In 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, Paul urges believers to give up their rights when exercising those rights could cause other Christians to stumble. In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul presents his own life as an illustration of this principle of the mature use of liberty.
During Paul’s ministry, he worked as a tentmaker so that the churches he ministered to would not be burdened by him financially. He uses this as an example of how believers should forfeit their rights for the spiritual benefit of others. But first Paul wants to be clear that he really does have the right to demand financial support for his ministry. He uses several arguments to demonstrate this.
First, Paul points out that other apostles and teachers received such support (1 Corinthians 9:6, 12a). In fact, Paul himself received support from the Philippian church on several occasions (see Philippians 4:15–18). Second, Paul uses several illustrations to demonstrate the principle that the laborer deserves to receive wages (1 Corinthians 9:7). Third, he appeals to the Law, which says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out grain.” How much more, Paul argues, should a minister receive sustenance while working for the spiritual harvest of the gospel? (vv. 8–10). Finally, Paul reminds us that Jesus Himself commanded that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (v. 14; cf. Luke 10:7).
Surrendering Rights for the Gospel’s Sake
If Paul had these rights, why did he choose to surrender them? He gladly received support from the Philippians, so why not from the Corinthians? The answer lies in the principle of chapters 8 and 10. This principle is that more mature believers must make certain sacrifices so as not to become a stumbling block for those weaker in faith.
The issue at hand for the Corinthians was whether or not to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. Even though there was nothing inherently wrong with doing so since “an idol has no real existence” (1 Corinthians 8:4), Paul recognized that some believers who had previously been involved in idol worship would not be able to separate the eating of the meat from idolatry (v. 7). “Therefore,” he concludes, “if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (v. 13).
In the same way, Paul recognizes that the Corinthians in their present spiritual state would not provide for his ministry for the right reasons (see 2 Corinthians 9:7). Perhaps he feared they would misinterpret the gospel as a commercial operation. Whatever the reason, Paul did not want to risk hindering the gospel. Therefore, he removed any possible stumbling block by providing for his own ministry.
Common Ground Without Compromise
Paul then uses the surrendering of his rights as an opportunity to explain his overarching principle of ministry. “For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more. … To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19–22).
Paul entered each person’s world as far as possible in order to transfer them to the world of the gospel. He acted winsomely by adapting himself to every situation without compromising the gospel.
In the same way, we ought to go out of our way when we interact with non-Christians to remove any possible barrier to the gospel. This will not guarantee success since the gospel itself is a stumbling block to many (1 Corinthians 1:23). Nevertheless, in this world we want to be known more for what we are for than what we are against—more for what we love than what we hate—even if this means not proving ourselves right every time. This takes wisdom for every situation that only God can provide.
Take a moment and ask the Holy Spirit to direct you today how to enter someone else’s world in a way that leads to an opportunity for the gospel.
This teaching is based on Ken’s Handbook to Scripture.