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).
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 received gifts from the Philippian believers 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 believed they owed him for his service. As gifts, perhaps he recognized that they went above and beyond what was expected. But notice that the Philippian church was unique in this type of relationship with Paul: “no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.”
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.
Paul’s Refusal to Receive Material Compensation
Unfortunately, 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)
Other churches supported Paul so he could freely minister in Corinth. But Paul not only received financial support from other churches, he also worked. The book of Acts provides us with the following 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.” For some reason, Paul adamantly refused to accept money from the Corinthian church. Instead he accepted support from other churches and he worked as a tentmaker. The actual Greek word translated “tentmakers” in Acts 18:3 could be applied to any type of leather worker.
While Paul accepted gifts from certain churches, he often supported himself through manual labor. So here’s the question we will focus on: Why did Paul refuse compensation and 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.”
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.
It’s important to note that Paul did not consider earning money through manual labor as 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 know 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 makes sure to remind 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, Paul 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: Four 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 of all, 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). While Paul often relinquished this right, he also didn’t promote his refusal to the level of a universal rule. He acknowledges 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). So, Paul recognized that he and Barnabas were living as exceptions to the rule. But they were the exceptions because they chose to be.
While Paul didn’t expect everyone to follow his example of ministering free of charge, he does believe his 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)
In summary, the uniqueness of Paul’s approach means we shouldn’t elevate it to a general rule, but since Paul draws attention to it with pride, neither should we ignore it.
Second, there’s a 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 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?”
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. 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.
Fourth, there’s a difference between Paul’s missions and working in established ministries. Paul was traveling and entering new areas with the goal of establishing communities of believers. He wasn’t moving in to become a senior pastor in a mature church. In general, people who serve in a similar capacity to Paul, such as missionaries, do not receive remuneration from those to whom they minister. Instead, they often rely on support from churches and individuals in other areas.
The Enduring Significance of Paul’s Example: Three Challenges
With those four 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 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 those in countries that don’t approve of such jobs. Paul’s unique approach 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.
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.
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. 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, my career has included manual labor. In between our time living overseas, I had a couple of stints as a house painter. I enjoy physical work, but it often doesn’t pay enough to support a family.
I have especially struggled with the question of whether I should charge for my books. Since Paul wrote his letters free of charge, how can I charge for my courses? As a result, my courses have been free on this site for several years. Currently, the PDFs are available to download at no charge, but you can also choose to pay what you want for them.
The paperback versions as well as my other books are for sale on Amazon.