In chapter 9, Paul explains why he initially chose not to accept direct financial support from the Corinthian church even though he had a right to it. He begins by asserting the right of workers, including apostles, to receive wages for their work. We serve the Lord in our work, and the Lord intends that we draw sustenance from it in return. Paul gives three examples from daily life that illustrate this point. Soldiers, vintners, and shepherds all derive economic benefit for their labors. Paul, however, rarely appeals to convention alone to make his case, so he quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 (“You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain”) in support of his argument. If even animals deserve a share of the fruits of their labor, then surely any person who participates in bringing about some benefit should share in that benefit.
This text has clear implications for the workplace, especially for employers. Workers deserve a fair wage. In fact, the Bible threatens employers with dire consequences if they deny their employees just compensation (Lev. 19:13; Deut. 24:14; James 5:7). Paul knows that a variety of factors affect the determination of a fair wage, and he does not try to prescribe a figure or formula. Likewise, the complexities of supply and demand, regulation and unionization, wages and benefits, and power and flexibility in today’s labor markets are beyond the scope of this chapter. But the principle is not. Those who employ human labor cannot neglect the needs of those whose work they employ.
Nonetheless, Paul chooses not to make use of his right to receive wages for his work as an apostle. Why? Because in his case, given the sensitivities in the church in Corinth, to do so might “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” As it happens, God has made it possible for him to earn a living there by introducing him to fellow tentmakers (or leatherworkers), Priscilla and Aquila, who live in Corinth (Acts 18:1–3; Rom. 16:3). Paul doesn’t expect that God will arrange things so that all church workers can afford to work for free. But in this case, God did, and Paul accepts God’s provision with thanks. The point is that only the worker has the right to offer to work without fair remuneration. The employer has no right to demand it.