There are certain passages from which preachers and teachers are reluctant to expound because it can seem like those of us in ministry are simply using scripture to assist in lining our own pockets. How does a pastor preach about tithing with a clear conscience knowing that tithes pay his salary? It’s a thin line, but a necessary one. But giving is biblical, and so is vocational ministry. Here is today’s text from I Corinthians 9:1-15.
1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas[a]? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?
7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.”[b] Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.
13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
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, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.
I’ve been in full-time ministry for right at 12 years now. I’ve also worked outside of the church off and on during that time. And before I give any commentary on Paul’s passage, I will say that I feel blessed to be able to draw my salary from the church. Also, you would think that my giving has always been steady. Giving was easier as a single man. As a family, there are so many more needs for which to provide. Honestly, it’s just been in the last couple of years that our family has been faithful with giving. We are not at a full 10% but we are close and are working are way towards more. I remember a couple of years ago when Cindy was unemployed and we had some unexpected financial hardships that I just cringed at the end of the year when I got our annual giving statement from the church. Maybe you can relate?
The church is a precarious critter. The church only works if everyone pulls their weight. In Corinth, I doubt there was a central meeting place for believers, save in the homes of some early Christians. But even without bills and upkeep on a church building, funds would have been utilized to meet certain needs within the church. Paul, as a missionary, is pleading his case that he has expenses that have not been met and he is not currently working in any other occupation to supplement his income (We do know from Acts 18:2 he was a tentmaker by trade and probably used that skill occasionally to meet basic needs).
I like the way he references refraining from muzzling the ox during farm work. The ox should be able to reap some sort of immediate benefit from doing the task set before him. Likewise, those who work for the church full time should be compensated for their work. I’m aware that some churches and preachers are corrupt and many workers take salaries many times what is necessary. But the majority of them are people just like you and me. Their kids need a college fund, and braces. Many of them do not have health insurance or retirement benefits except what they provide for themselves. Their cars break down. They go to the doctor. While serving in the ministry and “trusting God at every turn” has a romantic air to it, people in ministry still have the same problems and concerns as their parishioners, not to mention the scrutiny of living in a fishbowl-not just themselves, but their spouses and children as well.
So in this season of Lent, let us think about a couple of things. Think about the person(s) you call “pastor”. It may be your senior pastor or other full time ministry staff at your church. Now think about your giving to your church. If everyone gave like you (and me), would (y)our church be able to function? Would it thrive or struggle? In this season of Lent, a season of sacrifice and giving, what better time to re-examine our financial commitment to God and his church?