It was about 30 years ago, but I still remember the conversation. I had just begun my teaching career, and one of my seminary colleagues asked if I would come speak at his church.
“What do you charge?” he asked, with a touch of disdain in his voice, as if money had no place in the conversation to begin with. Because I teach in a therapy training program, he saw me as one of those “psychology people” (his words) who charge unnecessarily exorbitant professional fees. Pointedly, he then added, “Some of us would consider it a ministry.”
Sadly, I understood what he meant. Others of my colleagues, world-renowned theologians, would be recruited to speak in churches, and were often happy just to get lunch and gas money out of the deal. They did it as a “ministry,” which often translated to “free of charge” or something close to it. I, unfortunately, was being unfairly lumped into the category of those who would refuse to do the same job unless paid properly as a professional.
There’s nothing new about this. In this world, as in the world of the New Testament, money talks. Those who command high fees for public speaking are assumed to have something more important or valuable to say. And this was one of the knocks against Paul.
His opponents in Corinth followed the accepted practice, being paid for their oratory. Paul didn’t. But it wasn’t because he was opposed in principle to ministers being paid. In fact, he argued just the opposite: that those who preach the gospel should be able to make a living doing so (1 Cor 9:1-9).
Yet somehow Paul came to believe that this would be problematic in Corinth. In hindsight, he was right. It was okay to accept money from the churches in Macedonia where, ironically, believers were in worse shape financially. But not from the Corinthians, where money was always an issue:
I don’t consider myself as second-rate in any way compared to the “super-apostles.” But even if I’m uneducated in public speaking, I’m not uneducated in knowledge. We have shown this to you in every way and in everything we have done. Did I commit a sin by humbling myself to give you an advantage because I preached the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by taking a salary from them in order to serve you! While I was with you, I didn’t burden any of you even though I needed things. The believers who came from Macedonia gave me everything I needed. I kept myself from being a financial drain on you in any way, and I will continue to keep myself from being a burden. Since Christ’s truth is in me, I won’t stop telling the entire area of Greece that I’m proud of what I did. Why? Is it because I don’t love you? God knows that I do! (2 Cor 11:5-11, CEB)
Scholars differ on how to take the term “super-apostles.” On the one hand, it may be Paul’s way of scoffing sarcastically at his opponents’ alleged superiority. On the other, he may be asserting that his calling is no less valid than that of the “most eminent” apostles, like Peter. But either way, he is attacking the argument that his handling of money issues throws his legitimacy into doubt.
In fact, Paul argues, the truth is just the opposite.
We might say today that Paul raised his own support in Macedonia so he could be a missionary to Corinth and the surrounding region. That decision, no doubt, was an offense to some of the more well-heeled Corinthians, who would have loved being his benefactors and gaining the social status that went with it.
But that is precisely why Paul had to work in order to be able to preach the gospel for free. Ultimately, such humble service embodied both his devotion to a crucified Christ and his sacrificial love for the Corinthians: I’m not taking advantage of you in any way, am I? Quite the contrary, I’m working hard to bring you the gospel free of charge.
That was legitimate cause for a little apostolic boasting. And if the Corinthians would take the time to think about it, it was legitimate cause for wondering why they were listening with such rapt attention to people who were making them pay through the nose.
Sometimes, we might do well to wonder the same. Money talks, but we can’t afford to be naïve about what it says.