June 23

Supporting God’s People (I Corinthians 9)

Daniel Watts

A couple who like to keep a low profile, were leaders at Mariners Church in Southern California and heavily involved in the global outreach work there.

The husband was a long-time elder at the church, the wife was a kindred spirit, and for some unknown reason, they took a liking to me thirty years ago and have mentored me ever since.

They helped me through seminary, were part of the team that counseled us as we tried to discern and act on our calling to Poland, loved our children, and have been instrumental in the development of Every Generation Ministries. In addition to teaching me many things over the years, this couple has helped Marla and me follow Jesus Christ. 

This husband-and-wife team, have had this same role in the lives of many other couples around the world, and one of those young couples joined Every Generation Ministries shortly after I relocated back to the United States.

Ryan Callaghan, the newest addition to our staff, is a super gifted leader who had already established a successful career in business. Choosing to set that aside, Ryan made a three-year commitment to serve with EGM.

If you were to meet Ryan, you’d sense his personal godliness and his wholehearted commitment to Jesus Christ as well as the fact that he’s wired to do everything he does with excellence. (He wouldn’t like me to write that, but it’s true.)

Marla and I have known Ryan’s wife, Kelly, and her family since she was about four years old. Only God could have brought this awesome couple to serve with our little but growing concern. 

The Phone Call

1 Corinthians 9

I was at my desk when my phone rang, and it was the husband. When he called, he was always warm and friendly, but sometimes I felt like I was getting a call from a combination of Peter Drucker and the apostle Paul.

After asking about Marla, the kids, and the ministry, he told me that they had just returned from a ministry trip to Asia. They had seen the news about Ryan and Kelly joining our staff and learned that they were raising financial support so they would be able to serve on our staff.

(Strapped for finances, EGM didn’t have the funds for Ryan’s meager salary. So Ryan and Kelly, being called by God to this work, chose to communicate with their wide network of contacts and ask for personal financial support to serve on the EGM team. This was an act of faith in the “faith mission” tradition.)

Then the couple asked about the response, I said they’d received nearly 80% of their financial need. What transpired next is one of my most precious memories.

Unknown to me, the wife was on the line with her husband, and they both let out a sigh of relief. They were concerned that, being out of the country, they had missed out on being part of Ryan and Kelly’s initial support team. They didn’t want to be left out of financially supporting such a fine young couple. And it’s this kind of giving heart that the apostle Paul had in mind when he wrote what we refer to as the ninth chapter of the letter we call 1 Corinthians.

In this chapter, the apostle Paul discussed a topic that apparently was delicate and important: the material support of vocational Christian workers, specifically the material support of the apostle Paul himself.

An itinerant church-planting missionary, Paul had been involved in planting the church in Corinth.

He had continued planting Christian churches throughout Asia Minor. So it was as the spiritual founder of the church in Corinth that he wrote regarding their material support of his ministry. This passage gives us insight into Paul’s understanding of his rights as an apostle as well as his thoughts on money and ministry.

Making His Case

1 Corinthians 9

Much of this letter to the church in Corinth is Paul’s defense of his ministry in response to questions raised about the validity of his authority and ministry (4:1-5; 14:36-37).

Chapter 9 begins with Paul reaffirming his ministry as an apostle, and he specifically addressed his rights as an apostle, including his right to material support (v. 12). Paul spoke boldly about what many today would consider a very delicate subject:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. (1 Corinthians 9:1-3 NIV)

As verse 3 indicates, apparently some people in Corinth had been judging Paul. They had concluded that they had no obligation to support Paul financially. The apostle began a weighty rhetorical attack on his critics’ viewpoint.

He used three arguments to establish that he had a right to the Corinthians’ financial support:

  1. Precedent
  2. Natural order
  3. Scripture


Paul reminded the Corinthians that churches were supporting other apostles, including Peter (v. 5). Therefore, Paul argued, as ministers of the gospel, Barnabas and he had every right to be supported by the church:

Don't we have the right to food and drink? Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living? (1 Corinthians 9:5-6 NIV)

Since Paul and Barnabas had ministered in Corinth, they all the more had the right to financial support from the Corinthians (v. 12) just as Peter, the Lord’s brothers, and other apostles had that right.

Vigorously defending Barnabas and himself as their equals, Paul argued that Barnabas and he should receive the same care those leaders had received. The precedent had been set!

Natural Order

In the Roman world, soldiers serving in the great Roman army were paid for their services, so Paul drew an analogy between the soldiers and those who, like him, were serving in God’s army (1 Corinthians 9:7).

Paul also used two other analogies: Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? (v. 7 NIV). 

The workers are not denied the fruit of their labor. That agreement was the natural order for soldiers, farmers, shepherds, and—by extension—apostles.

Now, about that natural order… When I was young, Dad and Mom piled the kids into the paneled station wagon (if you’re under 50, Google can help), and we headed to an orchard to help pick apples. We were able to purchase some for ourselves and—most important—while we were picking, we could eat our fill.

In this large orchard the pickers could only eat a very small percentage of the overall output. Yet the picker’s right to share in what they picked was the principle I decided to apply—to its very limit!

I am quite sure that, even today, I still hold the orchard’s record for number of apples eaten by a six-year-old. In fact, I ate so many apples, I got sick on the way home.

Old Testament Teaching

Next—and quite forcefully—Paul based his argument on Old Testament teaching:

Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn't the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: "Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain." Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely, he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more?
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? (1 Corinthians 9:8-13 NIV)

Paul quoted Deuteronomy 25:4—Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain—to again make the point that he had a right to the Corinthians’ support of his ministry. A little background will be helpful.

An ox would trample back and forth on the threshing floor to separate the ears of grain from the stalks. Sometimes, the ox would haul a threshing sledge for the same effect. While it was working, the ox had a leather muzzle placed over its nose/mouth so it wouldn’t eat the grain.

This trampling or hauling lasted all day, and the writer of Deuteronomy reminded the reader that it’s wrong to muzzle the animal all day and never let it eat. Similarly, it is wrong for Christian leaders and pastors to work all day and not be allowed to receive material support for their basic needs. 

Paul’s arguments based on precedent, the natural order, and the Old Testament all support his basic point: the Corinthians were obligated to support Paul as he served in ministry.

The Last—and Best—Argument

1 Corinthians 9

Paul summarized his case with the strongest argument yet. He referred to Jesus’ teachings about a worker and his wages:

The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:14 NIV)

Paul did not cite Scripture, but he did refer to the teachings of Jesus Himself. Clearly, the Corinthians knew at least some of the Lord’s teaching, or Paul would not have made this reference.

Paul was reminding the Corinthians what Jesus Himself taught: spiritual workers should receive a wage from the people they serve. 

As we’ve seen, this arrangement is entirely consistent with Old Testament teachings and practice. The purpose of the Old Testament tithe was the material support of the Levite priesthood.

Paul was completely consistent with Jesus’ words on this topic:

"Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road. When you enter a house, first say, 'Peace to this house.’ If someone who promotes peace is there, your peace will rest on them; if not, it will return to you. Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house.” (Luke 10:4-7 NIV)
"Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts-- no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep.” (Matthew 10:9-10 NIV)

In these parallel passages, Jesus stated that the worker is worth his wages. Paul clearly understood this as a reference to spiritual work also being worthy of material support.

Alluding to the authoritative words of Jesus Himself, Paul saw this point as the coup de grâce to the argument.

Simply stated, Paul made the watertight case that the Corinthian church, which he had planted and served, was obligated before God to support him materially.

But then, after fully developing his argument and showing himself clearly right about expecting the church’s support, Paul turned and renounced that which he had just established. And he did so for the sake of the gospel:

But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:15-18 NIV)

Paul did not deny that he had these rights, but he renounced these rights rather than hinder the gospel of Christ (v. 12): Paul did not want to be accused of preaching the gospel for money or for any other reason than the fact God had called him to do so (vv. 15-18).

In other words, Paul went on record affirming that the church is obligated to support the vocational worker, but never wanting to have his motives questioned, Paul renounced his right to demand the Corinthian church’s financial or material support.

Next week we will look at the practical implications of this teaching, both here in the United States and around the world. Please join us!

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