The church in Corinth was a pastoral nightmare. Factionalism, sexual immorality, incipient syncretism, using the church as a stage for self-promotion, and denial of the final resurrection were just some of the problems.

In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church, he confronts each of these problems directly and in an orderly fashion. The letter begins with what is soon seen to be the foundation for dealing with all of the relational problems in the church: the cross of Christ. In the cross we see the wisdom of God displayed. This is the wisdom that creates and orders the world as a master craftsman (cf. Proverbs 8). Paul and his co-labors are also Spirit-filled craftsmen who are building this new world according to the wisdom of the cross. If the Corinthians are to be faithful images of God in this new creation, they must build the life of their church according to the wisdom of the cross.

Following the wisdom of the cross, one builds worlds and lives in relationships through giving up one’s rights for the sake of others. This is demonstrated preeminently in Christ Jesus and is being patterned in Paul himself for the Corinthians.

This wisdom is brought to bear on the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. Paul is not concerned so much about whether or not one eats the meat sacrificed to idols as much as he is of how one’s eating affects his brother. Some Corinthians were insisting that they had the right to eat the meat because “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

They were correct theologically. There was nothing wrong with the meat. But there was a problem of associations. Believers who had come out of paganism were being led back into it by seeing strong Christians eating the meat, and these weaker brothers were stumbling to their own destruction. Paul tells the stronger brothers that they need to give up their legitimate rights to the meat in order to keep their brothers from falling into perdition.

Paul sets himself up as an example of what it means to relinquish one’s rights within this context. In chapter 9, he argues that he has a right to receive financial support from the Corinthian church for his ministry to them. At least four different types of arguments are put in place to support the fact that Paul has the right of remuneration.

One of the arguments seems a stretch to Western eyes. Paul appeals to Deuteronomy 25:4 as a law that prescribes the paying of ministers of the gospel. The law states, “You shall not muzzle the ox that threshes out the grain.” Paul’s use of this verse to prove his point has caused no little heartburn for many exegetes. But it shouldn’t. Animals in Scripture are representative of man from the beginning. We see this in the worship of Israel as animals represent the people of God being offered up to God. So, what is said about animals is naturally (in the language of Scripture) applicable to man. Oxen should be able to eat from the food that they are threshing just as, for example, priests would eat from the grain and sometimes the meat offered by the worshiper.

Paul, being conversant in Scriptural imagery, knows exactly where he is. Oxen are priestly animals. When the high priest sins, it is an ox (or “young bull” or “ox, a son of the herd”) that must be brought to represent him for purification (cf. Leviticus 4:3). Paul is not merely laying out the general principle, “those who work should be able to eat.” (He does that in other places.) He is establishing the type of relationship that he as an apostle has and his pastoral successors will have with the church. This relationship is what gives him the right to be paid.

Deuteronomy 25:4 comes in an odd place in its original context. Moses is expounding the Ten Words, and the command concerning oxen falls at the beginning of the exposition of the Tenth Word concerning covetousness (see James Jordan, Covenant Sequence In Leviticus & Deuteronomy). Moses has completed speaking to the issues of mercy for the poor and justice. Just after the prescription for oxen, he launches into prescriptions for levirate marriage. Levirate marriage concerns a married brother who dies without a child. The widow’s brother-in-law (the levir, from Latin) is supposed to take his sister-in-law as a wife. The first child born from that union will be his brother’s heir, receiving his land and everything else that would have normally been given to his son.

Does Deuteronomy 25:4 fit with the previous or the following context? It seems to be hanging out there alone. Many people put it with the previous and see the good treatment of animals as God’s concern. I believe it is linked with the levirate law.

With that understanding it makes sense of why Paul quotes it in 1 Corinthians 9 (as well as 1 Timothy 5:18). Here’s what seems to be going on: When a man takes his brother’s wife and raises up a son, that son is the heir of all that his father has. But the son will not be in the place to receive the inheritance until he comes to the proper age. In the meantime, the levir may make use of and profit from his brother’s possessions. For example, if his brother has a plot of land, the levir may plow that land and profit from its produce. He need not give everything to the heir. He, thus, has incentive to keep the land cultivated. It needs to remain profitable. He plows and threshes in hope, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 9:10.

What does all this say about Paul’s relationship to the church? He is speaking about profiting from the labor he has put into God’s field (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9). He has sown spiritual things among them and has the right to expect to reap “fleshly things” (1 Corinthians 9:11). Paul is the ox that is threshing the grain and has every right not to be muzzled.

This context lends itself to seeing the relationship Christ himself has with the church. Christ is absent. Though he is not dead, he did go away, leaving his ministers to care for his bride and “raise up seed” for him. As levirs, they have the right to profit from the inheritance of the heir–the entire church–until the seed/son comes of age. At that time, they (that is, the ministers) will have to hand it all over. But that is what Jesus himself will do with the completed kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:20-28). So this is something that should be expected from his ministers as well. Until that time, ministers have the right to benefit from the inheritance. In Paul’s defense, this means that ministers have the right to be paid, but even in this they are seeking the long-term benefit of the heir who will one day come into the full inheritance.

Paul’s argument here reinforces several pastoral issues that he assumes and defends elsewhere. First, pastoral leadership is to be masculine. The law of the levirate is directed toward males and their responsibilities in the given situations. Pastors are brothers of Christ in this ministry. Pastors are the levirs who must be “husbands” to the bride until the time when the inheritance can be given to the seed. The levirate law assumes that pastors will be male.

Second, pastors are stewards of the church. Though they may live off of the fruit of the inheritance, the inheritance doesn’t belong to them. They are tenant farmers who have been given a trust to steward until the appointed time. Pastors must manage the bride, the heir, and the inheritance in such a way so that in the end they will be found faithful stewards (cf. 1Corinthians 4.2). Pastors are only managing what belongs to another. An account will be given for the stewardship.

Third, pastors have a right to profit from faithful ministry. Paul didn’t take pay because that was the best thing to do for the building up of the church in Corinth. There may be situations in which it is appropriate for pastors not to insist on being supported by the church in which they minister. But no church should think that they are doing their pastor a favor by giving him money on which to live. If he is underpaid or not paid at all– especially by his choice–he is giving up his rights. If the church in which a man is ministering as pastor is prospering financially, the levir-pastor should be able to enjoy the fruits of that prosperity until the time when the church inheritance must be handed over to the seed, at the resurrection.

Bill Smith is pastor of Cornerstone Reformed Church in Carbondale, IL. 

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