My last two posts have primarily addressed the issue of money. This post is the first of three (for now) on the pastor…er elder…uh…overseer/bishop/preacher…you get the idea. However, it will also be addressing the issue of money. (Henceforth, “pastor” and “elder” will be used interchangeably.)
Namely, should believers pay their pastors?
The mere fact that I would ask such a question made some of your stomachs turn. I say that because mine did when I first asked it for myself. Mind you, I just graduated with a B.A. in Christian Ministry. I intended to go on to seminary, get degrees, plant churches, and be paid by my church. All that to say, it wasn’t easy for me to open my mind to the things I’m about to say.
Let’s first ask the simple question: do we find it in Scripture?
An argument I’ve heard when discussing this issue with friends is that just as the Israelites provided for their priests through the tithe, the NT church should provide for our leaders. The problem with this argument is that we have no such system. The priests were not allowed to own land. They did not share in the inheritance with Israel except through the tithes. Elders are not prohibited from owning land or having a job. Moreover, the priesthood has been changed–we have no separate class of Christian. In fact, the resurrection of Christ makes us all priests. By that logic, we should be paying each other! It is a violation of the priesthood of all believers to say that we should treat pastors as the Israelites treated the priests.
There are two main passages used to support the salaried pastor:
1) 1 Cor 9:14 — In this passage Paul says, “Those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Seems pretty clear, right? Yes, only if you take this verse by itself. If you leave the verse in its context it tells us a very different message.
We see in v.1-3 that Paul is defending his apostleship. He says to the Corinthian church that as an apostle he has the right to receive material provision from them. Why is it important to distinguish this as an apostolic right? Because apostles were very different from pastors. They were itinerant church planters and missionaries. Paul and his companions traveled from town to town, staying only as long as it took to plant and train a church. As such, they were not able to set up a trade or work the land–they couldn’t make a living.
However, we see that Paul usually refused to participate in this right to receive provisions from the churches. (He did receive support from the church in Philippi.) He provided for himself by making and selling tents as he traveled. Apparently, at times he viewed such provisions as an obstacle to the preaching of the gospel (v.12).
We see, then, that this passage has nothing to do with church elders.
2) 1 Tim 5:17 — “Let the elders who rule well among you be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”
It’s amazing how this verse has been interpreted over the years. On numerous occasions I have heard people use this verse to say, “You should pay pastors well.” It has been said that the word honor can also mean wages. However, such an interpretation ignores the evidence. Verse 3 of the same chapter states, “Honor widows…” It is exactly the same word! I have never heard anyone argue that we should give widows a salary.
The verses following state, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” These statements are used to promote the “wages” interpretation. It is said that the pastor is the laborer and the honor is the wages. However, this is a careless way to read it. The elder is no more the “laborer” than he is the “ox.” Honor is no more “wages” than it is “grain.” Paul simply uses two metaphors to make his point, which is: “Elders are worthy of double honor.” This is certainly not defined as “double salary.”
Many are unaware of what Paul actually tells elders in regard to their work. In Acts 20:17-38 Paul addresses the elders of the Ephesian church. It is noteworthy that he is speaking to the exact same elders addressed in 1 Tim 5:17. In v.33-35 he tells them how he provided for his own needs. He did not accept material payment for his ministry. Listen to his reasoning behind that decision:
“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. In all 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.'”
Paul says–very bluntly, I might add–that he provided for his own needs in order to show the elders how they are supposed to live and work. They should provide for themselves so that they can give to those in need, not the other way around!
Another important note is that elders were not chosen in the way modern elders are chosen. Scripture shows us that elders were raised up from within the church. They were people who had good reputations in their communities. There is no doubt that these people already had a means of living in their town. So then, why would the church need to give them a salary if they already had one?
In a discussion on this issue some friends of mine mentioned the all of the work a modern elder does. “It’s a full-time job!” they said. I wouldn’t argue with that. The modern pastor often works more than full-time. To require them to accomplish all of their “church” responsibilities and have a full-time job is completely unreasonable. However, as I will discuss in the next post, the modern pastor takes on jobs and responsibilities which are far from–and even contrary to–what we find in scripture. The responsibilities of the New Testament elder did not in any way require one to work full-time for the church. If modern elders functioned along the same lines as those in Scripture, paying them a salary would be unnecessary. More on that in the next post.
The next argument made was, “Things are different now. Culture and the church are different, so we have to adapt to what we have now.” I (hesitatingly) agree with this. The modern, American church is in a bad place. Many are biblically illiterate, having a profound misunderstanding of the gospel, church, and biblical interpretation. This stems from centuries of unbiblical ecclesiology and a tendency toward anti-intellectualism (among other things). If we were to make a sudden attempt to organize an institutional church around the New Testament model of church–in which regular tithes/offerings are not law; we meet in homes (or similar venues); everyone participates in teaching, prophesying, singing, praying, speaking (cf. 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4:11-16; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25, etc.); and the eldership is not a career–it would be a disaster. However, we cannot leave our brothers and sisters behind. We cannot neglect the existing churches. I propose that the modern elder should work toward a biblical model. How does that transition work? I can’t say, but I would assume that it would look different in each situation.
I do not, however, believe that the argument of cultural difference should dissuade us from the New Testament model of church permanently. While this argument is valid on some issues, I believe that it does not apply here. There certainly are times when the Bible addresses issues which are limited to its culture, but I would argue that this is not one. The reason: this concerns the manifestation of God’s Kingdom on Earth, not merely sociocultural norms. To have a separate class of Christians who are salaried for being a minister denies the actual DNA of the church: it denies the fact that we are all ordained ministers; it denies the priesthood of all believers; it denies mutual, participatory ministry; it sucks even more of our money out of the things which we were actually told to support. We need to work toward a biblical understanding and expression of the church. Staying where we are is not a valid option if we wish to express ourselves as the church Jesus and the Apostles established.
Do you think that paid eldership is found in Scripture? Do you think that our separation from the First-Century culture justifies the ways in which we have departed from the New Testament example?