Elders Lead A Healthy Family: Financial Support
In my lifetime of service to the church, I have played many parts and been blessed financially in different ways. I put aside a profitable career in Engineering and turned down an offer of a 6 figure salary to honor God’s call to a full time ministry. Over the years I have been paid to work full time, part time, and as a church planter I worked bi-vocationally. I have given my time without financial benefit and in some cases I have been blessed with a simple honorarium. The question becomes, “is any one of these actions more biblical than the other?”
Based on my previous post on qualities of an Elder, we know that an Elder is a servant-leader who is not ruled by the love of money. At the same time, Paul makes clear that Elders have the right to receive financial support from the church.
1 Timothy 5:17–18 (ESV)
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
Word Biblical Commentary explains how this passage fits into Paul’s general rule of churches supporting Elders who shared the teaching responsibilities.
Paul begins the first of his four statements about elders on the same note with which he began and ended the preceding discussion of widows—honor—and in both cases honor involves money. The elders who were following his instructions and doing a good job not only were worthy of the peoples’ respect but should also be paid for their work (“double honor”). He will continue in v 18 with his reason: workers should be paid. This was Paul’s general rule (1 Cor 9:4–6; cf. Rom 13:7) although he himself often chose to earn his own living (cf. 1 Cor 4:12; 2 Cor 11:7–9; 1 Thess 2:9; cf. 2 Thess 3:7–9; Acts 18:3).1
So what we have so far is a clear biblical teaching connected with historical examples of men, ordained by the Spirit, receiving financial blessing for their ministry to the church. Now let’s look a little deeper at the history through the eyes of New Testament scholar and historian Dr. Ben Worthington.
But lets talk for a moment about the issue of paid ministers. Should ministers be paid, or let’s be more specific, do they have a right to be paid, while of course also having the right to refuse a salary or support? Well actually the NT is clear on this– the answer is YES. Let’s deal the principle first, and then we will deal with passages thought to dispute this notion.
The basic principle, first enunciated by Jesus himself, and then reiterated by Paul and others is that “a workman is worthy of his hire”. Let us start with Mt. 10.10 and par. Here Jesus is commissioning the 12, the leaders in training amongst his followers, to go out 2 by 2, and he quite specifically tells them not to take this or that money with them. Why? Because he expects them to rely on the system of standing hospitality and let others provide for them. This is why he says “a workman is worthy of his hire/keep” and also why he tells them NOT to take any copper or gold or silver in a money bag with them. They should not expect to pay their own way. They are those commissioned to spread the kingdom, and they deserve to be paid for their work. Where then does the idea of ‘no-pay’ ministers, or faith based missions where you pay your own way come from? It comes from a rather bad misinterpretation of 1 Cor. 9 and 2 Cor. 11, which texts we need now to consider.
As usual, social context is crucial to understand these texts. But even if we knew nothing about the patronage and clientage system in operation in Corinth and its connection for why Paul particularly chose in Corinth to offer the Gospel free of charge without receiving patronage or fees for speaking, 1 Cor. 9.14 is Paul’s reiteration of the principle of Jesus first enunciated in Mt. 10.10. Here is Paul’s way of putting it “the Lord has commanded that those who preach the Gospel should receive their living from the Gospel, but I have not used any of these rights..”
In fact throughout this passage Paul insists he has a right to such support, a right to be paid, a right to be supported and taken care of. But voluntarily he has chosen not to take advantage of that right. Why? You have to understand the whole social situation, and its difference from our own.
In first century Corinth, there would have been orators, rhetoricians, sophists, teachers for hire. Some were itinerant and would come to an agora, set out their money bag, speak or sing for a while, and then ask for money. Others, more sophisticated would engage in a longer term relationship with a patron. Paul did not do the former for the very good reason that he wanted to do church planting and stay a while. He wanted to establish relationships with those he was evangelizing. He did not want to appear to be a snake oil salesman huckstering some message he was not prepared to defend and explain over the long haul. On the other end of the spectrum he wanted to avoid the entangling alliances that were set up when you accepted patronage. So in Corinth he chose to support himself by tent-making, though he makes perfectly clear in 1 Cor. 9 that if he had wanted to, he had a right to be paid for his ministerial work. This chapter should be compared to what is said in 2 Cor. 11.7ff. Notice that he calls it ‘lowering himself’ making a sacrifice, when he chose to preach in Corinth fee-free. But the next verse is crucial— “I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something…the brothers and sisters from Macedonia supplied what I needed.”
Now what was the difference between Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church, and the Philippian one– much in every way. Paul had a relationship of ‘giving and receiving’ as he says clearly in Philippians, with that church in Macedonia. He did not have such a relationship with the Corinthian church. Why not? Because the Corinthian Christians were immature, and those who could have supported Paul wanted him to become their client on an ongoing basis. But this would have obligated him in ways that would limit his travel. It is interesting that in Rom. 16 Paul tells us about Phoebe from the nearby church in Cenchreae. She did become his prostatis at least for a time, but she must have understood that Paul was being remunerated in this way, not obligated to an ongoing future service to the patron. In short, if you don’t understand the lingo and the cultural practices, you are not going to understand what Paul says about paid ministers. There was also a further technical phrase we find in several places in the NT, including Romans and the Johannine Epistles “sending me on my way” or “sending him on his way”. This refers to providing traveling money and supplies to get to the next destination. Paul says he was hoping the Roman church would provide this so he could go on to Spain. Let’s look at one more important Pauline text— Gal. 6.6— “those who receive instructions in the Word should share all good things with their instructor.” Here is a reference of course to a teacher, and the obligation of the congregation to provide for the instructor. The English phrase ‘all good things’ is really too general. What is meant here is monetary support PLUS providing room, board, etc (see my Galatians commentary Grace in Galatia on this important verse). Indeed, Paul believed a workman is worthy of his hire, just as Jesus said.
What we see then is a Scriptural corroboration and a consistency of actions over time which support the concept of Elders receiving money from the church. Keeping this in mind, there are a few important things to remember before we apply this to our churches.
First, I have noticed a disturbing trend in the writings of some men on this subject. There is s tendency to emphasize Paul’s example of tent-making while ignoring the other periods of his ministry when he lived on the support of churches alone (Acts 18:1-5).
Second, Despite Pauls personal choice to serve bi-vocationally, Paul’s teaching about Elders, based on our previous guidelines, has a greater authority for the church. Paul was an Apostle, not an Elder, and so his actions provide a model of sacrificial-service that should be respected by all Christians. However, the church must give priority to his direct teaching on how to financially support Her teaching Elders.
Third, everything examined so far demonstrates that Elders in the early church did receive financial support from the church, and this support was in alignment with God’s design for the New Testament church.
But, how does this translate into the modern church paying a salary to an Elder?
In point of fact, there is no direct “apples to apples” correlation between the early church “honorarium” and the modern church “salary”.
Alan Knox, at the end of a long series on this topic, concludes,
The difficulty is that there is no specific passage in Scripture that either commands or forbids salaries for elders/pastors. There is no “smoking gun,” if you will… Thus, any position that someone might hold on this topic would be derived from many different passages. And, that’s why it is important to study all of the evidence.
Mounce elaborates on this point in his commentary on the Pastoral Epistles.
…while itinerant missionaries (such as the apostles) did receive payment, elders working in their local churches received not a salary but an honorarium “on a person-to-person and day-to-day basis, according to the circumstances, . . . [and] above all it is a free-will offering, the very antithesis to a regular paid salary” (ExpTim 84 [1972–73] 105–8, citing Hanson,  62)…
(1) it is unlikely that the early church would have had sufficient funds to pay a regular salary; (2) 1 Tim 3:7 suggests that elders retained their jobs in the secular world; (3) τιμή means “honorarium” and never “regular salary”; and (4) “it does not seem likely that Paul would make a regular salary dependent on some sort of efficiency test . . . because of the sure threat of division it would bring”.2
These are good arguments, with some historical assumptions, and a fair summary of the issue. However, just because these two practices; the NT honorarium vs. modern salary, are unique in form, does not mean the modern salary is unbiblical or pagan.
For example, the NT period knew nothing of our modern healthcare system, which is rooted in pagan culture, so the form in which the church might choose to care for the physical needs of her Elder (or of any member of the church for that matter) can be very different in diverse cultures.
Let me offer one last verse that has some bearing on this discussion and then I will make some summary points.
Romans 14:13–23 (ESV)
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Taking into account the Scriptures, important cultural concerns, and applying the guidelines outlined in the last post, we can make a proper application of the Apostolic teaching to our modern context without doing violence to the church.
Now To The Churches
- Salaries Are Not Un-Biblical: Although Elders in the early church did not receive a salary as we know it today, there is no biblical prohibition against it.
- The Church Is Free To Decide: Elders who receive a full time salary are in line with Scripture; but so too are Elders who receive a part time salary, no salary or only the occasional honorarium. It is at the desecration of each church to decide on how to honor their Elders. It is wrong for others to despise the liberty of the church. The condemnation from Pharisaical-outsiders who pretend to have authority not given by YHWH should find no place among God’s people (note the green text in the above passage from Romans).
- There Are No Limits On Generosity: A church that withholds all forms of financial support from Her Elders is in violation of the biblical norm and Apostolic expectation (see again 1 Tim 5:.17-18). As a matter of fact, there is no moral or biblical limitation on the generosity of a church toward Her Elders, and therefore anyone from the outside who tries to limit the generosity of the local church is acting against the Scripture.
So what is the “proper” and “biblical” way to financially compensate an Elder in the church? There is none! A church in China, is not the same as a church in California. A church in West Virginia is not the same as a church in Mexico. God has given both discretion and freedom to the church and the Holy Spirit must lead each Family to decide how properly honor their Elders.
Now To The Elders
- Elders Must Be Generous: Circumstances within the church change; and there are times when an Elder must lay aside his right to compensation so that he can better serve the Family. Elders should not let tradition determine how much they accept, but they must do what is right for the church above their own need.
- Eldest Must Serve the Gospel Above Money: Within certain communities and cultures, even in the West, taking a salary could hinder the proclamation of the Gospel, and each Elder must make a decision to accept or reject a church’s honorarium based on what is best for the Kingdom (see the passage in Romans above).
- Elders Should Not Be For Hire: The church’s ability to pay a salary should not determine the calling of an Elder. Elders should not seek to serve the highest bidder or treat the calling of Elder as a job where one works their way up the ladder of corporate success.
Let’s sum up all these points by looking at the example of Paul. Although not an Elder, Paul does provide an example of how times and circumstances can change the Elder’s approach to money.
Acts 18:1–5 (ESV)
1 After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, 3 and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. 4 And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks. 5 When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.
At times, Paul supported himself as a tent-maker and at other times he relied solely on the financial support of the church. Sometimes Paul struggled and other times he had more than enough. Paul’s course was never determined by his need, but by his mission to serve the Gospel and so it should be with our Elders.
With the issue of pastoral salaries behind us, let’s apply our previous guidelines to the issue of leadership structures for the church.
2. Mounce, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary, p. 309