The apostle Paul’s finances intrigue me and cause me great angst. The man who traveled extensively throughout the Roman world preaching and teaching also worked a day job. The man who wrote the book of Romans—arguably the greatest theological treatise ever written—did so free of charge while he earned money through manual labor. So what exactly were Paul’s views on material compensation for ministry-related work? And what does it mean for ministers today?
Material Compensation for Spiritual Work
To begin with, Paul believed in material compensation for spiritual work: “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Cor. 9:11, ESV) and “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14). To the Galatians, Paul wrote, “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6). In keeping with that principle, Paul received material support from the church in Philippi.
And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only. Even in Thessalonica you sent me help for my needs once and again. . . . I have received full payment, and more. I am well supplied, having received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent (Phil. 4:15-18).
Paul didn’t merely receive a one-time gift from the Philippian believers; he received gifts from them on a number of occasions. Even when he was in another city, the Philippians continued to send material support which Paul continued to accept. (I don’t know exactly what to make of the fact that Paul calls this support both “gifts” and “payment.”) From the direct comments Paul made and from Paul’s example with the Philippian believers we can arrive at this simple conclusion: Those who minister should be compensated for their work of ministry.
Paul’s Refusal of Material Compensation
Unfortunately, Paul proceeds to complicate that simple conclusion. Immediately after acknowledging his right to receive compensation from the Corinthians, Paul states,
Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ . . . I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision . . . What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (1 Cor. 9:15-18).
This brings up an intriguing observation: Paul felt free to set aside a specific command of the Lord which he acknowledged in verse 14. Perhaps he believed new circumstances called for a new approach.
But let’s stay focused on our primary question: Why did Paul refuse compensation and work a day job?
Reason #1: He wanted to have the greatest possible impact.
Instead of clinging to the principle “the laborer deserves to be paid,” Paul was thinking, “How can I be most effective?” And specifically, Paul pondered this question: “Is it most effective to preach for free or for pay?” Much of the time, Paul conscientiously chose to preach for free. And that meant, Paul had to work a day job. Fortunately, since Paul was trained by the ancient rabbis who believed in teaching the Torah out of love and not for profit, Paul was skilled in a trade and that trade was tentmaking (Acts 18:1-3). (The actual Greek word translated “tentmakers” in Acts 18:3 could be applied to any type of leather worker.)
For Paul, earning money through manual labor wasn’t a second-tier way to make a living. Instead Paul’s statements display a certain pride in his hardworking lifestyle:
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God (1 Thess. 2:9).
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you (2 Thess. 3:7-8).
Those statements give us a second and third reason why Paul worked a day job.
Reason #2: He didn’t want to be a financial burden to others.
He writes, “nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you.” As the context shows, Paul sought to avoid being a financial burden to those to whom he ministered. He didn’t enter new cities with a plan to rely on his ministry as a means of material support. He entered new cities with a plan to work with his own hands. And those hands, which probably became calloused over time, enabled Paul to stand in line and buy his own food with his own hard-earned money.
Reason #3: He wanted to serve as an example of diligence.
He states, “you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you.” Paul’s listening audience would have recognized him as the same man who made tents in the marketplace with sweat-soaked brow. Certain things are caught rather than taught and Paul wanted his audience to catch his work ethic.
Reason #4: He wanted to provide for those in need.
In his farewell speech to the elders in Ephesus, where he stayed for two years (Acts 19:1, 10), Paul declared,
You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all these things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ (Acts 20:34-35).
Paul’s gospel—the message of God’s sacrifice—was displayed in his lifestyle of sacrifice: “by working hard . . . we must help the weak.” This fourth reason is closely linked to the third reason because Paul wanted his audience to imitate both his hard work and his sacrificial giving: “I have shown you . . . we must help the weak.”
In summary, Paul didn’t make a living from his spiritual work in Corinth, Thessalonica, or Ephesus. In fact, he refused to do so. And he refused to do so out of a desire to be most effective, to avoid being a financial burden, to serve as an example of diligence, and to personally provide for those in need.
Paul’s Example and Ministers Today: Three Caveats
What does Paul’s approach mean for ministers today? Should we require ministers to work for free? Should we encourage ministers to practice a trade? Should we stop raising money for spiritual work and start earning money to support such work?
First of all, receiving material compensation for spiritual work is acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for legitimate work. As we saw, Paul accepted support from the church at Philippi. While there are differences between the support Paul received and a full-time salary with benefits today, the point is that Paul didn’t refuse all expressions of gratitude on the basis of a particular principle. In addition, Paul acknowledged that his general mode of not accepting payment went against the grain. In 1 Corinthians 9, he asks, “Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living” (v. 6)? And “If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?” (v. 12). If people value our work enough to pay us for it, and if our work is both legal and moral, we have a right to be compensated for it. “But,” Paul quickly interjects, “we did not use this right” (v. 12). Paul acknowledged that his refusal to accept compensation was unusual.
But if Paul thought that his unique approach wasn’t significant he wouldn’t have mentioned it. And he doesn’t merely mention it; he seems to make much of it. “What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel” (v. 18). In summary, the uniqueness of Paul’s approach means we shouldn’t make too much of it; but at the same time, since Paul draws attention to it with pride, neither should we ignore it.
Second, there’s a big difference between ministry roles in Paul’s day and ministry roles today. The positions that we take for granted as being a normal part of ministry, such as full-time youth pastors and senior pastors, didn’t exist in first-century churches. Youth pastors today serve as counselors, teachers, social event organizers, community service facilitators, and volunteer coordinators. (Okay, some youth pastors fill those roles, while others are honing their video-game skills.) Combining those functions into one job could not have been imagined in Paul’s time. It may be argued that one person shouldn’t fill so many roles, but that wouldn’t change the fact that youth pastors are serving in these ways and therefore should be compensated. Likewise, if we want one person to officiate at weddings, conduct funerals, preach every week, counsel, and visit the sick, we’re probably going to have to pay that person. There are pastors who serve for free, but they’re difficult to find, because they’re busy working their day jobs. The bigger issue to consider, then, is whether we should continue structuring ministry in the way we’ve been. We need to ask ourselves, “Do we really want one person to serve in all these ways?”
Third, there’s a big difference between Bible study in Paul’s day and Bible study today. In many ways, Bible study is more cumbersome and time-consuming for us than it was for Paul. Think of it: Paul was fluent in Hebrew and Greek, and he simply preached and wrote from his understanding of the Scriptures and from his understanding of God’s revelation to him. And since he lived in the ancient world, he didn’t need to study it. Instead of spending five years writing a dissertation on two verses in Galatians, he simply wrote the letter to Galatia perhaps in a couple hours. Today, Bible scholars spend a lifetime studying ancient Hebrew and Greek, ancient manuscripts, the ancient world, and a two-thousand-year history of Bible interpretation so that they can properly understand what Paul was saying and then apply it to our modern-day world. Our study of the Bible often involves climbing mountains that Paul never had to set eyes on. The point here is that if we want someone to understand the Bible in a scholarly way they will probably need to receive formal training and that formal training will be a time-consuming and costly endeavor. And if we want that person to teach the Bible using the tools of modern scholarship they will probably need financial support to be able to focus on that task.
The Enduring Significance of Paul’s Example: Three Challenges
With those three caveats stated, I still have a nagging suspicion that Paul’s refusal to receive compensation for his work of ministry means something for today.
At the very least, Paul’s example raises a host of challenging questions for those in full-time paid ministry. On a personal level: How does receiving a paycheck for this work affect me? Am I serving primarily for the paycheck? Would I be willing to serve free of charge? (Of course, we wouldn’t have the same amount of time to devote to teaching, counseling, etc., but would we still do so to some extent if we weren’t getting paid for it? Specifically, would we study the Bible if you weren’t getting paid to teach it?) On a ministry level: How does receiving a paycheck impact the effectiveness of my ministry? Are there times when I should bypass my right to be compensated for the sake of effectiveness or for the sake of not being a financial burden? Relating to work: How do I feel about secular work? Why? Would I do whatever it would take to make my spiritual work most effective?
In addition, Paul’s example places before us another option than the traditional route of going to Bible college or seminary then finding a full-time paid position in a church or ministry. And this non-traditional path may be the only path available for those who can’t find paid ministry jobs and for those in countries that don’t approve of such jobs.
Finally, for those who tend to admire spiritual work and despise physical work Paul’s example elevates the status of manual labor. Several years ago, I met a custodian who used to be a senior pastor and he explained to me that he was quite happy with what he was doing. I was young and I thought his career had really gone off-track so I tried to encourage him to return to the pastorate. But who knows, maybe he was following Paul’s approach more closely as a custodian than as a senior pastor.
While we’re not required to follow Paul’s career path, it stands as a challenge of sacrificial service and full engagement with the world. Paul’s ministry reminds us of something that we’ve all learned by experience: There’s great joy and freedom in serving voluntarily. As we have seen Paul refused compensation because he wanted to accomplish the following things: be most effective, avoid being a financial burden, serve as an example of diligence, and personally provide for the weak. I wonder how different things would be if Christian leaders had followed Paul’s example more closely down through the ages.
(P.S. In case you’re wondering, when I first wrote this post I was working at a car service center, then I went on to paint houses, and now I’m back in the classroom teaching Bible, World Religions, and Philosophy.)
[This post is part of a series on Paul.]