Apostolic Rights

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Rights and duties have been very much in the news recently. Earlier this week the Reith lecturer on Radio 4 spoke about human rights and human duties. Over the next two sessions on 1 Corinthians 9 we're looking at Apostolic Rights and Apostolic Duties.

As we saw last week in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul has been dealing with the strong Christians who asserted their rights even when that harmed others. He has told them that this is wrong. Look at v9-13 of chapter 8. Paul says in v9 that those who are strong Christians 'need to be careful that the exercise of their freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak'. He goes on in v10-13:

For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against your brothers in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.

Paul has been saying that it is easy for the strong Christian to see no harm whatever in actions which the weak can only regard as sinful. So the strong must always act towards the weak with consideration and Christian love. That in cases such as the eating of food sacrificed to idols the strong must adapt their behaviour to the conscience of the weak. No good purpose is served by asserting their rights.

The Apostle Paul now goes on to show in chapter 9 that he himself has consistently applied this principle. Indeed, as we shall see later from v12, here he increases the scope of the principle to benefit the non-Christian and not just the weaker brother. Paul practises what he preaches. The order of the first two rhetorical questions in v1 of chapter 9 – 'Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?' (which refer to the liberty of the Christian and then to the rights of the apostle) - suggests that he has forgone not only the general rights that all Christians have, but also his particular rights as an apostle as well.

But for some of his critics Paul's acceptance of restrictions on his liberty showed that he was no apostle. They had not learnt that 'freedom is not licence to do what I want, but liberation to do what I ought'. So Paul now argues strongly that he is an apostle in the fullest sense and that as an apostle he has the right to their material support but, v12b, 'we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ'. So, as at the start of 1 Cor 2, Paul here proceeds to demonstrate a truth from his own ministry which provides him with an opportunity to also defend his ministry to those who pass judgement on it by explaining why he did not claim his rights as an apostle. And those three points that he argues strongly for make up my three headings.


Paul unleashes a torrent of rhetorical questions in v1. They each expect the answer 'yes' in the original. Have a look at that verse:

Am I not free? [Yes] Am I not an apostle? [Of course I am] Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? [Of course I have] Are you not the result of my work in the Lord [Of course you are]?

Paul comes back to the first question 'Am I not free?' primarily in the second half of this chapter, v15-27, which we'll be looking at in two weeks time. But he must first defend his apostleship because everything else hinges on that.

As I've said some at Corinth were questioning Paul's genuine apostleship. There have been hints of that earlier in this letter (eg 1:1; 4:1-5; 5:1-2). But this is the first direct evidence. To them his failure to charge them for his ministry and accept material support called into question his apostleship (cf 2 Cor. 11:7). At that time itinerant Greek and Roman philosophers and religious teachers supported themselves in one of four ways: charging fees, staying in well to do households, begging or working at a trade (as Paul did). Working at a trade was the least common but was generally acknowledged to give the teacher the greatest freedom to teach how he liked. The powerful patrons in the Corinthian church would probably have wanted Paul to accept their money in return for some kind of support.

But the gospel Paul was preaching – the gospel of Christ is free! And in v18 of this chapter Paul says that he wants to preach the gospel free of charge. But when Paul refused support and continued to rely on tent making (cf Acts 18:1-4), they charged that his unwillingness to go along with their patronage showed that he did not have the same authority as other itinerant 'apostles' and preachers. So Paul sets out the proof in v1-2 that he is indeed an apostle.

First, 'Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?' Apostles were authoritative witnesses to the facts of the gospel, more especially to the fact of the resurrection of Jesus (Acts 1:21f). On the Damascus road Paul was granted a special privilege – he saw the Lord (15:8) and was the Lord's 'chosen instrument to carry his name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel' (Acts 9:15). Second, 'Are you not the result of my work in the Lord?' The Corinthian Christians themselves are evidence that his ministry in the Lord has produced true spiritual fruit. So Paul has seen the risen Jesus, the Lord has enabled him to do apostolic work and the Corinthians are the result of that work. As Paul continues in v2:

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.

Others might doubt Paul's apostleship but the Corinthian church should not. If it denies Paul's standing, then it abrogates its own! The Corinthians were living proof of the effectiveness of his work in the Lord. They were the seal or the certificate of his apostleship in the Lord. As Paul states in v3 (which should in fact go with v1-2):

This is my defence to those who sit in judgement on me.

And yes Paul does have the right to material support as an apostle as he now goes on to state in v4-12a and v13-14. His refusal to exercise this right is not an admittance of his ineligibility. So…


Look at v4-6. Paul by way of these next rhetorical questions states that he has all the rights of an apostle – the right to sustenance, the right to be married to a Christian and the right to take his wife (if he had one) on missionary journeys and the right to be fully supported. Paul writes:

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?

He has the right to have his food and other physical needs supplied at the church's expense. He has the right to take a believing wife along on apostolic journeys is the sense in v5, meaning a married apostle is entitled to take his wife with him at the church's expense. The other apostles do says Paul, singling out Cephas or Peter as a specially important case.

It's interesting to note too that the wives of the Lord's brothers who were once sceptical (Mk 3:31&Jn 7:2-3) are now believers (Acts 1:14). He also, v6, has the right not to have to work at a trade in order to make ends meet. Paul speaks of Barnabas here. In Acts 14:4&14 Barnabas is described as an apostle. Barnabas was not one of the Twelve Apostles but was an apostle in the sense of being a missionary (the word 'apostle' literally means a 'person sent') which does suggest that the 'right' to material support can be applied wider than the Twelve and to gospel ministers and missionaries today, as indeed does v14. In v7 Paul illustrates his right to be maintained from three diverse human activities.

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?

They all draw their sustenance from their occupation. So with the apostle. He should expect to be sustained from his 'produce' or 'flock' – the church that owes its existence to him.

In v8 onwards Paul turns to Scripture to support his rights.

Do I say this merely from a human point of view? 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 ploughman ploughs 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?

Paul is quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 in v9 which says that while the ox trod the grain he was not to be muzzled, which meant that he could eat some of it. Jewish interpreters saw the ox as representative of all types of labourers, human and animal, and saw that the law was directed towards man to obey. The principle is clear: the worker shares in the fruit of his work. It's a principle that applies to oxen and to apostles. Paul asks, 'Is it about oxen that God is concerned?' No! For Paul the primary application is to the preacher of the gospel, v10.

That is why it is written for us, because of the rights of the planter and the harvester of crops. They worked in expectation of benefiting from the harvest. So the Christian worker, (3:6), should do his work in hope. God provides for his needs from the fruits of his labour. V11 – Paul had laboured in spiritual things among them so he was fully entitled to receive from them a material harvest. His preaching at Corinth had established the church there and someone who works to produce the harvest is entitled to a share in that harvest. The spiritual sower also has the right to the harvest. V12a – others have exercised the right and received gifts from the Corinthians how much more right has Paul to their support as the founder of the church!

In v13 Paul says the Corinthians ought to have known that those whose work was in sacred things received their livelihood from it. He cites the entitlements of the sacrificing priests of the Old Testament which we heard about in our reading from Leviticus.

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? In the same way 14 the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. Gospel preachers are entitled to be supported, literally 'out of the gospel'. Jesus in Matthew 10:10 says to the twelve as he sends them out, 'the worker is worth his keep' or as another translation has it, 'the labourer deserves his food'. Paul may also have been thinking of Jesus' words in Luke 10:7 'the worker deserves his wages'. In 1 Timothy 5:17-18 Paul again quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 and also Luke 10:7:

The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, 'Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain', and 'the worker deserves his wages'.

Paul was in no doubt about his right to material support but he did not use this right as we see in v12b, which brings us to my third heading. So…


The Corinthians expected an impressive apostle to be very firm on his rights. But Paul makes a completely contradictory case. His approach to the ministry of the gospel is a challenge to everyone called to share in the gospel.

Look at the second half of v12:

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Paul did not use this right. He chose to forgo it. As someone has written:

He had the inner freedom to do so, which few Christians actually achieve. By thus freely ignoring his rights, he was actually celebrating his freedom.

Paul did not use this right. On the contrary he states that he disadvantaged himself and put up with anything, ie in the context here he put up with any dislocation brought about by him tentmaking night and day (cf Acts 20:35), a trade which was often arduous and smelly. Why? He says, 'we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ'.

Paul was passionately gripped by Jesus Christ and passionately dedicated to the gospel and to getting the gospel out. His whole attitude to Christian ministry was to 'endure' or 'to put up with anything' rather than to 'enjoy' his daily calling. What is our attitude to Christian ministry? Are our rights our priority or the gospel and those to whom we minister in the Lord? You see Paul knew that 'the gospel, which turned upon the love and self sacrifice of Jesus, could not fitly be presented by preachers [and there were some at Corinth] who insisted on their rights, delighted in the exercise of authority, and made what profit they could out of the work of evangelism' (Barrett). In Corinth Paul put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ in order not to put a stumbling block in the way of his hearers as he presented the gospel.

The word in the original for 'hinder' literally means 'cutting into' and was used of breaking up a road to prevent the enemy's advance. So Paul is saying that he had avoided doing anything that might prevent a clear road for the gospel's advance.

This is Paul's principle here, which expands his point in 8:13, increasing its scope to benefit the non-Christian. No hindrance to the gospel of Christ.

All this speaks also of Paul's great love for those outside Christ. Something you'll hear more about from verses 19-23 of this chapter in two weeks time. The word for endure or put up with anything is one of the verbs he uses of true agape love in 1 Corinthians 13. Agape or self-sacrificial love 'endures all things'. We have only to read the lists of Paul's sufferings in his letters to the Corinthians to appreciate something of what it cost him personally to ensure that the gospel road was free of obstacles. A man who is ready to endure anything rather than hinder the gospel is not interested in his rights. What about us? We might not be the Apostle Paul but do we have that love that endures all things? Do we endure rather than hinder the gospel of Christ? Or, especially if we're in Christian ministry, is our priority our rights? Paul was willing to put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

Also the reasons why Paul does or does not encourage receiving money for ministry speak volumes to our contemporary materialistic world. Believers who individually and corporately benefit from the ministries of "full time" Christian workers need to heed v1-12a. Gospel ministers should not have to be so pre-occupied with providing for their basic needs that they cannot devote themselves wholeheartedly to their work. However congregations should not think of their giving as providing a salary as such. Don Carson has written that 'the church does not pay its ministers; rather it provides them with resources so that they are able to serve freely'. Church leaders should not be tempted to enter or remain in ministry because of how much they can make. Those called to "full time" Christian work should also consider v12b-18 whenever requesting or even accepting payment could hinder the spread of the gospel.

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