Two sins that are thoroughly condemned in Scripture are sexual immorality and greed. The church has rightly spent a lot of time and effort debating sexual sin, and we have some clearly defined boundaries as a result. But what about greed? What clearly defined boundaries do we have to stop it seeping into ministry?
While Sunday services all remain free to attend, many other forms of ministry are reserved for paying customers only. Books are sold well above printing costs, modern worship music requires a licence to sing, and even Scripture cannot be freely shared due to the copyright of most modern translations. There seems to effectively be no limit to what you can sell and profit from in Christian ministry, as long as it’s done with good intentions.
But Scripture does already provide us with a clearly defined boundary for ministry…
Freely You Have Received, Freely Give
When Jesus sent out the twelve disciples to minister to Israelite towns, he commanded them to “freely give”:
Let’s consider some options for interpreting this command of Jesus:
- Is it hyperbole? No, there is nothing wrong with taking this command literally.
- Is it aspirational? Not this either, as giving the gospel freely is easy to achieve and millions of churches do it every week.
- Was it only for the twelve disciples? If only the twelve had to freely give, then it would be permissible for modern believers to charge for evangelism, which can’t possibly be ethical.
- Does it only apply to essential ministries (i.e. Sunday services & evangelism)? This seems to be how most ministries currently interpret this command, but there is little in the passage to suggest it. Rather it’s the opposite. Jesus’ disciples weren’t just to freely proclaim the kingdom, but were also to freely “Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons”. All the blessings that come with the gospel were to be freely given as well.
So this appears to simply be a straightforward command of Jesus, to freely give in the context of gospel ministry.
But the Labourer Deserves His Wages…
If Jesus’ command to freely give is to be obeyed, then how do we make sense of Paul’s teachings on the right to payment? Let’s consider one of the most significant passages regarding this matter:
While this passage (and the whole of 1 Corinthians 9) absolutely does affirm a right to financial support, that is not the take-home message Paul intended.
1. Paul’s Point is that He Didn’t Make Use of the Right
After giving strong arguments and numerous examples regarding the right to financial support, one would expect to hear Paul say “and that’s why I accepted support while with you.” But instead, Paul follows them with: “But we have not made use of this right” (1 Cor 9:12).
So Paul is not promoting the exercising of financial rights but rather modelling an ethic of free giving. He does not argue for the right to financial support to justify himself, but rather to demonstrate restraint for the sake of the gospel.
2. Paul’s Intention is to Limit the Right
This is not the only section of the letter to talk about “rights”. Paul has already discussed how several other “rights” can be misused, namely sexual rights (6:12, 7:3) and food rights (8:9). In fact, the section on finance is embedded within the teaching on food sacrificed to idols (chapters 8-10).
Paul’s argument in regard to food sacrificed to idols is that while one may have a right to eat it, that right is not a permissive license to do as you please, rather it can be misused to the detriment of others:
Likewise, Paul at times didn’t exercise his right to financial support because it is not a right that is always justified, it too can be misused. After declaring that he didn’t make use of his right to support, he gives the clear reason why: “so that we may not be a hindrance to the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9:12).
This explains why Paul sometimes accepted support (Phil 2:18) and at other times did not, and also why he justifies the other disciples’ acceptance of hospitality (1 Cor 9:5) yet refused it himself (9:18). The right to support can get in the way of the gospel depending on the context and how it is exercised.
3. Paul’s Examples Justify Support, Not Commerce
There is no question that ministers have a right to financial support, but these days many are also claiming the right to sell ministry, which includes the right to:
- Forbid access to ministry resources unless paid
- Forbid sharing resources
- Forbid modifying resources
- Forbid translating resources
Are such “rights” justified in Scripture? Let’s consider the examples Paul gives in 1 Corithians 9. There are examples of hospitality (1 Cor 9:4-5), an example of being freed from secular work to minister (9:6), an example of being employed as a soldier (9:7), examples of sharing in a harvest (9:7-11), and finally some examples of serving in the temple (9:13-14). All of these examples affirm the right to financial support, but do they affirm a “right” to restrict ministry to only paying customers?
It’s important to remember that these are all illustrations of those in service to God. God is the army’s king, and the owner of the vineyard and flock. It would be inappropriate for a soldier to charge citizens he protects, rather he is paid by the king to whom taxes are owed. Farm hands tending vines or shepherding a flock are not owed payment from the produce itself, rather their employer is the one to grant them some of the harvest.
But the most significant example is of those who serve in the temple. As it was inappropriate for priests to directly receive payment from those they served (1 Sam 2:12-17), rather they were to receive some of the offerings from God himself (Num 18:8-20). Paul then says “in the same way” proclaimers of the gospel should also be supported. That is, by the offerings God’s people give to God and not as direct payment for services.
A Right within the Bounds of Freely Giving
So is Paul’s teaching in conflict with Jesus’ command to “freely give”? We can safely say “no” because the whole point of the passage is that Paul is modelling free giving himself. None of the examples he gives are in conflict with it either.
Conley Owens, in his book The Dorean Principle, has very helpfully distinguished between forms of finance that are compatible with freely giving and forms that aren’t. In brief, he argues financially supporting ministry is justified whereas selling ministry is not. And that is the pattern we see in this passage as well. It’s also a pattern that churches have followed for thousands of years, freely providing ministry and financially supporting their ministers as they do so. But the last several decades especially have given rise to a plethora of ministry resources that are sold instead of freely given.
Is it reasonable to imagine Paul or any of his associates charging entrance fees, collecting royalties from books and music, or forbidding the copying or translation of ministry resources? Paul couldn’t possibly have intended to endorse these modern practices when justifying the financial support of ministry, especially since copyright law didn’t even exist until 1710.
There are many theological and practical matters at play here that need further elaboration and discussion. But such discussion is hard to find, which is one of the first things that needs to change.