It is our purpose to expound I Corinthians 9:19-22 in this and succeeding articles. We are convinced that this passage has much to teach concerning mission work. The passage speaks of the proper attitude a missionary must have towards himself, towards his work, and towards those to whom he preaches the gospel. It deals with questions such as the following: 1) What is the proper motive behind missionary preaching? 2) How ought the missionary to conduct himself in relation to those to whom he preaches? 3) What ought to be the missionary’s purpose in preaching the gospel? 4) In what relationship does the missionary stand to those to whom he preaches?
The passage records the following confession of the inspired apostle Paul: “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more. And unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; To them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I might be partaker thereof with you.”
In order to acquire an understanding of what this passage means and how it applies to missionaries and mission work we shall have to pay attention to the context in which it occurs. In chapter eight the Apostle had admonished the stronger brothers to take care lest their liberty become a stumbling block to the weaker brothers (I Cor. 8:9). In chapter nine Paul demonstrates how he himself had always acted on this principle. He was an Apostle and, therefore, possessed all the rights of an Apostle. He had seen Christ, i.e., he had been confronted and called by the resurrected Christ. His divine mission as an Apostle, at least among the Corinthians, was beyond dispute. They were “his work in the Lord” and “the seal of his apostleship” (I Cor. 9:1-3). Because he was an Apostle, Paul had the same right (the word “power” which occurs repeatedly in this chapter ought to be translated, “right or authority”) to be supported and to have his family supported, had he chosen to marry, as did Peter or any other Apostle (I Cor. 9:4-6). This right to adequate support from those to whom he preaches the Apostle proves in the following verses. The laborer is worthy of his hire is the principle asserted in verse seven. This principle, furthermore, is taught in the Old Testament Scripture, even with application to oxen used to tread out the corn (I Cor. 9:8-10). The Apostle argues that if they have sown spiritual things unto the Corinthians then surely they have the right to carnal (material support) things from the people of God (I Cor. 9:11). Besides, other of their teachers possessed this right (I Cor. 9:12). Those who served in the temple in the old dispensation were supported by the temple (I Cor. 9:13). Christ ordained that those who preach the gospel should live of the gospel (I Cor. 9:14).
But the Apostle chose not to receive this support from the church. He did this so that no one could accuse him of abusing his rights and privileges as an Apostle. The gospel which he preaches is “without charge.” He preaches not for money but out of divine necessity. “Woe is me, if I preach not the gospel,” he declares. God called him to preach; God laid this necessity upon him. His reward is that the gospel which he preaches is without charge. He gives offense to no man. No one can question his motives in preaching the gospel (I Cor. 9:15-18).
This was not, however, the only case in which Paul abstained from exercising his rights as an Apostle. He was all things to all men that he might gain the more (I Cor. 9:19-23). This kind of self-denial the ungodly exercised to gain a corruptible crown. Ought not the Christian do as much to gain the spiritual crown? Without self-denial and strenuous effort the prize of their high calling in Christ could never be attained! (I Cor. 9:24-27).
In verse nineteen the inspired Apostle confesses, “For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more.” Paul is saying here that he is free from all men, i.e., he is under obligation to no man. He is free from the support of those to whom he preaches. No one can question his motives and he gives offense to no one. Even though that be true, the Apostle makes himself a servant of all men. The word translated “servant” by the King James really means “slave.” Paul makes himself a slave to all. A bond-servant or slave in New Testament times was in total subjection to his master. The slave lacked all the rights and privileges of the free. He had no property. rights; not even his children belonged to him. He was subject completely to the will of his master and at his mercy. The Apostle confesses to be a slave to all men. What he means is that he stands totally in the service of the gospel. As an Apostle, Paul was the slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ. He was called and qualified to be an Apostle by the risen Lord Christ. He was completely subject to the will of God in Christ. Christ was his master! Totally dependent upon Christ was the Apostle. Because that was true he makes himself a slave to those to whom he preaches the gospel. He is totally in the service of those to whom he preaches. The Apostle literally spent his entire life in the service of God and His cause in Christ. He was a full-time preacher of the gospel.
This ought to be the attitude of every missionary and, for that matter, preacher of the gospel. Preachers, missionaries are slaves of God in Christ. They are lawfully called by God through His church. They are qualified by God through His Spirit and Word. In a real, even unique sense, the preacher’s life is not his own. He belongs to God. He is subject to God’s will in everything. The office of the ministry of the Word, whether pastoral or missionary, is not just another profession along with other professions such as medicine, law, or engineering. The minister is a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. His sacred commission is, “Preach the Word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine” (II Tim. 4:2). What the inspired Apostle commanded his spiritual son, Timothy, applies with equal force to all preachers: “Till I come, give attendance to reading, to exhortation, to doctrine. Neglect not the gift that is in thee, which was given thee by prophecy, with the laying on of the hands of the presbytery. Meditate on these things; give thyself wholly to them; that thy profiting may appear to all. Take heed to thyself and unto the doctrine; continue in them: for in doing this thou shalt both save thyself, and them that hear thee” (I Tim. 4:13-16). To this great, sacred calling the preacher must give his all! He must make everything in his life subservient to his calling to preach the Word of God. He must not regard the work of the ministry, whether pastoral or missionary, as a forty-hour per week job. He stands in God’s service twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week, for his entire life! His chief task is preaching for, “. . . how shall they hear without a preacher?” (cf. Rom. 10:13-15). And preaching is hard work! To be prepared to preach, the preacher must spend many, many hours per week “meditating on the things of God.” He must give attendance to reading. He must wrestle with the Scriptures and prayerfully expound the Word of God. Only then is he able to proclaim the gospel as it applies to the lives of God’s people.
Precisely because the preacher or missionary is a slave to God he must make himself a slave to those to whom he preaches. The preacher must follow the example of his Lord and Master Who took a towel and basin and knelt before His disciples and washed their dirty feet (cf. John 13:1-17). Only in this way can the preacher be truly “happy” (John 13:17). The preacher is not called to be served by those to whom he preaches. He is called to serve them. They do not exist for his sake but he for theirs. Cheerfully, willingly, with much patience and love and longsuffering must the preacher serve His Master by serving His people. He must stand totally in the service of the church and the cause of the gospel. He must conduct himself in relation to those to whom he preaches so as to make the gospel “without charge” (I Cor. 9:18). The preacher must not abuse his authority as an officebearer. This was the Apostle’s confession and it must be that of every faithful preacher and missionary.
The Apostle expresses his purpose in making himself a slave to all men in these terms: “. . . that I might gain the more.” This does not mean that Paul regarded himself as the one who did the gaining or saving of those to whom he preached. Salvation is by grace, through faith, and that not of ourselves, it is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8-10). The Apostle is only the instrument through whom God saves His elect in Christ. The idea is that by giving no offense and by making himself slave to all he gains the more. This principle certainly applies. If Paul’s motives were suspect, if his hearers imagined that he preached for money or to enhance his own reputation, or if the Apostle in some way offended the brethren by his conduct, his effectiveness as a preacher would be greatly diminished if not destroyed completely.
Let God’s servants in the ministry take these matters to heart. They must give no offense to their hearers. They must make themselves slaves to all to whom they preach. They must fight the great sin of pride and put away all self-serving, selfish motives. They must give themselves wholly to the work. These are the kind of servants God is pleased to use to gather His elect out of the nations to the praise of His Name. May God continue to call such men to the ministry of the Word and give them the grace to confess, “woe is me if I preach not the gospel” (I Cor. 9:16b).
(to be continued)