“Look, you Corinthians,” Paul says sternly, “demanding payment is not the mark of apostleship.”
It appears that in the church at Corinth, trading center of the Roman Empire, the worldly notion of “you get what you pay for” is held in high esteem. Although Paul and Barnabas work like dogs, they don’t even beg for table scraps. They are the original tent-making ministry. And at least some folks in Corinth think that because they don’t expect payment, they can’t be real apostles.
Paul sets them straight, in a tone that could be misunderstood as boasting and whining but is really a call to ministry committed to honesty, simplicity and integrity, and above all to doing whatever it takes to preach the gospel to everyone.
Paul doesn’t care about receiving church support or getting married – and he seems to imply that other apostles do, or that at least the church falsely considers the exercise of these apostolic rights as a sign of genuine apostleship. Paul says he is compelled to preach: “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel.” He could care less about the supposed fringe benefits, and to say that Paul’s intentional lifestyle “travels light” is an understatement. No wife, no family, no house, no expectations, no nuthin’. He lives this way not from want or asceticism but because it’s the most effective way for him to preach to Jews, to the weak, to the butcher baker and candlestick maker.
When I read his example, I think of the itinerant preachers in third world countries, and here too I guess. I think of the Methodist circuit preachers like Peter Cartwright, going from frontier town to town and fearlessly preaching the gospel to the rough and influential alike. I think first and foremost of John Wesley himself, who was unmarried most of his life, and then unhappily married for a while, and who still holds the English all-time record for most miles travelled on horseback in England. I think of Brother Damien of Molokai, the priest to the lepers of Hawaii who improved spiritual and physical conditions there immeasurably before himself contracting and dying of leprosy. All branches of the Christian family contain many such Christ-like witnesses.
Living simply and steadfastly for the gospel isn’t easy, Paul says. Among other things it requires physical training: “I beat my body and make it my slave.” The payoff is better than filthy lucre: “I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”
What would this look like, today? While some ministers ride in limos, Paul rides the bus. Some live in sumptuous homes and eat meals served by others, Paul sleeps where he can and eats what and when he can so as to preach to whomever he can.
I read this passage and ask, “Lord, what could I be doing differently?” Frankly the first thing that comes to mind is to support brothers like Bill Ryan. Here is a Vermont native with a knack for fixing things and a love for souls who has taken his wife and kids to the Moskito Coast of Honduras so that he can preach the gospel and help people. This place is every bit as “godforsaken” as it sounds, except that it’s not, really, because with Bill’s help an indigenous church is bringing family, medical, educational, employment and above all and spiritual healing to Moskito Indians. If you and I do nothing else – and of course there is so much else – you and I can redirect some of our discretionary income towards gospel preachers like Bill. Their support address is Bill Ryan, World Gospel Mission · PO Box 948 · Marion, IN 46952. Their email address for “moral support” is firstname.lastname@example.org.