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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First Corinthians 1: Giving Thanks in All Circumstances

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

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:4 ESV).

Do you give thanks in all circumstances?

In her accounts of imprisonment during World War II, Corrie Ten Boom tells of holding secret prayer meetings in her dormitory using a bible that she had smuggled into the camp.  In prayer, she asked the women with her to pray for all things, even the fleas that made their lives miserable.  Later, she learned that the guards refused to enter her building on account of those very same fleas. In effect, those fleas protected her prayer group from discovery and allowed the group to be an ongoing source of hope in a camp where many perished. Give thanks in all circumstances!

At the time of the Apostle Paul, Corinth was the third largest city in the Roman empire after Rome and Alexandria.  The Romans had destroyed Greek Corinth in 146 BC, but it was rebuilt as Roman colony by Julius Caesar in 44 BC.  The official language was Latin, but Greek was still employed. Corinth was located strategically on an Isthmus where cargo could easily be transported overland between the Aegean and Ionian seas (Hays 2011, 2-5).

The story of the founding of the church at Corinth is found in Acts 18. The church formed around a group of tent-making friends, Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3; Thiselton 2000, 23). The Corinthian church became largely gentile in composition, in part, because of Paul’s frustration in trying to evangelize the Jews (Acts 18:6).  Paul’s frustration must have been substantial because Acts records God offering him comfort:  And the Lord said to Paul one night in a vision, Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people (Acts 18:9-10).

The Apostle Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth was written about three years later (53-53 AD) from Ephesus (Bloomberg 1994, 21). The letter focuses on two primary issues:  Christian unity and Paul’s response to a number of questions that were posed to him (Hays 2011, 5).  The problem of dissention among the Corinthians stemmed from their “addiction to the power, prestige, and pride represented in the Hellenistic rhetorical tradition” (Hafermann 1993, 165).  If you substituted Washingtonian for Corinthian in Paul’s letter, it might read much the same!

The English Standard Version Bible lays divides chapter 1 of Corinthians into 4 sections:  Greeting (vv 1-3), Thanksgiving (vv 4-9), Divisions in the Church (vv 10-17), and Christ the Wisdom and Power of God (vv 18-31).

Paul’s greeting is unusual is that he refers to the Corinthians (v 2) as “sanctified in Jesus Christ” (ἡγιασμένοις ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ) and “called to be saints” (κλητοῖς ἁγίοις).  The root word in the Greek in both expression is ἁγίοις which means:  dedicated to God, holy, sacred, i.e. reserved for God and God’s service (BDAG 61).  This is indeed a strange way to refer to a church racked by division (σχίσματα; v 10)!  Being both sanctified and called to be saints, Paul is pointing to salvation as a reality that has arrived now, but is also not yet complete.  Christians are not saved (past tense) but being saving (σῳζομένοις; v 18; progressive tense).  Our boasting cannot be in our wisdom, power, or noble birth, but in Christ alone (vv 26, 31).  Our salvation is both: now and not yet.

So Paul gives thanks for this unruly congregation.  Babes in Christ; created in the image of God; blessed by their maker; saved by the blood of the Lamb; and entrusted into Paul’s care.

Do you give thanks in all circumstances?

REFERENCES

Bloomberg, Craig L. 1994.  The NIV Application Commentary:  1 Corinthians.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan.

Hafermann, S.J. 1993. “Letters to the Corinthians” pages164-79 of Dictionary of Paul and His Letters.  Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship.  Edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Raph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press.

Hays, Richard B.  2011.  Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching—First Corinthians (Orig pub 1997).  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Ten Boom, Corrie, John and Elizabeth Sherrill. 2006. The Hiding Place (Orig pub 1971). Chosen Books.

Thiselton, Anthony C.  2000.  The First Epistle to the Corinthians:  A Commentary on the Greek Text.  NIGTC. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

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