In my post “Pastors and Churches and Salaries” from last week, I started a discussion concerning why a church might not allow pastors to “work with his hands,” but would instead desire to pay pastors a salary even if the pastors did not desire it. I did not intend to discuss my position on pastors and salaries, but listed some previous blog posts as background. However, some commenters brought up 1 Corinthians 9, and I thought it would be beneficial to discuss this passage.
I want to begin this discussion by stating what should be obvious. This post represents my own interpretation, although I think it is informed by several other studies. Also, I do not believe that this should be a basis of fellowship. Without hesitation I fellowship with those who disagree with me on this topic.
To begin, let’s place 1 Corinthians 9 in its context within Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. In 1 Conrinthians 8-10, Paul exhorts the “strong” in Corinth to consider the “weak” when making decisions. He tells the “strong” not to exercise their rights if that would hinder the faith of the “weak”. He concludes chapter 8 by saying that if eating meat would cause his brother to stumble, then Paul would never eat meat again.
This leads to chapter 9, especially verses 1-15. In this chapter, Paul gives an example from his own life. As an apostle, Paul had the right to be supported by the church in Corinth. However, he relinquished that right so that he would not be a hindrance to the spread of the gospel there (1 Cor 9:12, 15). Paul, as an example of the “strong”, gave up his right to support so that the faith of the “weak” would not be hindered.
(By the way, 2 Corinthians tells us that Paul’s refusal to accept support from the Corinthians caused some of doubt his apostleship. Nevertheless, Paul says that he would still not accept support from the Corinthians while he was in Corinth (2 Cor 11:7-9).)
As part of his argument, Paul assumes that apostles have the right to receive support (“eat and drink” – 1 Cor 9:4 – “refrain from working for a living” – 1 Cor 9:6). To reinforce this right, Paul gives several examples: a soldier does not go to war at his own expense, the one who plants a vineyard eats from the produce of the vineyard, the one who tends a flock receives milk from the flock (1 Cor 9:7), the law says not to muzzle an ox while it is threshing (1 Cor 9:9), and those who serve in the temple receive a part of the sacrificial offerings as food (1 Cor 9:13). Paul concludes his defense of “support” with the following statement: “… [T]he Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14 ESV)
Few would disagree with my interpretation so far. In fact, most people agree on the meaning of this passage. However, problems come along when we start asking questions about the implications and significance of this passage for today.
Primarily, the disagreements revolve around the extent of the metaphors: who is like the soldier; who is like the farmer; who is like the one who herds the flock; who is like the ox; who is like the temple servants?
Many begin to answer this question with 1 Corinthians 9:14 – “[T]he Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:14 ESV) Some argue that since pastors proclaim the gospel, then they should “get their living by the gospel”, that is, they should be supported by the church. However, we should make a couple of observations about this verse before we associate it with pastors and elders.
The phrase “those who proclaim the gospel” could be associated with anyone who proclaims the good news of Jesus Christ. Or, the phrase could be limited to a certain group of people who proclaim the gospel. If we decide that the phrase references ANYONE who proclaims the gospel, then it certainly includes pastors and elders, assuming that they proclaim the gospel. However, the phrase would also include anyone who proclaims the gospel. Thus, if the phrase “those who proclaim the gospel” actually references “anyone”, then we should be prepared to support anyone who proclaims the gospel. We should not limit our support only to pastors and elders.
However, if we limit the phrase “those who proclaim the gospel” to a certain group of people, then we must explain why we limit the phrase to that group. For me, the only adequate explanation is to limit the phrase to the group discussed within its own context. What group is discussed in 1 Corinthians 9? Apostles and others who travel around. This is indicated in the first few verses of the chapter:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? (1 Corinthians 9:1-6 ESV)
Remember that Paul is discussing his “right” to support, which he is relinquishing for the benefit of the “weak” in Corinth. According to 1 Cor 9:1-6, this “right” is shared by Paul, Barnabas, other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Peter. Notice specifically that “other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas” have the “right to take along a believing wife”. This is not discussing their right to be married, but their right to take their wife with them as they are travelling, and thus the entire family would have the right to be supported. The key here is that “the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas” are TAKING ALONG a believing wife. Paul does NOT say that they have the right to support because they are apostles, brothers of the Lord, or Peter. He says they have the right to support because they are travelling around, and thus TAKING ALONG their wives.
When discussing the ox metaphor (1 Cor 9:9) which Paul took from Deuteronomy 25:4, Richard Hays agrees that the metaphor is used in this passage with specific reference to apostles. He says:
[Deut 25:4] functions as an elegant metaphor for just the point that Paul wants to make: the ox being driven around and around on the threshing floor should not be cruelly restrained from eating the food that his own labor is making available… so, too, with apostles. (First Corinthians, 122)
Furthermore, most commentators agree that Paul takes his statement in 1 Corinthians 9:14 from either Matthew 10:10, Luke 10:7, or a combination of both. In both of these instances, the Lord is also giving instructions to those who are being sent away from their homes. Thus, the instructions are given to those travelling around in order to proclaim the gospel, not to those who are remaining in the same place to proclaim the gospel.
So, in the context of 1 Corinthians 9, and in the context where Paul found his command from the Lord, the reference is to those who are travelling away from home in order to proclaim the gospel. If we do not think we should give support to ANYONE who proclaims the gospel, then the only limiting group within the context is the group of believers who are travelling away from home (and their own source of income) in order to proclaim the gospel.
It is possible to decide that the phrase “those who proclaim the gospel” in 1 Cor 9:14 reference to a different limited group. However, there is no way to choose a different group from the context of 1 Corinthians 9. There is no other group listed in the context of 1 Corinthians 9. Thus, the choice of any other group (i.e. pastors, elders, teachers) would be arbitrary.
Therefore, in my interpretation, when Paul discusses his right to receive support in 1 Corinthians 9, he’s talking about a right that is possessed by those who travel away from home in order to proclaim the gospel. He is not talking about a right that is possessed by any other group of believers. Since Paul (and Peter) specifically talk of pastors and elders as being those who are chosen or recognized from among the church (in other words, they stay in their home location and do not travel from place to place), pastors and elders would not fall under the context of this passage.