1 Corinthians 9: Strategic Tentmaking

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:1-4 ESV).

Tentmaking refers to evangelists and pastors who work outside the church to support their ministry.  The term arises from the ministry of the Apostle Paul who worked presumably making tents to support his evangelism—especially while he was in Corinth.  Tentmaking is common among missionaries and in areas of the world where full-time Christian ministry is either impractical or unaccepted.

The Greek term translated as tentmaker, σκηνοποιός also translates as leather worker or stage hand (BDAG 6700).  The root word, σκηνὴ, translate as:  transcendent celestial tent, tent, dwelling metaphorically…earthly Tabernacle (BDAG 6698).  The strong biblical association of God’s dwelling place with the tabernacle in the Old Testament begs the question as to whether Paul actually uses the term metaphorically to refer to himself as an evangelist.  Elsewhere, for example, he refers to our bodies as the temple of God (1 Corinthians 9:16).  However, in this context tentmaking is described as a trade and the idea that Paul (or his friends) worked in the theater is rejected by commentators because the theater was an overtly gentile profession not accepted by Jews [1].

Paul’s long diatribe on his right to earn a living from his evangelistic ministry (vv 1-14) ends rather oddly.  He says he possess this right to earn a living, but then says:  But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting (v 15).  Why does Paul boast that he is a volunteer?

Blomberg [2] observes that Greek and Roman philosophers and religious teachers earned their living in 4 ways:  fees, living with a patron, begging, and working a trade.  The fact that Paul worked as tentmaker left the impression that maybe he really was not an apostle—the implication was if he was any good he would charge for his services!  Today this might be said about a lay pastor who was not ordained. So why does Paul boast that he is a volunteer?

Paul’s tentmaking diatribe underscores his lesson in the previous chapter.  There he advises his readers not to eat meat if eating meat would cause other believers to question their faith.  He concludes that lesson saying:  Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble (1 Corinthians 8:13 ESV).  The strong have a right to eat meat, but for the sake of the weak they should give it up.  In like manner, Paul has a right to earn his living as an evangelist, but for the sake of the Gospel he works as a tentmaker.

Paul’s lesson on tentmaking speaks truth into our times.  If Paul refused to accept patronage because he could not speak the Gospel to the rich in the Corinthian church, what does that say to ministers supported primarily by rich church members today?  Is class privilege quietly accepted in spite of its tension with the Gospel?  What about causes and members not enjoying such privileges?  What about other rights people assert?

Working as a tentmaker allowed Paul  to address the abuse of class privileges in Corinth.  Are we equally willing to address the abuse of class privileges in the church today?

[1] Jesus’ unique association with the word, hypocrite, makes this analysis a bit ironic.  The word, hypocrite, is Greek and translates as actor.  Jesus’ redefinition of a hypocrite as someone who is two-faced was a new use of the word.  Why would Jesus pick this word if he spoke no Greek and, as a Jewish Rabbi, had no association with theater?

[2] Craig L. Blomberg. 1994. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan. Page 173.

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