Some advocate that all preachers should support themselves because the apostle Paul engaged in ‘secular work’ on some occasions (e.g. tent-making when he was in Corinth – cf. Acts 18:3; 20:34-35; 1 Corinthians 4:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9) in order to support himself. However, this was not the norm for either Paul or others who are called to be ministers of the Word (pastors, preachers, etc.). The instructions in Paul’s writings and the rest of the New Testament on the subject is that the church should support her Gospel-workers so that they may give themselves to the ministry of the Word and to the care of souls, without being burdened and distracted by their own personal and families’ needs.
Paul asked the Corinthians, “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” (1 Corinthians 9:11). In other words, Paul was asking the Corinthian church whether it would be too much to receive material rewards from them for the spiritual work that Paul and his apostolic team had rendered to them. In fact, Paul had earlier argued, “Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock?” (1 Corinthians 9:7). Here, Paul gave three illustrations to show that paying workers is normal and valid, and hence it was nothing wrong for Gospel-workers to receive their wages/support. Paul put forward this truth through rhetorical questions which obviously anticipated the answer: “None!” Soldiers, farmers and shepherds do not fight or labour during the day and then take a second job at night to procure food, clothes and houses for themselves and their families. Soldiers do not serve their king and nation at their own expense. They are provided with food, clothing, arms, lodging, and whatever else is needed to live and fight effectively. Farmers who cultivate crops, and shepherds who tend their flocks eat their food and earn a living from the products of their farming and shepherding respectively.
The apostle then said that such an expectation to provide for the ministers of the Word is Scripturally lawful – “Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?” (1 Corinthians 9:8-9). The law of God, cited by Paul from Deuteronomy 25:4, states that God expects His people not to neglect the animals that labour for them. Even more importantly, according to Paul, the Lord’s command to care for their labouring animals was meant to teach His people about the duty to provide for the needs of human workers who faithfully and diligently labour. God’s concern is greater for men than animals (cf. Matthew 10:31; Luke 12:7, 24, 28). So Paul wrote, “Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope” (1 Corinthians 9:10). Paul’s emphasis is that God was speaking altogether for man’s sake, rather than for animals. Men should earn their living from their labour. The ploughman and the reaper should be able to work in the hope of having their share from the crops.
In fact, Paul observed that some who have been serving in the Corinthian church were already receiving material support from them – “If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather?” (v. 12a). However, he chose not to receive the material support that was due to him – “Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ” (v. 12b). Paul decided not to receive the support from the church in Corinth, not because that it was wrong to do so, but he felt that (in this case) it might have hindered the Gospel work. The Corinthian believers, who were young in faith (and with some from Gentile background), might have thought of Paul as peddling the Gospel for money.
He went on to affirm that the right thing is for the ministers of the gospel to receive support from the church – “Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14). Paul provided two examples from Israel’s religious life and Jesus’ ministry. Paul’s first reference was to the Old Testament practice of supporting the priests who performed sacred services in the Temple with the tithes of crops and animals, as well as with portions allocated from sacrifices of the people. Because the tribe of Levi had no inheritance in Israel, God demanded that the Levites should receive their income from the gifts which the people brought to God’s sanctuary (Deut. 18:1). The priests received a share of what was offered on the altar. So, Paul’s emphasis is that the provisions for the pastors and preachers of the gospel should be based on the same principle of provisions for the priests and Levites of the LORD’s temple in the Old Testament. The second supporting precedent that Paul cited was Jesus’ instruction to His disciples whom He sent out to minister to the people – “Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” Jesus had advised His disciples that “in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house” (Luke 10:7; cf. Luke 9:4; Matthew 10:10-11; Mark 6:10). The Lord Jesus’ advice for His servants was that they ought to receive their support from those whom they ministered. Jesus considered the preaching mission to be a full-time task that would prevent the preachers from earning income in a normal occupation. So, He affirmed their right to be supported.
With all the above arguments, Paul had put forth a watertight case for the support of the full-time ministers of the Word. He had cited the social norm, God’s Law and God’s Son to prove the legitimacy and necessity of material recompense for the teachers of God’s Word. It would be difficult to overemphasise the force of Paul’s argument about the duty of the believers (or the church) to remunerate those who taught them. To the Galatian church, he insisted, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things” (Galatians 6:6). Likewise, while exhorting Timothy, he wrote, “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (1 Timothy 5:17-18; cf. 2 Timothy 2:6).
It is abundantly clear that Scripture stipulates that the beneficiaries of the ministry of God’s servants ought to supply their needs. The remuneration which they extend to the minister must adequately provide for his necessities and personal expenses in equipping himself for the ministry. Providing a salary that would sufficiently support the minister and his family is the duty of the church where he ministers.
If it was Paul’s view that the church must remunerate the full-time workers of the church, why did he refuse his legitimate and irrefutable right to remunerations from the Corinthians at a great cost to himself? And why did he choose to be bi-vocational at times? Paul’s reason was that while he preached in pioneer areas in a pagan environment, he did not want the matter of his remuneration to be a distraction or hindrance to his hearers. He advocated greater flexibility in winning their hearts to the Gospel (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:8-11). Paul could hardly go to a new community and say, “The Lord commanded me to be supported by you.” Jesus’ words did not apply in the context of spreading the Gospel in the Hellenistic world. Modern missionaries too face similar circumstances as Paul in their pioneering work. Hence, the sending churches must support the missionaries. Paul himself gratefully accepted the help sent to him by the established churches, such as the church in Philippi – “I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at the last your care of me hath flourished again; wherein ye were also careful, but ye lacked opportunity… Notwithstanding ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction. Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only. For even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my necessity” (Philippians 4:10, 14-16; cf. 2 Corinthians 8:1-2; 11:8-9).