What lifestyle is appropriate for full-time church workers? I’m thinking about people like pastors, itinerant teachers, and missionaries supported by a church fund or Christian ministry. How much is “too much” for houses, cars, or food and drink? Should I stop donating to a church or ministry if I think that workers are being wasteful?
Your questions are very relevant to our time! On one hand, I recall churches and ministries that were derailed by a leader’s excessive lifestyle, and my readers can probably remember a couple, too. But another extreme view in some circles is that full-time service for God requires intentional poverty, celibacy, or other deprivations.
Grace and truth came together in the person of Christ (John 1:17). When we face questions that are marked by extreme views, Scriptural truth is probably lacking on both sides. God’s Word challenges us not to turn “to the right hand or to the left” starting way back in the book of Numbers.1 God is clearly concerned about our tendency to swerve from the pathway of solid, reliable truth.2
I believe godly living does not require poverty, although some Christians are poor. It also discourages excess, although some Christians are rich. A general suggestion I’ve heard is that the Lord’s full-time servant should be living at about the same level as the people being served. I think there are wise reasons for this, and will try to show you a Scriptural pattern.
The worker deserves a paycheck
I think this question is best answered in two parts. Before answering your specific questions, let’s go to Scripture and see whether full-time Christian workers should be paid at all!
In general, God’s Word shows that if someone works, they deserve compensation. For Christian service, especially full-time service, the Lord often uses voluntary gifts from other believers to generate funds or services that meet practical needs. Optionally, distributions may be processed through a Christian ministry.3 Paul talked about this subject while writing to the Corinthian assembly (church), which had been criticizing his ministry. Later he confirmed the teaching to Timothy. Both times he referenced a surprising Old Testament example:
This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? … For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does He not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?1 Cor. 9:7-11
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”1 Tim. 9:17-18
Today we commonly use machines to thresh grain from straw, but in Bible times an ox might be used. The animal was surrounded by food and the farmer might want to muzzle it. But God said it must be allowed to eat while working. Paul showed how the principle applies to those who labor in spiritual matters while still having practical needs, including the right to have a believing wife.4 She, and any children given to that union, would also need normal daily provisions.
Of course, a laborer might sometimes avoid taking donations. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians he added “If others share this rightful claim on you, do we not even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right” (1 Cor. 9:12). According to Acts 18:1-3, Paul initially spent time in Corinth working as a tentmaker in a Christian-owned business.5 Later, when Paul and Barnabas labored full-time in Corinth, they did not take any local church donations (2 Cor. 11:7-9).6 Paul saw ongoing spiritual problems among the Corinthian believers which could produce even more problems if the apostles received local donations. So, he didn’t ask them for practical assistance, even though they should have provided it.
Also, there are appropriate times for volunteer work. When Scripture talks about giving, it doesn’t always talk about money. A person’s time and abilities can also be donated to the Lord’s work. However, unless someone believes he or she is being led into full-time service and is using volunteer opportunities to start the transition, a normal income source should be maintained for daily needs and, if applicable, those of a family (2 Thes. 3:10-12).
But, setting aside special cases, the usual pattern is that the Lord’s workers are supported practically by other believers, especially by those who directly benefit from their work.
Until next time…
I didn’t address your specific questions today, but sometimes it’s helpful to look first at the underlying assumptions. Hopefully my readers agree that in general, Christian church and ministry workers should be paid somehow. In Part 2 next week, I will discuss the question of waste and knowing when to change up the ministries to which you donate.
For more help on this topic, I recommend E.A. Bremicker’s short book, “The Labourer is Worthy of His Wages” (2011), ISBN 978-1-894956-85-7, available in English from Believer’s Bookshelf in both the USA and Canada (https://www.bbusa.org, https://www.bbcan.org/). To locate the original German writing, contact GBV Dillenberg (https://gbv-dillenburg.de/eng/).
To all my audience, thanks for joining us today! The PT team would like to hear your thoughts. Do you agree that Christian giving should include supporting full time workers? How should they be supported? Leave a brief reply in the comments section below.
1. For direct references, see Numbers 20:17; Deuteronomy 5:32, 17:11-20, and 28:14; Joshua 1:7 and 23:6; and Proverbs 4:27. There are several more passages with related examples.
2. “Left” and “right” have different meanings in Semitic cultures compared to how we use them in western cultures. In Scriptural context, “left” suggests disfavor and judgment; “right” suggests favor and blessing. See Matthew 25:31-46 for proof that Scripture bridges the cultural context. When taken to extremes, “left” becomes legality (truth without love) and “right” becomes favoritism (love without truth).
3. I can’t think of a Scriptural requirement for a “middleman” to process a gift, but this option can be useful when someone wants to make an anonymous donation, or when there are courier, taxation, or currency conversion issues in play.
4. The passage is also sufficient to show that there is no scriptural requirement for celibacy in the Lord’s work, provided the worker follows the Scriptural pattern for marriage. While anyone may choose to stay single per Matthew 19:12, it is not a requirement. Married workers are then free to have and raise children whose needs are provided by that same income.
5. Hence the expression, “a tentmaker missionary.” Another use of this role is that missionaries may be witnessing Christ in a country where the government limits or bans “official” Christian activities. A job, university enrollment, or other secular pursuit provides a useful way to meet people, start relationships, and talk with them about Christ without causing instant legal problems.
6. A similar situation also arose in Thessalonica (2 Thes. 3:6-9, Phil. 4:14-20).