1 Corinthians 9:1-7 (NRSV) – “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 I am not an apostle to others, 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 our food and drink? Do we not have the right to be accompanied by 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 at any time pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not get any of its milk?”
This chapter picks up where the previous chapter left off, on the subject of refraining from certain activities under certain circumstances, even if we have the right to do so, for the sake of other believers. The topic discussed in the previous chapter was eating food sacrificed to idols. Given that this was a controversial issue in a divided church, Paul encouraged believers not to do it publicly (even though the “sacrifice” does not actually make the food idolatrous) to avoid causing other believers to join in and eat the food out of trust in another believer rather than their own conscience.
For Paul, giving up certain rights for the sake of those he has ministered to goes well beyond just issues of this nature. But he is concerned that the church does not appreciate it. As we saw in the first chapter of this epistle, while some believers self-identified with Paul, others chose to identify with the preacher Apollos, some chose the Apostle Peter, and others self-righteously claimed identification with Christ Himself.
Basically, to those who want to identify with Peter or Apollos instead of Paul, or who want to cast Paul aside in the name of following Christ, Paul is saying, “What reasonable issue could you guys have with me? I’ve waived my right to marriage so that I can direct my passion toward supporting you and other churches in the faith. Barnabas and I still work for a living so that we don’t have to bother you by begging for money or food.”
That was my paraphrase, but below is more writing from Paul himself:
“If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still 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” (1 Cor. 9:11-12).
Here Paul is basically saying, “We have the right to be asking you for support, but we waive that right because we want you to hear our message, and we don’t want to turn you away. We don’t want to be a free service that bombards you with ads asking for money to the point where you tune out due to annoyance or guilt.
Further along in the chapter, Paul himself says,
“I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will deprive me of my ground for boasting! If I proclaim the gospel, this gives me no ground for boasting, for an obligation is laid on me, and woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward; but if not of my own will, I am entrusted with a commission. What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:15-18).
Paul apparently wants something to boast about. He has decided that he can boast in the fact that he does not claim his rights to any material benefits from his service to the church. He cannot boast about simply preaching the Gospel because that preaching was an “obligation” given to him, and if he doesn’t fulfill it, he says “woe is me.”
I will be very honest about something. I do not idealize the concept of feeling that you must do something for God, else face a sense of personal “woe.” But I also acknowledge that sometimes, this is the way certain good deeds predestined by God will get done.
A true attitude of grace in our minds does not come from our own endeavor to create and maintain thoughts that we consider to be in alignment with it. Instead, a real mentality of grace can only come through the Holy Spirit’s work to transmute everything going on in our minds, including feelings of obligation, or feelings of dismay if we were to not do something we are supposed to do. God can work through it so that it ultimately plays a role in bringing us into a deeper and more powerful understanding of grace.
Sometimes, it is difficult to have deep appreciation, or activate the power, of blessings in a certain area of life unless we have experienced the opposite. God knows that many humans, by nature, will sometimes do things for the sake of avoiding guilt. God plays along with it, not because it is an ideal situation in an of itself, but because when the time comes that you see how to live confidently and passionately in accord with God’s will in a certain area of life, you will see that it is truly by the wisdom of God’s grace that you developed that confidence and passion even when you could not get rid of the fear of guilt altogether.