Podcast episode 4
A Google Engineer's Journey to Clarity on What Scripture Teaches about Money and Ministry
Conley Owens is a pastor at Silicon Valley Reformed Baptist Church and a software engineer. This is his story of discovering the Bible’s view of ministry fundraising.
“I don’t know who may be listening to this or watching this. Maybe you are a pastor who has been selling ministry material for a long time. Maybe you are a new Christian who has never even been involved in ministry. Regardless, I hope you will join us here on this channel in our pursuit of both personal reformation and global reformation, as we call the church to offer the gospel and biblical teaching the way Jesus did: freely.” —Conley Owens
My name is Conley Owens. I’m a bi-vocational pastor at Silicon Valley Reformed Baptist Church and a software engineer. This is my story of discovering the Bible’s view of ministry fundraising.
As a child, I was raised in a Bible-saturated environment. Both in church and at home, I was taught to value the things of God far above gold, yea, much fine gold. Of all the messages that were preached in my church, I recall the truth of Matthew 6:19-21. As it would have been preached to me in the King James Version, it goes like this:
“Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
As any aspirational and ambitious child, I desired greatness. I’m thankful that the godly influences in my life shaped this to be a desire for the right kind of greatness. I recognized that worldly wealth would ultimately pass away and would only be valuable in as much as it was stewarded to transact with God for treasures in his kingdom.
This shaped the way I gave of my small allowance as a child, but also shaped my thinking as I grew into adulthood. Regardless, my concern for generosity did not blossom into a concern over money and ministry until a much later time.
Just before college, I was introduced to the concept of open source software. In most other engineering disciplines, reverse engineering a product in order to understand it is perfectly legal. For example, you can open up the hood of your car and examine how the engine is running. However, in software, the process of taking apart the code involves making a copy, and theoretically constitutes a violation of copyright law. In order to promote transparency and a healthier engineering culture, some projects have waived the majority of their copyrights and offered their software for free, allowing others to modify and redistribute the software as they please.
One thing that was truly fascinating about this was that many open source software projects were far more successful than their competitors. Even financially, they would be able to pull in more funding, either through donations or corporate sponsorships. Around this time, the organization known as Creative Commons was established. Creative Commons is an organization that applies the same principle of open source software to other forms of content with its own suite of licenses. I ended up starting a whole club about the topic of free licensing and that’s even where I met the woman who is now my wife.
All this involvement in free licensing caused me to question the way things were done by Christian organizations. I saw that Bible versions weren’t able to be translated because of their stated terms. Groups like Bible Study Fellowship would give handouts marked with warnings to not redistribute any of the material. Even Bible study software packages like Logos required large sums of money from sincere students of the word, many of whom were poor.
If secular organizations found ways of remaining profitable while distributing their content and software for free, shouldn’t that be the case even more so for organizations whose highest aim is to advance the gospel? I began emailing different organizations to see if they would be interested in changing their licensing. Most saw no need, or assumed there would be hidden gotchas involved if they did things differently than everyone else. Still others were actively opposed. For example, I emailed the creator of the NET Bible about releasing it under terms that would allow more uses like translation into other languages. The email response I received asserted that such an approach would encourage the corruption of Scripture. These sorts of responses were discouraging.
I was aware that the Bible addressed money and ministry. For example 2 Corinthians 2:17 says that we should not be peddlers of God’s word. However, I assumed that the matter couldn’t be so straightforward. This is simply how many ministries operate, and clearly texts like that didn’t overrule others that indicate ministers are supposed to be well supplied. So I refrained from pushing my personal preferences for free licensing of ministry materials. If the matter isn’t clear in Scripture, how could I bind the consciences of others?
But eventually, I would realize the matter is clear in Scripture. One day in my workplace Bible study, I led the group through 3 John. 7-8.
“because they went out for the sake of the name, taking nothing from the Gentiles, we should therefore support such as these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth.”
This passage presents it so clearly. Ministries should be supported. Which ones? Those who don’t charge the recipients of their ministry.
I presented this interpretation to the group, and they seemed to agree. Then I gave an example of how this is violated by charging for Christian literature. This time they did not agree. One lady in particular was very upset that I had maligned her heroes by this comment, otherwise godly men who made their living off of producing and selling Christian literature.
However, this interaction didn’t discourage me. Instead, in seeing how eager people were to shape their interpretations and applications of Scripture for the sake of loyalties, I was eager to figure out whether or not there was something really here in the Bible explaining the Biblical ethic, whether or not we had simply come to tolerate the sale of ministry just to preserve the status quo.
Not long after that experience, I stumbled on 2 Corinthians 11, where Paul says he was willing to rob the Macedonians in order that he could preach to the Corinthians free of charge. This same distinction seemed to be present: ministry that doesn’t charge should be financially supported. I had begun seminary studies at this time, and I determined when it came time to write my thesis, I would examine these two passages and see how they applied to ministry fundraising. I was determined to find out what the Bible had to say on the matter. Now, maybe it would be the case that 3 John and 2 Corinthians 11 would be the only two relevant texts and the rest of the thesis would simply be speculative application, but my task was set before me.
Perhaps it goes without saying, but I was wrong. I was very wrong. 3 John and 2 Corintihans 11 were not the only relevant texts. There were scores, many of which were very direct about the matter. I structured the thesis primarily as an exploration of the times Paul accepted and rejected financial support. The apostle clearly distinguished between selling ministry and being supported by those who gave in order to support his work. As I would later call it, he distinguished between reciprocity and colabor.
Ironically, at that point, I hadn’t even really taken note of the most important verse in the whole topic. I had been simultaneously engaged in a deep study of the gospel of Luke so any time I wished to examine something from the synoptics, I would look there. I can’t remember what brought it to my attention, but finally I stumbled over Matthew 10:8-10. It wasn’t as though I hadn’t read the verse before; I had hundreds of times. But this was the first time since starting this exploration, and having seen the reciprocity/colabor distinction in Paul’s epistles, there it was so clearly in the very words of Jesus. “Freely you have received, freely give…a worker is worthy of his food.” The disciples were not to sell the gospel or their miracles, but they were to be supported by households that desired to serve the Lord.
The timing on this was incredibly providential. If I had come across Matthew 10 first, perhaps I would have seen the distinction between sale and support, between reciprocity and colabor, and then viewed Paul through that lens. Now, that would be a perfectly reasonable way of reading Scripture. The clear passages should interpret the less clear passages, and in this case, Jesus’ words are more clear than many of Paul’s. However, at that point, perhaps I would question whether I was truly reading Paul contextually through the words of Jesus, or whether I was reading these concerns acontextually into Paul’s epistles without giving him a fair hearing. The fact that I had wrestled with the apostle for over year and come to these conclusions made me that much more certain when I saw the exact same distinction expressed plainly in the words of Jesus. Indeed, this is exactly what Paul intended.
The biblical ethic I saw was so clear, and the implications were so far-reaching. I had to try to get this into the hands of more people. I decided to write a book that would include the most important information and the strongest arguments. This book is called The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity. Not only can you read this book online for free, but the publisher, FirstLove Publications, will even ship you a physical copy for free. I had been considering offering the book for free online and selling physical copies, but Joe Jacowitz, the president of FirstLove challenged me on that. Why risk undermining the whole message by sending mixed signals. Why not just give as freely as possible and trust the Lord to be faithful. With their partnership, that’s exactly what we did.
Even since that time, this has been a matter of continual improvement and growing clarity for me. For example, I was offered an adjunct professorship at a seminary that had provided free education, but was transitioning to charging tuition. I accepted, justifying the situation by waiving the stipend I had been offered, thinking that if I didn’t receive anything because of it, there wouldn’t be a problem. But the longer it sat on my conscience, the more I couldn’t bear to think about teaching behind a paywall. Even if I weren’t the one taking the money, how could I give help only to those who pay?
I don’t know who may be listening to this or watching this. Maybe you are a pastor who has been selling ministry material for a long time. Maybe you are a new Christian who has never even been involved in ministry. Regardless, I hope you will join us here on this channel in our pursuit of both personal reformation and global reformation, as we call the church to offer the gospel and biblical teaching the way Jesus did: freely.