“Did I commit sin in humbling myself that you might be exalted, because I preached the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches, taking wages from them to minister to you” (2 Corinthians 11:7-8).
Other than his physical appearance and lack of eloquence, the “super-apostles” who sought to undermine Paul the Apostle in Corinth had very little ammunition to use against him. Faced with that dilemma, it seems they tried a different approach: Paul’s refusal to charge the Corinthians for his ministerial efforts meant that he was something less than what he claimed to be.
In today’s parlance, we might say their argument was, “you get what you pay for.” Since the Corinthians didn’t pay for Paul’s ministry, the implication was that his work wasn’t worth very much. One commentator explains how this attempt to diminish Paul’s reputation was reinforced by the cultural expectations of that time…
“When Paul was at Corinth he supported himself (Acts 18:3) and accepted help from other churches as well (v. 8). Some of the Corinthians seem to have been offended by Paul’s refusal to accept their gift, probably offered to him in response to his preaching of the gospel to them. In ancient times, giving and receiving gifts was often used to establish and maintain friendships among social equals, as well as to signal dependents’ subordination to patrons.
In this system, Paul’s refusal of a gift might be taken as an insult, a proud refusal to be involved with inferiors. But the apostle views his relationship with the Corinthians, not from the standpoint of worldly social convention (5:16), but from the standpoint of the new creation (5:17) in which he has been called to be an apostle and spiritual father. As a father, he may rightly give to his children without receiving anything in return (12:14, 15).” (1)
However, Paul’s decision to forego support from the Corinthian church placed him in something of a “no-win” situation. If Paul accepted financial support from the Corinthians then he might have been accused of seeking to enrich himself. So this decision served to neutralize anyone who might wish to accuse him of an ulterior motive. On the other hand, it apparently did little to dissuade those who were intent on criticizing him. In their opinion, Paul “robbed” other churches to pay for his ministry at Corinth.
Unfortunately, this serves to remind us that others may sometimes misinterpret a God-honoring course of action, intentionally or otherwise.
(1) Sproul, R. C. (Ed.). (2015). The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (p. 2064). Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust.