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?
To begin with, Paul believed in material compensation for spiritual work. He writes,
- “If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” (1 Cor. 9:11 ESV),
- “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14), and
- “One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches” (Gal. 6:6).
How should Paul’s readers answer his question in 1 Corinthians 9:11? The entire thrust of his argument, which includes the second statement above, leads to this response, “No, it is not too much for you to reap material things after sowing spiritual things among us.”
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).
The Philippian believers sent Paul gifts for his own needs on a number of occasions. Even when he was in another city, the Philippians continued to send material support and Paul continued to accept. Paul calls this support both “full payment” and “gifts.” As payment, Paul must have believed they owed him for his service. As gifts, perhaps he recognized that they went above and beyond what was expected.
According to Paul, the Philippian church was unique in their give-and-take relationship with him: “no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.” That does not mean Paul only wanted that type of partnership with the believers at Philippi; it simply means they were the only group that repeatedly sent him aid when he left Macedonia.
At this point, Paul’s comments and relationship with the Philippian believers lead to a simple conclusion: those who minister should be compensated for their work of ministry.
What do I mean by “income”? Are we talking about a salary, food, lodging, clothing, travel expenses, etc.? First, by income I am not talking about a salary, which is defined as “
“When you enter a house, first say, ‘Peace to this house.’ . . Stay there, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages” (Lk. 10:5–7).
Jesus used the term “wages” for lodging, food, and drink for those who are traveling and sharing the good news. Consequently, I will be using various terms synonymously such as, compensation, wages, income, remuneration, and payment, in the way Jesus used “wages” above. In particular, this article uses those words interchangeably to refer to any material benefits received by a person in the process of or as the result of preaching and teaching biblical truths.
But what about the idea of “wages” in general? Should it be limited to the setting in Luke 10 or can it be applied to other settings? Since Paul quotes Jesus’ words in Luke 10—”The worker deserves his wages” (1 Tim. 5:18)—in relation to church elders who work as preachers and teachers, I believe the principle of “wages” should not be limited to the setting in Luke 10.
While this post is focused on the general idea of compensation for ministry-related work, if compensation is acceptable, I don’t see how a salary—an extension of that idea—can be ruled out.
Paul’s Refusal to Receive Material Compensation from the Corinthians
But Paul made other comments which complicate that simple conclusion. Immediately after acknowledging his right to receive compensation from the Corinthians, he 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 . . . In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
But 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. 9:12–18).
This brings up a curious observation: Paul felt free to set aside a specific command of the Lord, which he acknowledged in 1 Corinthians 9:14: “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Since “the Lord commanded” it, Paul had a right and an obligation to make a living from his preaching. But he chose to relinquish his right for legitimate reasons, as we will see below.
If Paul was not compensated from the Corinthians, how did he make it financially? After all, he needed money to travel, eat, and buy essential items, right? How did he preach in Corinth free of charge? Here’s what he says in 2 Corinthians:
I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so (11:8–9).
While Paul uses hyperbole in this section—”I robbed other churches”—the answer is straightforward and reminds us of what we have seen with the Philippians: other churches supported Paul so he could minister free of charge in Corinth. Twice in these verses, Paul acknowledges that others provided for him:
- “I robbed other churches by receiving support from them” and
- “the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed.”
Notice that phrase, “the brothers who came from Macedonia.” Philippi was in Macedonia so Paul could be referring again to material support he received from Philippian believers.
This passage also shows Paul’s consistent strategy of refusing support from the Corinthians.
- “I was not a burden to anyone . . .
- I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.”
Since Paul begins by acknowledging that he accepted support from certain churches—”I robbed other churches”—it’s clear that refusing financial aid was not a principle he always followed. Rather it must have been a part of his specific strategy to reach the city of Corinth.
Perhaps Paul’s strategy was based on location. From what he says, we only know that he received help from the Philippians after he left their region. We don’t know that he accepted material support when he was with them. Additionally, when he was writing to the Corinthians he was talking about how he conducted himself while he was with them in Corinth.
Paul: the Tentmaker
While Paul accepted support from certain churches, he did not fully rely on that support. He did not think: “I need to receive enough money so that I won’t have to work a regular job.” How do we know? The book of Acts gives us with this information:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks (18:1–4).
Paul “stayed with them and worked.” The actual Greek word translated “tentmakers” in Acts 18:3 could be applied to any type of leather worker. Paul accepted gifts from certain churches, but he also supported himself through manual labor. So here’s the question we will focus on: Why did Paul work a day job?
Reason #1: He did not want to obstruct the advance of the gospel.
Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 9:12 shows his consuming passion for the advance of the good news: “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.” Paul preached free of charge, so that he would not “put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.” It seems that Paul believed if he accepted financial support from the Corinthians while he was in Corinth, he would have been putting “an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.”
Instead of clinging to the principle “the laborer deserves to be paid,” Paul was thinking, “How can the gospel move forward with the least resistance?” Since he concluded it was best to relinquish his right to receive remuneration, he found himself working a day job. Fortunately, Paul was trained by the ancient rabbis who believed in teaching the Torah out of love and not for profit, so he was skilled in a trade and that trade was tentmaking.
Paul did not consider earning money through manual labor to be a second-tier way to make a living. Instead, his statements convey 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).
Notice that those statements are addressed to believers in another city—Thessalonica. So Paul performed manual labor in Corinth and Thessalonica. We have seen from Paul’s comment above that while he was in Thessalonica he received help from the Philippians “once and again” (Phil. 4:15–18). But that aid did not stop Paul from working on a regular basis. In both of his letters to the Thessalonians, Paul reminds them that he “worked night and day” in their city. And those reminders give us a second and third reason why he worked a day job.
Reason #2: He did not want to be a financial burden to others.
Paul 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. Since he did not want to be a burden to others, he did not “eat anyone’s bread without paying for it.”
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.” According to Paul’s statement, he assumes that his audience remembers him as the same man who made tents in the marketplace with sweat-soaked brow. And he believes that knowledge should inspire them to work—”you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us.” Certain things are caught rather than taught and Paul wants 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 declares,
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 wants his audience to imitate both his work ethic and his sacrificial giving: “I have shown you . . . we must help the weak.”
In summary, while Paul acknowledges that he accepted support from other churches while he was in Corinth, he did not 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 because:
- he wanted the gospel to advance as easily as possible,
- he wanted to avoid being a financial burden,
- he wanted to serve as an example of diligence, and
- he wanted 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 without remuneration? Should we encourage ministers to practice a trade? Should we stop raising money for spiritual work and start earning money through regular jobs to support such work?
First, receiving material compensation for spiritual work is acceptable. There’s nothing wrong with getting paid for legitimate work. As we have seen, 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. Therefore, 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.
“Nevertheless,” Paul quickly interjects, “we have not made use of this right” (1 Cor. 9:12). In a self-sacrificing act, Paul and his companions relinquished this right at Corinth. But he didn’t promote his relinquishment to the level of a universal rule. He acknowledges that his 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). Paul recognized that he and Barnabas were living as exceptions to the rule of rightful compensation, but he does not denounce others for not following his example.
Paul does, however, believe his unique approach is significant. He doesn’t merely mention it; he makes much of it.
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. 9:18)
This was a big deal to Paul. His reward was to preach the gospel free of charge. But keep the first part in mind: this was Paul’s unusual approach.
In a nutshell, the uniqueness of Paul’s approach means we shouldn’t elevate it to a general rule because Paul never does that, but since Paul draws attention to it with pride, neither should we ignore it.
Second, we cannot simply apply everything from Paul’s life without considering the situational differences in ministry roles between the first century and 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. In fact, in Paul’s time church buildings didn’t even exist; believers met in homes.
Paul had the unique role of being an “apostle to the Gentiles” who traveled frequently taking the gospel to new areas without a family to support. Is that your situation? If not, pause and consider the differences first before rushing to apply Paul’s approach. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply Paul’s method; it just means to begin by thinking about the differences.
Now, let’s focus on ministry roles today. 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 by the early Christians. 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 those ways and, therefore, they 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 freely, but they’re difficult to find, because they’re busy working 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?”
Finally, we should acknowledge that those who serve in a similar capacity to Paul’s, such as missionaries, often do not receive remuneration from those to whom they minister. Instead, like Paul in Corinth, they usually rely on support from churches and individuals in other areas.
Third, there’s a 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 an hour or less.
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 in order to 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 require time and money. In the process, they will be giving up an opportunity to learn other financially viable skills. 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.
I understand that some do not value this kind of educational background, but most of the time it is essential to maintaining a healthy understanding of the gospel. False teachings spread easier in environments of ignorance. Most importantly, studying the Bible, theology, church history, Greek, and Hebrew is part of the greatest command—loving God with all of our mind.
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 preaching and his example of hard work 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? 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 preaching and teaching more 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 those in countries that don’t approve of such jobs. Paul’s strategy of doing manual labor was not something he tried for a couple of weeks and then moved on to another method. He stayed in Ephesus for two years (Acts 19:1, 10) and he lived in Corinth for at least a year and a half (Acts 18:11) and during that time he worked with his own hands. Paul’s life should encourage us to consider developing a financially viable skill outside of traditional “ministry” work.
Finally, for those who tend to admire spiritual work and despise physical work, Paul’s example elevates the status of manual labor. A few years ago, I met a custodian who used to be a senior pastor. After telling me that he was quite happy with what he was doing, 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.
Paul’s approach to ministry and money is impressive because it avoids several pitfalls.
- Entitlement – Rather than thinking he should be paid every time he preached and taught, Paul thought there were times when he shouldn’t accept compensation. He was more concerned about being a financial burden to his audience than his own financial gain. How many in modern ministry are thinking along those same lines?
- Laziness – I have heard stories and seen firsthand how “ministry” can lead to sloth. If there is anything that should not be missed in this article it is that Paul went to work. He worked daily in Corinth, Thessalonica, and Ephesus. And as we have seen, he had good reasons for doing so.
- Self-sufficiency – Paul avoided the pride of the self-sufficient person who is unwilling to receive from others. He was not ashamed to acknowledge when other churches provided for him. He needed others to help him fulfill his mission. He needed their spiritual and material support and he was not afraid to mention it (Rom. 15:24, 30–32).
- Legalism – Paul’s life encourages us not to follow a general principle regarding ministry and money, but to use wisdom and apply the most effective strategy in various situations. Rather than thinking, “This is how it should be done,” Paul shows a flexibility in his approach. He accepted payment from the Philippians, but refused compensation from the Corinthians.
I wonder how different things would be if Christian leaders had avoided the same pitfalls down through the ages.