Free for gospel ministry
1. Rights … and wrongs?
We seem to live in an age where rights matter – the right to free speech, the right to carry a gun, the right to smoke, womens’ rights, indigenous rights, animal rights, gay rights, childrens’ rights, the right to be paid, the right to the dole, the right to a certain standard of living. Everyone is on about their rights.
So in the news last week was the story of the police in NSW wanting to set up a DNA database, perhaps with DNA from innocent people. Civil liberty groups of course oppose it as a breach of rights and freedoms. But the NSW Police Commissioner came back and said ‘we have to be concerned about the civil liberty of being able to leave your car on the street without it being stolen. I’ve got to be concerned about the civil liberty of not having your house broken into when you leave it. I’ve got to be concerned about the ultimate civil liberty of being able to go about your business without being assaulted or the ultimate breach of civil liberties .. murder. And so I dismiss these issues.’ (SMH 23.7.07)
Rights and freedom: what is a Christian view on these issues; especially with our own rights and freedoms. When others take away our rights we feel hard done by – do we have to stick up for ourselves? What if we were to voluntarily forego our rights? For the Apostle Paul there is a bigger issue at stake than sticking up for my rights, or exercising my freedom, as we’ll see tonight in 1 Cor 9.
2. Corinthian rights and wrongs?
Some of the Christians in Corinth thought it was a mark of Christian maturity and strength to insist on their rights and enjoy their freedoms. So they felt free to eat meat offered to an idol, or indeed anything they liked. Others felt idols were demonic and thought it was unsafe to eat food that has been offered to them. Who was right? Neither – but instead Paul says those with a strong conscience about such matters, matters that in themselves are morally indifferent, should be willing to forego their rights so that they do not damage other brothers and sisters in Christ.
How can that happen? If these ‘weaker’ Christians go against their conscience in one area of indifference it may not be long before their consciences are damaged in more critical areas.
So Paul says it is up to the “stronger” Christians to act lovingly and restrict their own freedoms for the sake of others. Christians shouldn’t just ask - “What are my rights?” – but to also ask “What rights should I give up for the sake of others?”
Now in ch 9 Paul uses himself as an example, to show that he did exactly what he was telling the Corinthian Christians to do. He was willing to forego his rights so as to win as many to Christ as he could. Let’s see what he says.
3. Paul’s rights
9:1 – READ. A whole series of questions, all answered yes. You think you’re free – so am I. In fact even more so, because I am an apostle.
Some in Corinth questioned whether he really was an apostle - he didn’t seem to act with authority, and he didn’t charge for his services, but worked.
But he is a true apostle - he has seen Jesus, in the body; and he has planted churches. These were the marks of an apostle and Paul fits the bill. Indeed the proof of his apostleship is their own conversions – v2. The very existence of the church in Corinth proved that God recognized his ministry.
So as an apostle, he has certain rights - the right to receive food and drink from them, the right to be married, and the right to travel with a wife if he had one, as other apostles did, such as Peter.
Indeed common sense says he has these rights – soldiers are paid by the state to serve it, grapegrowers eat what’s produced, shepherds drink the milk. Even the OT says in Deut 25:4 that oxen treading the grain should be allowed to eat some of it, and God gave this law, says Paul, to teach humans about their responsibilities to workers. And just as physical plowmen and threshers share in the harvest, surely justice demands the same for those who plant spiritual seed, which is infinitely more precious and valuable. Ministers of the gospel have a legitimate and God-given right to be paid.
But here’s the rub – Paul says in v12 – we didn’t use these rights. Rather than being paid by the church in Corinth he earned his money by tent-making. And he put up with this so as not to ‘hinder the gospel of Christ’. Paul refused to be paid for his ministry so that people couldn’t say he was only in it for the money, or that he was self-seeking.
He should have been paid – he had that right. In the OT those who served at the temple were fed from the temple. And Jesus himself said, according to v14, that ‘those who preach the gospel should earn their living from the gospel.’
It is right that Marty and AJ and I are paid by the church for working here. Same with part-time workers. And it is ungodly and disobedient if you are receiving our ministry of preaching the gospel and not providing for us in some way, as you are able to do so (money, housing, food, phone, etc). Ministers should be valued and provided for, according to their worth. But we’re not paid a salary as such, we’re not your employees, rather, as one writer put it ‘the church does not pay its ministers, rather it provides them with resources so they are able to serve freely.’ (Carson)
But Paul has not used any of these rights – v15. He is free, free to forego his rights. Some of the Corinthians thought he was weak for doing that – he should be standing up for himself, throwing his apostolic weight around, making people respect him – how weak he is. Paul’s way is in such contrast to that isn’t it. And such a contrast to our society that insists on getting and having our rights. I have a right to such and such so I will do it or have it, but Paul says I have a right to be paid and I choose not to exercise it.
But Paul’s not writing this now to shame them into giving him his rights, or paying him some back pay. He’d rather be dead than be thought of as being in ministry for his rights or for money. No! He rejoices in being able to preach the gospel freely. It’s the heart of the gospel message isn’t it – grace. Paul’s duty is to preach the gospel, God has called him to do that, and woe to him if he doesn’t - but his reward is to do so voluntarily, by giving up his rights, which God hasn’t told him to do. Paul is so keen to show his commitment and enthusiasm for gospel ministry, so loving of other people, that he is prepared to forego this right. Why does he do that? Why forego his rights? The reason is simple and profound – to try to win more people to Christ. Paul uses his freedom not for himself, as the Corinthians were doing, but for others. Now there’s a challenge isn’t it?
In v19 and following he gives more examples of his own willingness to give up his freedoms for the sake of others, especially non-Christians:
– willing to become like a slave, even though he was free;
- willing to become like a Jew (so he wouldn’t have eaten pork buns with them, even though he was free to do so, so as not to offend them; eg purification in Acts 21:20-26, or having Timothy circumcised in Acts 16 – both so he can preach to the Jews), as long as it didn’t compromise the gospel, to win Jews;
- willing to become like those under the law, probably Gentile god-fearers (eg ceremonies) to win those under the law, even though he knows that with the death and resurrection of Jesus the age of Law is over;
- willing to become like those not having the law (ie the heathen) to win such people, although still subject to Christ’s law of love;
- willing to become weak to win the weak, rather than being a stumbling block to them.
He didn’t change the gospel message, but he could and did change his behaviour, as long as he wasn’t disobeying God, so that he might save as many as possible. He does it intentionally – I make myself do these things, I have become, he does it on purpose.
He would have hung out with skateboarders, and nursing home inhabitants, school kids and AIDS sufferers, Jews, Muslims and atheists, just to have the chance to share Christ with them. Do we have that same mindset? Paul’s priority was to save others – and it caused him conflict with those like the Corinthians who didn’t have the same priority.
It still happens today. Some years ago a Sydney Anglican church helped plant an evangelical church on the Central Coast. They got in trouble from others who accused them of breaking Diocesan borders. Which one had Paul’s priority?
At our 8am service I wear robes. I could stand on my rights and say I don’t have to wear them, and risk people not coming. Or I can wear them so people will keep coming, and I will have the chance to preach the gospel to them.
Do what we can – v19 – to win as many as possible.
All this thought of winning reminds Paul there is a great prize on offer. And Christians need to run in such a way as to get the prize.
ILLN – Monty Python skit – the 100m for people with no sense of direction. 6 starters, gun fires, and off they go, in any and every direction. Left, right, forwards, backwards, around in circles, standing still, and officials chasing them everywhere. They have no idea where they’re going or how to get there.
Christians need to run in such a way as to get the prize. Like Paul. To be all things to all people is hard work, hence the illustration of the athletes in v24.
The Corinthians would have understood this imagery well – the Isthmian games were held there every two years, second only to the Olympics. Thousands of competitors and visitors came. And the running and boxing were leading events, passionately competed for – so very suitable as an image of Christian earnestness.
A candidate for the Games had to take an oath that he had been ten months in training, and that for the last 30 days before the competition he had spent every day in the gymnasium or he was disqualified. He had to swear to violate none of the regulations. He lived on a strict self-denying diet, refraining from wine and pleasant foods, and enduring cold and heat and most laborious discipline. And if he won - the prize awarded by the judge was a crown, a laurel of withered celery stalks. All that hard work for some withered leaves.
Our prize is infinitely better, eternal and incorruptible.
And in the Games only one athlete would get the prize. But God offers his prize to all who finish the work. But our opponents are tough, and so discipline is needed. Commitment to the task at hand of saving others is needed. Do we have that commitment?
ILLN – imagine you’re there in the Tour de France, getting hungry during the 150 k stage. Would you stop for a 4 and 20 traveller? You’ve got the right to – but it wouldn’t help you would it. So you would sacrifice that right.
That’s what Paul is on about – sacrificing our rights to reach the goal. Commitment and sacrifice – dirty words to many Christians these days, but that’s what is needed. We are free to sacrifice our freedoms for the sake of the gospel, and for the sake of others. True freedom is the ability to forego your rights. But it will take massive self-control. The Corinthians didn’t have it – they wanted their right to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Petty isn’t it?
So in v26 Paul returns to himself - his own self-denial, and his motive in it. He is intentional – his intention is to see people won for Christ. He knows what is needed and his life is focused on that goal. He will restrain his natural self-seeking in order to get it, for he doesn’t want to miss out on all the prize of seeing his work stand on the day of judgement, as some have done. But more on this in chapter 10, next week.
Questions, then wrap up…
4. Our rights?
Don Carson in his book ‘The Cross and Christian ministry’ writes this (p136) – ‘No one will suggest that every Christian must serve the Lord Christ exactly as Paul did. But Paul wants the Corinthian Christians to have the same self-denying attitude that he has displayed. For him, this is not an optional extra; it is bound up with what it means to be a Christian. The ‘strong’ believer who insists on his or her rights is, finally, sinning against Christ. In principle, so also is anyone who does not grow in the commitment to ‘win as many as possible’ by following the way of the cross.’
Strong statement isn’t it.
We need to ask ourselves some questions:
- how much do we insist upon our rights and privileges, to the detriment of others and of the gospel and of Christ himself?
- Where do we claim our rights in such a way that it raises a barrier with the people for whom the gospel is meant?
- What things in your life might be hindering the spread of the gospel?
- or on the positive side: where do we need to think about foregoing our rights so as to advance the gospel? How do we change our lifestyles to reach people in different subcultures? What non-Christians do you know and how will you reach them with the gospel?
Let me end with 2 questions:
- what rights have you given up or are you prepared to give up for the sake of the gospel? If there are rights you are not prepared to give up, then you need to ask yourself – why not?
- is your objective in life to win as many as possible? If so, then we need to keep examining our lives to see what we need to change. What choices am I making about what I wear, where I live, what I do, what I say, what I eat and drink – are they gospel priorities? And if we’re not worried about saving people, then friends we are chasing a crown which will soon perish.
Paul did everything for the sake of the gospel, so that he might save as many as possible. That to him was far more important than his personal rights or freedoms. Will we think this week – what should I do to win as many as possible? May God help us to do this.