by Ruth Siemens
Why Did Paul Work When He Did Not Have To?
We will consider only three of the several reasons he gives. The first two are part of his formal defense in 1 Cor. 9 and the third is in 2 Thess. 3.
Paul says twice that he works in order not to put an “obstacle” in the way of the Gospel, so his message and motivation will not become suspect to the Gentiles. (It was fine for Peter and others to get support because they worked with Jewish people.) Paul’s self-support demonstrates his genuineness—he gets no financial gain from his ministry. It costs him! He is not a “peddler of God’s Word,” nor “a people-pleaser,” preaching what the audience wants in order to gain fatter profits. He says “we do not preach out of greed or guile.” He will not be identified with the unscrupulous orators who roamed the empire, exploiting their audiences. He does not take money from anyone, so he can be “free from all men”—beholden to no wealthy patron or social clique—not to any affluent person or faction in the church. What a wise policy this proved to be in divisive Corinth, where he would have been suspected of being in the pocket of the wealthy and influential members of the house churches!
Paul adapts culturally to people to win them. The Roman empire then was not much more homogeneous than the British empire at its height. Rome usually respected the local rulers in its provinces, their local laws, religions and customs, and interfered mainly in major disputes and national defense.
Paul approaches the Jews as a Jew himself, and the Greeks (educated Gentiles) as the highly educated, tri-lingual, tri-cultural upper-class Roman citizen that he was. But he focuses mainly on the “weak”—the poor, less educated, lower classes, including the “barbarians.” (These were not savages, but rural or tribal people whose first language was not Greek, and foreigners—many of them captured abroad and sold in slave markets.)
Paul’s social class and erudition gained him the respect of the upper class everywhere. (Apparently, not even his shabby clothing stood in the way.) In Athens he was quickly invited by this university city’s philosophers to speak in the Areopagus. In Ephesus, even the Asiarchs (local Asian rulers) became his friends.
But Paul needed a job to identify with the artisan classes, to earn his living through manual labor (1 Cor. 9:19ff). He must dress and live as they do. But there is no pretense. He and his team actually depend on their manual labor. (Was Paul disinherited when he put his trust in Jesus? Phil. 3:7-9.)
Why does Paul choose to identify with the artisans? Because most of the Roman empire was near the bottom of the social and economic scale. Besides, the barbarians were his channel to their own people groups in the rural and tribal hinterlands. The Empire was just a chain of military outposts and city colonies along the Roman highways, and neither Rome nor Greece had ever tried to educate the tribes and villages nor to integrate them into their empires. But Paul felt indebted to them, and to the Jews and Greeks. (Rom. 1:14-16)
His identification with the working people was not phony. His pay was poor. Often he was hungry, cold, ill-clothed. This incarnational service did not originate with Paul. He is the one who tells us how Jesus left all he had to identify with us. It cost Jesus everything and Paul imitates him. (1 Cor. 11:1, 2 Cor. 8:9, Phil. 2:5-11.)
In another time and country Paul might have chosen to identify with a higher social group. Even if he earned an excellent salary, it would not be an obstacle, as long as it was not pay for his spiritual ministry.
Paul not only identified culturally, but vocationally—with the people he sought to win. Tentmakers’ jobs usually put them into their own professional milieu, where they can move naturally as insiders. They understand the jargon, the mentality and the hang-ups of their fellows. They can evangelize their colleagues, clients, patients, students, etc., from the inside.
“With toil and labor, we worked night and day that we might not burden any of you, and to give you an example to follow.” (1 Thess.3:8.)
What is Paul modeling?
First, he was modeling the Christian life. None had ever seen a Christian before. So Paul shows converts how to live out the gospel, not just in church, but in the marketplace. It was not enough to tell them how to live. The converts would have told Paul it could not be done in their cesspool society. He demonstrates a holy life in their immoral, idolatrous culture. Paul’s immersion in this world, his modeling in it, his evangelism from inside the marketplace, makes his counsel to converts credible. (1 Thess. 4:1ff.)
Secondly, he models a biblical work ethic (2 Thess.3:6-15), transforming newly converted thieves, idlers and drunks into good providers for their families and generous givers to the needy. (1 Cor.6:10,11, Eph.4:28, 1 Tim.5:8.) Imagine the effect of their transformation on non-believers! Paul writes much about work, without which there cannot be godly converts, healthy families, independent churches nor productive societies.
The converted ex-Soviet economist, Zaichenko, says that after 70 years of Communism, foreign money and expertise will not help Russia much until a Judeo-Christian work ethic (i.e. moral renewal) can be instilled in society. The same problem exists in other mission fields.
Thirdly, Paul’s example establishes a pattern for lay evangelism. (1 Thess.1: 5-8) Converts must immediately be full-time, unpaid, lay evangelists in their social circles, prepared to answer the questions about their changed lives and new hope. Converts were new beachheads into enemy territory. They should not hastily change their circumstances until they had won their extended families, friends, and their colleagues at work. (1 Cor.7:17-24.)
Paul did not evangelize haphazardly. He planned a careful strategy and set solid precedents.
“Like a skilled master builder I have laid a foundation; let everyone take heed how he builds upon it.” (1 Cor.3:10-15)
Paul’s foundation was theological—Jesus Christ—and it was methodological, with unpaid lay evangelism an essential part of it.
Part Three will be published tomorrow.
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