The Law of Christ – the debate continues – a look at 1 Corinthians 9

"Free from everyone, slave to all"

"Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible."  (1 Corinthians 9 vs 19)

Introduction

One of the passages which is used by some to support their view that believers are under a new covenant 'system' of law, which they want to label 'The Law of Christ' is 1 Corinthians 9. This, even though that actual phrase does not appear in the passage, any more than the actual teaching that those in Christ are said to be 'under law' appears anywhere at all in the New Testament. Indeed, Paul's use of the phrase in Galatians 6 states boldly that believers live to FULFIL the law of Christ, rather than live 'under' it.
This passage in Paul's letter to the church at Corinth does say that he - Paul - is 'in-lawed to Christ'. We will see what he means by this strange term, used nowhere else in the New Testament, in its context. Although I greatly respect my brothers and sisters in Christ who affirm this, I must confess to a feeling of frustration. It seems to be a degree of almost desperation which takes one phrase from one verse - the only verse where it actually occurs in its 'virgin' form, marries it to a similar, though not exact, phrase from another verse, taken from a different letter entirely, and then constructs a complete view of how believers are to live in the new covenant.And it appears to me that this is done to support the presupposed assertion that 'all men are under law' in some form or other. By 'presupposed', I mean that it has been determined, somehow, before the passage is considered and thus a preconceived meaning has then been 'read back into' the text itself. I will try to explain here why I do not understand this passage to be stating that believers are 'under the law of Christ'. So my aim is not to disprove the whole idea that there IS an expansive 'Law of Christ' which believers are 'under' (I have attempted that elsewhere), but, more simply, that this verse cannot be used to support that view. Thus those who are going to assert it must look elsewhere for their Biblical warrant.

The Importance of Purpose

When we come to a portion of Scripture, the first question to be asked is, 'What is the purpose of this passage?' And the question must be asked in two time-frames:
  1. What was the intention of the original author in writing this, in this way, to those he writes to (the 'then-there' purpose)?
  2. What is God's purpose in placing this passage in our Bibles? What is the Holy Spirit saying to us - to me - today - in my life (the 'here-now' purpose)?
This identified purpose will determine our understanding of any sub-section and all of the content it uses. Every statement will serve the main purpose. In other words, we cannot just extract single verses, or parts of verses, and take them to mean something out of their context UNLESS that something is plainly stated elsewhere in Scripture - and then, we must understand those truths from their original context, and the way in which they are being integrated in the section we are examining. Otherwise, we end up with 'blackmail letter' style doctrine, where our statements of belief are 'patched' together with words and letters 'cut out' from anywhere we find them, irrespective of their original context. And if we do this, we can make the Bible say exactly what we want it to. My Bible College Principal used to quote a parody of a well-known hymn:
"Wonderful things in the Bible I see,
Some put there by you, and some put there by me."
This actually ends up making the Bible not God's word at all. It is no longer revelation. It has become conformed to the shape I want or expect it to be. Now, please understand that I am not accusing those who disagree with me of this. I am just trying to emphasise the vital importance of letting the Bible speak, without - and we have to make effort to do this - assuming that we know what it is going to say. I think we have to do this afresh every time we come to it anew. For it is all too easy for me to think I have my doctrine 'done and dusted', and not submit it to new light which the Holy Spirit may want to shine on it in my heart and head. Then, I become stagnant in my beliefs and unteachable, I have closed my mind to change, and if and where I am wrong, I am uncorrectable. And to that extent, I preach also to myself, and I invite comment and criticism, in love, on my understanding of God's word from my brothers and sisters in Christ. We cannot afford to be one inch above contradiction, because the Lord uses fellowship - other believers - to correct us.

Defining 'Purpose'

When we look at a letter, such as 1 Corinthians, we can follow this question of 'purpose' into finer granularity, by asking our major questions at different levels. I am grateful to a series of preaching classes at study days which were titled 'Preparing the Message', ran and attended by my then-church in Bedford many years ago - but I have never forgotten the valuable tools they equipped me with. Thank the Lord for wise, Godly preachers who are willing and very able to pass on to the next 'generation' of preachers what they have learned. Much of this approach comes from the work of Jay Adams. I would do it like this:
Level 1: What is the purpose of the whole letter?
What is Paul's primary reason for writing to the church at Corinth?
Level 2: What identifiable sections are there within the letter?
This is what Adams calls a 'preaching portion', or a 'passage', and he defines it simply as 'a section with an identifiable purpose'. These may be found by looking for key phrases, like Paul's 'now concerning ...', or 'now about ...', as some translations have it (ch7 vs 1,25; ch 8 vs 1; ch 12 vs 1 et al). Then, we ask:
a) What are the sub-purposes of these sections?
b) How do these sub-purposes serve the main purpose?
Level 3: What identifiable points are being made in 'this' section?
How do these points each serve the purpose of the passage.

The Purpose of 1 Corinthians 9

The Portion containing the Purpose

When we come to 1 Corinthians ch9, then, let us first ask, 'what whole portion of the letter does this piece come in?'
My analysis would indicate that this section starts with ch 8 vs 1 - Paul's:
"Now about food sacrificed to idols:"
And pretty quickly, Paul has identified what is behind this practical issue at Corinth. It is the question of a Christian's 'rights'.
In ch 10 vs 23, he is still on track:
“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others."
... and I would suggest (others may disagree) that his argument continues all the way through ch 10 - and I would also add that ch 11 vs 1 belongs to the end of ch 10, not the beginning of a new section:
"Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."
So the whole paragraph, at the end of the section, reads (from ch 10 vs 31, through ch11 vs 1):
"So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ."
I conclude, then, that in ch 9 vs 19 - 23, Paul is speaking about the believer and his 'rights'. And he is using himself as an example for these Corinthian Christians to follow. And I want to state emphatically here that therefore it is not Paul's purpose to teach us about the believer's relationship to 'new law', whether that be called 'the Law of Christ' or something else. It is not his primary purpose in these verses, which are an illustration of his main point. Or, for that matter, in the whole of this letter.

... And the Purpose itself

So then, what IS the purpose of this particular portion in ch 9 (within the scope of the ch 8vs1 to 11 vs 1 passage)? Well, we can look within it for key phrases which will tell us. We must read what has gone before to see how Paul has arrived at this point. Why is he saying what he is saying, and why is he saying it just here? And I would answer that he is illustrating how the believer should consider his 'rights', in the freedom Christ brings, by looking at what Paul does in this specific respect - in the preaching of the Gospel.
There are clues:
  1. This is a defence.
    Look at verse 3 - he states it plainly. There were those at Corinth who wanted to judge him.
  2. This is about 'rights'. If there is one key phrase in this chapter, my vote would be for verse 12:

    "On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ."

    That is his thrust. That is what he is getting at.
His argument, logically presented, can be laid out like this:
  1. Paul is a God-appointed Apostle and leader of the church, generally, and specifically in a personal way to the Corinthians
  2. All those, who are leaders in the church, and in Christ, have rights.
  3. Paul and his 'team' have refused to use these rights (vs 12, 15).
    (Interesting, by the way, that he considers that something that is 'commanded' by the Lord - vs 14 - can be waived by him)
  4. He does so so that he cannot be accused of 'making a profit' from 'peddling' the Gospel. He wants it to be offered free of charge (vs18). You see, he is saying that even in this, he is a 'recruit', not a volunteer. He is 'compelled' to preach. He is 'discharging a trust'. He does not even profit in the self-satisfaction of a willing volunteer. He has been 'sommissioned' by God to preach it, and preach it he must.
  5. (Implied and 'called' into his argument later) Paul is saying 'this is how I think and act. Follow my example'

When is 'freedom' not 'freedom'?

So here, then, he makes these statements. Christ has set him free, with no obligation to anyone. But he has gone on to make himself a slave. He has decided to behave as if he is not free, in the wonderful, supreme aim of winning many to Christ. He will use all means to get alongside the lost, Jew or Gentile, so that he can sound the message of salvation in their ear, with as little controversy caused by 'lifestyle' as possible. He will not compromise his faith. But he will give up everything else for the sake of the Gospel being heard. (Lord, may that be my heart too!). And now, he explains how he does so. But note. The primary purpose of this section is to explain why believers should not always be insisting on their 'rights'. They should be looking to live out love, even where it means sacrificing those rights.
When is freedom not freedom? When it is laid down at the feet of the risen Christ.
"Love one another as I have loved you."
"Greater love has no man than this - that he lays down his life for his friends."

Paul - Who do you think you're talking too?

"To the Jews" ...

First, to his own countrymen, to the Jews:
"To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. "
Here is the logic, unpacked step by step.
  1. Jews are under law (Mosaic law)
  2. Paul is not under that law, but
  3. He will take up the practices and the behaviour of the Jew in order to get alongside them and win them for Christ. So that the challenge of the Gospel is not a matter of 'Jewishness', but of Christ.

Then, to the Gentile:

"To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law."
The logic:
  1. Gentiles do not have the law
  2. Paul is not 'free from' law - he is overseen by God's law; he is 'in-lawed' ('within the jurisdiction of', as Thomas Schreiner says) to Christ, but
  3. He will become as if he does not have the law in order to win those who are like this.
... and he goes on. he has become weak to win the weak etc...
So we see that this phrase 'in-lawed to Christ' comes in the midst of a passage with a purpose. The intent of that phrase is not to teach us about a law which believers are under - not in any sense. To make it say that tears it out of its context and gives it a meaning Paul never intended. To do so turns the phrase itself into its own purpose, when it is actually being used as an illustration to make another point - a point which serves the main message. Now, I am not saying that we cannot gain insights and information from these 'side-points'. Every verse of Scripture is to be 'mined' for its full content - all that it can and does reveal about Christ. But as a former college colleague of mine has put it many times, 'the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things'. And we do not take 'asides' and base fully-fledged doctrinal assertion on them. 

A Turn of Phrase

One of the problems with translating from one language to another is that subtlety is sometimes lost. Plays on words, which serve their purpose in the original, do not come over. Some assert that the use of the Greek 'ennomos' ('inlawed-to') instead of 'huponomos' ('under law') is a technicality, and that these are equivalent words. But it looks to me that on these statements, Paul is engaging his listeners with some interesting contrasts:
'To those UNDER the law,
I became like one UNDER the law,
though I myself am NOT UNDER the law.'
'To those OUTSIDE the law,
I became like one OUTSIDE the law,
though I am not free from God's law but am INSIDE Christ's law.'
... or more literally:
'To those UNLAWED ...
... I am INLAWED to Christ'
You get the idea.
And I think that neither Paul nor the Holy Spirit deliberately avoided using the phrase 'under law', specifically so as not to confuse the readers (or us). Paul seems to go out of his way NOT to say that believers are under law - of any kind.

Conclusions

So to take this phrase from its context, when it has been used in a subsidiary way in Paul's argument and then to twin it with a similar - though not identical - phrase in a completely different context and a completely different letter, seems strange to me. To treat God's word in this way seems odd, unnatural, not logical. And likely to arrive at misdirected conclusions. And, finally, to summarise:
  1. The main purpose of 1 Corinthians 9 is to argue that Christian believers should, from a heart of love, lay aside even their 'rights' in order to serve each other in Christ and to preach the Gospel to those who are not in Christ - NOT to teach about the relationship believers now have to some form or other of law.
  2. Paul does not say that believers are 'under' Christ's law, he says that they are 'inside' it.
  3. I think Paul (and the Holy Spirit) can be trusted in his use of words. he is, after all, a trained lawyer. Ever dealt with lawyers?

So, at the least - the very least - the use of this particular verse as a main 'pillar' to support a doctrine of 'the Law of Christ' is a dubious use of Scripture - a bad hermeneutic practice. I know little about house building, but I do know a little! In a house, there are two types of walls - load-bearing and non-load-bearing, or 'partition' walls. if you are building upstairs extensions onto your house, it is sheer folly to place all the weight of your new room, or whatever, on a non-load-bearing wall. The clue is in the name!. To build important doctrine on the interpretation, out of context, of verses or passages from Scripture is equally foolish.
And thus, I strongly submit for your consideration, as ‘sensible people’ (1 Corinthians ch 10 vs 15 ) that this verse will not bear the weight of the interpretation some are placing upon it. This verse does not 'preach to us' that there is a 'Law of Christ' that we, and all believers, are under.