Jesus was clear that the preached word should be freely given (Matt. 10:8) and Paul spoke against being a peddler of the Word (2 Cor. 2:17). Given these embargos on commercial exchanges in ministry, one who desires to follow a biblical ethic may wonder whether a minister—in particular, a preacher—may even be paid at all. Out of such concern, some have forgone a reliable income in the work of the gospel to live as tent-makers, and others have gone as far as abandoning ministry altogether, unable to navigate the difficulty.
However, the Bible is clear that ministers should be financially supported. In the same context that Jesus commanded the disciples to “freely give” their message, he acknowledged that the worker is “worthy of his food” (Matt. 10:10). Paul also argued for the right of a minister to earn a living as he does ministry (1 Cor. 9:1-14).
Ministry should be supported, but it shouldn’t be sold. So long as the gospel worker makes no exchange for his message, he is free to receive support. Let’s consider several implications of this distinction.
First, the Bible not only allows—but even commends—vocational ministry. While the Lord often calls people to a bivocational course in life, many have pursued such a course without warrant, needlessly stretching themselves thin. Consider the fact that Paul himself took a break from making tents when he had the opportunity. In Acts 18:1-4, Luke explains Paul’s tent-making labors, but in the next verse we read,
When Silas and Timothy came down from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself fully to the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus is the Christ. (Acts 18:5)
Evidently, Silas and Timothy brought Paul financial support so that he might labor fulltime in the proclamation of the gospel. The churches of Macedonia were Paul’s primary external source of funding (Phil. 4:15), and elsewhere he confirms that they supplied his work in Corinth (2 Cor. 11:9).
Paul evidently preferred a focused ministry, and in his second letter to Timothy, he explains why this is ideal:
A soldier refrains from entangling himself in civilian affairs in order to please the one who enlisted him. (2 Tim. 2:4)
The Lord supplies his laborers with what they need, and for many he provides enough for full-time work. To forbid vocational ministry is to forbid what God has ordained (1 Cor. 9:14).
Second, while it never makes explicit mention of the concept, the Bible certainly permits salaried support. Since the time of the Reformation, many have acknowledged the legitimacy of material support for ministers but criticized any regularity in this support. That is, so long as financial maintenance is not salaried, it may be acceptable. This position was adopted by Menno Simons, further popularized by George Müller, and is held by many evangelicals today.
This approach has a number of pragmatic justifications:
- the ability of a congregation to give may only last for a season,
- a minister may be tempted to appease regular donors in his preaching,
- a minister may cease to trust God for his supply, etc.
Of course, every single one of these issues exists with irregular support, and some perhaps even in greater measure. However, the real issue is with biblical foundations. As pious as a rejection of salaries may sound, it lacks any such grounding, and so it should not bind the conscience. Never does the Bible actually forbid salaried ministry.
The conclusion that ministers should not be salaried likely represents a well-meant attempt to grapple with the Bible’s strong prohibitions against the sale of ministry. However, the Bible nowhere distinguishes between regular and irregular funding; instead it distinguishes between reciprocity and colabor; sale and support.
Should a minister’s regular paycheck then be counted as reciprocity or colabor? Certainly, a man could go about his duties with a mercenary mindset, and the people could give with the same heart. These would all run afoul of the biblical ethic. Yet if the people of God promote the proclamation of the gospel—a few giving their time and skill in teaching, the rest giving their funds—this is clearly a joint venture. That is why John calls those who give to missionaries “fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 7-8).
Third, ministers may receive honorariums. Our concern for the support of preachers and other ministers does not end with those firmly installed in a congregation, but extends even to those who may work temporarily with various congregations.
So what is an honorarium? In the New Testament, the term “honor” frequently denotes “price” or “value” (cf. Matt. 27:6–9; Acts 4:34; 5:2–3; 1 Tim. 5:17). Similarly, we use the word “honorarium” to speak of a sum given to a speaker. These may have the shape of commercial transactions—one providing the other with a service in exchange for a fee—but such a shape is not necessary.
Used rightly, honorariums may be regarded as a fruitful means of supporting interim preachers and teachers. If the purpose of a church is to gather for the collective worship of God in the preaching and hearing of the Word, the congregation and preacher work toward the same end. Anchored by a mutual desire to properly honor God, a church provides an honorarium as an act of colabor. If a regular preacher receives from his church in coordination with his labors among them, then a visiting preacher may do the same. This is why Paul could acknowledge that Peter was able to arrive at Corinth and receive financial support for his work there (cf. 1 Cor. 9:5).
Ministers should take special precautions not to transgress the Bible’s ethic of ministry fundraising. However, if we forbid what the Bible permits and even commends, we wander into the realm of legalism, harming ourselves and others. Let us not sell ministry, but let us encourage its support to the fullest!
The term “tent-maker” comes from Paul’s work in a trade in order to fund his church-planting efforts (Acts 18:1-4). ↩︎
Menno Simons, The Complete Work of Menno Simon (John F. Funk / Brother, 1871), 2.340–350. ↩︎
George Müller, A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller (James Nisbet & Co., 1881), 68–69. ↩︎