December 7, 2023

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Bi-Vocational Ministry – Some Thoughts on Full-Time Ministry and Secular Employment

Any discussion of full-time ministry in the early centuries of the Church will sooner or later have to touch on the biblical precedent of Paul’s practice. It seems to challenge much of the current understanding in the church about full-time ministry. Before we come to look specifically at Paul’s practice, let me make some introductory remarks.

What is Full-time Ministry?

The New Testament understanding of ministry is that all followers of Jesus are now ministers of the gospel of the Kingdom. In addition, the biblical worldview does not make a distinction between the spiritual and what we describe as secular. At Creation, God sanctified work and gave our ancestors the task of tending the earth and looking after it. As followers of Jesus, all work is spiritual and all that we do is committed to extending the Kingdom of God here on earth. If you are a full-time follower of Jesus, then you are a full-time minister of the gospel.

It is interesting to note that when Jesus ‘called’ Peter and Andrew and then John and James, as they were fishing, they left their nets and followed him. (cf. Matthew 4:18-22, Mark 1:16-20) He said to them that he would now make them fishers of men. Did they now become full-time ministers? The answer is – YES. However that did not mean that they gave up fishing for we find soon after that they were back fishing together with Jesus in the boat. The only aspect that probably had changed was their priorities – it had changed from fishing for fish to fishing for people but they still fished for fish. When Jesus returned to his disciples after his resurrection, he found a group of them fishing and his response was again to redirect their priorities and specifically Peter’s priorities. (cf. John 21) We do not have evidence one way or the other as to whether they continued to fish after that; all we do know is that Paul does comment that Peter and James did receive support from the church. (cf. I Corinthians 9:7)

The implication of all this was that “normal” work is never seen as ‘second-best’. The opposite in fact is true – “For you yourselves know how you ought to follow our example. We were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it. On the contrary, we worked night and day, labouring and toiling so that we would not be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to such help, but in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow. For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (cf. II Thessalonians 3:6-10)

Supported Ministry

We know very little of how Jesus was supported during his 3 years of ministry. Consistent with his Jewish background he would have probably followed into Joseph’s profession as a carpenter until he was 30 years old. We do know that on an occasion he was miraculously provided for in terms of paying the temple tax but besides that, we know nothing else. We learn that he did not have a home and in all likelihood, he was provided for the people with whom he worked e.g. his fishermen disciples, and we often find him eating meals with various people.

When Jesus sent his disciples out on a mission into Galilee, he said to them – “Take nothing for the journey except a staff-no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic. Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you leave that town.”(cf. Mark 6:8; see also Matthew 10:9f and Luke 10:7) This tells us that they were to rely on those with whom they worked to supply for their needs, whether it is food, clothing or accommodation. In this context Jesus told them that a worker deserves his wages. It is however interesting to note that at the end of his time here on earth, as he prepared his disciples for the world-wide mission of the Church, Jesus said to them – ‘But now, let him who has a purse take it and also a bag [with other provisions]’, (cf. Luke 22:36) This seems to suggest that from this point onwards the disciples must be self-sufficient financially. They needed to be prepared for every eventuality, one of which was lack of finances and dependence on others’ generosity. A study of early church history seems to conclude that as a general practice that for the first four centuries, the church prospered with a self-supporting ministry. It only changed with the Constantine era when all manner of destructive practices entered the organised church.

When we come to Paul’s writings, he does teach that Christian workers are to be supported. So he writes at some length on this in I Corinthians 9:7-18, getting to the kernel of the matter in verses 14 – “In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” He however is quick to add what we find in verse 15 – “But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me. I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of this boast.”

We also find Paul teaching on the supported ministry in I Timothy 5:17,18 – “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain, and The worker deserves his wages.”

Thus supported ministry is a reality but it is not the consistent pattern of the New Testament church. Peter, Andrew, James & John remained fisherman after Jesus called them. Paul remained a tentmaker.

Paul’s Practice

Let us consider the following passages regarding what Paul taught various groups:%uF0B7 Acts 20:33-35 → I have not coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.%uF0B7 Acts 18:3 → Paul went to see Aquila and Priscilla, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them.%uF0B7 I Thessalonians 2:9 → Surely you remember, brothers, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

We know from Paul’s own words that throughout his missionary journeys he was determined, as a matter of deliberate strategy, to be self-supporting. Thus writing from Ephesus to Corinth he says: ‘To the present hour … we labour, working with our own hands.’ * Likewise, he reminded the Christians in Thessalonica in the passage quoted above: ‘You remember our toil and labour, brethren; we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you while we preached to you the gospel of God.’

In both cases, Paul speaks in the plural (‘we’), thus implying that his companions (Timothy, Titus, Silas and the others) also engaged in manual work. Quite specifically, he cites Barnabas as ‘working for a living’ with him. This consistent apostolic strategy was to cause much misunderstanding and criticism, quite apart from its physical demands – as the Corinthian correspondence bears vivid testimony. Why did Paul so obdurately stick to this practice? – Particularly as there existed a well-accepted ‘command of the Lord’ that ‘those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’.

This question can be answered in several complementary ways, especially in the light of a number of recent studies into early church history. Current interest in the economic and social status of the first Christians has resulted in a great deal of attention being paid to Paul’s means of support. All this has revolutionized our perception of the significance of Paul’s manual labour.

At one level, the question can be answered on purely pragmatic grounds: it was futile to hope to win converts and to found a church if the church planter expected to be kept at the hearers’ expense. All the signs are that Paul’s earliest converts were largely from amongst the urban poor. If he had insisted on his right to financial support, the church in Corinth might never have been founded – so great would have been the financial obstacle to his message being received. As he remarks

“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 my preaching I make the gospel free of charge, not making full use of my right in the gospel.” (cf. I Corinthians 9:12,18)

If the bulk of Paul’s prospective 1st Century congregation were the urban poor, how much more so is this in the 21st Century, and this particularly so in South Africa, where urbanisation is rapidly on the increase. If the support of full-time Christian workers is going to be the need in order to get the gospel preached, we are going to be severely limited in our impact. To expect the ‘urban poor’ to finance this is unrealistic if not downright immoral, especially considering the means used to extract finances from such people.

I make mention of Paul’s practice being a deliberate strategy in terms of not allowing finances to hinder the presentation of the gospel. In Acts 18:1-4, another aspect of this strategy becomes evident – After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all the Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.

With this contextual evidence, it is therefore no flight of fancy to suppose that Paul used his workshop as a focal point for evangelism – literally gossiping the gospel while he worked. That at least is a sense allowed (though not required) by his conjunction of the two phrases, ‘We worked night and day … while we preached to you.’ Should we think of Paul busily stitching his leather seams while he expounded the Christian gospel? His silent craft certainly permitted that! Patrick Vaughan makes a pertinent point when he writes – Indeed the fact that ‘handkerchiefs’ and ‘aprons’ were ‘carried from his body’ to heal the sick seems to imply that people were with him while he worked in his workshop at Ephesus. (cf. Acts19:12) In passing we may note what hard manual work was involved: as he gossiped with them, Paul’s forehead may have been glistening with sweat – for the word so politely translated ‘handkerchief’ really means’ sweat-band’!

The report of Paul going first to the tentmakers when he arrived in Corinth may well have been a consistent strategy for him in gaining access to other people. After all he was able to offer a professional service where he was in regular contact with the townsfolk. To a great extent his preaching was more in the form of dialoguing rather than our limited understanding of that term. He was able to communicate in the ‘language’ of the tentmakers thereby overcoming one the major hindrances to the gospel’s presentation.

The Keys of the Kingdom

In Matthew 16:18 and 19, Jesus outlines his strategy for kingdom extension – On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you [my followers] the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” What we know is that Jesus is committed to building his church he will do that, we have no doubt about.

However he has given us a task as well, a calling if you like. That calling to take the keys of the kingdom and to use them to open doors in our lives that will bind and loose things on earth. There are people and situations that only I have access to – I have been given the kingdom keys – and God is looking to me to open these doors. You may be a teacher in a school – you have a mission field among learners and educators that no one else has. Another may be an accountant in a firm – you speak their ‘language’ and that enables you to communicate accurately and effectively in bringing the gospel first in deed and then if necessary in word.

A Question of Calling

Paul reminds us in I Corinthians 7:17 – each one should retain the place in life that the Lord assigned to him and to which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. What are the implications of that? Calling is whatever God has given you to do. No calling is greater or less than another is – it all depends on whether God is in what you are doing. Whatever work you may do requires the power of the Holy Spirit to perform whether you are the CEO of a major company or the admin clerk in a small office. Calling is far greater than being a pastor, in the sense that ‘pastor’ is understood in the modern era.

In Acts 13:2,3 we read – While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. To what work was Paul called? It was more than getting on a ship and sailing around the then known world and preaching – it involved this but much more like making tents.

Called to Business

For many the role of business people in the church is to provide finances for various church-based projects. That is a very limited understanding. A friend of mine is the CEO of a large company and as such he has a large group of people who, to some degree or the other, rely on him for their welfare. He relates how he is so conscious of the need to rely on the Holy Spirit to empower him to make right decisions so that his employees benefit. Many church organisations would probably do no worse than to support him financially as he extends the boundaries of God’s kingdom.

The Bible tells that to equip others for works of service and to set aside people for the work to which God has called them. We need to be commissioning business people to go out to ‘regions beyond’ to extend the kingdom in business and that these businesses may prosper so that more business-based church communities are birthed. A recent survey by George Barna in the USA, reveals that %2B22% of the population attend some sort of ‘spiritual’ gathering in their place of work each week. At the same time there is a 15% annual decrease in people attending ‘church’ in a recognised place of worship on a Sunday in the USA. For many who do no longer go to ‘church’ it is not because they have lost their faith in Jesus but it has been expressed – so that I can preserve my faith in Jesus. Churches (or other words, communities of Jesus-followers) needed to be birthed in company boardrooms, factory tea-rooms, school staffrooms, hospital wards.

Some Concluding Thoughts – Adapted from Patrick Vaughan

Within the first generation of Christian history, there were divergent views about apostolic support. There is ample evidence that some unscrupulous Christian teachers took improper personal advantage of hospitality customs and scrounged off their hearers. Paul and his associates therefore sought to avoid the possibility of this happening in their churches; so they determined to earn their own livelihood, rather than put any obstacle in the way of the gospel.

As the long story of Christian workers’ support unfolds, similar instances recur with them refusing to accept a salary and choosing the inconvenience of earning a living. Always the reason is the same: the missionary motive, sharpened by the nagging question ‘if we abide by the received financial structures, will the gospel ever be heard in some circles?’

Seen against this cultural background, Paul’s references to his manual work take on a number of entirely new significance. He chose to continue to tent-make, which for Paul became significant in a number of ways. First, his very self-understanding as an apostle is bound up with his work: ‘Am I not free? Am I not an apostle?’ he asks – and proceeds to answer with a discussion centring on his work (1 Corinthians 9). Secondly, his refusal of subsisting through free hospitality caused him much personal hardship. But this he willingly accepted, because this life-style embodied the ‘foolishness’ of the cross (cf. 1 Corinthians 4.8-16). Thirdly, he invited believers to imitate his practice: ‘Work with your hands, as we charged you’. (I Thessalonians 4:11) He demonstrated through his own life-style an application of the ideas he believed in – and was bold enough to invite imitators (1 Corinthians 4.16). Fourthly, his very trade and the workshop it required became a context for evangelism. Fifthly, although he never enunciated this, his work as an artisan posed a Christian challenge to the social divisions of Roman society.

Until recently Paul was chiefly studied and discussed for his ideas, his theology – without reference to his mode of subsistence (which was regarded as a peripheral matter!), But now, it has become clear that the one thing which holds discussion of Paul together is his work. Many earlier studies fell into the common trap of separating thinking from living, ideas from life, as it has to be lived out. But Paul’s thinking shaped his life-style, and conversely his life-style, and conversely his life-style helped shape his ideas. As an aside, one may ask how far Christians allow their work and their faith to dialogue with each other. The story of Paul suggests that work itself can be the integrating element in a life of ministry.

It was because of his trade, rather than his travels, that he constantly suffered hardship. And the hardship was not always physical. Much of it arose from verbal abuse and slander. For to many the work of an artisan was to be dismissed as ‘slavish’, beneath the dignity of any free man. Thus it was on account of his espoused artisan status that he was accused of being a false apostle!

To judge from his written reply to this accusation, it seems that Paul’s opponents criticised him for being ‘weak’, ‘foolish’, and ‘disreputable’ (1 Cor. 4.10). What precisely was being referred to by these terms? It now seems very likely that these critical rival leaders were referring to Paul’s scruffy appearance as a working artisan. For in the very next sentence, he refers to his labour, and acknowledges that he is ill-fed, ill-clad and homeless, indeed like ‘refuse’ or ‘offscourings’ (1 Corinthians 4.11-13).

So it was that central to Paul’s defence of his status as a true apostle was his defence of his practice of manual work. The arguments focused on the question of freedom: was he free or enslaved by his work? Paul admits that he could have taken a ‘reward.’ This would, of course, have freed him from the necessity of manual labour. But he argues that in not accepting support he was free. It can be concluded:

Paul’s affirmation of freedom is thus an unmistakable indication that he understood the issue of apostolic support in terms of the debate among intellectuals generally over the appropriate means of support … In reflecting on the nature of his apostolic commission, Paul brought in the matter of his means of support. Consequently he formulated his self-understanding as an apostle in such a way that his tentmaking was a constitutive part of it. That is, his trade allowed him to boast that he offered the gospel ‘free of charge’. This boast is thoroughly Pauline, a boast in his ‘weakness’ as an artisan, and very much in terms of the debate over the means of support befitting someone like him. This boast was sufficient ‘reward’ (i.e. salary) for Paul.

Many aspects of these bitter accusations and refutations have a familiar sound about them. Claims that self-supporting workers are ‘second-class’, that they do not have proper time to devote to ministry, that they are not real [pastors] at all – each sounds remarkable like the arguments of those who considered Paul a false apostle!