rights). It's hard to imagine a more corrosive environment for developing true Christian discipleship than a culture that teaches everyone to stand up for their rights. Standing up for his rights is precisely what Paul refuses to do, and it's a lesson he tries to teach the Corinthians. They needed to learn that lesson, and so does the church today. The heart of the Gospel is Jesus emptying himself of his power and rights. If we are to follow Jesus, we must do the same. So let's look at what Paul has to say on this matter, and let's consider its implications for Christians today.

The Apostle has just told the Corinthians that they should be willing to give up their own privileges for the sake of the souls of their fellow Christians. Now, Paul goes on to demonstrate that he has already done that very thing himself. Paul is not in the apostle business for his own benefit. He begins here by asking the Corinthians if he isn't entitled to the privilege of making his living by the gospel. In light of what he has just written in chapt. 8, Paul's words in 1 Cor. 10:4 are a sort of pun: "Do we not have the right to eat and drink?" Paul let's the Corinthians know just what he has given up for the privilege of proclaiming the gospel. He has not insisted that the church provide for his needs. What's more, he has forsaken having a wife and family for the sake of his apostolic ministry. Rather than taking the church's money and resources, Paul chooses to work in his trade as a tentmaker (Acts 18:3) and pay his own way.

Paul then goes on to demonstrate that the choice is his and not the way it necessarily is supposed to be. In verses 7-12, Paul gives a string of analogies to show why the church should be willing to support Paul materially. A soldier doesn't have to pay his own way. Workers among the vineyard, flocks, fields, and threshing floor are entitled to some of the food they help produce. Those who work in the temple and at the alter are entitled to receive some of the sacrifice. Paul even goes so far to compare himself to an ox, who is allowed to eat some of the grain it treads! He also uses the familiar less-to-more argument: If he sows spiritual blessings among the Corinthians, should he at least be entitled to a little physical support? If the Corinthians support other teachers financially, how much more should they support Paul, who brought the gospel to them and preached among them for eighteen months (Acts 18)? But Paul saves his strongest argument for last. In verse 14, Paul shares the words of Jesus himself: "In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel." However you look at it, Paul is entitled to make his living from preaching.

But he will have none of it. His preaching, Paul tells the Corinthians, is not for money, but out of compulsion (v. 16). Paul's reward is not money or material support, but the privilege of presenting the gospel without charge (v. 18). He would rather work as a tentmaker than demand what by every right is due him. In this way Paul is following his calling to deny himself, take up his cross and follow Christ. Does he have to spell it out any more clearly? It's the same calling for the Corinthians, and for us.

There's a word for someone who works without pay. The word is "slave." Paul has made himself a slave, willingly, to everyone in order to win more for the Kingdom (v. 19). Paul becomes all things to all men so that by all means some might be saved (v. 22). He gives it all he has, like an athlete preparing for a big event. And if glory in athletic competition is worth the effort that athletes both then and now were willing to put into their sport, how much more is the eternal rewards of heaven worth any sacrifice we must make today?

The final verse in 1 Cor. 9 is the subject of a great deal of interpretation. It's also the source of worry for many Christians. If the Apostle Paul runs the risk of being lost, considering all he did for the gospel, what hope to Christians like you and me possibly have? Well, Paul shows elsewhere that he is not concerned about being lost from the Kingdom (1 Cor. 3:15). But he does not want to bring shame on his Lord by failing in his apostolic ministry. Paul was willing to give all he had to reward the reward that comes from faithful service to God.

So this chapter is not so much about paying ministers as it is an example of the call to deny ourselves. Yet I will admit that the issue of paying ministers is one close to my heart. Some religious groups teach that Christians ought not to pay their preachers, and from a purely worldly standpoint there is logic behind that position. All kinds of wickedness, or example, can enter a church when it begins dividing itself between "clergy" and the rest of the congregation. In such an environment, ministers can all too easily begin to think of themselves as superior to ordinary Christians, and members can become lazy from expecting the preacher to do their ministry for them. The world--and many Christians--is quick to accuse paid preachers of greed: "He's only in it for the money." Refusing to take money for preaching demonstrates sincerity and credibility. For that very reason I refused to accept any pay in my first preaching job, and I later struggled with the issue when considering whether or not to go into full-time ministry.

But the Lord Jesus Christ intendes for evangelists to be paid. I recently spoke with a woman from another religious group about my work with the Church of Christ. She told me how her father did the same work I do in the church yet maintains a full-time job as a business executive. This young woman was polite and gentle, but it was clear that she considered her father to be doing a better work by virtue of his not accepting pay for preaching. "That's commendable that he's chosen that course," I told her. "Especially since, as you're aware, Paul told Christians in 1 Cor. 9 that a preacher ought to be paid." I could tell by the look on her face that she had not been aware.

Now, all this talk from a preacher about paying the preacher may sound very self-serving to you: "Here's another preacher preaching about money." Well, to my knowledge this is the first time I've ever spoken to this congregation about giving money and paying the preacher. I'm not preaching this passage because it's an issue to me. That's one of the reasons I preach and teach books more than topics, so that I don't just preach my own pet topics. If I did, by the way, I might preach 1 Cor. 9:14 every other week. We're on this topic because it's a part of the book we're studying. And there it is in 1 Cor. 9:14: "So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel."

But that is precisely the kind of support Paul renounced. Many preachers through the centuries have followed Paul's lead in renouncing their claim to financial support. But Jesus' instructions come down to full-support for full-time service. That is precisely the kind of service I've committed to and long to do. It's what I pray to be able to do one day in Lexington. I came to Rockbridge County in June 2005, and the church paid my full salary through early this year. But the congregation doesn't give enough money each week to pay me enough to meet my family's basic needs of food, housing, and health care. For most of this year I've been receiving about half my original salary. Last fall I spent months begging our sister congregations for financial support, and a few came through in heartwarming ways. Earlier this year I worked full-time as a third-shift grocery stocker at Wal-Mart, and right now I'm working part-time teaching English at Southern Virginia University. I'm praying that one day the congregation will support me in full-time work, and I praise God that other members of this congregation are committed to the same. I pray that each one of us will make the sacrifices to employ a full-time evangelist.

Again, the main point of 1 Cor. 9 is not paying ministers but renouncing privilege. Paul introduces the topic of paying preachers not so that he be paid (v. 15), but to let the Corinthians know what he's renouncing for their sakes. He's given up having a wife, children, and even a home. Can the Corinthians at least give up a little meat? In denying himself, Paul is following Christ, who took the form of a servant and became obedient all the way to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2:8). Jesus calls all his disciples to take up our crosses, too (Lk. 9:23). Paul answered the call in everything he did. Whenever Paul writes to Christians, he has the cross clearly in mind for himself and the church. If we long to be close to Christ, there is no other way than through the cross---the cross where Jesus paid the price for our sins, and the cross he calls us to carry.

The call to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Jesus is something that each of us puts into practice in different ways. It may be working a second job for the privilege of proclaiming the gospel. It may be joining the saints in the worship assembly even when we're tired and hurting. It's being diligent in the studying the Word and lifting up others regularly in prayer before God. It's service to the Kingdom and to our friends and neighbors, including the lost. IN all those ways we follow Jesus Christ, who gave up his glory in heaven to come down to earth to teach stone-hearted human beings, to be misunderstood and slandered, to be beaten and killed, to be a slave to all. And in that suffering and humiliation Jesus ushered in the Kingdom. That Kingdom is salvation, yes, for those who call upon his name in faith, repentance, and obedience. But it's much more than individual salvation. The Kingdom is the redemption of all creation. It's putting this messed up world right; it's every knee in heaven and on earth bending to acknowledge the lordship of God the Son.

So ultimately 1 Cor. 9 is not so much about Paul as about Jesus, our ultimate example of denial. But even more than he is our example, Jesus is our Savior. He became like us in the flesh, he endured every temptation that we do, yet he did not sin. And even more than Jesus is our Savior, he is our King. Christians eagerly await the day when "every knee shall bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11). That day is coming, and when it does, will we be ready for it? Are we in the habit of trying to be our own lords or of acknowledging Jesus as the only true Lord? Is bending the knee a comfortable posture for our souls? Are we skilled and bowing under the weight of the cross, or in bowing up in pride about our "rights"? When the Lord returns, will we bow our knee in joy or by force? We are answering those questions every day, and whether or not we deny ourselves in a thousand ways large and small make the difference.


1. Thomas Constable. Notes on 1 Corithians, 2004 ed. Online commentary at
2. Quotations here are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

(c) Copyright 2006, A. Milton Stanley


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