Last week we started to look at the issue in Corinth of should Christians eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Some in the church at Corinth thought it was alright for them to go and be involved at the feasts and festivals held at the pagan temples in Corinth. They thought that in Christ they were free to do whatever they wanted and after all it was just sticks and stones and food was just food. Others were wrestling with the food at the butchers being from the temples so should they even touch that. And we saw Paul began to address the issue by saying that Christian ethics and behaviour was not based solely on knowledge but on love.
Yes we are free… yes we have all this knowledge and …yes says Paul idols are just wood and stone but we know the one true God, our heavenly Father and we have come to know that God through the one Lord, Jesus Christ, and all we do should come out of a love for the one true God who first loved us.
We know it is just food and it’s our right to eat it, but if it causes our brothers and sisters to lose their faith then it is not the loving thing to do. we become a tripping hazard...And we saw how these principles help us as a diverse people of God to work through issues of liberty and love in our time and place.
In the chapter we had read out to us today Paul continues his argument about food sacrificed to idols. He does it by giving an example in his own life, how he had curbed his freedom and voluntarily forgone a personal right for the sake of the gospel… not demanding support from the church at Corinth…Then he talks about how he goes about dealing with food and cultural issues in his ministry… and finally before going back to address the issue of food and idols directly, which we will look at next week, he uses the metaphor of the self-discipline of athletes to challenge his hearers about how we should use our liberty in Christ for the gospel.
One of the results of the factions in Corinth was a challenge to Paul’s authority as an Apostle, and one of the key issues about that was that Paul actually worked for a living as well as preached the gospel. It went in the face of their idea of how a philosopher or sophist would make a living in their day. Most sophists would charge a fee for people to attend courses on their way of living… In our modern age it maybe through running motivational seminars, self-help videos and books, Christian conferences. Others would be sponsored by rich patron’s in a community, some would beg and the rear one would support themselves by working part time. So Paul here kills two birds with one stone by asserting his credentials as an apostle and giving as an example of how he curbs his freedom and rights for the sake of the gospel by tackling the pay issue.
He starts with a series of rhetorical question which we are supposed to answer in the affirmative. He says he is free, a catch word amongst the spiritual ones in Corinth, they had been set free by coming to faith in Christ, so Paul like them was free. Isn’t he an Apostle… which he defends and defines in two ways. Firstly that he has seen the risen Lord, Paul’s encounter on the Damascus road was more than just a vision in Paul’s mind. Later in chapter 15 he will place himself on the list of those to whom Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, calling himself, as one untimely born. In his meeting with the risen Lord Paul received a commission to go and preach Christ to the gentiles, he is an apostle a sent one because he is sent by Christ. Secondly, Paul tells the Corinthians that he is an apostle to the church in Corinth because they are a result of his ministry. He had come and preached the gospel and by the Holy Spirit they had responded. Others may doubt him but how could the church at Corinth.
Recently there has been debate over whether we still have apostles in the church today and what does that mean. is it an authoritative person or is it a church planter/missionary? some talk of a new apostolic era, with anointed leadership to help the church chart its path in a new reality, and other worry it is simply a new apostolic error, a grab for power and influence. When I was looking at placements when I came out of Knox college one church that was interested in me told me that they had just entered into an agreement with someone as their apostle, and if I came to them I’d have to work in within that relationship. They didn’t mean Apostle with a capital A as in someone that had been with Jesus and witnessed the resurrection, but would exercise a leadership relationship with the parish. My response was to look at this passage and that person and say that while I believe people can have an apostolic ministry today, that is planting churches in new areas, that I did not believe that person had such a ministry, they had never actually established a church in a cross cultural setting. Apart from that it went against our Presbyterian understanding of leadership and polity, we look for the Spirits leading in collective wisdom rather than in a person.
Paul asserts that as an apostle he has the right like the other apostles to ask for the support of the churches he has planted. The other Apostles seem to exercise that right. They even have their wives with them. That the support that was asked for was for the family travelling together. I couldn’t help but think of the recent public outcry we’ve had in New Zealand about politicians using the public purse to take their spouses on overseas junkets.
Paul then gives a very solid defence for paying people who preach and teach the gospel. He defends it five ways. From common sense, using the example of a soldier, they get paid for their services, a vineyard owner shares in the harvest and a shepherd drinks milk from his flock. He defends it from scripture quoting Deuteronomy 25;4. Oxen that were used to turn the stones on threshing floor should not be muzzled to stop them eating some of the grain they are helping work on. While this seems to be an animal welfare law, in rabbinical teaching and for Paul it had a wider application to those who worked for the Lord: If the oxen could share in the harvest why shouldn’t those who sow and reap spiritually receive at least some material benefit.
He goes on to point out to the Corinthians that the priests that serve in the temple also make their living from the temple. In the Jewish temple system which Paul was referring to here as a scriptural precedent but and also in the pagan temples in Corinth, the priests received a portion of the meat sacrificed to idols, this is after all is the context of his argument. He also points out that the Lord commanded it in Passages like Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10 where Jesus tells his disciples in their mission trips to make use of the hospitality they are given.
But Says Paul I do not use this right. It seems others were asking the church at Corinth to support them but Paul would not. He did not want it to be a burden on them. The gospel that he had been freely given should be freely given. Why should it be only for those who could pay? If he was to make use of patronage, it would mean he was tied down to one person or one group and not free to preach where he wanted. Some scholars think that the factions in Corinth were based around the strong patrons in the Church supporting different Apostles. In Acts when Paul first comes to Europe he does stay at the house of Lydia but by the time he comes to Corinth he is supporting himself by plying his trade as a tent maker. But also says Paul he does not want to be robbed of his boast that it is all Christ. He does not want to lose his reward of seeing people come to know Jesus.
In our own time we wrestle with these issues. In New Zealand and the western world there is a great suspicion of preachers and church leaders who seem to live an extravagant life style. Like TV evangelists who always invite people to contribute while they live in mansions and wear the flashiest clothes. Million dollar mansions and private Jets damage the gospels credibility... It is interesting to see the positive affirmations the new pope has received for forgoing some of the trapping of is position.
In our Presbyterian Church a minister is paid a stipend or living allowance to free them from worrying about finances to focus on preaching and teaching. The stipend is set on the average wage in New Zealand.
Patronage has also been an issue that has had to be addressed. In the church in Scotland in 1843 there was the great disruption where ministers and congregations walked away from the national church over the issue of patronage. Whether the wealthy few should have the say over who the minister in a certain parish was, could they override the rights of a congregation?
Paul’s profession and example of tentmaking is significant again in Missions round the world. In many places round the world which are closed to the gospel people go as tentmakers to live in those places and share the gospel. I aways remember one the story of a man who went to the same church we did when w were in Dunedin. He was a diesel mechanic who was invited to speak to a university in Iran and the class started asking him about his faith rather than his expertise with engines.
There is also the challenge for many in ministry in the west, where the price of supporting a full time minister is a luxury that can no longer be maintained. And we are seeing the rise of bi-vocational ministers who supplement their ministry with other work. Other traditions have focused on having lay leadership to avoid paid ministers all together.
Having shown the Corinthians how he curbs his freedom for the sake of the gospel Paul then turns to talk about how he handles the food issue. How he deals with living and preaching in different cultural settings. When he with Jews he says he eats like a Jew. He goes Kosha. Not because he is bound by the law of Moses, not to earn God’s favour, but he does it to show love and be able to share the love of Christ. When he is with non-Jews, he eats as if he does not have the law although as a Jew he is probably more akin to kosher eating. Then to bring it home to the folk in Corinth who were causing the weak to head back to pagan idols he says when I’m with the weak I eat like the weak. I curb my freedom.
He sums this up by saying that he becomes all things to all people. The key issue for Paul which he repeats six times in verses 19-23 is that he may win people to Christ. He does not water down or change his message but is willing to confirm to certain morally free cultural differences for the sake of the gospel. If he kept his kosher food laws and didn’t eat with the gentiles, which he had to tell Peter off about, it would stop the gospel being preached and shared. Whenever he went to a new town he went to the synagogue or place of prayer, if there was one and shared the gospel with the Jews so it meant living like them. The big mission word is contextualisation. In my office my bible sits on my desk, next to my coffee cup, as I was writing this I noticed I had put my cell phone on top of it. I have a friend who shares his faith with many Muslim people, and how he treats his physical scriptures is different, he has his bible on a special stand. He never east or drinks round it and definitely never puts stuff on top of it, because those are some of the ways Muslims show respect to their scripture. Christians often shun places where non-Christians congregate, yet a friend of mine says she has had some of her best conversations about Christ in the toilets of Gay night clubs, and last time I talked with her, she had turned the room that bar staff used for smoking dope into the place where they met for bible study. She never compromises her faith but is secure enough to go and share in such places. Similarly Jesus was seen as the one who would go and eat with tax collectors and outcasts, not to hang out with the cool crowd or out of some thrill of walking on the wild side, but to show love to them and share the good news that they were as welcome at God’s table as he was at there’s. The religious people used to brand him with a title which is very dear to you and I… Jesus “friend of Sinners”.
Finally Paul uses the metaphor of an athlete to demonstrate that for the sake of the gospel he was willing to go into strict training. He was prepared to restrict his personal liberty for the sake of the prize. Corinth was the town which hosted the second most important sporting event in the whole of Greece. Athletes would sign up for ten months hard physical training before they could compete; if they broke that training they were disqualified. So Paul says for the sake of the gospel he will discipline himself, he will curb his freedom he will be careful what he eats and how he acts so that he may gain the prize. Yes he is free to do whatever he wants but for the sake of the gospel he uses self-disciple. In the end says Paul the prize we have is far greater than a gold medal or a world cup, yes we are free by that freedom calls us to live a self-disciplined lifestyle willing to give things up and take up good practises so we may win others for Christ.