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1 Corinthians 9 — Affirming payment or condemning it?

Feb 6, 2024 — Jon Here

1 Corinthians 9 is commonly upheld as proof that it’s ok to sell ministry, since in it Paul vigorously argues for the right to material support in ministry. And it’s true. Paul does thoroughly substantiate the right to material support with numerous examples, reference to the Law, and the conclusive statement that “those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (9:14).

However, there are two big mistakes that many interpreters of 1 Corinthians 9 make:

  1. Assuming the right to material support justifies selling ministry
  2. Assuming the right to material support is the point of the chapter

Many have been reading 1 Corinthians 9 upside down. Paul is not lifting up the right to material support to endorse its use, but for it to be all the more dramatic when he himself relinquishes it (“But we did not exercise this right”)! He even does it twice to drive the point home.

Context is crucial

1 Corinthians 9 is situated within Paul’s admonishment to the Corinthians regarding food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10). Many either assume that Paul has gone off on a tangent or simply miss the fact that chapter 9 is integral to his overall argument regarding food sacrificed to idols.[1]

While Paul acknowledges that we have the “right” to eat whatever we like, he admonishes that such a right should not always be exercised (8:9). He then goes on in chapter 9 to give an example of how one of his own rights shouldn’t be used to its fullest extent (the right to material support as a minister of the gospel).

The following terms are used in chapter 9 without much clarification from Paul as to what they are referring to, so it is important to read them in the overall context of the letter:

  • “free” / ἐλεύθερος — This greek work for “free” refers to freedom, where as later in 9:18 ἀδάπανον is used for “free” in terms of payment. Paul uses ἐλεύθερος earlier in the letter to refer to slaves being free from their masters (7:21), and a woman being free to marry (7:39). Thus, when used in 9:1 and 9:19, Paul is not referring to his salvation but rather to his freedom from obligation to others, freedom to do as he pleases.[2] Paul will later make the point that while he may be free from others, he is not free from the Lord (9:17).

  • “right” / ἐξουσία — This word is most often translated in the New Testament as “authority”, something to be stewarded rather than some kind of moral entitlement. Critiquing the concept of “rights” is part of the purpose of Paul’s letter. In earlier chapters he makes clear that exercising one’s “right/authority” is not always justified and can be detrimental to the gospel, in regards to sexual immorality (6:12) and food sacrificed to idols (8:9).

  • “boast” / καύχημα — Paul mentions “boasting” throughout both letters to the Corinthians. He is very critical of human boasting (1:29), redirects it to boasting about God instead (1:31), and also uses it sarcastically throughout 2 Corinthians (especially 2 Cor 11-12). In 1 Corinthians 9:15 he also uses it ironically.[3] While others really do boast, Paul instead humbles himself by not claiming his material rights.[4]

  • “reward” / μισθός — Earlier in the letter Paul talks about God rewarding people for their service (3:8,14), and so too Paul himself seeks reward from God rather than payment from men. While others may get a material reward when preaching of their own initiative (9:17), Paul’s “reward” (ironically) is to preach for free (9:18) and be rewarded by his master instead.

So when our modern translations render these terms in English, we must be careful not to import alternate meanings that are not implied in the original language or in the passage’s context.

1 Corinthians 9 expanded

In light of this understanding, let’s go through 1 Corinthians 9, with parenthetical expansions to help smooth out the flow of Paul’s argument. These expansions work for any of the major translations, so feel free to apply them to your preferred translation.

The intention here is to help us recall what Paul means by these terms, applying what we know from the context. We’ll start from the last verse of chapter 8 for context:

8:13 Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again [despite having the right to], so that I will not cause him to stumble.

9:1 Am I not free [to exercise my rights]? Am I not an apostle [with rights]? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you yourselves not my workmanship in the Lord? 2 Even if I am not an apostle to others, surely I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord [thus I have the rights of an apostle].

3 This is my defense to those who scrutinize me [when I tell you to give up your own rights]: 4 Have we no right to food and to drink? 5 Have we no right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I lack the right to not have to work?[5] [Surely we have the right to support just as the other apostles do.]

7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Who tends a flock and does not drink of its milk? [Nobody does.]

8 Do I say this from [merely] a human perspective? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 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? 10 Isn’t He actually speaking on our behalf? Indeed, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they should also expect to share in the harvest.

11 If we have sown spiritual seed [of great value] among you, is it too much for us to reap a material harvest [of lesser value] from you? 12 If others have this right to your support, shouldn’t we have it all the more? [Thus we deserve support from you more than anyone else does!]

But we did not exercise this right. Instead, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ [by expecting support from you].

13 Do you not know that those who work in the temple eat of its food, and those who serve at the altar partake of its offerings? 14 In the same way, the Lord has prescribed that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel [through the support of others].

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this to suggest that something be done for me. Indeed, I would rather die than let anyone nullify my “boast”, [lest anyone think I’m doing this for material gain].

16 For when I preach the gospel, I have no reason to boast, because I am obligated to preach [as God’s servant]. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!

17 If my preaching is of my own will[6] [like someone self-employed], I have a reward [receiving whatever I like]. But if it is not of my own will [which is the case], I have been[7] entrusted with a responsibility [as God’s servant]. 18 What then is my reward? That in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge [seeking reward from God instead], and so not take advantage of[8] my rights in preaching it.

19 Though I am free of obligation to anyone, I make myself a slave to everyone [giving up my rights], to win as many as possible.

20-27 [Paul continues the idea of giving up rights for the sake of others and being self-disciplined rather than living as we please.]

1 Corinthians 9 paraphrased

It can be hard to follow the whole chapter given its size, so let’s now reduce this to a paraphrased version:

1-12 I too could exercise my rights, such as my right to support. As you know, I’m an apostle. Apostles deserve to be compensated for their labor, just like anyone else does. So we could have accepted support from you if we wanted to.

12-15 But we didn’t exercise this right! We’d prefer to go without support than let anything get in the way of the gospel. We certainly do have the right to support, as God has always supported ministers through people’s offerings, in the temple and in the Church now as well. But I haven’t used any of these rights!

15 (By the way, I’m not mentioning all of this to imply you should support me. I would rather die than have anyone think I’m doing this for material gain.)

16-19 I have to preach the gospel free of charge, as I’m not self-employed but rather a servant of God. My reward is getting to serve him and you. So while we might be free to do as we please, we should still give up our rights for the sake of the gospel.

(See also a modernized conversation between Paul and the Corinthians.)

The tension

This chapter is a challenging one to fully understand because Paul is holding two things in tension.

On the one hand, Paul indeed justifies the right to support. When he mentions that the other apostles received support (9:5-6), he is not criticizing them. It is all part of his argument that he too has the right to support just like they do. And Paul did accept support from other churches (Phil 4:18) and even requested it from the Corinthians at the end of the letter (1 Cor 16:6).

On the other hand, he will only preach “free of charge” (9:18) and will not let material things hinder his ministry in any way (9:12). This is not a matter of personal preference, but rather a practice he expects everyone to follow, lest they too “hinder the gospel of Christ.” Just as he has given up his material rights, he expects the Corinthians to do the same in regard to food sacrificed to idols.

What we can conclude, then, is that the right to material support is legitimate, as long as it doesn’t get in the way of the gospel. Which means there are times it is appropriate and times it is not, and forms of funding that are appropriate and forms that are not.

This nuance is easily observed when we consider the other topics Paul also addresses:

  • The right to one’s own body – which can be sexually exercised appropriately (in marriage) or inappropriately (with a prostitute, 6:15).
  • The right to eat – which can be exercised appropriately (eating an ordinary meal) or inappropriately (eating at “the table of demons”, 10:21).

And so, too:

  • The right to material support

It is necessary to consult the rest of Scripture to further flesh out what appropriate and inappropriate support looks like, but we can already see the pattern emerging from this passage. According to Paul’s example, which he expects his readers to follow, ministry must be free and it must not be hindered by any demand for material support.

Paul did not think it appropriate to receive support from the Corinthians prior to the letter, most likely due to their lack of maturity (3:1-2). Unlike the Philippians who would have understood supporting free ministry as an act of worship (Phil 4:18), Paul had to ensure that the Corinthians understood that sincere ministry is not conditioned on any potential support (1 Cor 9:18, 2 Cor 2:17, 2 Cor 11:7).

Alternate interpretations

Let’s consider some of the most common alternate interpretations for this passage:

  • Responding to criticism: Verses 1-6 sound very defensive and appear to be a response to criticism of Paul’s apostleship and/or his financial practices. If so, what prompted this sudden outburst in the middle of a discussion about food? Paul was actually having a problem with people revering him excessively (1:12) and the flow of Paul’s argument implies that he expects his readers to answer all his questions positively, including whether he is an apostle. These introductory verses are rhetoric Paul uses to establish his “rights”, making it all the more surprising that he doesn’t make use of them.[9]
  • Personal preference: Some read Paul’s giving up of material support as a personal preference that he does not necessarily expect of others. But that would undermine the point he is making. Is eating food sacrificed to idols a personal preference? It is not. It does depend on the context (8:9, 10:28), but the variability is due to gospel factors (participating in idolatry) and not personal preference.[10]
  • Patronage: Some argue that Paul wanted to avoid being controlled by the Corinthians, were they to become his financial backers (hence Paul’s emphasis on being free of obligation to others [9:1, 9:19]). However, this doesn’t fit with the context of food rights (chapters 8-10) as it implies Paul is simply off on a tangent that is only vaguely related. It doesn’t make sense of the Corinthians’ desire to be under Paul as followers (1:12), since patronage assumes they wanted to be over him. And it also doesn’t explain why Paul would be happy to be financially connected to the church in Philippi (Phil 4:18) but not the church in Corinth. There is no indication of any issue of patronage in the actual text so this view is merely speculative.[11]

Therefore, all of these other interpretations prove inadequate and do not sufficiently explain all aspects of the passage.

A right to sell ministry?

There is a form of material support that is conspicuously absent in this chapter. Paul covers a range of occupations: apostles, soldiers, vinedressers, shepherds, oxen, plowmen, threshers, sowers, and priests. Yet the common occupation of a merchant in a marketplace is missing, and for good reason.

All the examples Paul gives are of those who receive indirect support, through hospitality, wages from a master, or sharing in what is produced. This is in contrast to a merchant who directly exchanges something for money. Go back through the whole chapter and you’ll notice that Paul never even uses the words “money” or “payment”!

Directly exchanging spiritual things for money is exactly the type of funding that “hinders the gospel of Christ.” To sell ministry is to deny people access to it unless they pay. It is also the type of finance explicitly condemned by Micah (3:11) and Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians (2:17).

In conclusion, 1 Corinthians 9 does not support selling ministry. It condemns it. Paul navigates a complex space where the right to support exists, but must be exercised cautiously to avoid compromising the gospel and one’s own integrity. This nuanced approach, reflected in other areas of his teachings, suggests that context and intention play a crucial role in determining the appropriateness of receiving or offering support. This passage cannot and should not be used to justify the commercialization of spiritual things so prevalent today. In the end, 1 Corinthians 9 must be read in light of Jesus’ command to freely give what has been freely received (Matt 10:8).

  1. See Garland, 1 Corinthians, for a detailed explanation of this. ↩︎

  2. This is especially clear in 9:19, “Ἐλεύθερος γὰρ ὢν ἐκ πάντων” (Free, for I am, from all) ↩︎

  3. It’s clear he is being ironic given he immediately follows “I would rather die than let anyone nullify my boast” with “I have no reason to boast” (9:15-16). ↩︎

  4. This is also how he refers to his giving up of material rights in 2 Corinthians 11:7 (“to humble myself”). ↩︎

  5. This phrase is literally “right to not work”. If someone has the right to not do something, they are not being forbidden from doing it, but are rather being freed from having to do it. A right to not clean the dishes is best expressed as a right to not have to clean the dishes. Which is why “have to” is supplied for clarity. ↩︎

  6. Some translations render ἑκὼν as “voluntary”, however “voluntary” can be understood to mean someone has “volunteered” to serve under an authority, which would mean they are not really “free” (9:1). Rather, Paul is giving an example of someone who is free from any authority or obligation. Thus “of my own will” is a better rendering as it removes the potential for such a misunderstanding. ↩︎

  7. Some translations render the perfect tense of πεπίστευμαι as “I am still entrusted”, however the use of “still” can mislead readers into thinking it is in contrast to “but if not of my own will”. In which case Paul would be saying that he is still entrusted with a responsibility despite not preaching of his own will. When really Paul is entrusted with a responsibility in accord with not preaching of his own will. Thus “I have been entrusted” is more suitable. ↩︎

  8. “use” / καταχρήσασθαι — This verb is prepended by “κατα” which intensifies it (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 2003, p427). Some translations read “not make full use of my rights” (NIV, ESV similar) which could mistakenly imply that Paul did make some use of his rights. Other translations read it in terms of excess “not abuse my authority” (NKJV). This is more likely given the context. Paul is heavily implying it would be inappropriate for him to “use” his rights, so “abuse” or “take advantage of” better capture the meaning. ↩︎

  9. Authors who agree that Paul is not defending his apostleship: Garland, 1 Corinthians; Witherington, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians; Verbrugge and Harris, 1 & 2 Corinthians. ↩︎

  10. Authors who agree Paul is not going ‘above and beyond’ but expects all to give up their own rights regarding material support and food sacrificed to idols: Garland, 1 Corinthians; Witherington, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. ↩︎

  11. Witherington in “A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians” espouses this view but he is hesitant to be conclusive, often favoring wording like: “Apparently Paul did not want”, “Paul may have”, “It may well be”, “a preacher receiving patronage would probably be”. This is a good reminder that this view is based on guesswork and not anything clear in the text. ↩︎

Jon Here

Founder of Gracious TechMDiv

Jon has served as a pastor, a missionary in South-East Asia, and went on to start his own company for creating apps for mission. Every app his company makes is free to use and open source.

The first app I made was for evangelizing using plain Scripture. It was almost done when I realised Bible translations forbid sharing plain Scripture! Copyright has been the number one barrier to my ministry ever since. The more I've reflected on Scripture and the practices of modern ministries, the more concerned I've become.

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