I don’t know from whom or when I learned the lesson, but it has been one of the most important pieces of wisdom I have ever gained: you need to learn to pick your fights. This is not saying you need to pick fights. This gem of wisdom says you need to decide what you are willing to fight; what you are willing to risk everything for; and then relax on the other stuff.
We all know people who fight about everything. They love to argue. They fight about politics, sports, the economy, and naturally, even things in the church. What happens to these people is that they become marginalized. People simply don’t pay much attention to them. The fact is, if you fight about everything, no one will ever take you seriously about anything.
On the other side of the issue consider the person who generally gets along with everyone. They roll with the punches and don’t make much of a stink about anything. When these people become agitated, other people have a tendency to listen to what they have to say. Their response is “out of character” so immediately we are attentive to what is happening.
In 1 Corinthians 8 and 9 (and continuing on after that) the Apostle Paul is explaining to us the spiritual importance of “picking your fights”. Last week Paul introduced us to this subject by addressing whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols. Basically Paul’s answer to the question was this: “we have every right to eat meat that has been sacrificed to idols because idols are nothing. However, if you encounter people who object to this practice . . . it is not a battle worth fighting. It is better to give up your “rights” so you can protect the person who has the weaker conscience.” In other words, it’s not a battle worth fighting.
This morning as we move to chapter 9 it may appear that Paul has suddenly changed the subject. He hasn’t. He is simply illustrating this important principle.
Paul’s Rights as an Apostle
From verse 3 we know that Paul was facing some kind of criticism. In fact, as we read both 1 and 2 Corinthians it appears that Paul had a somewhat stormy relationship with the church in Corinth and was criticized a great deal. In the first chapter Paul was being compared (in many cases unfavorably) to other popular Christian personalities. In 2 Corinthians people were calling Paul a liar because he didn’t make a visit he planned to make. We learn that people felt Paul was weak and not much of a speaker. It is possible that people were saying that Paul was either “just in this for the money” or on the other extreme, they may have concluded that because Paul was not being supported by the church he was somehow less of a Pastor than some of the other preachers who had come through town.
What happened to Paul is a common problem in ministry (and in many other jobs). If you are in a position where you lead people, you will have people taking shots at you. It is common for people to criticize the financial aspects of the lives of Christian leaders. You probably have heard people criticize missionaries for having too many kids (as if it were any of our business!) or living too extravagantly (even though we would not want to live as they do). Over the years I have had people criticize me for purchasing a computer, a new car, and a host of other things. The mentality seems to be: If I wouldn’t spend my money this way, you shouldn’t either (even though they would not allow that same reasoning to be applied the other way). This kind of scrutiny is no fun, but it is part of serving in a public arena.
In response to his critics Paul asserted his qualifications as an apostle.
- He had seen risen Christ (one of the conditions for being an apostle) when He was on the Damascus road
- He was commissioned by the Lord Himself to be an Apostle to the Gentiles
- God was blessing his work which gave evidence that it was anointed by God.
After establishing his apostolic credentials Paul continues,
Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? 8 Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
Paul asks several questions that all imply an obvious answer: shouldn’t he be allowed to eat and drink like everyone else? Shouldn’t he be allowed to get married and have a family? Shouldn’t he be entitled to make a living from his work? Of course Paul has a right to these things!
Paul is not finished. He continues to drive home his point. He used some contemporary illustrations. If a person gives himself to being a soldier for his country, we expect the country to compensate the soldier and provide for that soldier’s needs. A person who has a vineyard is certainly entitled to partake of the grapes or the wine that comes from them. Even more, the owner of the vineyard is entitled to make money from the sale of those grapes. We would say, “Of course!”
Paul continues, He asks: Isn’t a person who has dairy cows is entitled to enjoy the milk, the milk byproducts, and the sale of the milk? Shouldn’t the person who raises livestock be entitled to sell the animals or to butcher them for his own consumption? Yes
Next Paul turns to the law. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading the grain.” The principle was simple: if the ox is doing the work, the ox should draw a tangible and material reward for that labor . . . he should be able to eat from the grain that he is treading. Paul points out that God wasn’t just teaching us about oxen, He was giving us a principle of life: you should be able to gain support from the work that you do.
Paul’s then turns to the temple in verse 13. The priests were to be supported through the offerings of the people. Part of an offering at the temple was given to the priests who worked at the temple to support them. Paul says this proves that the person who gives himself to the Lord’s work should be sustained through that work.
But why is Paul telling us these things? Paul argues that based on these principles, he had a right to collect support from the people of Corinth. He had supplied them with spiritual benefit and it was only right that he receive material benefit in return. Paul says,
Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (13-14)
Was Paul looking for a pay raise? Nope. Not even close. It’s true that this passage argues that God’s people should provide materially for those who care for and provide for them spiritually. However, Paul states that fact as a given. That’s not the point he was trying to make. Paul is getting ready to tell us about picking our fights.
Why Paul Gave Up His Rights?
Notice a recurring idea,
- v. 12 “But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.”
- v. 15 “But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me.”
- v. 19 “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.”
Paul had the right to have a wife. (Celibacy was not a requirement for ministry). Paul however concluded that he would be able to serve the Lord better if he was single. He would not have been as free to travel if he was married. Paul felt he could not be both a faithful ambassador to the Gentiles and be a good husband.
Paul also said he had a right to receive support from the church at Corinth. Like today, Paul knew that there were people who believed that all Pastor’s are only in it for the money and the prestige (yes, I’m laughing!).
However, there are some who give this stereotype legitimacy. Certain speakers and recording artists have contracts that have a long list of demands. They have requirements regarding fees, food, hotel accommodations, phone service and some even want a certain kind of car to pick them up at the airport. These people have lost their credibility immediately because they seem to be doing a job rather than serving the Lord.
In verse 16 Paul said this was not his motivation. He preached because he was compelled to preach. He preached because it was the job that God gave him to do. He was convinced that the message he had to give to others was the most vitally important message the world could ever hear: that God wanted a relationship with them and had provided a way for that to happen through the person and work of Jesus Christ.
One of the books I read early in my life gave this sage advice to those who were thinking about Pastoral ministry: If you can do something else; if you can be happy in some other pursuit . . . . pursue it. If you are truly called to preach you will never be happy doing something else.”
Paul didn’t take what he rightfully could have expected because he believed (in this case) that it was better for him to, “offer [the gospel] free of charge, and so not make use of my rights in preaching it.” In other words, Paul had every right to expect to be taken care of, but because he saw that this might hinder some people from coming to faith, he gave up that right.
Let me illustrate it from our own church practice. We have a right to pass the offering plate at every service we have. It is right and fitting for people to respond materially to spiritual enrichment. A church that takes an offering at every gathering is not wrong. However, because we believe that some people feel the church is only concerned about their money, we have determined that the ONLY time we will take an offering for the operating expenses of the church is during our Sunday morning worship. We may take up special offerings for a group or project at special events but we do not collect to pay operating expenses at any time other than Sunday morning. Any other service (which often includes visitors) will not include an offering. Why? Because we want people to know that we care about them as people more than we do about their money.
Maybe you can think about it another way. We know that a physician may attend the sick for the highest of motives, even though he/she receives payment for services. However, when the physician donates his time to the poor or to a missionary endeavor, their motivation is beyond question. They are obviously not seeking gain for themselves.
Paul gave up fighting about his rights so that he could present the gospel more effectively. He was (if you will) picking his fight. He chose to build a bridge to those who might dismiss the gospel, rather than fight against those who begrudged him support.
Paul continues his discussion,
Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul is not confessing an unwillingness to take a stand. He is not flip-flopping on issues. What he is saying is that he is not going to let relatively minor issues become a barrier that hinder the proclamation of the gospel. He is saying is that he had learned to pick his fights. He wasn’t going to fight about meat, circumcision, or favorite teachers. Paul wasn’t going to fight over whether or not Rome should be overthrown or whether Caesar’s taxation was fair. He wasn’t going to fight about these things because there was something much more important he was going to stand for: the message of new life through a relationship with Christ.
I believe if Paul (or better yet, Jesus) were standing here they would tell us that one of the reasons the church of today has lost its power is because it has forgotten to pick its fights. By protesting everything, we dilute our message about the most important thing: becoming followers of Jesus Christ. One of the reasons our witness is so weak is because we choose to fight about a person’s appearance, their lifestyle, and even their sexual practices rather than forgetting about those things for now, so we can focus on what is of first importance. The world has concluded that we are narrow-minded and angry people because we are always protesting. We are guilty of trying to make people behave like Christians before they have even met Christ!
So here is the question: Are you willing to be Christ’s ambassadors as if Christ were making his appeal through you? Before you answer this let me ask another question: are you willing to let the lesser things go for the sake of the gospel message?
- A person’s politics?
- Their stance on social issues?
- Their personal vices (smoking, drinking, carousing)?
- Their background or reputation?
- Their income level?
- Their sexual preference?
Are you willing to overlook these things and build a relationship with these people? Are you wiling to give up,
- Your free time so you can serve God?
- Your new toys so you can have financial resources and time for the Lord’s work?
- Sleep so you can pray, study the scriptures, or meet a friend for breakfast?
- Your favorite television show so you can attend a Bible study or be involved in some activity that puts you in contact with non-Christian people who need to hear about Christ?
- Would you be willing to give up your job or your home to serve the Lord in a foreign land if God called you to do so?
Life if filled with choices. You CANNOT and will not have it all. You must decide what is most important and let the other stuff go. Rather than diluting our energy on lesser things, we must focus on the main issue: bringing people into a relationship with Christ. Jesus calls us to follow Him without distraction.
So before we conclude, let me ask another question. Are you wondering what this Christianity stuff is all about? If so, I want you to know it is not about a certain political agenda, it is not about reforming society, and it is not about getting or giving money. Christianity is about a life-changing relationship with Jesus Christ. God sent Christ into the world to show you and to show me the way home. Jesus gave His life for all the bad things we have done. He has promised that if we will turn to Him; if we will put our confidence and trust in Him, He will forgive us and will give us His Spirit to make us new.
You can become one of His followers today. Ask Him to apply His salvation to your account. Ask Him to make you new through the work of His Spirit in your life. If you ask, the Bible says you will receive. And when you receive you will discover that your relationship with Him is so wonderful and significant that many of the other things that used to seem so significant, are just not worth fighting about.