[See Part 1 for the series introduction.]

Part 3: Another Primary New Testament Reason for Giving to the Church

In my last post I identified two primary reasons for giving to and through the church: (1) to support needy local Christians and (2) to send relief to distant Christians. These are the reasons found in the first NT passage describing church giving and in the longest NT passage about giving.

Both of these reasons involve caring for physical needs. Crucially, however, both kinds of giving sprang out of gospel truth. The early Christians gave to needy local Christians because of the new unity and grace that they experienced in the gospel. And they sent physical relief to distant Christians in Jerusalem because they knew that they had received spiritual blessings from them. The gospel bound believers together and was the real reason for their generosity in response to physical needs.

In today’s post I want to examine a third NT reason for giving to the church. This reason will even more obviously involve spiritual motivations. Yet it, too, will involve physical needs just as much as our first two reasons.

The classic passage about this reason for giving is found in Paul’s first letter to Corinth. In the immediate context, Paul is describing his rights as an apostle:

Do we not have the right to eat and drink? Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? …If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? …Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:4-7, 11, 13-14)

This is a powerful passage, but also a potentially confusing one. The confusion mostly arises from the role this passage plays within its larger context. Within the larger context—a discussion about whether Christians should eat food offered to idols—this passage was written by Paul to share his own example of forgoing his liberties and rights in order to bless others. Given this larger purpose, Paul emphasizes how he gladly preaches the gospel without receiving support from others. In fact, on one level he actually prefers to be unsupported, for then he can boast of his voluntary service, he can expect a reward from God, and he can avoid putting an obstacle in the way of the gospel.

But in order for Paul’s example of forgoing rights to have any legitimacy and power, he first needs to emphasize that it is indeed his full right to be fully supported. It is this emphasis that is relevant to our topic in this post. Paul claims he has a “right to refrain from working for a living” (1 Cor. 9:6). Listen again to how strongly he states this point:

The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1 Cor. 9:14)

So here we have our third reason for giving to and through the church: to support gospel proclaimers. (This reason is found repeatedly throughout the NT. See, in addition to the texts I discuss here, Luke 8:1-3; Rom. 15:24; 1Cor. 16:5-6; Phil. 1:3-5; 4:10, 13-18; Tit. 3:13-14; 3John 5-8.)

Where did Paul get the idea that the Lord commanded such support? And who does he mean by “the Lord”? Earlier Paul quoted the Law of Moses as evidence that gospel proclaimers should be supported (“You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain”; 1 Cor. 9:9, from Deut. 25:4). Is this what he means when he says “The Lord commanded”?

I don’t think so. First, in quoting that OT command, Paul refers to “God,” not “the Lord.” The term “the Lord” is used in this chapter, as usually in Paul, to refer specifically to Jesus Christ. Second, I think we can find a statement of Jesus that supports Paul’s claim.

Listen to Jesus’ instructions to the seventy-two workers:

“And he said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest… Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” (Luke 10:2, 4-9)

First, notice the task given to these seventy-two workers: they were gospel proclaimers. Second, notice that Jesus is giving commands in this passage. Third, notice that brief clause in the middle of verse 7: “The laborer deserves his wages.” While this clause is not a command, it is given as evidence to undergird a whole series of surrounding commands: “Stay in one house, eating and drinking whatever they provide. Don’t look for other places to stay. Eat whatever is set before you.” Why do all these things? Because “the laborer deserves his wages.” Jesus presents this as an undisputable universal principle, a principle that commands specific behaviors.

Perhaps the Gospel of Luke was already written before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Or perhaps Paul knew these words of Christ from those who shared them orally. Either way, I (with many commentators) think Paul was referencing this teaching of Christ and teaching that it applied to all gospel proclaimers, including himself.

Does this command apply only to missionaries, or does it also apply to local church gospel proclaimers? Listen to Paul’s words to Timothy:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

Notice some details in these verses: First, these verses are discussing elders, a term used for local church leaders. Second, Paul says these elders are worthy of double “honor,” a term used earlier in the same chapter to refer, at least indirectly, to the church’s material care of needy widows. (The same term honor is used in the next chapter to refer to the respect and good service that Christian bondslaves must give to their masters.) Third, notice how Paul says that it is especially those who work at preaching and teaching who should be honored, thus matching the focus in 1 Corinthians on gospel proclaimers. Fourth, notice the Scriptures that Paul uses to support his command: The first is the same OT command that he used for the same purpose in 1 Corinthians 9, and the second is the same teaching of Jesus that I suggested was the basis for Paul’s statement “the Lord commanded” in that chapter. The citation of that teaching here confirms the hypothesis that Paul also had it in mind when writing to Corinth.

Put these details together, and it becomes clear: Paul is telling Timothy that local church leaders—those who preach and teach the gospel—should be given generous (“double”) material support. ([amazon text=Mounce&asin=0849902452] suggests another likely interpretation of “double honor”: respect + an honorarium.) In fact, if we compare this passage with 1 Corinthians, I think it is fair to say this: Paul thought that local church leaders who devote themselves to gospel proclamation have a “right to refrain from working for a living.” “The Lord commanded” that they “have [a] right to eat and drink,” and not “at [their] own expense.”

I realize such statements make some conservative Anabaptists a little uncomfortable. But I ask: Have we run so far from the salaried minister model that we are no longer hearing Scripture well on this point? Yes, the salaried model has its own problems. But what problems have we been reaping by expecting all (or nearly all) our local church leaders to provide most of their own support? What additional gospel proclamation could be happening if some of our leaders dared to devote themselves to that work full-time, and if we dared to support them to make it possible? What gospel fruit might we see grow right in our own churches and communities? (And it seems to me that we should not limit such support to “ordained” brothers, but extend it to any and all full-time local gospel proclaimers. If we do this for unordained missionaries “on the field,” why not at home?)

I plan to return to 1 Corinthians 9 in my fifth post in this series. But now it is your turn. What do you think? Have I handled Scripture faithfully here? What do I still need to learn? What do you think our churches need to learn?

Post your comments and questions below!