Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
What motivates us to proclaim the good news? What shapes our proclamation?
For Paul, the motivating force of his proclamation is a profound sense of call. For Paul, God’s call to him is shaped by a pair of powerful and interlaced forces: the God who called him and the people who would hear the good news. That is, for Paul, God and the people to whom God has sent him are tied together.
These verses from 1 Corinthians drop us in the middle of Paul’s larger argumentation about the nature of Christian community. The Corinthian Christians find themselves torn asunder by a number of internal forces which are threatening to sever their bonds. Paul thus writes to exhort them to remain one in Christ, to continue being bound together as a sign and result of their faith (see 1 Corinthians 1:10).
In chapter 8, Paul’s attention had turned to questions about whether Christians should consume meat sacrificed to idols. The Corinthian community had experienced division on this question, some deeming the consumption of such meat as adiaphora but others seeing it as a potentially destructive concession to pagan practice.
Paul ultimately argues that idols are nothing and thus meat sacrificed to them is nothing (see 1 Corinthians 8:4). But this is a wisdom held by the “strong” through the Spirit. The “weak” have not yet come to understand this. How ought Christian communities deal with this debate? Paul excludes the possibility of neglecting the ultimately baseless concerns of the weak, for it would break the bonds of Christian community even as it stands in truth. Paul instead exhorts the Corinthians to nurture the weak towards strength (1 Corinthians 8:9-13). Paul chooses this path as the way towards the preservation of community.
Paul illustrates these theological values in his life. He could demand something from the Christians of Corinth. In fact, Jesus himself required that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14). But Paul goes even beyond this commandment of Jesus, not to undercut it but to hew to its spirit that much more (1 Corinthians 9:15). A thriving community of believers ought to support those called to proclaim because it binds the faithful that much closer together. Moreover, the aim of the community of faith ought to be the unified proclamation of the good news.
For Paul, the proclamation of the good news ought not only be rooted in a united community but also be “free of charge.” That is, the gospel he proclaims does not come with strings attached, with obligations to care for or cater to his needs. Instead, the reverse is true. Paul relinquishes his “rights in the gospel” (verse 18) for the sake of those he hopes to reach for the sake of the good news.
Paul has therefore submitted himself to the needs of others for the sake of the gospel. He has grounds upon which to demand much from those who have heard the good news through him and to require others to come to him to hear of the gift God has granted. But so that many might hear, Paul makes himself “a slave to all” (verse 19).
Illustrations of Paul’s servitude to all people are enumerated in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. Paul details the different ways in which he reaches out to Jews, “to those under the law,” “to those outside the law,” and most shockingly “to the weak.” In each case, he chooses to enter their world for the sake of the gospel.
What Paul describes here is not the simple relativism or mere assimilation. Becoming “all things to all people” does not require losing one’s self. Instead, he describes a radical way of life in which he walks alongside all kinds of people in order to draw them to God. The weak do not yet understand that idols are powerless, that meat sacrificed to them ought not affect the believer. But Paul does not lord this knowledge over them but walks with them in their weakness “that I might by all means save some” (verse 22). Again, therefore, Paul returns to the central exhortation of 1 Corinthians: “…be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Corinthians 1:10).
How then do we turn to our contemporary congregations, who might themselves be struggling towards and yearning for this kind of unity of purpose and mission?
The challenge of preaching any part of Paul’s letters is rooting the sermon in the vibrant contexts of these ancient communiques. The temptation always present is to view these documents as abstractions, as universal theological lessons detached from human conditions, as rootless lessons belonging to any time and place. Such abstractions, however, miss the situational nature of Paul’s letters. Paul wrote in order to respond to particular moments in the lives of these early churches. While it is often difficult to reconstruct these situations since we only have one side of the correspondence (if we’re lucky; after all, we are missing parts of the Corinthian correspondence itself!), it remains vital to ground our proclamation of these texts in their first contexts.
In each case, the problems Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians center around the maintenance and nurture of Christian community. Paul’s admonitions are not primarily moralistic or ethical so much as they are occasional, contextual, and focused on the preservation of Corinthian unity. And above all else, Paul seeks to connect the gospel of Christ to a particular way of life in the community of faith. This way of life is a paradox of freedom and indebtedness, strength and weakness, boasting and humility, obligation and reward.
These are the difficult tensions to which these verses call us. Our freedom, treasured as it is, can never be absolute, for we are called to be in service to the other. Our strength is neither earned by ourselves or for our own sake; instead, real strength is drawing alongside the weak and walking with them.
In the end, Paul does not imagine the unity of Christians as an optional component of faith but a direct reflection of what God has done for us through Christ. No community of faith will ever match us with a group of people just like us. But in the midst of that difference, God is moving with us.