I know my rights!

We live in a messed up world. Every aspect of creation has been blighted by the curse of sin and the influence of Satan. A restoration plan has however been instituted, it involves Abraham’s descendants; through Israel all nations are to be blessed and through Israel the saviour of the world is to come. The plan remains incomplete as the saviour did come to his own but was rejected and crucified. In spite of this, the first part of the restoration plan has been successfully implemented: the ransom price for the sin of the world was paid and a restored of relationship with God is offered to all.  The king who came, was crucified, was raised to life and who ascended into heaven is coming back to complete the restoration plan. In the meantime we have work to do in building the church. The environment in which that work is conducted is however messy and affected by sin and Satan. Whilst we long for the benefits that the return of the king will make to conditions on the earth, we have to accept that the world is messed up by sin and we have to just get on with working under these less than ideal conditions: the egg has been scrambled and we cannot unscramble it!

As we are discovering in 1 Corinthians the church is not immune from the complexities of this imperfect world. There are complexities in relationships, in sinful practices and in sinful attitudes. The Corinthians had problems with divisions amongst themselves over matters of no consequence, leaders and food to name just two. They also had problems with lack of self control in sexual matters. We’ve discovered that there are some specific and clear instructions from God as to how they were to live (flee from sexual immorality for example), but there were many areas which were and are less clear – areas where judgement is required. In chapter 8 we discovered that they had questions about whether to eat food offered to idols. This was a question that called for the exercise of judgement, but that judgement had to be applied with care. Just knowing and working things out was OK, but not enough. The impact of our judgements on others who arrive at different judgements needs to be factored into our thinking. Those who had better knowledge could easily despise those with weak consciences and those with weak consciences could easily become judgemental of their fellow workers who had more freedom. Paul advocated that those with knowledge would need to give ground to those with weak consciences if there was a danger of harm to those with weak consciences.  There is a time when it is necessary to give up one’s rights for the benefit of the church as a whole. Doubtless this would have not best pleased many in the church in Corinth, in this 9th chapter of the letter, Paul takes himself as an example of what it is to give up rights for the benefit of others.

  1. Paul’s apostolic rights

Paul had the rights and freedoms that came with the job of being an apostle. There is a hint that some of the Corinthians doubted his apostleship (remember the dispute about leaders dealt with in chapter 1). Paul seems to claim two criteria for qualification as an apostle; he had seen the risen Lord (on his trip to Damascus) and he had founded the church in the city of Corinth. The very people he was writing to were the evidence of his apostleship. Paul worked with his hands making tents with his fellow workers Priscilla and Aquila, perhaps it was his attitude to work that made the Corinthians question his apostolic credentials. In any event, Paul had established his credentials as an apostle and as an apostle he had certain rights. These rights concerned material support – he said ‘don’t we have the right to food and drink’ and ‘don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us’. Paul is indicating that as an apostle it was quite within his rights to expect to be supported by the local Christians. Other apostles received similar support and he could expect similar provision too. Paul supports this with no fewer than six arguments.

Firstly he likens his work to that of a soldier, a farmer and a shepherd. The soldier does not serve at his own expense, the farmer gets to eat the grapes he produces and the shepherd gets to drink milk from the flock he tends. In passing these are interesting comparisons for Paul to use. He was involved in a battle, but also involved in more peaceful work as he nurtured and cared for the believers in Corinth. Second, Paul referred to the Old Testament. The law said that an Ox was not to be muzzled as it treaded out the grain. This was a phrase used in Old Testament times to convey the idea that working towards the harvest (whether ploughing or threshing) was to be rewarded with a share in that harvest. Third, Paul had sown spiritual seed amongst the Corinthians, was it not unreasonable for him to expect a share in a material harvest? Fourth, he asks if others have the right to a share of support from them, shouldn’t he have even more of a right? Fifth, those who work in the temple and who serve at the alter get a share in what is offered in the temple and sixth, Jesus had advocated that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. So, to summarise, Paul was an apostle, no doubt about that and as such he had rights – the right to be paid for his work.

Paul gave up his rights for the good of the gospel. In verse 12b he says: ‘But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ’. This is the key to the issues of dealing with perfectly legitimate but divergent views that arise within the church on matters of judgement. Paul was fully within his rights to claim financial support from the church in Corinth, he spent 18 months there followed by an additional period. That’s a long time to live without any income – but there was a greater good than his personal rights.

As he developed his argument you can imagine the Corinthians thinking – ‘OK we get it Paul, this is a pretty big hint that we’ve let you down, we haven’t fully recognised your apostleship and we haven’t supported you in the way that you have a right to expect. We get it. Where’s the cheque book.’ But Paul was keen for them not to take that message, on the contrary he was not writing about these things in an effort to get money from the Corinthians. Paul said he’d rather die that have people get the impression that he wanted their cash!

It was all about the gospel not money. He would receive a reward if he preached for free. What reward? That he could preach the gospel free of charge!  At West Street we have some form here I believe. It’s a real pleasure to offer things to the people of East Grinstead free of charge, and when we’re asked why we don’t charge we say that we want to give things away for free because the greatest gift is free too, the gospel!

  • Paul’s use of freedom

If you are in employment and have a boss you may know the feeling of belonging to someone and having a consequent restriction on your freedom. Perhaps you have ideas for the company or organisation that you work for but they have policies, procedures and decision making bodies that you are beholden to as an employee. We see a similar principle in the informal contracts we often make unwittingly with others – the sort of deals we make of loyalty to a particular way of doing things or a particular way of thinking. In church life this often takes the form of a denomination, we are often quick to ask what sort of church people come from and (we presume) that this will tell us something of their loyalty and commitment to a way of doing  things or a way of thinking about things. I suspect that mostly these informal contracts are not harmful but they can be restrictive. Paul recognised this and decided he would have no loyalties, no affinities and no club memberships, he would remain free of all of that. Why? This gave him freedom to operate across groups of people. Association with one group of people could make him less acceptable to another group.  In fact he said he was free and belonged to no one so that he could be a slave to everyone!

There were at least two distinct groups amongst the Corinthians church there were Jews who had become Christians as a result of Paul’s preaching in the synagogue and there was a second group, a group of gentiles with no Jewish background and heritage. Since Paul could claim to be free of both groups when with the Jews he could ‘become like a Jew’ and when with the gentiles he ‘became like one not having the law’.  Paul was clear as to why he adopted this approach – he says ‘I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some’. We immediately label Paul as a compromiser – the phrase ‘all things to all people’ has a negative connotation to describe someone who is two faced and just tells people what they want to hear. Is that what Paul meant? Hardly. He meant that in matters of judgement (like eating meat offered to idols) he recognised that these things can often get in the way of the gospel. So for the sake of getting the gospel message out he was prepared to accept the foibles of each of the groups in order to keep these secondary issues from causing barriers to the message of the gospel. To the Jews, he was happy to go along with their customs, to the non-Jews likewise as well as to the weak (and perhaps he refers to those with a weak conscience regarding food offered to idols – see chapter 8). Some people have accused Paul of inconsistency – but what we really see is a consistent approach, avoiding needless and fruitless focus on secondary matters. Paul was single minded in his desire to get the gospel out without hindrances. What was important to Paul? To win as many people as possible for Christ, no matter what background they came from, and to do so he was happy to keep matters of judgement well out of the picture. So should we!

  • The right attitude

Just how important was all of this? Every few years, the Isthmian Games took place just a few miles from Corinth, a similar event to the more famous Olympic games. Everyone knew what it took to be a winning athlete in the games. There was only ever one winner, and to win took determination and desire to be first across the line – it also took self control. Each athlete would train for 10 months and during that time they would deliberately put a limit on the things they would do – probably less wine and less rich food and less lounging around! They restricted their freedoms in order to be competition ready. They would compete to be the best. The Greek word translated complete is agonidzomai – we get the English word agonises from this Greek word. The application of this to Christian work is clear. Paul had restricted his freedoms, he had become all things to all men, he would gladly give up eating meat if it meant a soul could be won for Christ. These things matter. How often have we lacked this discipline, how often have we allowed our personal judgements and preferences to inhibit the progress of the gospel?  Paul was prepared to o through agonies of self control to win the lost.

The prize for an athlete in the Isthmian games was a garland of celery, parsley or pine – the Olympics had a wild olive wreath. These wreaths were perishable, but the Christian competes to receive an imperishable reward. Paul speaks of an imperishable crown here for leading a disciplined life, elsewhere there is a crown of rejoicing for evangelism and discipleship (1 Thessalonians 2:19), a crown of righteousness for loving the Lord’s appearing (2 Timothy 4:8), a crown of life for enduring trials (James 1:12, Revelation 2:10) and a crown of glory for shepherding God’s flock (1 Peter 5:4). In view of all of this what should our response be? Paul says that he doesn’t run aimlessly or box with punches in the air – he wanted every punch to be effective and hit the target. This called for self restraint, self discipline and a restriction of legitimate freedom (like eating meat) for the benefit of the gospel.

What limits do you put on the gospel? Let’s be prepared to agonise over the gospel and restrict legitimate freedoms, he that wins souls is indeed wise (Proverbs 11:30).