In chapter 9 of First Corinthians, Paul seems to stray briefly from the topic of a believer’s freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols in order to discuss apostolic freedom as a whole. Apparently, Chloe’s letter brought up someone’s criticism of financial support for the apostles in their work of ministry.
In those days, when the church was small and often quite poor, many pastors worked at secular jobs to support themselves or to supplement their income. But the apostles, who traveled from city to city, were not always in a position to support themselves in their gospel ministry. So most of them relied upon gifts from the believers to do their work, though Paul supported himself as a “tent-maker,” or as some believe, a talith maker (“head coverings”). Acts 18:1-3 says,
1 After these things he [Paul] left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they were working; for by trade they were tent-makers [skenopoios].
Paul had no choice but to work to support himself when he first arrived in Corinth. When he arrived, there was no church to support his work. In his letter, he reminds the Corinthian believers that during those 18 months that he remained there, he had continued to support himself (1 Cor. 9:12).
On what basis, then, came this criticism that Paul felt constrained to answer? Unfortunately, we do not have a copy of Cloe’s letter, and Paul does not quote from it in this case.
Paul answers the question in 1 Corinthians 9:1, 2,
1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
Yes, Paul was “free.” He was apparently saying that he was not a slave, other than to Jesus Christ. This implies, as we will see shortly, that he has the rights of a freeman to be compensated fairly for his labor. That labor was apostolic in nature. He lays claim to apostleship on the grounds that he had “seen Jesus” on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:4, 5), and that Jesus had commissioned him directly as an apostle.
There were many, especially among the Jewish faction, that did not accept Paul’s position as an apostle, for they disagreed with many of his teachings. Even today there are those who reject Paul as an apostle, some even claiming—strangely enough—that he was a Jewish infiltrator from the Herodian party (i.e., Jewish supporters of Herod’s dynasty).
The criticism is based largely on Paul’s statement in Rom. 16:11, saying, “Greet Herodion, my kinsman,” as if Paul was admitting his connection or kinship to King Herod himself. Of course, the name Herodion was not exclusively connected to the Herods. To make such a claim is akin to claiming that everyone named James was a kinsman and supporter of King James.
In the first century Paul was opposed mainly by Jewish factions who revered Peter, the apostle, and James, Jesus’ brother, the head of the Jerusalem church. Both of them acknowledged Paul’s apostleship, but many of their followers did not.
Many of them were of the opinion that Paul had put away the law and had led people to “forsake Moses” (Acts 21:21). But even James agreed with Paul in the matter of circumcision at the first Church Council in Acts 15.
Like the Jewish party of the first century, many modern theologians accuse Paul of putting away the law. Rather than questioning their belief, Paul’s critics today either take up the first-century cause in favor of carnal Judaism, or they castigate the apostle for trying to destroy the church from within by subversion.
Yet we know that Paul did not put away the law (Rom. 3:31). He only put away physical circumcision, animal sacrifices, Levitical priesthood, the earthly Jerusalem, and such fleshly things that were attached to the Old Covenant. He put the law into a New Covenant context, so that it might be written upon our hearts. Hence, the criticism of Paul, both then and today, is totally unjustified.
The Corinthian church itself was the fruit of Paul’s labor, since he had established it. So Paul refers to that church as “the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” To the Corinthian church, Paul was indeed an apostle, even if other factions disagreed with Paul’s teaching.
Cloe’s letter showed that Paul was under attack by some who did not consider him an apostle. On those grounds, they seemed to be criticizing Paul for claiming the same right of support as did the other apostles. 1 Cor. 9:3-6 begins Paul’s defense, saying,
3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?
Paul starts by claiming “a right to eat and drink,” a Hebrew expression for living a normal life. Then he goes on by including one’s wife. Not only an apostle, but also his wife needs to eat and drink, so that is part of the apostle’s right to be supported in the work of the ministry.
Of particular interest is that it shows that both Paul and Cephas (Peter) were married. Earlier, on page 5, we saw how the fourth-century church historian, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, tells us plainly that Peter, Philip, and Paul were all married men. 1 Cor. 9:5 strongly implies that both Paul and Peter were married. Paul probably sent money to his wife in Antioch or Tarsus.
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:7,
7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard, and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?
Everyone knew that soldiers were paid from the public treasury. Paul considered himself and every minister of the gospel to be a type of soldier. For example, he says in Phil. 2:25,
25 But I thought it necessary to send to you Epaphroditus, my brother and fellow worker and fellow soldier, who is also your messenger and minister to my need.
Again, in 2 Tim. 2:3, he says, “suffer hardship with me, as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
In the next analogy, everyone understood that he who planted a vineyard had the natural right to eat its fruit. In 2 Tim. 2:6 (KJV) Paul says,
6 The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.
By this same law, God had planted a vineyard when Joshua led Israel into Canaan (Isaiah 5:1). After an appropriate time of growth, He came looking for fruit but found only sour grapes that could not be eaten (Isaiah 5:4). The Corinthian church was Paul’s vineyard, where he had labored to plant the seed of the word. He then had every right to eat the fruit of his labor.
Finally, it was commonly known that a shepherd or herdsman had the right to “use the milk of the flock.” Jesus is “the Great Shepherd” (Heb. 13:20), but all who care for the “flock” of God are shepherds as well. There are evil shepherds who take advantage over the flock, as we see in Ezekiel 34:2, 3, 4, using their wool and eating their meat, but refusing to care for them or feed them properly. Such evil shepherds will be judged, God says, because they claim authority over the flocks without fulfilling their responsibilities that accompany authority. They claim the benefits without doing the work.
Paul then appeals to the law itself in 1 Cor. 9:8-10, saying,
8 I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses [Deut. 25:4], “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is concerned about oxen, is He? 10 Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops.
An ox was not to be muzzled while it walked in a circle, turning the threshing stone to grind the grain. If God showed such concern for oxen, would He not be even more concerned about those laboring for the sake of the gospel? Here is a good example of how the law of Moses ought to be interpreted spiritually and its principles applied according to a New Covenant understanding. The “oxen” are ministers of the gospel, who labor as servants under Jesus’ “yoke.”
Whether one labors as a “plowman” or a “thresher,” all labor “in hope of sharing the crops.” Paul’s conclusion is given in 1 Cor. 9:11,
11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we should reap material things from you?
The church, then, is the vineyard or field in Paul’s metaphor. The seed sown is spiritual, for it is the gospel of Christ that begets Christ in all who are part of that field. When a person accepts that spiritual seed by faith, he is seen to be part of God’s vineyard, and after a time of growth, it ought to bear fruit of the Spirit that God can enjoy eating. Likewise, those laboring in His vineyard too are able to partake of the fruit of their labor.
Paul Gave up His Rights
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:12, saying,
12 If others share the right over you [to be supported, or share in the fruit of that field], do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.
First, Paul understood that the Corinthian church was not his own field but was part of the greater field owned by Jesus Christ. So he acknowledged that all apostles and teachers had a right to be supported financially by those in that church. So he asked, “do we not more?” In other words, Paul claimed a greater right, since he had been the chief apostle of that church. Whoever had criticized him had no legitimate case against him.
Furthermore, Paul “did not use this right,” even though he had every right to do so. In the flow of Paul’s letter, he was talking about the use of one’s lawful rights. Recall from chapter 8 that believers had the right to eat meat sacrificed to idols, but there were times when it was not expedient to exercise that right. Love should always take precedence over one’s legal rights. So also, Paul worked a secular job in order not to require support from the Corinthian church. He did not want this to be a “hindrance to the gospel of Christ.”
Perhaps Paul was referring to a financial hindrance, especially when the church was small and could not afford to support a leader. But at the time of this letter, people were accusing Paul of accepting financial support from the church. He was able to tell them that this accusation was untrue.
Who would make such an accusation? We are not told, because Paul was hesitant to name his accusers. He tried to deal with issues, not people, so that the church might be instructed in the principles and learn how to judge all things properly according to those principles. We might also add that disputes over money are all too common in the churches to this day. Many board meetings are dominated by disputes over the pastor’s salary, rather than focusing on the best way to preach the gospel without hindrance.
The Support of Priests in the Law
Paul shows another reason why ministers of the gospel have the right to be supported. He says in 1 Cor. 9:13, 14,
13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share with the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.
Paul was referring to Deut. 18:1-5, which says,
1 The Levitical priests, the whole tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel; they shall eat the Lord’s offerings by fire and His portion…. 3 Now this shall be the priests’ due from the people, from those who offer a sacrifice, either an ox or a sheep of which they shall give to the priest the shoulder and the two cheeks and the stomach. 4 You shall give the first fruits of your grain, your new wine, and your oil, and the first shearing of your sheep. 5 For the Lord your God has chosen him and his sons from all your tribes to stand and serve in the name of the Lord forever.
The law sets forth rights, and in this case the priests had the right to partake of the sacrifices as well as the first fruits offerings. Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:14 that the right of the priests had carried over to the apostles under the New Covenant. The apostles and other ministers now functioned as priests in the church in place of Levitical priests in the earthly Jerusalem.
Paul even appealed to Jesus Himself, saying in 1 Cor. 9:14, “so also the Lord directed.” How did the Lord direct this? First, by His own example, for He received donations from the people during His ministry. Recall that Judas was Jesus’ treasurer who carried the money bag (John 12:6; 13:29).
Secondly, when He sent out His 12 disciples, He told them not to take extra provisions with them (Matt. 10:9, 10). When He sent out the 70, he said in Luke 10:4 and 8,
4 Carry no purse, no bag, no shoes, and greet no one on the way…. 8 And whatever city you enter, and they receive you, eat what is set before you.
In other words, they were to rely upon local hospitality and expect to be fed, sheltered, and supported by the people among whom they ministered. This was their right, and their only concern was to preach the gospel, heal the sick, and follow Jesus’ example of ministry.
No doubt Paul himself took little with him on his missionary journeys. He knew that he had the right to be supported by those who received his message. Yet he said in 1 Cor. 9:15,
15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things that it may be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.
Paul also knew that some might twist his words and apply ulterior motives to him. So he tells them, in effect, “I am NOT telling you this to suggest that you should start supporting me.” He knew that his critics would always assign bad motives to anything that he wrote or said, for such is the nature of the soulish man. But Paul says that he would rather die than to be guilty of such a motive.
Preaching the gospel was not meant to be a profession, but a calling. When men do it because they believe they can make a good living and then retire with a good pension, they miss the whole point. Others enter the ministry because they have no other skills, so they see this as a way to be supported by others. There are many different reasons why people enter the ministry. But Paul says in 1 Cor. 9:16,
16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel.
Paul’s “compulsion” was based upon Jesus’ commission when He appeared to Paul on the Damascus road. In Acts 9:6 Jesus told him,
6 but get up, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.
Later, Jesus told Ananias about Paul in Acts 9:15, 16,
15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he [Paul] is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles [ethnos, “nations”] and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
A calling is a compulsion, for those who are truly called have been pressed into divine service to fulfill that calling. Everyone’s calling is different, but Paul himself was called to bear the name of Jesus to the nations. He took this seriously, and during his 14 years of divine training (Gal. 2:1), as his revelation of the New Covenant unfolded, he developed a passion for preaching the gospel in order to fulfill this calling.
Paul did not go on his missionary journeys to search for more supporters, but to preach the gospel. He did not fulfill his calling to obtain a more comfortable life, for he remembered Jesus’ words: “I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.” To the extent that he had persecuted the church, he would now eat the fruit of his own actions. Yet God would also use this judgment for a good purpose—as all of His judgments were intended from the beginning.
Paul, a Voluntary Slave
Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 9:17, 18,
17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
Here Paul drew a contrast between one who works voluntarily and one who is under compulsion who is forced to work against his will. The fact that Paul took no salary showed that he worked “voluntarily,” and so he was rewarded (or paid) by God Himself. Those who serve as employees in regular jobs must often do work that they do not want to do—in essence, working against their will. The reward, or payment, comes from the employer, not from God.
The distinction here is a bit subtle, but it has much to do with how a minister views his employment. Is he hired by men or by God? More to the point, is he hired by the church or by God? Often, the answer is both. In such cases a minister may often experience a conflict of interest and must work out his own situation and wrestle with matters of conscience.
In virtually all denominational churches, the pastor is an employee of the church that is run by a board. The pastor is expected to fulfill the calling of the board, rather than of his own calling. In cases where a pastor truly has a divine calling, this can often lead to political conflicts between the pastor and the board.
Paul himself was freer than others to preach the gospel according to his own revelation, because he did not have to worry about losing support if he taught things that his supporters might reject. This is, in fact, one of the problems that ministers face today.
I myself had to ponder this carefully when I returned to full-time ministry in the early 1990’s. In fact, I had pondered this since 1986, while still working in the secular field, when a man of God came into my office to give me a word from the Lord: “Teach the whole counsel of God.”
I took this word seriously.
As I pondered this word for the next few years, I saw how many preachers were prevented by their church or by their supporters from teaching things that they believed. I discovered that many preachers refrain from teaching the Restoration of All Things because they would lose their jobs or financial support or even their pensions if they taught what they truly believed. There are many preachers in the church who know this truth, but who do not preach it. Hence, they are conflicted in their conscience.
I myself determined to set forth the most controversial topics up front in order to avoid future conflict. So in 1991 I published Creation’s Jubilee. In a way, it was to test the Father’s word and promise. It was not my ministry, so I insisted that God should support His own work. And if He could do so in the face of the most controversial teaching in my arsenal, then I would have confirmation that He was indeed calling me back into full-time ministry.
I was also careful to remember that I was God’s employee, not man’s. Whenever I had a need, I took it to God, not to man, allowing God to speak to others in His own way.
Not everyone must follow my example, of course. Those who labor, Paul says, have a right to be supported. But yet I consider God to be my employer, and He has been faithful to supply the needs of this ministry.