I’ve been reviewing the two epistles that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church for some time now. It somehow has seemed appropriate given my church, my newness to ministry, and some of the issues we all are facing over here. Some things in the letters are very affirming to our environment. For example, Paul’s clarity of teaching on the Lord’s Table – something very near and dear to our assembly. Some things in the letters are very challenging: handling conflict would be an issue for us – and nearly any other church. Some things seem pretty removed from our situation: not many of my brothers and sisters here are tempted to eat food offered to idols.
I came across a pretty unrelated section this morning. That is, unrelated to my church, but very much related to one of the infuriating themes in Paul’s dealings with the Corinthian church. I have written before of the church’s dysfunction and this church’s dysfunctional relationship to Paul (http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians%206, http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians%2010, and http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians%2012). During all my reflection on the relationship that Paul had with this church, I nearly always put the blame for the dysfunction on the dorky believers in Corinth.
But there was this one episode that I tentatively suggested might be Paul’s fault. I wrote about that here: http://ericmesselt.blogspot.com/search/label/1%20Corinthians. I suggested that Paul may have made a ‘miscalculation’ in his insistence that he be so generous with the Corinthian church. That is, when he – out of grace and love and a desire to reflect the generosity of the gospel itself (2Cor 4:2) – did not make any demands or requests for the new Corinthian believers to financially support Paul (2Cor 11:9). We look at that decision and generally marvel in the giving and sacrificial posture that Paul adopted with these believers. However, this decision cost Paul – a lot. From that time to the writing of the two epistles, there was always an issue of Paul’s authority with this church (1Cor 1:12; 3:1-4; 4:1; 9:1-3; 2Cor 3:1-2; 10:8; 11:21-12:13) and the church’s inability to form a proper emotional bound with Paul (1Cor 4:14-16; 2Cor 5:13-12-13; 6:11-13; 7:2-4; 10:13-14; especially 2Cor 11:16-20). Even Paul acknowledges a potential problem when he states, “Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel to you free of charge?” (2Cor 11:7) and “For in what were you less favored than the rest of the churches except that I myself did not burden you? Forgive me this ‘wrong!’” (2Cor12:13).
But as I was reading this morning, I came across this section in 1 Corinthians 9:14-16
Paul remembers this right, of course: Jesus commanded that those who preach the gospel should earn their living from the gospel. He did this in Matthew 10:10. But then Paul says – this is astonishing! – that he did Not Obey Jesus! Instead, Paul turns Jesus’ words of commandment into a ‘right’ that Paul chooses to not exercise. Why? So Paul can “boast.”
The word that Paul uses for “commanded” is like a “specific arrangement,” or “direct order;” not a guideline, recommendation, suggestion, or discretionary policy. It is not the granting of a right. There is nothing optional about the word. There are other words for a softer ‘command’ and Paul didn’t use them. Commentators want to agree with Paul and so ignore this word or re-cast it as a suggestion.
I’m boggled by this. Paul seems to have made a deliberate choice to disregard Jesus’ plain arrangements for how the livelihood for preachers of the gospel is to be secured and, instead, embarked upon a frolic based upon the fact that it would make him able to boast about his generosity. To put it starkly: Paul chose between feeling good and obeying Jesus.
Now I can hear the howls of protest already. But let me remind you that Apostles are not infallible in their actions. We do affirm that Apostles were charged and functioned to accurately pass along Jesus’ teachings. Note the situation here: Paul DID accurately pass along Jesus’ teaching – Paul just didn’t obey Jesus’ teaching. And the result is that Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church was pretty messed up.
Certainly not all of the dysfunction regarding the Corinthian church’s relationship with Paul can be laid at Paul’s feet. It is clear that the Corinthians were a pretty messed up church and they bear responsibility for their own sins. But it is worth noting that Paul’s relationship with the church was damaged based on his posture towards them about money. I’ve preached on this before: money and possessions have unexpected spiritual influence.
The lesson here is that if Paul had done his ministry as Jesus had instructed, it seems that his relationship with the Corinthian church would have been healthier.