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Price-less Preaching (2 Cor. 11:5-12)

When one first reads 2 Corinthians 11:7-12, it sounds outlandish, virtually incomprehensible. Paul preached the gospel of God in Corinth for free. He refused to accept payment for his ministry in that city. He labored tirelessly with his hands to support himself so that he need never take up an offering after proclaiming the truth. And they accused him of committing a sin in doing so! As I said, outlandish and incomprehensible!

But before we delve into this remarkable situation at Corinth, a brief word is in order concerning vv. 5-6. There Paul writes, "I consider that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles. Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things."

As for Paul's "weakness" or lack of skill or "inadequacy" in speech, he first alludes to it in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. Perhaps after the rhetorically gifted Apollos (cf. Acts 18:24-28) had visited Corinth, the people there began to reflect negatively on Paul's shortcomings in that arena. Yet, Paul Barnett points out that "it ought not be concluded that Paul was a poor speaker. That he was inferior to them (and Apollos?) does not logically require that he was without gifts in that respect. Paul's dialectic in this verse should not lead us to draw wrong conclusions. . . . [In] the context of Hellenistic rhetoric, it quite suits Paul to confess to being ‘inferior' to the newcomers, a mere ‘layman,' but it does not necessarily follow that Paul was an ill-equipped or ineffective preacher. . . . His verbal skills must have been, at the very least, adequate, and, quite possibly, considerable, even though he lacked the high professionalism of the trained rhetorician" (509-510).

In any case, Paul is happy to concede he is but an amateur when it comes to oratory. Rhetorical skills may be lacking, but knowledge and insight into the truths of God are not. There's an important lesson to learn here in terms of what we value most.

Do you prize style over substance? It seems a growing number of professing Christians in America do. Witness the proliferation of slick preachers with their smooth, often silky, delivery, their winsome ways in the pulpit, their facility in the turning of a phrase or their ability to craft just the right illustration or image. Words fall from their lips like honey from the comb. Their appearance is impressive and their voices mellow and soothing. Of course, there's nothing inherently wrong with this until it is discovered that they are largely devoid of any meaningful content! Words that are easy to hear are often theologically empty. They are stylish, but shallow. Their delivery is charismatic, but their doctrine is abhorrent. Manner triumphs over matter.

Paul may not have been sufficiently gifted to win first prize in the seminary homiletics competition (they actually bestowed such an award when I was in school; and no, I didn't win it either!), but he was not in the least deficient or lacking when it came to insight and understanding into the deep things of God.

But our primary concern in this paragraph is with Paul's stated financial policy. Read his comments carefully:

"Or did I commit a sin in humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God's gospel to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied my need. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. As the truth of Christ is in me, this boasting of mine will not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do! And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do" (2 Cor. 11:7-12).

Since teachers, philosophers, and orators in ancient times were expected to charge for their services in proportion to their skill and gifting, Paul's refusal to accept financial support from the Corinthians exposed him to the accusation of being a fraud. The intruders had put Paul in a no-win situation: if he refuses remuneration he betrays his own awareness of inauthenticity, incompetence, and lack of authority; but if he receives remuneration it is because he is greedy and thus is guilty of peddling the gospel. Add to this the fact that manual labor, such as tent-making (Paul's chosen trade), was viewed by the Greeks with disdain.

In order to appreciate Paul's response to this charge we must understand his personal financial policies. A quick summary will suffice.

First, Paul clearly believed that he had a right to be supported by those to whom he ministered (see 1 Cor. 9:1-19; Gal. 6:6; 2 Thess. 3:9; 1 Tim. 5:17-18; cf. 3 John 5-8; Luke 9:3-4; 10:4,7; Mt. 10:10), even though he consistently chose not to avail himself of it. It's important that no pastor or evangelist or anyone in full time vocational ministry feel guilty for accepting an offering or earning a salary for their labors. Paul believed this was his right no less than it was of all. He simply chose, for reasons to be noted below, not to exercise that right.

Second, we know that he actively solicited financial assistance for other Christians in need (2 Cor. 8-9; 1 Cor. 16:1-4), but only rarely did he actively solicit financial assistance for himself (Rom. 15:24; Acts 15:3).

Third, while serving in a city like Corinth he was not opposed to accepting financial assistance from other churches where he had ministered in the past (cf. Phil. 4:10-20; 2 Cor. 11:8-9). In other words, "Paul sometimes accepted gifts from distant fellow believers . . . or as he was leaving a region (1:16; Rom. 15:24; 1 Cor. 16:6), in each case to enable him to pursue new evangelistic or pastoral opportunities, not as payment for services already rendered" (Harris, 766). Thus, as a general rule, he would not accept support from a church while he was living in their midst and ministering to them (1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:6-12), but only after he had departed.

In vv. 8-9 he refers to this as robbing other churches "by accepting support from them in order to serve" the Corinthians. The "'robbery' [note Paul's sarcasm; perhaps this is precisely what his enemies accused him of] consisted of his acceptance of their gifts at a time when he was not actually ministering in their midst, and when, accordingly, he could not expect maintenance from them as of right" (Hughes, 386).

So what accounts for Paul's unusual financial practice? Let me mention just a few things.

First, Paul probably did not want to be perceived as just one of many itinerant lecturers or philosophers so common in Greek culture of that day, nor did he want his message viewed as just one more competing philosophy. Whatever he could do to distance and differentiate both himself and the gospel from such folk, the better it would be.

Second, Paul knew that the reputation of the gospel was, to a degree, dependent on his own integrity. Paul's stature and position in the first century was not unlike that of Billy Graham in the twentieth. Evidently he didn't want to take any chances that someone might think he was in the ministry for the money. He knew the allure of wealth and chose to take extreme measures to guard himself from any possibility of temptation or grounds for slander.

Third, he wanted to be absolutely free to preach the truth without exposing himself to the pressure of those with money. In this way, he could not be charged with fashioning his message according to the whims of the wealthy. As Murray Harris has said, "to remain financially independent meant freedom from any assumed special obligation to donors (cf. 1 Thess. 4:11-12) and from the temptation and danger of showing partiality to one segment of the church in return for their generosity" (757).

Fourth, he wanted to set an example of the virtue of self-support and the inherent value of manual labor. If any were inclined to think that physical work was beneath the dignity of a Christian, Paul was determined to set them straight (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6-12).

Fifth, he wanted to avoid being a financial parasite or economic burden on others. This was undoubtedly an expression of his deep affection for his converts (see 2 Cor. 11:9-11).

Sixth, Paul's policy among the Corinthians "may have been prompted by their peculiarly pagan view of remuneration. As long as they were going to weigh him by the size of his take, as long as they were utilizing the standards of the world to evaluate message and messenger alike, so long was Paul unwilling to reinforce their pagan approach by receiving anything from their hand" (Carson, 98).

Seventh, "by offering the ‘price-less' good news totally free of charge, he was dramatizing in his own conduct the very appeal of the gospel as the good news of God's free grace [in Christ] (cf. 11:7; 1 Cor. 9:12b, 18)" (Harris, 765). What a remarkably effective object lesson of the nature of redemptive mercy!

Paul's opponents may have recognized that they were at a distinct disadvantage to him by accepting money for their labors in Corinth and wanted the opportunity to boast that they had ministered on the same terms as he. They no doubt tried to goad him into altering his policy and accepting monetary support. In this way they hoped to eliminate the embarrassing difference between them and him. But Paul refused to yield and thus undercut their desire to be considered his equal with regard to financial support (v. 12).

One thing is for sure: Paul was not for sale! The appeal of money was as powerful then as now. The promise of what it could obtain was alluring and difficult to resist. But such was the depth of Paul's satisfaction in Christ that the happiness he might otherwise have obtained from great wealth was overmatched and overcome.