Having spent ten years as a paid pastor in a church, I’ve spent the past year and a bit in a slightly different position. I’m currently self-supported which means I’m responsible for raising my own support. There are a lot of positives and benefits to this. One reason I was keen to spend some time in this particular type of context was that in my concern to see people pioneering Gospel work into unreached areas I’d publicly encouraged people to consider taking a step of faith and being willing to go commit to Gospel work then to see how the support came together to make that practically possible. I’ve always believed that you shouldn’t ask of others what you’re not prepared to do yourself. So, this has felt like a good opportunity to do that.
However, to be clear, I believe that it is good and right for churches to seek to pay those taking primary responsibility for the preaching, teaching and pastoral care amongst them, just as it is okay for people to seek support from a wider base of partners. Although both those points are generally accepted, they are not completely uncontroversial. I’ve made a section available on this site so that people who wish to support us in seeking to multiply urban church plants in the West Midlands can do so. However, I’ve had one person trawl through my site and then use the fact that people can donate as a reason to attack me and disagree with other things I’ve written about.
A friend of mine was recently told that it was okay for itinerant workers to accept support (I guess I kind of come under that bracket) however, people like him who were elders/pastors in a specific church should not accept pay and instead should be doing work with their hands in order to support their families. So, I thought it would be worth having a look at what the Bible actually says about supporting workers.
I think that a good Bible passage to look at is 1 Corinthians 9. In that chapter, Paul talks from the perspective of an apostle who is entitled to seek support but has chosen not to do so. He notes that he has forgone the rights that the other apostles accept such as being accompanied by a wife (9:5) but also he argues that he has the right to receive practical/financial support (9:7). His point being that the latter is not a luxury but really about simply living so that after all he has the right to eat and drink (9:3).
He then offers an Old Testament parabolic example. He refers to the command that an ox should not be muzzled to prevent it eating as it works (9:9). In some societies, beasts of labour would be treated cruelly. You would basically work them into the ground until they died. God’s people were not to be like that. They were to care well for the animals that laboured for them. Paul however, says that God’s concern is greater than for animals, the example is there also to help us think about how we treat other human beings. We are not to exhaust them and run them into the ground until they break. Incidentally, this should encourage us to think wider than simply paying our pastors and more about how we care generally for their well-being and that of their families.
But does this passage only refer to Paul because (as suggested above)? He was an itinerant worker, unable to settle in one place. Was it simply that some apostles were unable to transfer their work from city to city? Are pastors different? Well, I would suggest that there are two good reasons why we shouldn’t take the passage that way.
The first one is a hint or a clue. In verse 7, Paul uses the imagery of shepherding when talking about supporting workers. The one who tends to the flock can expect to be cared for and nourished. The second one makes things even more explicit. Verse 14 says:
14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
Notice that this is an instruction, a command from the Lord without exceptions or restrictions. Those who are involved in Gospel proclamation should receive their living from it.
Now, it is possible for people to exploit that. It’s clear that people did in Paul’s day and they have done throughout the ages. So, there’s something stomach churning to hear about pastors getting six figure packages with bonuses and privileges, living a life of luxury with multiple houses, private jets and the like. Such things are shameful. However, this exploitation and abuse does not make the role and calling of a full time Gospel worker whether itinerant evangelist or fixed church pastor ignoble.
There are of course good practical reasons for setting someone apart who is free to spend significant time studying God’s word, teaching in small groups as well as the main congregation and giving attention to discipleship and pastoral care. So, I would encourage churches to seek out willing and able people, then look after them well.