But then we keep reading and find out that Paul hasn't collected on this pay day and doesn't intend to do so. He says "But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision." So then why this long argument for why he should be paid?
It seems that Paul, somewhat ironically, is actually defending his right to be paid in order to argue for his right to not be paid. Or to put it more precisely, he is defending his authority as an apostle in spite of not having taken any money from the Corinthians. It is important to remember that Paul as a preacher did not fit into a predefined role in his culture. There was no widely recognized office of "pastor" or "elder" at this point in history with accompanying expectations of financial compensation. Paul was a free lance missionary. In the Corinthians view, what Paul was doing was probably most like the teachers of philosophy or rhetoric of the day; the best ones found wealthy patrons to support them with a steady income while the rest had to move from student to student to find pay. The least employable teachers might have to take up a more menial task alongside teaching in order to bolster their income. Of course, this is precisely what Paul had done working as a tent-maker while also preaching the gospel. The Corinthians reasoned in reverse that perhaps if Paul had to supplement his income by such a lowly trade then perhaps he didn't really have much authority as an apostle or should not even be called an apostle. The point of Paul's argument then is to show that he has every right to be paid and he has not foregone payment because of any lack of authority. Instead, he has done so in order not to be a burden to the Corinthians.
But Paul's going without payment actually runs much deeper than merely avoiding financial burden for the Corinthians. It is an embodiment of the very gospel Paul preached to them. Repeatedly throughout Corinthians Paul has insisted that living out the gospel means not insisting on one's own status and rights but acting out of love for the benefit of others. Paul argues in the opening chapters of the epistle that this is what Jesus has done for us; lowering himself to be crucified on our behalf. Paul says his ministry fits the same pattern: "That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel."
Now Paul is calling upon the Corinthians to do the same thing: to forego their rights and act out of love for the benefit of others. This is where we realize that this chapter is not an aside disconnected from what has gone before. In the previous chapter, Paul has just been exhorting the "mature" in Corinth to give up their right to eat meat in order to benefit those who are "weak" in their faith. Chapter 9 serves as a model of Paul having done that very thing for the Corinthians themselves. Although Paul may have moved onto the seemingly unrelated topic of his authority to receive payment, he does so in such a way that continues to address the Corinthians' fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. He is reminding the Corinthians (and us) yet again that the gospel is not yet another tool to be used in our own self-advancement. It is actually about precisely the opposite of that. The gospel way of life is one of humbling ourselves for the benefit of others.
Paul goes on to talk about how he is so radically free in the gospel that he has made himself servant to all, so free that he is able to change for others for the sake of the gospel.
"To the Jews I became a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings"It seems to me that one of our favorite hobbies as Christians is to fight over really inconsequential things as if they were essential. As American Christians especially, we are pretty fond of insisting on our rights. What would the Church be like if instead of squabbling over every little detail to which we think we are entitled our language could sound more like Paul's? What if we were so free in the gospel we could say:
"To the liberal I became a liberal, in order to win liberals. To the conservative, I became a conservative.... To the foreigner... To the un-churched... To the skeptic...To the uneducated... To the weak... To the poor..."
What if we could say about everything we do "I do it all for the sake of the gospel."?