Imagine you finally get to meet your grandfather–your mother’s father–for the first time. You’re an adult now, and he has always lived in another country. And let’s imagine that your mother died when you were young. So when you finally meet your grandfather, he showers you with gifts and love, even though he knows almost nothing about you. He tells you that, out of love for your mother, he feels like he owes it to her to show you extravagant generosity and kindness. He has a duty to you, but not because of anything you’ve done, but rather because of his relationship to your mother. This is an example of mediated obligation. When we talk about this idea in the context of funding Christian ministry, it means that we should be generous to fellow believers out of love for God. We should feel duty bound to God, and express that in generosity to our brothers and sisters in Christ.
So where do we see this in Scripture? In 1 Corinthians 9:7-14 Paul talks about how to keep ministry going, and he uses several analogies to illustrate the notion of mediated obligation:
Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 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.
Let’s take these one at a time and see where the obligation to give falls in each case. Keep in mind that these are all metaphors for those in service to God. First, who is obligated to give to the soldier? The king. In those days it was the king who ensured his soldiers were paid, but he himself received money through taxation. So when citizens give taxes, they do so out of obligation to the king, who then pays the soldiers their wages. They’re not obligated to give to the soldier. If the soldier circumvents the king and demands payment from citizens directly for his work, it’s wrong. That’s called extortion. And this kind of extortion is exactly what many ministries actively practice when they condition ministry upon the payment of a fee, instead of relying on their King to provide for their livelihood.
Again, it is the owner of the vineyard who is obligated to provide for the vinedresser who plants the vineyard. The owner employs the vinedresser. The vine produces grapes for the owner, and the vinedresser gets to share in those grapes because the owner gives him permission. Likewise for the shepherd: the shepherd is in service to the owner of the flock, which he is employed to care for. The shepherd can’t milk the flock for his own benefit. All that milk belongs to the owner. But the owner allows the shepherd to share in the milk because the owner is responsible to provide for his employee.
And the same with the ox. The ox doesn’t own the grain that it’s treading. Rather, the owner of the grain allows for the ox to share in the grain, because it’s his responsibility to provide for his animal.
The following illustrations help show these relationships of mediated obligation more clearly:
If those previous examples weren’t very clear, Paul’s last example in verses 13 and 14 serve to make everything more clear. Here’s what he says: “Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” In other words, people gave offerings out of obligation to God, rather than obligation to the Levites.
Consider the significance of the phrase “the Lord is their inheritance” (Num. 18:20; cf. Deut. 18:1–2). It shows the exclusivity of this mode of support. It’s not merely that the Levites receive from the contributions, but they are to have no other inheritance. The law of Moses permits the priests to receive “colabor”—that which is offered to the Lord—but forbids reciprocity. Consequently, in Israel’s times of faithlessness, the Levites languish (cf. Deut. 14:27; Neh. 13:10). When this model is violated and a priest accepts offerings directly, he essentially puts himself in the place of God. Such was the sin of Hophni and Phinehas, the corrupt sons of Eli who took raw meat before it had been offered to the Lord (1 Sam. 2:12–17).
If you’re unfamiliar with the issue of reciprocity vs. colabor, Conley Owens introduces the distinction in his book The Dorean Principle. Ministerial reciprocity involves giving to a minister out of a direct sense of obligation to that minister for their ministry. It’s a kind of payment or exchange: “You did X ministry for me, so I feel compelled to give money back to you.”
In contrast, ministerial colabor involves giving to a minister primarily out of an obligation to God, to honor and aid the work of Christian ministry. The giver sees himself to be a colaborer with the minister, working together in spiritual labors. In other words, they’re both working for a common Master, giving and serving out of a sense of shared obligation to Christ.
So, just as the Levites were supported by the Israelites, modern-day pastors are supported by their congregations. And the key is that the support is provided voluntarily and out of a desire to honor God and support the work of the ministry. Paul speaks to this very issue in 2 Corinthians 9:7, where he says, “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” This verse emphasizes that giving to support the work of ministry should be done freely and willingly, without any sense of obligation or pressure. In other words, the person giving shouldn’t be forced or manipulated to give, or put in a situation where he’s exploited indirectly. While most churches do operate by colabor, many other ministries do not.
In Matthew 10:8-10, Jesus prohibited reciprocity but permitted colabor. He commanded his disciples to freely give, taking no payment in return. But they were also commanded to accept support from people of peace who would offer to supply what they needed.
Scripture makes clear that the work of ministry is meant to be freely given, supported by God’s people, but never sold. As we saw in Paul’s analogies, this support stems from a shared obligation to God, not direct indebtedness between giver and receiver.
Unfortunately, many modern practices impose reciprocity, and preclude colabor. This not only compromises the purity of motive but fails to trust God’s prescribed means of sustainment. It resorts to exploitation rather than freely bearing one another’s burdens.
As believers, we must recalibrate to God’s model. Christians should fund ministries through voluntary, cheerful giving as an act of worship, so that those ministries can thrive and offer everything without any strings attached. When the work of God’s Kingdom is fueled by the Spirit’s leading rather than worldly salesmanship (venality), both message and means stay aligned to biblical standards. May we have the courage to trust God to provide through his people, that the gospel may ring out purely and freely.