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What does the Bible teach about paid ministry?

In our church landscape, we tend to accept a structure where our church leaders are paid workers who draw a salary that comes from the tithing of the fellowship. However, it is worthwhile to see how this measures up to NT teaching on church function. What does the Bible teach about paid ministry? Furthermore, did the early church set a precedent where leaders made a career of paid ministry?

Those who use Scripture to support the concept of paid ministry tend to lean heavily on one seemingly obscure verse from the OT which would attract very little attention were it not quoted twice by Paul in the New Testament:

‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.’ (Deuteronomy 25:4 NIV)

When making the references to this verse in 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18, did Paul have in mind the employment of full-time professionals who make church leadership a paid career?

We think that is unlikely, and we cautiously present a case for this as it is rarely questioned – if nothing, else we hope this blog will provide food for thought.

We encourage a read of the text around the verses referred to above for context, but it is very doubtful that Paul was setting out a model that resembles the employment structure in the modern church. This is primarily because a paid church career did not exist at that time and was not to come into place for many years – in fact, centuries. The gospel ‘workers’ at that time were travelling evangelists and Paul was simply saying that they should have expenses met when on their travels.

So, when someone arrived at another town on church business, they should have costs for food, accommodation, and travel met by the church that received them. Given that church most often came in the form of a house church anyway at that time, this would simply mean that someone in the fellowship would take them in and provide for day-to-day needs. It would have been most common that travelling church workers were engaged in secular employment when at home (like Paul who was a tent-maker).

So, what does Paul mean when he states:

In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:14 NIV)

Well, in keeping with the comments he makes before and after this verse, Paul is almost certainly talking about material provision while the church worker is on the road. While the worker is away from their usual means of income, the church should cover the gap. This would only be the case while the person was on the business of the church and unable to earn a living through their normal day-job at home.

Paul and his companions were travelling missionaries with the aim of proclaiming the gospel and supporting young churches. The whole point of this was that the churches who received them became self-equipped and not dependent on ongoing physical support. Because of this, Paul was setting out a principle that is unlikely to have applied to those who permanently served a local fellowship which is how it is most often applied now.

For Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:18 NIV)

Again, here Paul is quoting from Luke 10:7 where Jesus sent out his disciples on missionary activity with the expectation that they would have their needs met on the road before returning – it was not a permanent situation.

Paul even went a step further of refusing material support when on the road. He ensured he was self-sufficient from a material perspective and went to great lengths to pay his own way and not be a financial burden at all on the flock – and at times, he was away from home for many months at a time.

We recommend a read of this article which explores this discussion in more detail.

Some may suggest that church leadership should be modelled on the OT Levitical priesthood where the tithes of the flocks did support a ‘professional’ workforce of leaders who were ‘career’ priests. Unfortunately, this notion finds no NT support and there is no evidence that the OT priesthood was intended to be replicated in church structure. For a start, this misunderstands the difference between the temple system and the church. Furthermore, there are many features of the OT priesthood that the church would never adopt, so why just the employment model?

When taking Scripture at face value, it appears that the preferred model of local church leadership involves a number of lay individuals serving the church while working in the secular world for a material living. At the very least, it would be a stretch to make the case that the Bible supports salaried professionals making a career from paid ministry.

Aside from the Scriptural case, there are other advantages to this model:

  • The most obvious advantage is financial. Without the burden of paying the salaries of church staff (which is a considerable expense), church funds are released for other causes that further the gospel.
  • Employing staff is an expensive business that involves far more than just the basic salary. There are many additional costs such as NI, pension, accommodation, and other expenses that will add at least a third to any salary and place additional financial pressure on the church.
  • Without paid staff, the church would also be freer from regulation. Employing staff comes with burdensome legal responsibilities that consume time and expense.
  • One of the main key advantages is an inescapable ‘conflict of interest’ that exists when the church pastor is employed. If the pastor’s livelihood depends on the church, it is impossible for them to be truly impartial. There will be a subconscious tendency to avoid ‘rocking the boat’ or a reluctance to call out internal issues that could affect their position. A pastor’s number one priority is to serve God without any sense of loyalty to those who are paying their salary. No matter how well-meaning a pastor is, a ‘conflict of interest’ is virtually impossible to escape from where they are financially dependent or pursuing a career within the church.
  • A lay leadership also encourages the fellowship to use their God-given spiritual gifts as it will not be possible to depend on the paid professional. We suggest that God equips each true church with those who have the spiritual gifts needed to feed to flock. This also engages the whole church to serve rather than have the fellowship contribute money and then sit back for the professional to deliver the service in return.
  • We would also suggest it is not imperative that a church leader has studied a formal degree in theology or undergone some ‘ordination’ process. This is primarily because most Bible colleges and denominations have become liberal organizations that often do not treat the Bible seriously (although there are exceptions). If your church leader has a formal qualification, it may well be valuable but it should not a prerequisite. Teaching and conduct should be measured against Scripture alone which is the responsibility of the church congregation (through the discernment of the eldership/diaconate). The Lord will equip those who he has truly put in place which means it is not essential to undertake formal ‘training’.
  • If a church leader is serving the church in exchange for payment, there is a real risk of them ‘receiving their reward now’. This is no different to any paid work which is essentially a financial transaction in exchange for a service/labour. Why would anyone offering a service for payment within the church landscape be serving God any more than someone offering a service for payment in a secular role? We can serve the Lord wherever we are placed. Earning a living in the secular world while serving the church free-of-charge is a genuine heavenly investment where the reward is being stored up for the future, rather than being received now.
  • Finally, we firmly believe it is becoming even more important for churches to be completely self-sufficient. There is increasing pressure to conform to the secular narrative on moral issues and this is increasingly finding its way into legislation that affects the church. Churches that are bound with large wage-bills, burdensome overheads or heavy debts will find it difficult to resist inevitable outside influence in church affairs. The threat of secular values dictating church operation is likely to lead to faithful churches experiencing increasing marginalization which makes it even more important to remain as self-sufficient as possible.

Now, there are disadvantages to this model as well. For example, a church that does not have an ordained ‘professional’ may struggle to be recognized by church governing bodies. Such churches could also experience resentment from mainstream denominations and not have the same respect or status as ‘professional’ counterparts at other churches. However, these are not good reasons to influence this discussion.

Furthermore, a church with no paid staff will require a number of people to sacrificially give their time and exercise their spiritual gifts in service to the church, which is not always possible. However, where possible, this is a worthwhile eternal investment for those concerned.

We want to stress that if your church has a model where a paid professional is in place, this does not at all mean you are operating outside of God’s blessing. While we suggest that the biblical model is of lay leadership, we would not go so far as to say paid ministry is never legitimate. God can (and will) certainly work within any structure, even if not the ideal.

We hope we have offered a different perspective on the topic of paid ministry as this is rarely discussed in church circles. If you have a leader of your church who is ordained and salaried, they may indeed be a very godly leader, used greatly by the Lord. There are many places in Scripture where the character and lifestyle of a church leader are described in detail (for example see 1 Timothy 3:1-13 or Titus 2:1-8) – these will always remain the most important qualifications.

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. (Romans 8:28 NIV)

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