Read the passage here.
Last week, in our study of 1 Corinthians, we looked at chapter 8 which we noted begins a new section in the letter that takes us through to chapter 11:1. If we recall, this section of 1 Corinthians was introduced by the phrase “Now about food sacrificed to idols.” That is, Paul is responding to the Corinthians’ questions or issues about this practice. And though this issue may not be obvious in our passage today, we should keep in mind that it is still this that governs Paul’s response. So let’s take a look at how Paul continues his argument in chapter 9.
So this is a pretty lengthy chapter and Paul covers quite a bit of territory. Therefore, there are likely going to be questions that arise that we won’t be able to cover. But what we do want to do is explore a few main things: How does this chapter fit into the larger passage (8:1 – 11:1)? And given that, what is Paul’s main point (or possibly points) that he is trying to communicate to the community in Corinth. From that, of course, we then want to think about what we in the 21st century Canada might do with that.
So beginning with how this chapter fits into the larger passage, last week we noted that this section is governed by Paul’s addressing the issue of food sacrifice to idols. At issue seems to be whether the Corinthians can participate in the cultic meals associated with these sacrifices. And in chapter 8, the Corinthians’ argument to be allowed to do so seems to be (at least for the most part), that the gods involved are not real gods, they know this and are therefore not truly engaged in worshipping, and therefore what they do around these meals doesn’t have any real spiritual significance – i.e. it doesn’t matter. Paul’s response to this in chapter 8 is that their knowledge doesn’t preclude the effect that their actions has on others – in others words, don’t cause others to stumble. And it’s from here that Paul’s argument picks up in chapter 9.
Now last week, I actually noted that chapter 9 has Paul giving a defense of his apostleship. By this argument, in the previous correspondence, the Corinthians have taken issue with Paul’s prohibition of participating in these meals. This is seemingly in part due to their skepticism of Paul’s apostolic authority – something that we’ve already seen earlier in this letter. And while we’re not going to go into it in depth, there are elements in our passage today which indicate that this is indeed a real concern (for example, vv. 1-3).
And according to this reading, Paul brings up his refusal to be supported financially by his congregants because the Corinthians’ expectation is precisely that an apostle, a leader of the community, is the one who is supported by the community. So Paul is saying something like, “my not taking your financial support is not indicative of my deserving it – I deserve it as much as any of the other apostles. Rather, I am choosing not to take it because I want to emphasize something else.”
Now there’s more to it than that, but I don’t want to get bogged down here. And this is the argument presented by Gordon Fee (though of course I’m not doing it justice – also Charles Barrett), who we have been largely following. However, it’s worth noting that other scholars see things differently than Fee. Instead of seeing Paul as providing a defense of his apostolic authority, they see Paul using his apostolic position as an example, specifically of giving up one’s rights.
This is the perspective of Ben Witherington and Anthony Thiselton (at least). According to this perspective, Paul’s choice to not assert his apostolic privilege (i.e. around financial support) serves as an example of how the Corinthians should not seek to assert their own so-called rights to the detriment of their brothers and sisters. Rather, like Paul, their emphasis should be on what best serves others – what matters is how well they love.
Now this all deserves a lot more examination. And at least part of the reason I present both of these possibilities to you is that I’m not strongly convinced by one over the other – that is to say, I find both arguments compelling. And to me, they both seem to fit the context of what’s going on. So perhaps it’s not a matter of one or the other, but a matter of emphasis – though it may also be a mistake to suggest that either position is completely exclusive of the other. (I’m not sure I’m reading it correctly, but N.T. Wright seems to recognize both possibilities without committing exclusively to either).
So what I mean is this (sort of): I find it plausible (or at least possible) that Paul was concerned about asserting his apostolic authority here. I find it likely that the Corinthians did not like what Paul had to say about this issue (in the previous correspondence that we’ve talked about) and that one of their responses was “why should we listen to you?” This would be in line with what we’ve seen earlier in the letter about their attitude towards Paul.
And it’s likewise possible that one of their issues was that Paul was not otherwise asserting his authority or privilege like they saw some other apostles doing – this is the issue of financial support discussed in this passage. In other words, they may be saying something like, “why should we accept your authority in this matter when you’re not demonstrating your apostolic authority in this other matter?”
And Paul is explaining why he chooses not to exercise his privilege in this matter – specifically, so that he can reach as many people as possible with the good news of Jesus. Now we’re not going to get into the specific logic of this, but Paul’s position is basically that, “22b I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.” So we might say that it is precisely Paul’s refusal to assert privilege that affirms his authority as apostle.
But what all this does is provide an example of the principle that Paul has already laid out regarding food sacrificed to idols: that is, that one’s rights as a child of God should not supersede one’s responsibility to love one another. If even Paul, as one with apostolic authority, refuses to assert one’s own privilege for the sake of others, how much more should we do so for our brothers and sisters?
So that might be how we’d answer or explore the question of how this passage fits in with the larger section (8:1-11:1). The second thing we wanted to identify from this passage is what is Paul’s main point here, in this part of the argument. And we might say that verses 22, which we’ve already identified, may be a good starting point. Paul says he has chosen to give up his rights because, “9:22b I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.”
And what we might understand is that Paul is trying to communicate something to his readers about the question of food sacrificed to idols. And if we’ve been following along, Paul’s point is pretty straightforward. In this specific passage (that is, chapter 9), we might understand that Paul wants to emphasize that the needs of others, or the benefit of others is more important than one’s own rights or freedoms.
And I’m inclined to think that this is a fairly difficult concept for us to grasp. What I mean is that, for a variety of reasons, western culture tends to be very ego-centric. We’ve talked about this many times before, but in Western societies, the basic unit of society, the basic referent of reality, is the individual. Of course, this isn’t an absolute thing, but generally speaking, this appears to be the case – especially when we compare Western cultures with (for example) Eastern cultures.
And of course, if the basic unit of reality is the individual, the individual which we have the largest stake in is ourselves. And simply put, what Paul is saying is that in God’s economy, we simply cannot be concerned only with ourselves. We cannot be concerned primarily with ourselves. What is best for me – by which we often mean, what is most preferable for me – cannot be the most important value.
As Paul says elsewhere,
1 Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2 then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. 3 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.Philippians 2: 1-4
Now if we can return to the beginning of this passage, let’s remember that this entire discussion is precipitated in some way by the Corinthians’ question about “food sacrificed to idols” – about participating in the cultic meals. Again, as Paul puts it, “Now about food sacrificed to idols…” And we remember that the full first paragraph, by which Paul introduces this entire conversation (and perhaps which governs this whole conversation), says:
1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.1 Corinthians 9: 1-3
And I just wanted to take this opportunity to reflect again on the dichotomy that Paul establishes between Knowledge and Love. And I think that this is also what’s going on in our passage today.
I can imagine that the Corinthians, with their “great knowledge,” are very concerned with what is correct. They are very concerned with where we draw the theological lines. And their position is essentially, so long as we’re standing on the right side of the line, we’re all right. Indeed, because the exercise of our rights is based on our superior knowledge, and because knowledge is the truest spirituality, when we know where the lines are, we are indeed the closest to God (or something like that).
But Paul disrupts that entire line of thinking by simply saying, none of that matters (at least it doesn’t matter in the way we think it does) – what matters is that we love one another.
In Paul’s own ministry, he knows he has a particular calling. But for Paul, how he fulfills that calling is just as important as the results (at least so it seems to me). Paul will become all things to all people because what’s important is not his speaking, what’s important is not his words and his voice. What’s important is what his audience hears.
And if anything, this confirms Paul’s apostolic calling and his apostolic authority. Because he’s not concerned with being right; he’s concerned with Jesus. He’s concerned with knowing Jesus and making Jesus known. And he knows that Jesus isn’t a series of propositions, a collection of facts. Jesus is a person who can only be responded to. And so Paul as an apostle also sets an example for us as to how we might live in love with one another; it sets an example for what’s important in the kingdom community, for those who claim to know Jesus.
Again, as I said last week, I am not saying that good theology and correct doctrine are not important. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t seek to know and understand scripture well. And I’m not saying right and wrong are not important (whether in matters of food or otherwise). But perhaps what I am saying is this. Christians have been arguing about all sorts of things for all two thousand of the years since Jesus ascended to the Father. In some of those things, some have been proven to be wrong, and others to be right. But in many things, we are still arguing, we are still using knowledge (or whatever else) as a club or a measuring stick.
So there are many things about which we are still not perfectly clear, about which we may not be perfectly right. So perhaps what I’m trying to say is, if we are going to err, let us err on the side of love. Let us err on the side of grace. If we are going to stumble, let us stumble into the arms of He who gave up his very life for the sake of each of us and all of us.