Many people in this country (both liberals and conservatives) are currently in an uproar regarding “our rights” and not losing “our freedoms.” The way these statements are made leaves one with the impression that “our rights and freedoms” are one of (if not the top) priorities in life. In other words, it seems that “our rights and freedoms” has become an idol for some (many).

The apostle Paul addresses the subject of idolatry in at least four ways in 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1. The first two ways are not surprising, and we expect them. First, Paul affirms that “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist” (1 Corinthians 8:6) and the exclusive nature of being God’s covenant people (Exodus 20:2-6; Deuteronomy 5:6-9; 1 Corinthians 10:16-22). A second way that Paul attempted to curb idolatry in the Corinthian church was to issue a command to “flee idolatry” (1 Corinthians 10:14).

Third, Paul brings up examples from the Hebrew Scriptures to demonstrate that just because one enters into covenant with God does not mean that one is no longer subject to evil desires. Paul draws on the examples of “our fathers” who entered a covenant relationship with God, pursued idolatry, and incurred God’s displeasure (1 Corinthians 10:1-10). Paul understood the Hebrew Scriptures to be applicable and crucial for the disciple of Jesus to remain faithful (1 Corinthians 10:11-12).

The fourth way that Paul addressed idolatry is the most challenging (in this writers’ opinion). Paul was willing to sacrifice his “rights” and “freedoms” for the sake of the family of God. Paul uses himself as an example in chapter 9 in response to the Corinthians’ insistence on their own “rights” (exousia, 8:9). “Paul presents himself as one who did not use his rights. Indeed, he became a slave to all (9:19) and a model for the Corinthians (cf. 10:33-11:1). … As the selfless one who defines his identity by the cross, Paul offers the countercultural example that is necessary for the moral formation for which he prays (1:8).”[1]

Richard Hays wrote:

Paul’s self-description serves as a model for the conduct that he is urging upon the strong: like him, they should be willing to surrender their exousia for the sake of the weak in order to promote the gospel. This is not explicitly stated until the very conclusion of the larger argument (10:32–11:1), but it is clearly implied by the thematic links between chapters 8 and 9 (exousia in 8:9 and throughout chapter 9; the example of Paul in 8:13, taken together with 9:12 and 9:22). We may be sure that, whether they liked what Paul had to say or not, the Corinthians would have seen what he was driving at. … Paul says, in effect, “No, for the sake of the gospel you must exercise self-restraint. You must discipline yourself for the sake of the greater good of building up the community in love.”[2]

Community responsibility is a higher priority for Christians than one’s own “rights” and “freedoms.” One must use one’s “rights” and “freedoms” to “build up” and “not destroy” (1 Corinthians 8:7-13; 10:23). When one uses their own “rights” for “self-serving behavior,” it is the opposite of the exercise of love (which builds up).[3] In the context of 1 Corinthians 8:1-11:1, love is defined “in sacrificial terms, as the denial of one’s rights and the concern for the weaker sibling.”[4] This definition of love is clear by Paul’s illustration of the destructive results of individualistic behavior in 1 Corinthians 8:10-11.

In response to some of the Corinthian saints asserting their “rights” (exousia, 1 Corinthians 8:9), Paul insists that he has chosen not to use his “right” in the gospel (1 Corinthians 9:4-6, 12, 18). By relinquishing his “rights,” Paul “exemplified the love that Jesus enacted at the cross. His conduct is the model for the Corinthians” (1 Corinthians 11:1).[5]

Paul exemplifies freedom that relinquishes “rights” for the sake of others (1 Corinthians 9:19). True Christian freedom is exercised in service, not demanding one’s rights. Unfortunately, the Corinthian saints who insisted on exercising their rights “have become paradoxically captive to the agenda of their own exousia: they are not free to act in the interest of their brothers and sisters. To put it bluntly, 1 Corinthians 9 suggests that if we find ourselves campaigning on the party platform of defending our own rights and privileges, we have lost sight of the gospel.”[6]

Paul’s example to the selfish saints at Corinth is patterned on the model of Christ. When Paul wrote to the saints at Philippi, he encouraged them to have the mindset that Jesus demonstrated when he wrote: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8). Paul followed Christ’s example of giving up one’s rights, which is why he could write, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).

The mindsets and examples of Jesus and Paul are still applicable for the followers of Jesus today. So may Christ be “formed in” us.

Mark Johnson

[1] James W. Thompson, Apostle of Persuasion: Theology and Rhetoric in the Pauline Letters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic: A Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2020), 89.

[2] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997), 148.

[3] James W. Thompson, Moral Formation according to Paul: The Context and Coherence of Pauline Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 163.

[4] Ibid., 164.

[5] Ibid., 165.

[6] Hays, 157-158.

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