Money and ministry (part 2)

In the classic 1951 MGM musical An American in Paris, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a somewhat down-and-out artist trying to eke out a living in Paris.  Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a rich, bored heiress, takes an interest in his painting, establishing herself as his patroness.  It quickly becomes clear, however, that she wants much more than just a patron-client relationship.  Jerry, of course, is in love with someone else (Leslie Caron), making Milo watchful and jealous.  She can’t compel his love, but she does expect some return for her generous patronage.

So it goes, in story after story, in real life and on the silver screen: money can complicate a relationship.

As we’ve seen in earlier posts, in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul takes on the issue of the Christian’s freedom of conscience when eating meat that’s been sacrificed to pagan idols.  He  sharply criticizes some of the Corinthians for the loveless way in which they are standing on their right to eat what they want, even if it causes someone else to stumble spiritually.

He’s clearly not done with the issue: in chapter 10, he will circle back and strengthen his argument.  But in chapter 9, he seems to take a detour, mounting a lengthy defense against his critics.  What’s going on?

Here’s a probable reconstruction of the situation.  Paul had told the Corinthians, in a previous letter, to stop eating meat sacrificed to idols.  Some objected to this bit of interference, dismissing his authority because he didn’t behave as they thought an apostle should.  In particular, he preferred to earn his own independent living as a tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3), rather than accept patronage.  Such a violation of social norms added to the skeptics’ case against him.

Thus, in chapter 9, Paul pulls out all the rhetorical stops to make three related points:

  • I am an apostle, and if anyone should understand that, it should be you;
  • I therefore have a “right” to your financial support, just like anyone who preaches the gospel;
  • but I refuse to use that right, so that I can preach the gospel freely and for free.

It may be that Apollos and/or other teachers in Corinth had no such scruples, which would have made things even more difficult for Paul.  But he insists:

If others have these rights over you, don’t we deserve them all the more?  However, we haven’t made use of this right, but we put up with everything so we don’t put any obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor 9:12, CEB)

He doesn’t spell out the nature of the obstacles.  But given the very nature of patronage, and of the divisive pride that already plagued the church, such obstacles aren’t difficult to imagine.  Money is, after all, power; there’s only one short slippery slide from “I’ll pay your salary for the sake of the gospel” to “You’ll preach what I tell you to preach.”  Paul could never submit to such a leash, lest he lose the freedom to speak the truth–including inconvenient truths that annoy the powerful.

It’s worth asking ourselves whether we have ever thought of our money in this way–as giving us influence over the decisions and behaviors of others.  We’ll come back to that question in the next post.