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1 Corinthians 9:1-23 Study Guide: Surrendering Your Rights

Community Group Study Guide — Surrendering Your Rights
1 Corinthians 9:1-23

Main idea:
Mature Christian faith moves from “am I not free?” to “I surrender all” (1 Corinthians 9:19). We see Paul, in our passage, exhort the Corinthians to sacrifice their personal preferences, freedoms and rights for the unity of the church and witness of the gospel. The differing factions in the church could only come together if some were willing to lay down their rights to love the other. Likewise, Paul gives us the powerful statement “I have become all things to all people so I may win some to Christ,” which models for us how we can take steps towards people outside the faith so they may see and know Christ. Rights, freedoms and preferences are all good things, but followers of Jesus will often need to lay them aside for the sake of a bigger goal. 

Study Information:
Paul would have been a terrible “influencer” or marketing manager today. He had no idea how to build his own brand… or maybe a better way to say it is that he had no desire to. In the ancients world a speaker like Paul would typically arrive in a city and try to attach himself to someone with lots of influence and money. That person would then take care of his needs and expenses and arrange for him to speak and gain more influence. The Corinthians would have been familiar with this and it seemed to be a form of entertainment in their place and time. Knowing this aspect of the culture influences much of how we read 1 Corinthians 9. Paul was a person held in honor in much of the early church and he was one of the brightest intellectual minds in the ancient world, if not all of human history. Yet, he made himself “weak” or “scum of the earth” to the Corinthians because he did not play the culture’s game (1 Corinthians 1:27, 4:10-13). The Corinthians wanted to attach themselves to Paul for identity, prestige and significance, yet Paul would do things that made this impossible, like instead of taking the patronage of the Corinthians he’d make tents and be a “common worker”. This was a strategy of Paul so that he could communicate the gospel with his words but also model the gospel with his actions. The gospel is the good news that Jesus died to pay our debt of sin that we owed God and make reconciliation with God possible again. The gospel refers to an event that happened in human history where God the son took on humanity in its fullest, lived the godward life we could not and died on the cross absorbing the wrath of God, making the payment for our sin and defeating death in his resurrection. This downward descent of the gospel is highlighted in Paul’s letter to the Philippians where we read that Jesus did not count “equality with God” a thing to be grasped. Jesus surrendered his rights in the incarnation and in his substitutionary death. Christ did not hold his position of power for himself, but rather humbled himself taking on human form, dying for his redeemed bride and doing so in a manner that was humiliating in the cross. Paul models this aspect of the gospel in his life among the Corinthians and frankly they struggled with that; because to them rights and freedoms were things to be grasped, not given up for the good and love of others. 

“Am I Not Free?” 1 Corinthians 9:1-3 and 9:4-16
Paul starts off this chapter with those words: “Am I not free?” He was an Apostle and he had worked sacrificially and faithfully to build up the Corinthian church. One would think this would come with privilege and power. In our culture we chase after entitlement and of course someone like Paul should have some perks that come with his place. Yet, Paul’s life was one that constantly modeled setting aside his freedoms, strategically, because they were either obstacles to the people he was reaching or because they would allow him to demonstrate an aspect of the gospel that would otherwise be lost. This should cause us to think about whether we are really living for ourselves and our rights and freedoms, or if we live with an outward focus and how we can work for the good of other Christians in our midst and for those who do not know Christ to be won to him. Paul gives us three specific rights he laid down: “eating and drinking”, being married to a believing wife and taking a wage for his gospel ministry. These freedoms are all good things that God has ordained, but they are not ultimate things to be chased after or grasped. 

The reference to eating and drinking brings the conversation from 1 Corinthians 8 into this passage. Paul would gladly give up any food or drink that would be an obstacle to the church. Verse 13 tells us that he’d rather not eat meat than put up a stumbling block to them. Second, Paul had the right to a believing wife like Cephas (Peter) had. Apparently some of the Apostles were married, but we learned earlier that Paul was single because it allowed him to focus specifically on his calling and work as an Apostle in a unique way. Finally, he did not allow the Corinthians to pay him as a gospel worker. Paul takes many verses here to explain the theology and practice behind why it is ok to pay pastors to be able to have them fully devoted to shepherding, teaching and building up the church. Specifically the scripture taught this, it was seen in culture around them in other areas, the history of God’s people had examples like the levites and priests and Jesus even taught this (1 Corinthians 9:6-14). Yet, he strategically did not avail himself of this freedom, instead he did not want anyone to rob him of his right to show the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:15-18). It is not wrong for pastors to being paid by their church, in fact Paul goes to great length here to explain why that is a good thing. Specifically the church is blessed because those shepherds can devote their full attention to caring for their flock and teaching the gospel. Yet, because of the culture of the Corinthians, Paul would be just like any other traveling speaker if he took a paycheck and he’d be robbed of the ability to show the gospel’s downward trend to love and serve one another sacrificially if he did. Instead Paul wanted to associate with whom the world would call “weak” and those the Corinthians would look down upon… the tent makers of the world. We get a vivid picture that the one in power can move towards those who are not; becoming all things to all people to win some to Christ. 

All Things to All People (1 Corinthians 9:17-23)
Paul brings his argument to a point of applications: Do we expect people to come to us and to be on our level, or are we willing to go to them and become like them? Does someone first have to adopt your culture, way of life, political beliefs, or whatever other possible barrier we can put up in our lives? This does not mean that we have zero core convictions, opinions we hold, preferences or freedoms we enjoy. Rather it is a command to be willing to set them aside whenever they present themselves to be a barrier to church unity (loving a “weaker” brother or sister) or for the gospel. In any area where it is not sin to do so we should be willing to surrender those things to tangibly love others. 

Paul tells us that to the Jew, he became a Jew and to one under the law he became one under the law. How can Paul, a Jew, become a Jew? This is his way of saying he lived like the Jews when he wanted to reach out to them with the gospel. He’d adopt sabbath keeping, nazarite vows, food laws, go to the synagogue… he’d even have Timothy get circumcised! All so that he’d be better able to share the gospel and see Jews become believers in Jesus as their Messiah. Paul then says that he becomes like those outside the law and the weak. This is his way of indicating that he becomes like the gentiles and lower class to reach them as well. He is willing to set aside his cultural status and his upbringing with Jewish food law to eat with and build relationship with those who were outsiders to God’s promises. Just as a missionary would eat the food that is set before them even if its not their preference, so too we take steps to show love and care to those who do not know Christ by accommodating aspects of their culture; become all things to all people to save some. Think of it this way, when you’re dating someone or even building a friendship, you often look for aspects of commonality to build a relationship around, but there are also many things that the other person is into that you just find uninteresting or may not be your preference and yet you so easily overlook many of  them or even learn about them to have new ways to bond with them. If the person you’re dating or forming a relationship with is into baseball, country music or something random like Russian literature it is quite likely that you’ll learn a lot about those things to build a relationship with them. What if we applied this to how we share the gospel? 

Paul wants us to see that our freedoms and rights are good things, but not ultimate things. When we make them an ultimate thing we make it something that becomes an idol or “a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6). It could be a style of worship, political convictions, a method of schooling, foods you eat, the job you have, your view of childhood sports and whether or not games should be played on Sunday… fill in the blank. When someone has to first adopt your view on those things to hear the gospel you’ve made them a thing to be grasped or a right you’re not willing to surrender. It is no secret that our culture does not think about church or faith as much as it did a few decades ago. We can either sulk about it or take the stance of a missionary in our times and accommodate towards people who would otherwise never heard the good news of Jesus. There are many aspects of our lives that are formed by theological convictions, but we are in error if we ask someone to adopt those aspects of our lives before they can hear the gospel, repent and enter the church community as believers in Jesus. The Jewish Christians in Paul’s day wanted to do this, they wanted gentiles to first adopt the Old Covenant and circumcision first before they could believe in Jesus. Paul saves some of his harshest words in his letters about that practice (see Galatians). Likewise if we hold onto our freedoms or rights and expect others to become like us so they can belong in Christ then we’ve gotten in backwards. Rather we are to surrender our rights and go to them so they can hear and see the good news of the gospel. 

At your community group:

Take 15-20 minutes to share about how God has been at work in your life, prayer concerns and pray for one another.

How did God speak to you through the scripture and the sermon this week? 

Discussion Questions:

Read 1 Corinthians 9:1-23

What does Paul mean by freedom or rights in this passage? 

What kind of person did the Corinthians want Paul to be and how was his laying down of his rights strategic to them believing and living out the gospel?

Paul addresses how our rights can actually be barriers to church unity and sharing the gospel. What kinds of barriers exist in the American church today? Or another way of thinking of this question, if Paul was writing this letter today to the churches in America, what rights would he surrender as examples to us?

The study guide and sermon mentioned that in every area that would not be direct sin we should be willing to become all things to all people to win some. What steps can you take to put this into practice this week?