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The Believer’s Freedom

Scripture - 1 Corinthians 9:19-23

During this past year of upheaval & disruption related to the presidential election, racial injustice, & the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been particularly envious of a couple of retired pastor friends who were free to be quite vocal in direct & pointed ways during these controversial & divisive days. They said or posted things publicly that I believe were true & needed to be said, but they were not always things that were warmly received by everyone.

What I envied was their ability to speak openly without really worrying about the consequences. I try to be courageous & faithful to the Gospel at all times, but there is a part of me that knows I still have time to go before I get to retirement, I still have a family to support, & I have staff members who depend on the continued stability of the church we lead together. Prophetic caution is sometimes a form of wisdom, but sometimes it is (at least in part) born of a deep-seated survival instinct. It would be nice to be completely free.

Freedom is a constant issue in this first epistle to the Corinthian church. They seem to have taken Paul’s proclamation of freedom in Christ to extreme lengths, believing they are free from many moral obligations connected to their bodies & to the community of Christ to which they now belong.

It is interesting that Paul does not necessarily dispute out of hand their idea of freedom. In fact, in our text, Paul seems to insinuate that he too has made some costly decisions in order to expand his own freedom. In the ancient world, teachers (or in this case apostles & preachers) could earn a living in one of four ways. They could charge fees for their instruction. Of course, if Paul had done this, he might have been accused (like many of the teachers of his day) of charging too much & being greedy, or of excluding some of the neediest people because they could not afford to pay. Teachers could also be supported by a wealthy patron. If Paul had gone this route, he would have been limited to the location & whims of the one supporting him. A third option would have been to beg for a living (like the Cynics) or constantly advocate for support from the Corinthians themselves. This too would have obligated him in confining ways to the community & likely given many of the people a low view of Paul’s social status. Thus, Paul had chosen a fourth option, to support himself through a secondary trade. This of course meant at times having divided energies. However, it gave him the liberty or freedom to go where he wanted & say what he wanted. He was indebted to no one.

This freedom from human obligation seems to be what Paul is hinting at in verse 18 when he speaks of the rights he is entitled to, not only through the gospel (freedom from the Law), but also the rights & freedoms he has because he offers the gospel without requiring support from the community of faith.

Yet, in the very same space where Paul writes about his freedom from coercion, he is also writing about other obligations he willingly submits himself to; in particular, his obligation to preach the gospel & his obligation to reach people with the good news of Christ’s reign however he possibly can. It is shocking to read Paul describe submitting himself to the practices of Judaism as an act of accommodation for the sake of the gospel; elsewhere he describes all of his heritage & rootedness in the Jewish people & faith. Paul in his own ministry is exhibiting the mindset of Jesus that he so famously articulated in the hymn of Philippians 2. Although Jesus had the freedom to claim equality with God the Father, he willingly emptied himself, taking on the form of a servant for the sake of our redemption. And Paul is inviting the Corinthians to do the same.

There are three points that probably need to be highlighted from this text.

First, Paul’s commitment to self-supported ministry does not seem to be the rule that Paul (or the rest of the Scripture) expects to be the practice by all ministers. In fact, Paul seems to imply that if he wanted to, he could rightly have demanded support from the Corinthians. Obviously, much can be said about the unfortunate & sinful ways that some ministers have financially exploited the people under their care. However, there is also much to be said about the character of the Christian community that generously & graciously cares for those they have called to give spiritual & pastoral leadership to the Body of Christ. Paul’s unique exception in this cultural moment certainly may be followed by others if it seems the wisest & best way for ministry to happen. However, it does not necessarily need to become the rule for all ministers in all places.

Second, just because Paul is willing here to make accommodations to particular cultural & spiritual practices for the sake of the gospel, it does not mean that those practices are always morally neutral. Practices, both Jewish & Gentile, have deep meaning & significance, but for Paul, they must be constantly viewed through the lens of Christ’s transforming grace & cannot become unnecessary sources of division & exclusion that keep the weak or “the immature” from being embraced by the love of Christ. Practices matter. However, the Gospel behind those practices matters even more.

And third, we must be careful not to interpret Paul’s freedom from the Law as giving permission for self-indulgence. It is not unusual to hear (especially new) Christians take Paul’s words in verse 21 (I act like I’m outside the Law…) as biblical license to enter into practices that have the potential to be destructive not only to one’s spiritual journey but to also be potentially addicting, habit-forming, & enslaving. The key in this text is that, for Paul, the freedom we are given by Christ is not just a freedom from but also a freedom for. Christian freedom delivers a person from the forces that keep one from living fully into the image of God in order that one might then live for the sake of God’s redemptive purposes.

There are many ways that we need to hear this text in our current context. As I was working through this text again, I was especially thankful for two men in our church who exhibit the mind & heart Paul is writing about here with regularity. They are both leaders in the church who have been quite successful in their businesses. They are generous with God & with the church in ways that, if they wanted to, could also turn into a source of power & manipulation for them. If either, or both, of them walked into my office & declared that they were withholding their tithes & offerings until we accommodated to their wishes, we would be in a difficult situation. We would either have to give in to their demands or make significant cuts to the ministries of the congregation.

In this case, their success & means has given them incredible freedom. Freedom to go where they want. Freedom to buy what they want. And freedom to make demands in many areas of life that are usually heeded. Thankfully, neither of them views their success as a reason for self-indulgence & for getting their own way. Both live with generous hearts that receive the blessings they have received as gifts & take delight in finding ways to use their temporary wealth as one means, among many, for the gospel to be extended to others – especially those who are in the greatest need. Their generosity is not the product of obligation to law or fear of judgment. Rather, they have become prisoners of hope & slaves to grace. This, for Paul, is the obligation that brings life & unity rather than death & division.

So, how is it in your life? Are you using your freedom to self-indulge or extend the gospel? Are you free to do whatever you want or to become a partner with the gospel? This is the believer’s freedom.

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