Don’t Muzzle the Ox
Too often pastors neglect to disciple the saints on how to think about money with a biblical perspective. I trust that’s an uncontroversial statement.
Pastor, do your people know how to answer difficult questions like these:
- How should Christians think about making money?
- Should they approach saving money differently than non-Christians?
- What principles come into play as they spend and invest money?
- How can they receive money as a blessing? How can they beware that money is also sometimes a curse?
- How can believers worship God through financial self-denial? How can they worship God by enjoying what God has given them?
If faithful Christians who attend church week after week remain in the dark about the answers to questions like these, it shouldn’t surprise us that many churches don’t know how and why they should pay their pastor. In this brief article, I will ask three questions in order to discuss three unbiblical approaches I’ve seen to paying pastors.
1. What if I want to serve vocationally in the ministry without taking a salary?
As a paid minister of God’s Word, I feel some level of awkwardness surrounding this topic. After all, there’s at least one place in Scripture where Paul explains why he and Barnabas did not draw a salary from their labor. But awkwardness was not on his list of reasons.
It’s possible that there is a good reason for refusing to take a salary from a church that can pay you. But it’s unlikely that your situation qualifies. When you find yourself ignoring clear commands like 1 Timothy 5:18 and holding on to exceptions like Paul not taking a salary for his ministry work in Corinth, you need to have a compelling reason.
If the duties assigned to a pastor don’t make him leave his current vocation, then it’s permissible not to pay a salary. The principle here is simple: how much time does it take to do his work well? However, when we make “tent making” the model for how all pastors should provide for themselves and their families, we deny the church the privilege of having a pastor fully set apart for the work of the ministry. He will have a divided mind and calendar, despite his best intentions.
I understand why the “tent making” model seems attractive, and some reasons are more noble and persuasive than others. For example, in some cases, “tent making” could enable the gospel to advance in hostile places. But in other cases, I suspect this arrangement is one way the enemy keeps our churches weak.
We must search our hearts for the impulse that tells us to choose the path that keeps us from losing our identity in the marketplace. We must root our sinful desires that overly prize the respect of the world. If the church, especially in the area of preaching, needs a pastor to give up his vocation for the sake of the church, then so be it. May many qualified men flock to such a noble opportunity. We shouldn’t hide behind “tent making” as the biblical model for every pastor. We are far too sinful not to suspect impure motives for breaking from the norms of Scripture.
The Bible teaches that a pastor’s work is noble work (1 Corinthians 9:7), and when done vocationally it deserves remuneration (1 Timothy 5:17)—just like all honest work. These verses, especially 1 Corinthians 9:14, show us that it’s right and biblical to think of such renumeration as a salary, not merely some kind of benevolent support. After all, Paul compares pastoral work to various “secular” vocations that would have been familiar to his audience. And then he concludes, “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14).
So, am I saying that one cannot have a day job in the marketplace and lead the church as a pastor who regularly preaches? Not necessarily. But I am asking you to be sensitive to the danger of cultivating an unhealthy culture of not paying your pastor. That culture in both the immediate future and in the long run will harm the church and its mission. Even if you don’t need the salary because of inherited wealth or money made elsewhere, consider the example you’re setting for how the church should relate to your successor. You’re both weakening its generosity muscles now, and you are tempting them to look down on your successor for asking for an income. Better to receive that income now and enjoy the privilege of quietly giving it away.
2. What about the need to differentiate between the prosperity gospel and the true gospel?
Paul and Peter both warn about the love of money in the pastorate, referring to this in a King James’ tongue as a desire for “filthy lucre” (Titus 1:11; 1 Peter 5:2). Our contemporary English versions use the phrase “shameful gain” (ESV) or “dishonest gain” (NIV) to translate the phrase. The warning for pastors here is that they should flee from and fight against the love of money. Poverty never disqualified a man from his post.
There are false teachers who “have hearts trained in greed” (2 Peter 2:14). These are the prosperity preachers who haven’t heeded Scripture’s warning. They love money, and so they have made the relationship between a pastor and his pay confusing to some.
So a minister of God’s Word is free to refuse a salary if receiving renumeration would undermine gospel work in his specific ministry context. This was Paul’s motivation to refuse pay among the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:12-18).
That said, the places where the prosperity gospel runs rampant need both proper biblical teaching and healthy examples of how churches can care for their pastors financially. Christians need to see that money can empower the pastor to serve his church, and not merely to elevate him and his lifestyle above the congregation’s—or, worse, to turn the church away from Christ and toward the false gods of worldliness, materialism, and mammon.
3. What about missionaries who work for free?
Missionaries, who are supported by churches overseas, sometimes offer “free” counseling, preaching, teaching, and leadership to churches. In many global contexts, this free labor fosters complacency in indigenous churches. It makes it more plausible for Christians not to pay their pastors. In the most extreme cases, missionaries promote a hyper-spiritual view of money that results in the local pastors being grossly underpaid or not paid at all—even those who work full-time.
Sadly, it’s not rare to see national pastors laboring in the ministry with limited or no pay while their wives and children languish in squalor. All the while, they’re elevated as “models of faith” by traveling missionaries who themselves enjoy ample support from their home country. Now the pastors might be models of faith, but it’s not to the credit of the churches they serve or the missionaries that lead them.
The matter of paying your pastor isn’t a cultural issue; it’s a biblical mandate. And it must be handled as such.
The Great Commission has in many cases been hindered by our neglect of this topic. God’s Word languishes in the pulpit because churches have been taught to invest in buildings and projects, not men who have given themselves to the ministry of the Word. We have erroneously and even sinfully called the men to choose between disobeying the call to provide their own families (1 Tim 6:8) and the call to go for the sake of his name. While God might call pastors and missionaries to endure financial hardship for the sake of the advance of the gospel, no church is asked to make it their official policy.