Connections 02.04.18: A Community of Service and Sacrifice

1 Corinthians 9:16-27

I spent twenty-two of the thirty-one years of my career serving as a pastor. I did so for seven years, then took a six-year break to teach in a college, and then returned to the pastorate for another fifteen years. For the last three years I’ve served as the Connections editor.

During the times I was a pastor, I thought a lot about what I was doing, why I was doing it, and how I should do it. Now, with a three-year buffer between the pastorate and me, this week’s lesson text has led me to think about it some more.

That’s because in this section of 1 Corinthians, Paul tries to correct some incorrect thinking about ministry on the part of his readers. On one hand, he wants to counter the idea that ministers shouldn’t be paid for their work. He says they should (see 9:1-12a). On the other hand, he says it is his privilege to carry out his ministry without being paid for it. “What then is my reward? Just this: that in my proclamation I may make the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the gospel” (v. 18).

When in my teenage fervor I announced that the Lord had called me to preach, my deacon father told me, “Son, the church’ll keep you poor and the Lord’ll keep you humble.” I must say that the first part of his prediction hasn’t turned out to be correct, probably because I served middle-class churches that kept me middle-class. As for the Lord keeping me humble—well, I hope so. We’ll see.

Paul insists that the church should not keep its ministers poor. But he also insists that he is blessed by not insisting on his right to be paid. His sacrifice is voluntary and for the sake of the gospel.

One of the greatest privileges we followers of Jesus have is to give up prestige, pride, and power for the sake of grace, love, and service.

It is a pastor’s privilege to give herself or himself away.

But the church has the same privilege. All Christians have the same privilege.

We bear our best witness to the gospel when we focus more on sharing and giving than on having and accumulating.

We serve best together when we sacrifice together and when we love the Lord, ministry, and each other enough to think more about what we can sacrifice than what we can get others to give up or do without.


1. What is Paul’s attitude toward preaching the gospel?
2. What does Paul see as his reward for preaching the gospel? Why does he see this as a reward? Would you?
3. What does Paul mean when he says he makes himself “a slave to all” (v. 19)? How can we do that? Why should we?
4. What is “Christ’s law” (v. 21)? How do we follow it?
5. How can we exercise the kind of personal discipline Paul describes in vv. 24-27? Do you see anything dangerous about the language Paul uses? Why or why not?

Reference Shelf

One could read Paul’s words about becoming all things to all people as a shrewd strategy of duplicity. Simply take on the appearance of similarity to those with whom you are engaged at the moment so that you can befriend them and get them to do what you want. Then move on to the next group and don another dis- guise. Chameleonic behavior works well enough in politics, but something smells “fishy” when we find it in religion. His claim to become all things to all people may make us wonder where the real Paul is behind all those masks.

The truth is that Paul was all the persons he became. He was much like the mythical Proteus, the changeling
or shape-shifter, who could alter his appearance
not by donning a mask or changing the hue of his skin but by becoming another creature. The
clue to understanding Paul’s metamorphoses is
to be found not in the last verse of the section 9:19-22 but in the first: “Being free from all, I
have enslaved myself to all.” In this section
Paul is taking up his initial question in 9:1:
“Am I not free?” Yes, he is free, but his freedom is not the kind we normally cherish. …. In a context where one might expect Paul to elaborate on how free he is in Christ, he turns instead to describe his willing submission to the needs of his different audiences in order to gain them to (or gain for them) the gospel. Surrendering one’s rights or submitting one’s self to another person are usually not high on our list of preferred ways of relating. We have become sensitive enough to the exploitation of personal rights and the abuse of forced submission to authority figures that we tend to view skeptically any call to submission or enslavement. For Paul, however, addressing persons who relished their freedom to indulge in actions their minds told them were harmless, becoming enslaved to the needs of others was the greater freedom.

Robert Scott Nash, 1 Corinthians, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2009), 276-7.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.


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