What Right Do We Have?
Demanding one's rights has become a sort of modern day phenomenon. In today's society, almost every imaginable thing is claimed as a "right" by somebody. Be it the right to bear arms, the right to education, the right to marriage with a same sex partner, the right to speak freely - the list goes on and on.
What makes something a "right"? And how far shall we go in defending our rights?
These are difficult questions to be sure, questions I am not able to answer for you. I do, however, want to draw your attention to a question that is implicit in the text before us: Are Christians to approach the issue of "rights" differently? Is there a sense that it may in fact be dangerous for a Christian to insist on their rights at all costs?
In Paul's letter to Corinthians, Paul had to defend himself against two charges: the charge that he wasn't an apostle, and the subsequent charge, that he didn't have the same rights as the apostles.
As you might expect, Paul strongly defends his apostleship. He reminds the Corinthians that, like the other apostles, he too has "seen Jesus" the Lord(v.1). Paul even reminds them that their very existence as a church in Corinth testifies to the fact that he is an apostle(v.1,2).
Paul's defence of his rights as an apostle, however, takes on a slightly different form. At least, a different form to what we are used to seeing when we hear of someone defending their rights. The person who advocates the right to bear arms, usually has every intention to bear arms. The person who demands the right to a homosexual marriage, likely has the intention of entering into one. Paul, however, does not defend his rights in this way.
The first thing Paul does, is he attempts to manifest the legitimacy of his rights. He desires that the Corinthian community recognize, and be convinced of, the rights Paul has an apostle.
So Paul begins what he calls, "(his) defense", in verse 3. Paul's defence begins with three rhetorical questions that are buttressed by his subsequent illustrations.
Paul asks, "Do we not have a right to eat and drink?". The context demands that we understand this question in light of Paul's claim to be an apostle. Of course Paul has the right to eat food , and given his own teaching on "idol meat", we know that Paul also has the right to eat whatever kind of food he wants. What Paul is getting at here, however, is "Don't I have the right to receive food and drink as a direct result of preaching the gospel?".
Paul then asks a more curious question, "Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?".
This question is "curious" because Paul has just told us in chapter 7 that celibacy is his personal preference. This is an example of where Paul defends a right he has, but has no intention of practising himself. By defending this right, Paul is equating himself with the other apostles who were apparently granted this right.
The third issue raised by Paul asks the Corinthians, "Do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working?".
The clear implication of this question is that many, if not most, of the apostles were working exclusively as evangelists, or if you prefer, itinerant preachers. They, unlike Paul and Barnabas, did not take on a "second job".
Paul's point in raising these questions is two-fold: 1)he wanted to show that he is a legitimate apostle, and 2)he wanted to show that one should rightly expect to be sustained by their labours.
After raising these questions, Paul then goes to great lengths to back up his assumption that one should expect to be sustained by their labours. He utilizes three illustrations, again, in rhetorical form, to buttress his assumption: 1)A soldier always serves at the expense of the army; 2)the vineyard planter is entitled to eat his fruit; and 3)the shepherd is entitled to the milk of his flock.
And just in case that wasn't convincing enough for the Corinthians, Paul basically asks, "Doesn't the Law back me up?". Even the ox is entitled to the grain that it is treading.
So Paul concludes that, in the same way, we, who "sow the spiritual", are entitled to "reap the material".
Paul has a convincing case. He has a convincing case for being an apostle: He saw the risen Lord. The existence of the church at Corinth is the "seal" of Paul's apostleship. As an apostle, Paul has reason to expect certain benefits: He has the right to receive food and drink. He has the right to bring along a believing wife(if he were to have one). He has a right to refrain from work. All of these rights are due Paul because he is an apostle, and because he is preaching the gospel.
While today, in the 20th Century, we don't call anyone "apostles", we do have ministers. Our ministers share at least two of the characteristics that Paul ascribes to the apostles: they preach the gospel, and they do it for a living.
In the same way then, one could easily argue that a modern day minister has the same "rights" as the first Century apostles. We have the "right" to be paid for our spiritual work, the "right" to be accompanied by our spouse for ministry abroad, and the "right" to not get a "second job".
Of course, these "rights" beg at least two questions: How much work are ministers required to do? And, how much should ministers be paid for that work?
What is interesting is that Paul actually avoids answering these questions directly. Paul labours to defend his apostleship. Paul also labours to defend his right to be rewarded for his work as an apostle, but at the end of the day, listen to what Paul's answer is:
"We did not use this right, but we endure all things, that we may cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ"(v.12).
Paul's "bottom line" is that ministers of the gospel do have the right "to get their living from the gospel"(v.14), but as Paul himself models, we must not cling to this right. For when we do, the gospel of Christ may be hindered.
Paul's qualification only makes perfect sense. His job is to preach the gospel. His right is to "earn a living" from preaching the gospel. However, if claiming this right affects his ability to communicate the gospel effectively, Paul refuses to claim his right.
And so should we.
Every Christian should be prepared to relinquish their rights for the sake of the gospel. This is the example Paul gives us. He is, in effect, saying that the right to preach the gospel is our most important right. The right to proclaim the gospel takes precedence over all of our other rights. It is not that earning money is not essential, or not a legitimate right. It is not that any of our basic rights are unimportant, it is just that in comparison to preaching the gospel, no right is more important.
Another way of phrasing all of this is that, "the rights/needs of the team outweigh the rights/needs of the individual".
A baseball team seeks to win a particular contest, but in the 1st inning the star hitter decides to argue a "called third strike". The player is "tossed" from the game and his team subsequently loses from low run production. It doesn't matter if the pitch was 2 feet outside or right down the middle, that batter put his individual pride over and above the welfare of his team.
Our team is the Church, and our particular goal is the successful proclamation of the gospel of Christ. And in the same way it is selfish to argue a "called third strike", it is selfish for a Christian to demand individual rights when it reflects poorly on the Church and disrupts the mission of gospel proclamation.
So let us never become guilty of losing sight of the mission. Let us never become guilty of putting our needs above the team's. Instead, let us only insist on one thing, and one thing only: that the gospel of Christ be proclaimed to all the earth. Amen.