Paul is admonishing the church at Corinth toward unity through maturity. In the previous section, he encouraged the church toward Christian liberty to God’s glory—showing that abstinence from good things may be necessary for a time in order to exhort brothers and sisters in the faith so their consciences may be strengthened in the liberty of Christ.
Now, Paul writes about his own liberty as one who holds an office in the local church—particularly his liberty, or right, to receive payment from the church for his hard work.
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1 Corinthians 9:1-18
9.1 Οὐκ εἰμὶ ἐλεύθερος; οὐκ εἰμὶ ἀπόστολος; οὐχὶ Ἰησοῦν τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν ἑόρακα; οὐ τὸ ἔργον μου ὑμεῖς ἐστε ἐν κυρίῳ; 2 εἰ ἄλλοις οὐκ εἰμὶ ἀπόστολος, ἀλλά γε ὑμῖν εἰμι, ἡ γὰρ σφραγίς μου τῆς ἀποστολῆς ὑμεῖς ἐστε ἐν κυρίῳ.
3 Ἡ ἐμὴ ἀπολογία τοῖς ἐμὲ ἀνακρίνουσίν ἐστιν αὕτη. 4 μὴ οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν φαγεῖν καὶ πεῖν; 5 μὴ οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν ἀδελφὴν γυναῖκα περιάγειν, ὡς καὶ οἱ λοιποὶ ἀπόστολοι καὶ οἱ ἀδελφοὶ τοῦ κυρίου καὶ Κηφᾶς; 6 ἢ μόνος ἐγὼ καὶ Βαρναβᾶς οὐκ ἔχομεν ἐξουσίαν μὴ ἐργάζεσθαι; 7 τίς στρατεύεται ἰδίοις ὀψωνίοις ποτέ; τίς φυτεύει ἀμπελῶνα καὶ τὸν καρπὸν αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἐσθίει; τίς ποιμαίνει ποίμνην καὶ ἐκ τοῦ γάλακτος τῆς ποίμνης οὐκ ἐσθίει;
8 Μὴ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον ταῦτα λαλῶ ἢ καὶ ὁ νόμος ταῦτα οὐ λέγει; 9 ἐν γὰρ τῷ Μωϋσέως νόμῳ γέγραπται· Οὐ κημώσεις βοῦν ἀλοῶντα. μὴ τῶν βοῶν μέλει τῷ θεῷ, 10 ἢ διʼ ἡμᾶς πάντως λέγει; διʼ ἡμᾶς γὰρ ἐγράφη, ὅτι ὀφείλει ἐπʼ ἐλπίδι ὁ ἀροτριῶν ἀροτριᾶν, καὶ ὁ ἀλοῶν ἐπʼ ἐλπίδι τοῦ μετέχειν. 11 εἰ ἡμεῖς ὑμῖν τὰ πνευματικὰ ἐσπείραμεν, μέγα εἰ ἡμεῖς ὑμῶν τὰ σαρκικὰ θερίσομεν; 12 εἰ ἄλλοι τῆς ὑμῶν ἐξουσίας μετέχουσιν, οὐ μᾶλλον ἡμεῖς;
Ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐχρησάμεθα τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ ταύτῃ, ἀλλὰ πάντα στέγομεν ἵνα μή τινα ἐγκοπὴν δῶμεν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ τοῦ Χριστοῦ. 13 οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι οἱ τὰ ἱερὰ ἐργαζόμενοι τὰ ἐκ τοῦ ἱεροῦ ἐσθίουσιν, οἱ τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ παρεδρεύοντες τῷ θυσιαστηρίῳ συμμερίζονται; 14 οὕτως καὶ ὁ κύριος διέταξεν τοῖς τὸ εὐαγγέλιον καταγγέλλουσιν ἐκ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου ζῆν.
15 Ἐγὼ δὲ οὐ κέχρημαι οὐδενὶ τούτων. οὐκ ἔγραψα δὲ ταῦτα ἵνα οὕτως γένηται ἐν ἐμοί, καλὸν γάρ μοι μᾶλλον ἀποθανεῖν ἤ—τὸ καύχημά μου οὐδεὶς κενώσει. 16 ἐὰν γὰρ εὐαγγελίζωμαι, οὐκ ἔστιν μοι καύχημα, ἀνάγκη γάρ μοι ἐπίκειται· οὐαὶ γάρ μοί ἐστιν ἐὰν μὴ εὐαγγελίσωμαι. 17 εἰ γὰρ ἑκὼν τοῦτο πράσσω, μισθὸν ἔχω· εἰ δὲ ἄκων, οἰκονομίαν πεπίστευμαι. 18 τίς οὖν μού ἐστιν ὁ μισθός; ἵνα εὐαγγελιζόμενος ἀδάπανον θήσω τὸ εὐαγγέλιον, εἰς τὸ μὴ καταχρήσασθαι τῇ ἐξουσίᾳ μου ἐν τῷ εὐαγγελίῳ.
The question of pastoral pay (v. 1-6)
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 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. My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 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? Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?
Eighteen verses is a lot to cover in one sermon, but this is one teaching unit and needs all the context of the verses to be understood well. It could be divided between verses 14 and 15, but it seems right to reveal the heart of the preacher as he admonishes the congregation toward paying those who work hard at preaching and teaching. It is serendipitous that I am a preacher who is not currently being paid by a congregation as I work through and preach this pericope. Especially with regard to the circumstances of my leaving our previous place of service, I gain some insight into Paul’s exhortation and apology in this unit.
Paul frames the question, apparently brought about by some in the local church at Corinth who were complaining about compensating preachers, and perhaps the reason for which preachers were being compensated, in the context of Christian liberty. He further uses himself as an example. Paul was not at the Corinthians church preaching regularly, so, like he has done previously (cf. 4:6), he is figuratively making application to himself for the sake of edifying the local church rather than tearing it down.
Paul is free, an apostle (an office filled by only 14 men historically and held only by those who saw Jesus face to face), has seen Jesus, and labors for the church. In fact, the local church is the seal of his apostleship. If there is such division, and many individuals in Corinth do not like Paul, how can the local church be the seal of his apostleship. They are the fruit of his labor and the proof, because there is fruit, that Paul was truly called into the office. There is a difference between having a desire to do something and being called into an office by the Holy Spirit. Those who merely desire to do something may try but not produce the sincere fruit of the office. Those who are called will see the fruit, and that fruit is a seal of their calling. We should be careful, here, because there are many individuals bearing all sorts of fruit contrary to the gospel yet using their fruit to seal their ministries even though they are ungodly. Word of Faith healers and evangelical pastors and evangelists often use numbers of those who say a sinners prayer or get wet or list their names on membership roles to seal their ministries. For Paul, it was the people themselves—Chloe’s people who wrote him a letter asking his opinion, the continuing struggle of a local church he planted, and the godly fruit of his hard labor in Corinth.
There are some who wish to examine paul, (ανακρινω) to question him as if in a court case. Paul’s answer to those who wish to question him comes out of his admonishment concerning Christian liberty, and he now talks about Christian rights (εξουσια; referring to one’s authority over another). In reality, the word used for rights is the same as that used for liberty previously. So, we don’t think that Paul is talking about something other than liberty, here.
Per Paul’s previous admonition, eating and drinking is a right given to Christians. Christians have the liberty to enjoy what God has given. They have the liberty to take a believing wife in this world. Not even some of the apostles abstained.
Do only Barnabas and Paul not have the liberty to refrain from working? Paul is what we refer to in the modern day as a tentmaker. He has a “secular” job, literally tent-making, that supports his ministry. Here, he asks if he does not have the liberty to refrain from his side hustle in order to give his attention to the church. Thus, the question of pastoral pay is introduced. Do those who work hard at preaching and teaching not have the liberty to refrain from “secular” work?
The answer (v. 7-14)
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? I am not speaking these things according to human judgment, am I? Or does not the Law also say these things? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? 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. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. 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 from the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.
Paul then enters into illustrative rhetoric as if the answer is common-sensical. No soldier serves at his own expense. People reap from their own harvests and livestock. The standards of labor in this world require compensation be made. But, Paul is not speaking according to human judgment. He is not interested merely in the economy of the world or ways of society. The Law of God also says these things. Consider what Moses wrote about not muzzling an ox while it is threshing (Deuteronomy 25:4; cf. Proverbs 12:10). The ox was not muzzled so that it could eat while it threshed, gleaning from its own labor. If people were to care for their animals, why should they treat people with any less care for their material needs? The question about pastoral compensation ultimately comes down to the condition of the human heart and our fair care for one another. In this case, Paul recognized that worldly employees were being cared for better than the pastoral servants of the local church.
God is not that concerned about oxen. He spoke to Moses for the sake of His people. The plowman has a right to plow in hope. Even though Paul does not currently make use of this liberty because he does not want to be a hindrance to the gospel, he recognizes that the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living form the gospel.
There are two concepts I want to recognize here. First, “…the Lord directed…” Paul is clarifying a point of divine instruction based on the Old Testament principle of fair compensation for labor. Under the divine influence of the Holy Spirit, this word being spirated through him, clarifies that pastoral compensation is a divine command gleaned from the principle in the Law, “…do not muzzle an ox…” When it comes to our interpretation of Scripture, then, the principles are as binding as the explicit commands. Paul may also be alluding to Jesus’s explicit command in Matthew 10, when he sent his disciples to proclaim the coming of the kingdom and to take nothing of their worldly income with them because a “worker is worthy of his suppert” (Matthew 10:10). Second, “…those who proclaim the gospel…” are to “…get their living from the gospel.” This is for those who give their time and energy to work hard at preaching and teaching (cf. 1 Timothy 5:17).
Contrary to some viewpoints, preachers are not compensated to be glorified chaplains, to visit, call, keep office hours, counsel, perform weddings or funerals, bring people in, entertain youth, build programs, or even to be sociable. Preachers are paid specifically, according to the command of the Lord, so that they can dedicate their hours of labor to rightly dividing the word of truth—that is the singular focus. Yet, in my experience, and perhaps in Paul’s (which is why he has to make this clarification for the Corinthians church) people want their pastors to neglect the word in order to do all sorts of other ministry services—and they threaten his job if he chooses to obey God rather than them. It is true that pastors may need to visit or counsel on occasion, but this is not why they are paid. Instead of complaining, perhaps you should simply learn how to be a Christian, be equipped for the work of ministry, and fill needs you see so the pastor can fulfill his calling in the Lord according to the Lord’s command rather than yours. The pastor is paid to teach God’s word, which requires many taxing hours throughout the week to get right.
You know this. You can tell the difference between someone who is prepared to teach well and rightly divide the word of truth and someone who is not. We benefit most when our preachers and teachers spend their time wrestling God rather than men. Do not muzzle the ox while he threshes grain. Do not, like the believers in Corinth seemed to be doing, use pastoral compensation to manipulate your pastor into doing anything other than what the Lord directed for his compensation. We want him focused for our good.
Paul’s heart (v. 15-18)
But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will 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. 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. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 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.
Paul chooses not to make use of his liberty. This is the heart of the pastor, not being concerned about sordid gain or loving money (cf. 1 Timothy 3). If, like Paul, the preacher is under compulsion by the congregation because he is being compensated, his heart for the gospel should lead him to reject such chains and do what God has called him to do voluntarily. There are two concepts we should glean, here:
- The congregation is not to force her preachers to serve out of compulsion (cf. 1 Peter 5:2)—making demands of him because he is compensated. To do so is to muzzle him and draw him into the sin of neglecting the task to which he has been appointed by the Lord.
- The pastor is not to be ruled by his compensation but sacrificial in his service—such that if the congregation begins requiring him to serve out of compulsion he looses the chains of compensation in order to serve the Lord.
I have had to loose those chains a couple times throughout my ministry. Most often, the ordeal ends in my having to leave a congregation I desired to serve. Again, the compensation question and the matter of compulsion reveal our hearts. We are either for ourselves or for God, and our fruit reveals the root. If we are for ourselves, and we produce the fruit of compulsion, the time has come for repentance. Believe the Gospel and be saved. If we are for the Lord and sacrificially care for others, we should be encouraged. Our sacrifice is accompanied by that of Paul and Barnabas and pleases God greatly. It is the fruit not only of salvation but of some maturity in the faith.