As I have been raising support of late, the subject of giving and finance strikes quite close to home. I plan to post some more reflections later, but will begin with the following analysis from 1 Corinthians 9.
Money plays no small role in the theology of the Apostle Paul. As he wrote his letters to many of the early churches, this was a topic which arose again and again. One of the fullest expositions of Paul’s view of the support of church ministers is found in 1 Corinthians. His exposition of this topic in chapter 9, starting with verse 3, deserves a closer look:
This is my defense to those who would examine me. 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? (1 Corinthians 9:3-7)
As his basic premise, Paul uses a series of rhetorical questions to demonstrate that a full time ambassador for Christ deserves to earn a living. This is clearly seen through his appeal to the right to life and survival that is the basis of all society. He uses the example of a soldier to prove that someone who has dedicated their live to the common good, in this case the defense of a region or group, is supported through the pooled donations of those being protected, i.e. taxes. He points out the inconsistency of Barnabas and himself being the only ones excluded from this basic premise.
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.’ Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not speak entirely for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? ( 1 Corinthians 9:8-12a)
As his next move in this argument, Paul moves beyond a priori philosophical arguments and brings in the Old Testament Torah (law) as additional support. It is not merely principles of human reason that supports his logic, but the Hebrew Scriptures themselves. He quotes from Deuteronomy 25:4 and applies this to the question at hand. While this original commandment did literally apply to the treatment of oxen in the harvest of grain, it also applies to the broader concept of a worker earning his own wages. In fact, Paul argues that God is not really concerned at all for the oxen, but this principle is actually for us. If a worker is working in an industry making and selling objects for a price, then he has every right to expect a salary. For those who are not actually sowing and harvesting physical food but rather spiritual, they none the less deserve the same wage. In fact, Paul argues that the spiritual harvest is even more important than the physical, and thus more deserving.
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. 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 Corinthians 9:12b-14)
Now that Paul has proven his initial point, he brings in an additional twist. The support of the pastor or missionary is not the primary objective. Rather, the gospel must always come first. This is an absolutely pivotal principle which must be carefully and critically applied in all ministry situations, but especially those concerning money. Even though there is clear logical, humanitarian, and scriptural arguments in favor, to avoid the slightest obstacle to the gospel Paul has not enforced this right and demanded material support.
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. 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 Corinthians 9:15-18)
Paul concludes by saying that this extended section is not intended to raise money. He notes that merely preaching the gospel does not earn him any reward, since he is obligated to do so out of necessity. However, preaching the gospel “free of charge”, and not utilizing his full rights, does merit a reward. Even the preaching of the gospel itself is included here within the rubric of stewardship.
What Paul is saying here is highly relevant for missions. In some contexts, any appeal for money would be misinterpreted and cast suspicion upon both the messenger and the message. In such a situation, while it is still valid for the ambassador of Christ to earn his or her living by the gospel, to look for some other means of support is to elevate this gospel above personal livelihood.