“Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship 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. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.”(1 Corinthians 9:1–19, ESV)
Living in America, the lens that I and most Americans look through is determined largely by our own experience in a nation that has determined certain rights and freedoms for its citizens. It is largely a privilege and blessings to living in the United States and to enjoy the freedoms that were won and defended for us.
And this outlook of freedoms and rights makes for a particular challenge at times when it comes to understanding the tension between being an American citizen and being a Christian. The Apostle Paul understood the unique opportunities that were afforded to him as a Roman citizen, and at times he made good use of those rights in order to carry out the ministry he had received from God. But at other times, Paul understood that asserting personal rights is not the way of Christ, and that sometimes the Christlike thing to do is to forego those rights in order to serve others and the gospel.
In the passage above found in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is writing about the claims made by the false teachers who were benefiting financially from the church. He is turning their claims on their head in order to show the contact between Paul’s servant attitude and the self-serving attitude of the false apostles.
Paul had not taken advantage of any of the reasonable advantages, such as support of a wife, and financial support; although the false teachers had done so. Since Paul was their father in the faith, he not only had the right to financial support as their pastor, but even more so as the one who was the founder of the church in Corinth.
Yet, as he says in the second half of verse 12, the Apostle has been willing to forego this rightful claim because he loves the church too much to risk there being any sort of obstacle to the gospel. This truth extends Paul’s words of exhortation about the need to give up liberties in the name of love, and it further shows his heart as compared to the hearts of the false teachers. “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ” (1Cor 12:9b).
Paul’s liberty refused, he goes on in the rest of verses 10-19 to demonstrate that his self-sacrifice and self-constraint is one more way that he can see the progress of the gospel go forth with greater vigor. Every obstacle, including denial of support and marriage, was worth it for Paul since it meant greater gospel effectiveness. Paul doesn’t say that all must do this, but he is compelled by zeal for Christ and joyfully gives up his rights for the Corinthians. How then could they say that Paul was the one who was “using” the church?
Paul was on a mission, in the truest sense. He wouldn’t let anything deter or damper progress for the sake of the gospel. For Paul, onward and upward was his motto and his aim was pure and his desire true.
Today in many ways it feels like the ministers of Jesus have lost much of this same focus and zeal. Administration, programs, buildings, budgets, church politics, self-promotion, and all other sorts of distractions have filled our time and stolen our focus. Paul was willing to leave it all behind in order to see people come to know Christ as Savior. Do we do the same? If we stripped back everything other than gospel ministry, what would be left? Maybe we should ponder this question as we prepare to enter into a new year, praying that the Lord would help us to “lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us,” and let us once again run with a freedom and with endurance the race that our Savior has set before us. That is true freedom.