Full Time Ministers
by Steve Atkerson
Famous are the words of Jesus, “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Not so familiar is the context in which this truth was recorded. Jesus’ words are not found in any of the four Gospels. These words of Jesus were quoted by the apostle Paul while speaking at a pastor’s conference (Ac 20:32 -35). Amazingly, Paul was instructing pastors to be in the position of giving silver, gold and clothing to the church, rather than receiving such from it!
Acts 20In light of what Jesus said, should pastors earn their living from the church? In Acts 20, Paul gave the Ephesian elders specific instructions on their duties as elders. Concerning finances, Paul stated that he had coveted no one’s silver or gold and that he had, in fact, paid his own way by working hard with his hands (20:34-25; compare 18:1ff). Following Paul’s example, the elders were also to earn their living from secular jobs so as to be able to help the weak and live out the words of the Lord Jesus that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Thus, from Acts 20:32-35, it is clear that elders are generally to be in the financial position of giving to the church, not receiving from it. However, Acts 20 is not the only passage that deals with this subject.
1 Corinthians 9What of 1 Corinthians 9:14, where it is stated that those who proclaim the gospel should receive their living from the gospel? We can observe from 1 Corinthians 9 that at least three groups made their livings from their ministries during New Testament times: apostles (9:1-6), the Lord’s brothers (9:5) and evangelists (9:14). According to Paul, various factors combined to justify this truth:
•A human point of view (soldier, vineyard keeper, shepherd), 9:8
•The Law of Moses (oxen, temple priests), 9:9-10, 13
•Spiritual principle/logic (spiritual seed/material harvest), 9:11
•The words of Jesus, 9:14
From a merely “human point of view” (9:8) Paul asked: “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk?” (9:7). The answer is obvious. All make their livings from their work, and so should apostles/church planters/missionaries/evangelists.
Then, from the Law of Moses (9:8-9), Paul quoted: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Applied to apostles, Paul asked “Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?” (9:9-10). If oxen can eat from what they do, so can apostles. In 9:13, Paul brought in the example of Old Testament priests, asking, “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?” (9:13).
Paul also high lighted an important spiritual principle of reaping and sowing: “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?” (9:11). Paul concluded that this is a “right” and should be his “all the more” (9:12).
Paul’s final argument was found in the words of our Lord who “commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (9:14). If it is true for evangelists, it is true of apostles, too.
1 Corinthians 9 specifically concerns the rights of an apostle, someone commissioned by either Jesus or the church to travel around evangelizing and establishing churches (the word missionary is never used in Scripture; such people were called apostles and evangelists). As is clear from the text, all such people have the “right” (9:12) to financial support.
Unexpectedly, after writing convincingly of an apostle’s rights in 1 Corinthians 9, Paul then added, “But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me.” (1Co 9:15). If Paul did not write this with the hope that the Corinthians would give him support (1Co 9:15), then why did he write it? In essence, 1 Corinthians 9 is a parenthetical remark. Paul’s main topic began in 1 Corinthians 8 and concerned not being a stumbling block to others (food sacrificed to idols, 8:9). Paul’s waver of his right to full-time support (1Co 9) illustrated just how far Paul was willing to go to so as to “not hinder the gospel” (9:12b, 15). Then, in 1 Corinthians 10, Paul continued on with his main topic, concluding with “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1Co 10:31-32). Thus, Paul’s objective in writing 1 Corinthians 9 was neither to limit nor extend the categories of those who had the right to support from the church. It was merely an illustration. As such, it reveals that Paul had a very liberal approach to supporting church workers: “Is it about oxen that God is concerned?” and “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?”
Individual believers have the privilege and responsibility of giving generously toward the support of missionaries and evangelists. In so doing, the giver is co-laboring along with the Christian worker. Without such full time workers, the advance of God’s kingdom could be hampered. Pray for such ministers. Find creative ways to encourage them in their labor of love. Purpose to give sacrificially and consistently toward their support.
Is it wrong to apply this passage to elders? Since Paul waived his apostolic “right” to get his “living” from the gospel (9:15, 18), the example he showed the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 seems all the more compelling (see also 1Th 2:9; 2Th 3:7-9).
1 Corinthians 9 deals specifically with the rights of an apostle, not an elder. However, based on the principles expressed in 1 Corinthians 9, would it be committing the unpardonable sin for an elder to make his living from the church? Of course not! Based solely on Acts 20, it would seem that pastors (elders) will generally not receive full time financial support for their ministries. However, since Acts 20 is not the only passage dealing with this subject, 1 Corinthians 9 (above) must be factored in, as must 1 Timothy 5 (below).
1 Timothy 5Temporarily stationed in Ephesus was Timothy, Paul’s traveling companion and fellow apostle (1Th 1:1; 2:6), whom Paul left there to squelch strange doctrines (1Ti 1:3). Concerning the same Ephesian elders as in Acts 20, Paul wrote that elders who did a good job directing the affairs of the church and who worked hard at preaching and teaching were worthy of something called “double honor” (1Ti 5:17). Then, using almost the exact same reasoning as in 1 Corinthians 9:9, 1 Timothy 5:18 states, “For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’” This parallel should not be minimized. The implications are clear.
Does honor mean pay? No. From the Greek word timé, it primarily means “respect.” There is a specific Greek word for pay (misthos) and, significantly, it is used in 1 Timothy 5:18 (about employees), but not in 1 Timothy 5:17 (about elders). Timé can in certain contexts mean price, but since a price is the quantity of one thing that is demanded in sale for another, it hardly makes sense in this passage (are elders for sale?). This same word (timé) is also used immediately following in 1 Timothy 6:1, “All who are under the yoke of slavery should consider their masters worthy of full respect (timé).” Are slaves to pay their masters? One practical application of this honor is that an accusation brought against an elder is not to be received unless it is substantiated by more than one witness (1Ti 5:19). 1 Timothy 5:19 logically follows 5:17-18 if honor refers to respect (an accusation involves dishonor), but follows awkwardly if honor refers to pay. A good parallel verse is 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, wherein the church in Thessalonica was asked to “respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. Hold them in the highest regard in love because of their work.”
However, time is also used immediately prior to this passage about elders. According to 1 Timothy 5:3, honor is to be given to widows who are really in need (the NIV renders it as “proper recognition”). This occurrence of time obviously means granting the widow more than respect. Giving the widow food, helping her with her house and yard work, visiting her, offering her living quarters if needed, and of course even monetary assistance, is the idea. Honor was also clearly understood by Jesus to refer to material support in Mark 7:10. The Law of Moses required, “Honor your father and your mother.” Unhappy with the religious leaders of Judaism, Jesus said, “But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received by me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), then you no longer let him do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mk 7:11-13). Thus, it is clearly within the realm of possibility that honor to an elder might include giving him a love offering, an honorarium.
So why did Paul use timé (honor) instead of misthos (wages) in 1 Timothy 5:17? Perhaps because the elder’s relationship to the church is not to be as a hireling. Nor is he to charge a fee for his services. Jonathan Campbell wisely stated, “There is a difference between being paid to do a job and being released to do a work.”
Concerning voluntary giving (an honorarium) versus a salaried position, Dan Trotter warned, “The widows of 1 Timothy 5:3-16 weren’t earning a salary, they were receiving charity. And ‘the laborer is worthy of his hire’ quote in Luke 10 referred obviously not to disciples receiving a salary or wages, but hospitality (eat and drink what’s set before you, etc.). The word wages in the Old Testament quotation (1Ti 5:18) is obviously metaphorical (just like the unmuzzled ox eating straw is metaphorical). If you push that metaphor too far, we’ll have Christian workers eating straw! In another example of the metaphorical use of wages, Paul wrote to the Corinthians that he had robbed other churches so as not to accept wages from Corinthians. Vines states that the word wages in 2 Corinthians 11:8 is clearly metaphorical, which, of course, it is. I don’t think it’s any body’s business if a Christian worker (whether apostle, prophet, elder, teacher, or whatever) receives voluntary offerings from anybody for whatever reason. But the minute a salary or wages is paid, the principle of voluntary giving of service to the body is violated, the principle of clergy-less Christianity is violated, the priesthood of all believers is violated, etc. I’m not getting on that train, because it’s heading over the cliff. The number one stench in the institutional church is money, plain and simple. It is an abomination, a disgrace not only to God, but to the human race. And once we open the door with a hireling clergy, we are finished. In conclusion, if Paul had meant double wages in I Timothy 5:17, why didn’t he say double misthos, or double opsonion, two perfectly clear words which mean wages and would have conveyed what he meant? And if he meant wages, why didn’t the early church follow his example?”
It is clear from Scripture that individual believers in local churches owe honor (esteem) to all elders, and double honor (as in a regular honorarium) to those elders who are particularly gifted in oversight and teaching. Initiative should be taken by those who are blessed from the spiritual ministry of an elder to reciprocate that blessing materially.
Among American Christians, there are many questions about a house church incorporating with the government, or having its own bank account. We would caution against this. First, U.S. churches are already tax exempt, according to the Constitution. Further, having a church budget and bank account is just something else for the carnal coral to quibble over. If anything, it is the qualified elders who should incorporate as a 501c3 ministry. That way, tax exempt status can be gained, and free-will gifts to the elder would qualify as tax deductions, and the elder would not be on a salaried position from the church. The pastor-teacher would, in essence, be like any other self employed brother in the assembly. As has been pointed out above, he probably would have to have a ministry wider than one house church.
1 Peter 5What did Peter mean in 1 Peter 5:2 when he exhorted the elders to shepherd God’s flock voluntarily and not for sordid gain? “Sordid gain” is from a single Greek word, aischrokerdos. Aischros means shame or disgrace and kerdos means gain, profit, or advantages. A related term, aischrokerdes, is used in Titus 1:7 where elders are required not to be fond of sordid gain. 1 Timothy 3:3 parallels this with a requirement that elders be free from the love of money. Thus, aischrokerdes is a virtual synonym for being greedy for money. Peter’s warning suggests that money did occasionally go along with the ministry of elder, and being in it for the money was not a good reason to be an elder!
R.C.H. Lenski pointed out that since elders were usually bi-vocational, Peter’s warning was that elders not use their position to seek the trade of the church in business matters.1 (How many businessmen have joined First Church primarily to climb the social and economic ladder?).
Another way to look at Peter’s words is to see them as a caution for the elder who is already successful in his secular career and at the height of his earning potential. Such an elder is to be willing to forgo potentially lucrative time spent at work and instead give his time and energy to serving as an overseer.
SynthesisJesus commanded that those who preach the gospel (evangelists) should make their living from the gospel. Paul, in an illustration, applied this same principle to apostles (1Co 9). Finally, using the same arguments found in 1 Corinthians 9, it was applied to qualified elders (1Ti 5).
Acts 20 is addressed to elders in general. In general, elders are normally going to be bi-vocational and will thus be in a position of giving monetarily to the church, rather than receiving from it. The exception to this generalization is 1 Timothy 5, written with reference to those elders who not only “direct the affairs of the church well” (5:17) but who also “labor in the word and doctrine” (NKJV). Though all elders are worthy of honor (1Th 5:12-13), some elders are worthy of double honor. This double honor most likely is a reference to financial support from the church. Blending Acts 20 with 1 Timothy 5 would also suggest that even those elders worthy of double honor (financial support) be willing and trained to work some secular vocation if local conditions require it (i.e., in times or areas of economic depression, in very small churches, because of persecution, etc.).
Cautions1. Suggesting that individual believers are obligated to support those elders deemed worthy of double honor (pastor-teachers) does not mean that the full time elders are somehow higher in rank than the other elders. One elder may be more gifted than another, or more influential, but there is no such thing in the New Testament as an official senior elder, nor of a hierarchy of elders, nor of a presiding bishop over the other elders. The pastor-teacher mentioned in Ephesians 4 is not in any way to be over all the churches of a city. Instead, he is the servant to all the churches of the city.
2. To be avoided are elders (especially those worthy of double honor) who dominate the 1 Corinthians 14 meeting. If an elder receives financial support that enables him to study the Word, it’s possible that he will have so much more to teach, and be expected to do so, that the other brothers won’t feel as free to teach. That would squelch the priesthood of believers and violate the spirit of 1 Corinthians 14:26. Such meetings are not to be pastor-centered. Instead, a gifted elder’s in-depth teaching ministry should occur during a midweek Bible study or other special ministry meeting.
3. Even though qualified elders may make their livings from their ministries, there is to be no clergy-laity distinction. Authority generally resides in the church as a whole, not usually with its leaders. The leaders are to be humble servants, not lords. Rusty Entrekin warns: “Although we know that pastor-teachers are supposed to be servants and not in a special clergy class, those who are not pastor-teachers will still have a tendency to regard them that way, especially because of our modern institutional church mind-set regarding professional pastors. Even if the pastor-teacher doesn’t think that way about himself initially, if he doesn’t watch himself, he could very easily begin to gradually, perhaps imperceptibly, adopt that mind-set. Since the godly, sincere, and vibrant believers of the late first century and early second century church fell victim to this mind-set, just think of how easily we could today with the peer pressure of conventional wisdom, centuries of traditions, and lukewarm spirituality encouraging us to do so! We need to be very careful not only to guard against the priesthood being robbed of their God-given rights, but also to exhort them not to give their rights away.”
ConclusionWhat can be concluded about the idea of full-time church workers?
1. There is no historical pattern in the New Testament either for or against full-time elders. It is silent with regard to example. There are, however, direct teachings on the subject.
2. There is a general command in Acts 20 for elders to follow Paul’s example of supplying their own needs so as to be in a position of giving silver and gold and clothing to the church, rather than receiving from it.
3. All elders are worthy of honor (esteem), 1 Thessalonians 5.
4. Qualified elders, those who rule and teach well, are worthy of double honor (voluntary financial support, 1Ti 5).
5. Elders are not to be motivated by the desire for “sordid gain” from their ministry (i.e., not just in it for the money, nor using the office to gain sales or business clients), 1 Peter 5.
6. Each church member needs to financially support those who are evangelists, apostles, and pastor-teachers, per 1 Corinthians 9 and 1 Timothy 5. It is the New Testament pattern to give to support such people.
Notes1 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Epistles of St. Peter (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing, 1966) 219.
Discussion Questions1. Why did Paul remind the Ephesian elders that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Ac 20)?
2. Based on 1 Corinthians 9:1-14, what right does every apostle (missionary) have?
3. What examples were given in 1 Corinthians 9 of those who made their living from the church?
4. Why did Paul ask, “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?” (1Co 9:11).
5. How have you personally obeyed the Lord’s command of 1 Corinthians 9:14?
6. According to Romans 15:26-27, what do you owe to those who have brought you a spiritual blessing?
7. Explain how you personally have obeyed Galatians 6:6?
8. What in the following texts suggest that Paul did not always support himself by tent making (Ro 15:24, 1Co 16:5-6, 2Co 1:15-16, 11:7-9, Php 4:10-19, Phlm 22)?
9. Which elders are worthy of double honor (1Ti 5:17)?
10. What similarities are there between 1 Timothy 5:18 and 1 Corinthians 9:9-10? See De 25:4, Lk 10:7.
11. What does it mean to show double honor to some elders (1Ti 5:17ff)?
12. There is a specific Greek word for “wages” (misthos; used in 1 Ti 5:18). Why do you suppose Paul used timé (“honor”) instead of misthos in 1 Timothy 5:17?
13. What cautions do 2 Corinthians 2:17 and 1 Timothy 6:3-5 hold for ministers?
14. What did Peter mean when he exhorted the elders to shepherd God’s flock voluntarily and not for sordid gain (1Pe 5:2)?
15. Does 1 Peter 5:1-4 imply that receiving money did, in some circumstances, go along with the ministry of elder? Explain.
16. The typical New Testament congregation was no bigger than would fit into someone’s living room (a house church). How could a qualified elder make his living from such a small church?
17. What principle did John establish in 3 John 5-8?
18. What can be concluded about the idea of ministers who are fully supported by the church?
Want help teaching this topic? To aid you in leading others to the truths of New Testament church life, teaching notes have been prepared for this subject. They will give you ideas on how to lead an interactive (Socratic) group discussion. The idea is to guide people to discover for themselves what the New Testament says about this topic. At the end of the guide there are study questions to pass (or e-mail) out in advance.
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Married since 1983, Steve Atkerson and his wife Sandra have three children, two in college and one married, and two grandchilren. A graduate of Georgia Tech, Steve worked for several years in electronics before enrolling in seminary. While there he served on the part-time staff of a 14,000 member Baptist church. After receiving an M. Div. from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, he ministered on the pastoral staff of a Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta with a membership of around 1000. Then in 1990, after seven years in the traditional pastorate, he resigned to begin working with churches that desire to follow apostolic traditions in their church practice. He thus has transitioned all the way from mega churches to much smaller churches. He travels and teaches about the practice of the early church as the Lord opens doors of opportunity. Steve is an elder at a local house church, is president of NTRF, edited Toward A House Church Theology, authored both The Practice of the Early Church: A Theological Workbook and The Equipping Manual, and is editor of and a contributing author to both Ekklesia and House Church: Simple, Strategic, Scriptural.