Commentary on 1 Corinthians 9:16-23
The extended discussion in 1 Corinthians 9 points to the presence of potential concerns among the Corinthians about the work and compensation of apostles, including Paul.
While this issue will come to a head later in 2 Corinthians, here in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul is only interested in providing an extended reflection on his work and rights as an apostle.
In the first part of the chapter, Paul suggests that apostles should be granted the same rights as other laborers to earn a living from their craft. He points to examples from military and agricultural settings (verse 7) to highlight the point that workers deserve fair compensation. Paul suggests that what is the case for other occupations likewise holds true for those who proclaim the gospel. Moreover, Paul asserts that this right of apostles to earn a living from their ministry was in fact commanded by the Lord (verse 14).
It is important to situate 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 within this context of what Paul develops in 9:1-15. That is, as Paul emphasizes the point that he has voluntarily waived his right to appropriate compensation, he does so only after assuring that the Corinthians understand that he would have been well within his rights to demand such compensation. In doing this, Paul uses himself as an illustration of the principle that he developed in chapter 8, namely that individual rights can be trumped by a higher good.
Paul’s evangelistic strategy
Having settled the issue that he would be within his right to demand remuneration and that he nonetheless waives this right, Paul turns to a discussion of his own evangelistic strategy. As he explains it in verses 19-22, his tactics involve adapting his approach and presentation to different contexts.
In elaborating on this stratagem, Paul makes the claim that he has become a slave to all (1 Corinthians 9:19). Although the rhetorical force of this statement is profound, Paul’s self-identification with the experience of the enslaved is problematic. As Angela Parker has highlighted, Paul himself is a free man who exploits the experience of socially marginalized and oppressed populations not in order to relate to them but in order to capitalize upon their pain for the sake of making a rhetorical point about his devotion to Christ. Parker observes that this strategy shows up both in Paul’s designations of himself as a “slave of Christ” (Galatians 1:10; Romans 1:1) and in his claims to bear the marks of Jesus in his body (Galatians 6:17).1
Although Parker does not explicitly address this passage in 1 Corinthians 9, her critique is relevant to this passage. One might wonder how enslaved populations in Corinth would have heard Paul’s words here. Would they have felt heartened that Paul was recognizing and identifying with their experience, or would they have been affronted by the claim of a free man to understand their particular oppression?
Erasing divisions in the gospel
Paul’s claims to have become both like those under the law (verse 20) and those outside of the law (verse 21) appear to be rather contradictory. Likewise, his declaration that he has become all things to all people (verse 22) could sound like he has traded his integrity for the sake of success. Paul, however, is unconcerned with this possibility. Rather, he suggests that his actions are justified by his motivation: the good of the gospel (verse 23). While he does not state it explicitly, there may be a hint here that Paul understands these seemingly clear divisions between Jew and Gentile or weak and strong as false dichotomies that are erased by the loftier reality of the gospel. Indeed, Paul says as much in Galatians 3:23 where he collapses typical identity markers into an identity in Christ.
In upholding the importance of the gospel, Paul relativizes these other earthly divisions. Although he recognizes the divisions that exist within the Corinthian community (1 Corinthians 1:12), Paul nonetheless expresses his hope that the Corinthians will achieve unity (1:10). In modern times, Christ’s followers continue to be dogged by divisive allegiances, including allegiances to political parties and ideologies, particular denominations and theologies, and even frivolous divisions among sports fans of rival teams. Paul’s message to the Corinthians rings as true now as it did in the first century. As important as such distinctions may seem, they are ultimately meaningless in light of the good of the gospel.
Preaching from a position of power
Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 arises out of his own privileged social location, a fact reinforced by the end of the lectionary’s selection. Verse 23 sums up much of what Paul has been discussing up to this point in chapter 9. That is, after Paul has made a case for the right of workers to be compensated (verses 1-14), expounded upon his own choice not to take advantage of that right (verses 15-18), and enumerated other ways in which he has labored for the sake of the gospel (verses 19-22), he finally describes the compensation that he accepts: partnership with the gospel itself. This aligns with his earlier statement that his reward is making the gospel free of charge (verse 18). His own position of privilege and power is thus underscored by his financial ability to decline compensation for his labor.
Paul’s words in this chapter are best preached with caution since he speaks from a position of power. He is a freeborn, educated, Jewish male. The society of his time affords him the position to be able to give up his privileges if he so chooses. However, many audiences both in his time and ours are not even granted the opportunity to enjoy such privileges, let alone be offered the ability to relinquish them. So, while a message encouraging some audiences to follow in Paul’s footsteps of voluntary self-abasement may be appropriate in some settings, it is not universally applicable and may, in fact, be harmful to marginalized or disempowered audiences.
- Angela N. Parker, “One Womanist’s View of Racial Reconciliation in Galatians,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 34, no. 2 (2018): 33-37.