Striving for Unity – 1 Corinthians Chapter 9: Equally Allowable Differences

By Jenny Fulton

Is a pastor more qualified if he graduated from seminary or if he grew up studying scripture and walking with God?

Who has a better and stronger conversion story and a more legitimate faith: one who accepted Christ as a child and walked with Him faithfully or someone who rebelled and later came crying to Him in desperation on bended knee?

Is it better to pay someone for speaking and teaching or to expect them to do so voluntarily as service to God without payment?

Is it better to worship God with a cappella hymns, a single piano, a guitar, or a full band?

Should you baptize forward or backward? Immerse three times or one time?

Have you ever been confronted with these questions? Have you ever wondered about them, heard them discussed, or seen the answers implied within the context of a specific group of believers?

Questions are normal, and they are good. They can lead us to deeper understandings if we’re willing to search out the answers.

Paul certainly liked to ask questions. In fact, the first twelve verses of 1 Corinthians Chapter 9 include 16 questions. Why did he begin this chapter that way?

Verses 1-6: a different path to authority

The nature of Paul’s questions and comments in the first three verses indicate he is defending his authority and position as an apostle. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work 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.[1]

2 Corinthians 12:11-13 provides a little more insight into this situation. “I have become foolish; you yourselves compelled me. Actually I should have been commended by you, for in no respect was I inferior to the most eminent apostles, even though I am a nobody. The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with all perseverance, by signs and wonders and miracles. For in what respect were you treated as inferior to the rest of the churches, except that I myself did not become a burden to you? Forgive me this wrong!”

So, what was the problem? What situation was Paul speaking to in these verses?

Well, it’s clear that Paul didn’t have the same training as the other apostles. He hadn’t known and walked with Jesus during Christ’s years on earth – hadn’t been one of Jesus’ disciples or among the 12 chosen apostles. Instead, Paul’s journey with Jesus began after Jesus had ascended into Heaven. It seems that Paul’s non-traditional path to apostleship may have led some to question his authority, the authenticity of his Christianity, and his status as an apostle.

Rather than give a direct defense in the form of statements that would prove his authority and status before God, Paul presented a series of questions. Statements can be easily discredited and dismissed, but don’t questions make you think? Doesn’t your brain work more when you read a question than when you read a statement?

One thing that stands out to me in Paul’s defense and the rest of the content in this chapter is that, regardless of how others defined his status and relationship with God, Paul stood firm in what he knew to be true. He proclaimed God’s work in his life and pursued the path God had given him with every ounce of strength and passion he possessed.

Verses 7-14: provisions for the workers

In the midst of his defense, Paul describes an important principle God established for the purpose of providing for those charged with caring for the spiritual needs of His people: “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.[2]” This provision can be seen in the establishment of the Levitical priesthood in Exodus-Joshua. Although the tribe of Levi received no land, God provided for them by giving them cities within the territories of each of the other tribes and by allowing them to eat of the sacrifices they made on behalf of the people. In Jesus’ words, this principle could be summed up as, “the laborer is worthy of his wages.”

Verses 15-18: Paul’s choice

After establishing this principle that spiritual workers are to be provided with physical substance by the people they serve, Paul notes that he did not make use of this provision so that he wouldn’t risk hindering the spread of the gospel.

Why did Paul think that being paid/provided for by the church would have hindered the gospel?

We can speculate as to why, but unfortunately, Paul doesn’t tell us. Instead, he tells us that he preaches the gospel because he is under compulsion – he can’t not preach the gospel. He doesn’t boast of his role, because he doesn’t see it as something he can step away from — he cannot step away from doing that which the Lord gave him to do. So, Paul boasts of the choice he did make. He intentionally didn’t ask for or receive any form of material payment for preaching and teaching to the Corinthian church. He was careful not to be a burden to anyone while he was sharing the gospel. His reward for this choice: he was able to offer the gospel without charge.

Is this the best, most godly model, the one every speaker, preacher, and teacher should follow?

Based on verses 7-14, clearly not. God says it’s good for such workers to be paid for their services, but it’s also good if they choose not to, the way Paul did. Neither way is bad. Neither way is better.

Verses 19-23: “All things to all men”

What does Paul mean when he says, “I have become all things to all men, so that I may by all means save some.[3]

Does this mean he became an alcoholic so he could save the alcoholics or that he became a thief so he could save the thieves?

Due to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:21 and the fact that God calls us to come out from the bondage of sin and into freedom, I don’t think Paul isn’t talking about engaging in sin so he can understand the sinner and thus bring them out of their sin. Instead, he seems to be referring to different cultural and religious practices that fall within the law of Christ and within the bounds of Christian freedom. When he was preaching to the Jews, he followed their customs; when preaching to the Gentiles, he followed their customs and practices that didn’t violate God’s law; when he ministered to the weak, or to those with a weak conscience (using the context of his earlier comments on “the weak” in 8:7-13), he followed those practices that were deemed acceptable by them.

Therefore, to “become all things to all men,” seems to describe a willingness to accept and participate in other cultural and/or church-related practices outside one’s norm that still fall within the boundaries of acceptable godly living.

To “become all things to all men,” = a willingness to accept and participate in other cultural and/or church-related practices outside one’s norm that still fall within the boundaries of God’s Law. — 1 Corinthians 9 #1Corinthians #diversity #Christianity

A modern-day example: someone who traditionally prays standing with their arms lifted in one church, may kneel with head bowed in another church where that is the practice. And vice versa.

Verses 24-27: living with intention

After giving examples of Christian freedom, Paul uses a cultural reference to essentially say, “Whatever godly practices you choose to live by, just make sure you’re living for God with all of your strength.”

Cultural Background: The Isthmian games were held every two years on the Isthmus of Corinth. These were similar to our Olympic games in terms of the variety of events and the encouragement of national pride. The winner’s prize consisted of a perishable wreath placed upon the victor’s head.

In these verses, Paul uses the Corinthians’ understanding of these games to describe some vital aspects of the Christian life.

  • The Christian life should be lived with intentionality and purpose.
  • The Christian life should be lived with discipline and self-control. The decisions we make should be based on whether or not they will help or hinder us in our relationship with God and our journey of faith.
  • The Christian life should be lived with eyes set on the prize – an eternal life spent with God that begins in the here and now and continues on for eternity.

Take-Aways:

There’s a lot of content in this chapter and a lot that could be gathered and applied. So, here are some of my take-aways. I’d love to hear yours in the comments below.

  • God doesn’t communicate or work with every Christian in the same way.
  • While some leaders may be called to receive their living from preaching and teaching, other Christian leaders may be called to receive their living from another profession while preaching and teaching without payment.
  • There isn’t just one “right” set of Christian practices within the church. Instead, there are many valid ways to serve and worship God that do not violate God’s laws. While some churches sing a cappella, others employ a full band. Both are good. While some denominations forbid T.V.’s, others broadcast their services over them. Both practices are acceptable.
  • The more important question is: are we living out our Christian faith with the intentionality and purpose of a runner who is giving everything he has to win the race?

Are we living out our Christian faith with the intentionality and purpose of a runner who is giving everything he has to win the race? #Christianity #ChristianLiving

United or Divided?

In light of the overall theme of 1 Corinthians and Paul’s call to unity, 

Things That Divide Us:

  • Questioning someone’s faith or qualifications for leadership SOLELY based on the fact that they didn’t come to the faith or their position in what we consider to be the traditional/usual way
  • An unwillingness to support those whose primary job is spreading the gospel and teaching God’s word
  • Demanding (as opposed to requesting) a certain amount of financial support from the people being ministered to
  • Demanding and expecting all believers to adhere to the same set of religious and/or cultural practices that aren’t specifically commanded or directed by God.
  • Living a luke-warm, wishy-washy faith.

Things that Unite Us:

  • Allowing God’s work in people’s lives to vouch for the authenticity of their faith and understanding of God.
  • A willingness to support those whose primary job is spreading the gospel and teaching God’s word.
  • Not demanding support from the people being served.
  • Being willing and able to adapt to different practices that don’t go against God’s law for the sake of helping others understand and grow in their walk with God.
  • Recognizing that within God’s church throughout the world, there are a variety of different and valid religious and cultural practices that don’t go against God’s law. A different set of allowable practices doesn’t negate or disqualify a person’s status as a Christian.
  • Living an intentional, purpose-filled faith.

What Do You Think?

  • What stands out to you from this passage?
  • What modern day application do you see from the principles Paul establishes?

In this Series

Introduction

The Church in Acts 18

Overview: A Prominent City

Chapter 1: Where Unity Begins

Chapter 2: In Demonstration of the Spirit

Chapter 3: “Let No One Boast in Men”

Chapter 4: Traits of a Godly Servant Leader

Chapter 5: Addressing Immorality in the Church

Chapter 6: Concerning Lawsuits and the Body

Chapter 7: Married or Single?

Chapter 8: Disagreements, Freedom, and Stumbling

Chapter 9: Equally Allowable Differences

Women, Join In!

For the last few months, the book of 1 Corinthians has weighed heavy upon my heart. In May, I joined a women’s online fellowship site, Bloom.com, and decided to lead a Bible study on this book. These musings are a summary of my findings and the relevance/application I see surrounding us today. If you’re a woman and would like to participate in the study, head on over to www.Bloom.com and join the 1 Corinthians Bible Study group where you’ll find study guides to follow and discussion threads to participate in. 

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[1] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 9:1–2.

[2] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 9:14.

[3] New American Standard Bible: 1995 Update (La Habra, CA: The Lockman Foundation, 1995), 1 Co 9:22.

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*Image by Christine Schmidt from Pixabay

12 comments

  1. Thanks, Jenny.
    In this blog post you have presented a great summary. What stands out for me is that God does not work with, or communicate with every Christian in the exact same way.

    As the song says : ‘And, they’ll know that we are Christians by our love’. 🤗

    Liked by 1 person

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