In our series through the book of Acts, in which we are looking at the place, the people, and the purpose for Christian gatherings, particularly in light of the evangelical response to COVID-19, we arrive at our second excursus. The first, you may recall, examined the identification of elders. In this post, we want to take a brief look at the paid professional, which is almost universally recognized throughout evangelical churches, and in reality those that would call themselves churches but still fall outside of evangelicalism. However, we ought to remind ourselves that just because something appears on the surrounding landscape of Christendom does not mean that it is Scripturally supported or historically validated. This brings attention to the principle of Sola Scriptura, which is frequently celebrated yet rarely applied consistently. The appeal to Scripture should be our final authority, and this most certainly includes how our Christian gatherings are arranged.
In our study of Acts, we have seen how Paul, in Acts 20, called the Ephesian elders to himself at Miletus to give a farewell message that basically amounted to a succession plan for the Ephesians. Paul would no longer visit with them, and was preparing the elders for incoming wolves. In his departing speech, we read his final words, which included the example of how he had lived among them, in order to establish a pattern for these elders to follow with respect to work/labor. This included an implicit reference to financial gain and receiving material goods. The passage of interest is below
33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 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.’”Acts 20:33-35In his ministerial summary, Paul is reminding the Ephesian elders that his own hard work with his own hands had been the means to provide for his own needs AND the needs of those with him, essentially self-supporting his ministry and ministry team while he was with the Ephesians, but also providing an avenue to “help the weak.” In this, Paul clearly states that he is providing an example for others, and specifically the Ephesian elders, to emulate through the phrase, “I have shown you.” This Pauline principle was not isolated to Ephesus, but is also seen in Corinth and Thessalonica as we will see below.
Before we move to those examples, there is one observation that we need to make with respect to Paul. Despite unsubstantiated assertions, nowhere in Scripture does he refer to himself as an elder, nor does he ever refer to himself as a pastor. What we clearly see patterned from Paul, an apostle, is a missionary-like, evangelistic and discipleship ministry that required extensive travel and material resources/funds to allow for these travels. This is critically important, especially in the light that so many churches today make distinctions between staff and lay elders, which often leads to those who are paid being called The Pastor, while those who are not paid hold the title of elder. This division most likely comes from a post-Reformation interpretation of 1 Timothy 5:17, a passage we will look at it another post.
Back to Acts 20. Here we might run into a bit of a quandary, which we addressed in our series already, but arises again. What are we to make of Paul’s example of hard work with his own hands not only to provide for his own needs and the needs of his companions, but allowed him the freedom and flexibility to preach the gospel from town to town? Are we to put up our prescriptive/descriptive lens and simply say that Acts is describing a special case and that this is not prescriptive? This is again where that type of grid or lens is exegetically limiting. Paul is clearly using his own self-supporting ministry as an example (describing) for the Ephesian elders to follow (prescribing). That alone should be enough to cause us to pause and (re)consider his example, but much more is said on this issue elsewhere in Scripture.
While Acts is a central hub for understanding the first century spread of the gospel and the building of Christ’s church, the epistles may be similarly considered the spokes. As such, if working hard and self-support is important enough to make mention of as the last word to the Ephesian elders in Acts, we would expect to see this Pauline principal mentioned elsewhere in the epistles, and indeed that is exactly the case. As previously mentioned, we have scriptural witness from both Corinth and Thessalonica. One of these passages from the epistles most often used for support of the professional pastor can be found in First Corinthians, more specifically in chapter 9 which we will look at later. However, prior to the details that this chapter provides, Paul describes his own apostolic ministry in terms that are less than glamorous. He writes
9 For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. 10 We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. 11 To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, 12 and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; 13 when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.Paul is not only describing here how he and his associates appear as fools for Christ before the world, but in addition he describes their hunger and thirst, poor attire, poor treatment, and homelessness. In this he has not developed his own personal ministry style, rather he is following the example laid down for him by Christ (Luke 9:58). Again, let me repeat this. Paul is following the ministerial example laid down for him by Christ. We’ll look at this more closely along with Christ’s commission of His disciples in a subsequent post.
1 Corinthians 4:9-12
In verse 12, from the 1 Corinthians passage above, Paul states clearly that they labor, working with their own hands, just as he told the Ephesian elders. Surely it would have been encouraging to observe the example of Paul as one who received a salary for spending most of his time preparing sermons, but that simply was not the case. Their material needs were not luxuries, they were necessities for survival, needs that appeared to be somewhat rare.
With regard to Thessalonica, we find an additional example of Paul’s self-supported ministry there as well. His missionary journey in this city is documented in Acts 17:1-9, while the first of his references to labor comes from 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and the second from 2 Thessalonians 3:8. Both passages are below.
For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. 1 Thessalonians 2:9
7 For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, 8 nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. 9 It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. 10 For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. 11 For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. 12 Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living.2 Thessalonians 3:7-12In the first passage from his first letter, Paul is reminding the Thessalonians of how hard he worked while he was there. The opening chapters from this letter are devoted to stirring up his audience by way of reminding them of his ministry among them. In this particular point, Paul’s reminder is one of his hard work in order not to be a burden to anyone and that he still preached to them the gospel of God. In the second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul expands upon this point and again, as with the Ephesians, uses his on example of hard work and self support as a pattern for others to follow. Yet again we see this is for the purpose of not being a burden among those to whom he is ministering. In verse 9, Paul brings up the issue of rights, a point we will expound upon when we examine the locus classicus for paid ministry from 1 Corinthians 9.
Paul worked, he labored with his own hands to provide for his physical needs and he meant for it to be an example for others to follow. However, this is not a model for bi-vocational ministry. Paul’s labor is intertwined with his ministry. When it was time to preach the gospel, he preached; when it was time to encourage and edify, he built up; and when it was time to move on to another town, he left. It was that simple.
As we move into the second part from this expanded excursus, we will see that there were some cases where Paul received support from other city-churches while he was ministering in a different town. We will look at these in the next post, as well as the primary proof texts for paid ministry from 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 6:6, and 1 Timothy 5:17.