The Support of the Christian Ministry

Geoffrey Thomas

In the last few years I have stayed in a number of homes of ministers of the gospel whose sympathies with the doctrines of the Reformation are strong and deep. Frequently I have been taken to their studies and on a number of occasions have been puzzled by the paucity of solid literature on their shelves. How many
preachers are getting through their ministry with a selection of paperbacks and some second-hand sets of Victorian homiletical commentaries like the Pulpit Commentary, Great Texts of the Bible, Alexander MacLaren’s Expositions, plus the old stand-by’s of Ellicott and Barnes, with precious little else. Surely there is a relationship between the feeding of a hungry flock and the resources of a pastor’s pantry: a well-taught congregation depends upon a well-read preacher. I know that these colleagues of mine would agree heartily with all this, and would long for more books, but the reason for their lack is simply financial. They
cannot afford to buy those solid tomes which now through reprint are becoming increasingly available; the stipend they receive from their congregation is inadequate. Some of them find it difficult to run their cars, and children’s clothes become a priority long before the purchase of a new book.

I believe that the issue of the support of ministers of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to be aired; all churches are not as thoughtful as my own, and many congregations need instruction and even rebuke in this matter. When in the House of Lords on December 7th 1971 the following comment can be made by one of the peeresses, churches should be concerned: “It is a shaming thing that among people who are taking up Family Income Supplement there are a noticeable number of Ministers of religion. I would like to suggest to all those concerned with the churches that they should go back to their congregations and find out whether their churches are so negligent of the Christian responsibility that they are prepared to leave the ministers in a situation where it is necessary for them to take Family Income Supplement.” “Poverty may be a virtue but it is not a virtue that we should encourage in other people” [Lady Seear].

Of course in some parts of the world God’s servants do not have the state’s welfare benefits to fall back on and it is acknowledged that many British missionaries are receiving only part of the agreed salaries through lack of funds. Some societies are extending the furloughs of their established missionaries
because they cannot afford to send them back to their field. How little we have learned about the responsibilities of our stewardship; how many of us are strangers to self-denial and sacrifice.

These things ought not so to be. The Word of God teaches that it is the solemn responsibility of the church to maintain God’s servants. Indeed the degree to which a church has faced up to its duties in this regard reflects just how far it has been reformed in the light of God’s Word. The Rev. R.J. Rushdoony has written
in an interesting article on this subject, “One of the central barometers by which God judges the health of the church, and blesses the faithful assembly is the support of his ministry” [‘God’s Barometer’, by R.J. Rushdoony, The Presbyterian Guardian, December 1963, pp 167-8]. Let us examine some of the Bible’s teaching on this neglected subject.

Support in the Old Testament

The law provided two kinds of support for the priests, the clergy of the Old Testament. Firstly the faithful were to tithe and the ministry was to be maintained by this means. This was not considered a gift to the Lord; this was his due as Lord of creation and He gave it to the tribe of Levi and one-tenth of it to the priests [Num. 18.26-28]. Secondly, support for the priests came in gifts which were above and beyond the tithe. These gifts were stipulated as “the priest’s due from the people.” The tithe was called the “inheritance” of the clergy from God. It came in place of grants of land, because when the tribes came into Canaan under Joshua the land was divided among the twelve, but the priests and the tribe of Levi were given no land. They had the tithe; this was their “inheritance” from the Lord. The Levites had certain towns, 48 in all, and 13 of these were specifically given to the priests but they were granted no land as an inheritance, rather they had the tithe and certain gifts or privileges.

It is clear that God considered these priests to be a select spiritual leadership in the midst of his people and the support they received was to be in keeping with their office and high responsibility. The sort of privileges they received were exemption from taxation and military service – even when they were captives in Babylon Persia did not demand military service from the priests although this was required from the rest of the Israelites.

The gifts the priest received from the people are described in Deuteronomy 18.1-8, Leviticus 7.34, 10.14, Numbers 6.20, 18.18 and elsewhere. Parts of the sacrifices were given to the priests, their family and servants for food. All the firstlings born of the sheep, goats and cattle belonged to them but they were sent a redemption price of 5 shekels for every animal so that the owner could keep them. Further, the first-fruits of wheat and barley, grapes and figs were theirs. Again, every third and sixth year in the cycle of 7 years the faithful believer in Israel gave a second tithe of his possessions and this was divided amongst the fatherless
and orphans, the widow and the Levite, “that the Lord thy God may bless thee [the giver] in all the work of thine hand that thou doest” [Deut. 14.29]. The appointed way of blessing was the path of obedient stewardship.

Again, in times of war the priests received a share of all the spoil, the captives, the cattle and the booty which had been captured, even though they did not fight themselves. At sheep-shearing times they were to receive a portion of wool. The skins of the burnt sacrifices were theirs. Even in bread-making the
priest received his share, and the shew-bread was always his. At the feast of Pentecost lambs or kids were brought with wave-loaves and given to the priests. These were some of the ways in which the clergy were supported in the Old Testament. It was constantly reaffirmed that “every offering of all the holy things of the children of Israel, which they bring unto the priest, shall be his. And every man’s hallowed things shall be his: whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his” [Num. 5.9,10].

What if men did not support the priests in this way? Then they were guilty of the sin of idolatry and breaking the second commandment. They were withholding from God what was his due and were giving it to a creature. This is how John Calvin discusses the support of the Old Testament priests in the passage cited above, relating it to the decalogue and idolatry.

So the priesthood was to be supported by tithes and gifts in what could be described as a lavish manner. Aaron’s robes as High Priest were costly ones as well as his sons’ vestments. They were designed for glory and for beauty, and in a sense the priesthood was intended by God for a like purpose – it shewed forth
God’s glory and the beauty of holiness. The people’s care for these things was regarded by God as an indication of their reverence for himself. The principle that emerges then in the Old Testament is this: the priest, like the minister of the Gospel today, depends for his well-being on the spiritual condition of the
people. At times of apostasy in Israel the state of the priesthood was very low, but in times of faith they abounded. When the nation languished in their religious duties, the Levite, along with the widow and orphan, was an object of charity, but in periods of spiritual vitality he flourished from the gifts of the people. They blessed him with their God-appointed offerings and the Lord covenanted to bless them for their obedience.

These then are some of the Old Testament requirements for the maintenance of the ministry of God. When Israel’s faith was characterized by obedience to the Scriptures and delight in honoring God through his servants, then they were well cared for, but with apostasy in the land God’s servants quickly sank into poverty, and if they failed to call the people back into the way of obedience could only survive by partaking themselves in the apostasy, offering strange fire, establishing worship in the groves and going after other gods. Only thus could they exist.

So in the Old Testament the support and state of the ministry was like a thermometer which gauged the warmth of devotion of the people of God to his precepts.

Support in the New Testament

During the earthly ministry of our Lord the clergy of his day, the priests and levites, were apostate. Having forsaken God’s law the clergy were guaranteeing an income for themselves by controlling the sale of animals for sacrifice in the temple and by money-changing. Their prosperity was now independent of the
spiritual health of the people. The clergy did not use their authority to call the people back to obedience but to get rich.

The important question, when coming from the Old to the New Testament, is this: what aspects of the support of the clergy under the old covenant are mandatory for the church today and what parts were strictly dispensational? Certainly with the fulfilling of the ceremonial law and the end of the theocracy many of the stipulations have passed away. There is no place for a tithe barn under the administration of the new covenant! But as all believers are now a “royal priesthood and a holy nation”, do none of the principles of the necessary support of priests and levites apply in this gospel age of fulfillment?

The classic passage in the New Testament on this matter is 1 Corinthians 9 where Paul deals with his rights as an apostle and minister of Jesus Christ. What is significant is his citing of Old Testament laws as the ground for generous support of the ministry. Rushdoony writes, “The ministers of Christ are indeed in one
sense ministers, servants, called sometimes a diaconate, but Paul also spoke of them as men who planted a vineyard and have a right to eat its fruit, and as men who feed a flock and hence entitled to its milk” [ibid Rushdoony, p 168]. Paul asks, “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?” [v. 7]. No-one ever does – that is the answer to each of these questions. A man who expends all his energies and initiative in such pursuits, some of them dangerous, must himself profit from his industry.

Then Paul proceeds to ask, “Say I these things as a man!”, i.e. Is it human reason alone that says such work resulting in no reward is wrong? No, there is a greater authority that: “saith not the law the same also?” [v. 8]. Then he cites the words of God in Deuteronomy 25.4 “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that
treadeth out the corn”. If the animal grew hungry in its labors it should not be prevented from eating. “Does God take care of oxen?” Paul asks, and the answer demanded from the grammatical construction of the question is a negative one. “You should understand”, writes Calvin, “that God is not concerned about oxen to the extent that oxen were the only creatures in His mind when he made the law, for He was thinking of men, and wanted to make them accustomed to being considerate in behavior, so that they might not cheat the workman of his wages.”

Paul is not satisfied simply to quote that one authority. He also turns to specific teaching from Numbers 18.8 and Deuteronomy 18.1 which he freely applies to ministers of the gospel in this administration, “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” [v. 13]. The priestly law clearly applies to the support of the ministry today. But the apostle’s final appeal is to the Lord Jesus Christ Himself: “Even so”, he writes, “hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” Perhaps he is referring to the words of our
Lord “the laborer is worthy of his hire” [Luke 10.7], or to a similar injunction of which we are ignorant, but whose sentiments are equally clear. Charles Hodge points out that this word of the apostle’s is a command to ministers not to seek their support from secular occupations but to live off the gospel. However he
acknowledges, “There are circumstances under which, as the case of Paul shows, this command ceases to be binding on preachers. These are exceptions, to be justified, each on its own merits; the rule, as a rule, remains in force. If this subject were viewed in this light, both by preachers and people, there would be
little difficulty in sustaining the gospel, and few ministers would be distracted by worldly pursuits”.

Another relevant verse is Galatians 6.6, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things”. Some commentators have not interpreted the communication of good things to the teaching elder as consisting of material provision. For example the Lutheran scholar Lenski writes that this is a “cheap thought” and out of place “so close to the end of the entire epistle”. But Luther himself sees no cheapness here, but rather the costly support of the minister, “What Paul calls “all good things” are the things a teacher has need of, that is, temporal goods, by which he stays alive, since being busy with the Word, he cannot gain them by his own work but receives all things from him whom he instructs”. Calvin also reads the verse in the same sense; like Luther he warns of the dangers of covetousness but makes it clear that he considers the ministry should be well cared for. While “it does not become us to indulge too much in complaint, or to be too tenacious of our rights”, yet the Scripture does exhort the believers through Paul “to perform this part of their duty.” The Genevan reformer has some hard-hitting things to say in this regard:

“How disgraceful is it to defraud of their temporal support those by whom our souls are fed!….to refuse an earthly recompense to those from whom we receive heavenly benefits! But it is, and always has been, the disposition of the world, freely to bestow on the ministers of Satan every luxury, and hardly to support
godly pastors with necessary food….He [Paul] saw that the ministers of the word were neglected, because the word itself was despised; for if the word be truly esteemed, its ministers will always receive kind and honorable treatment. It is one of the tricks of Satan to defraud godly ministers of support, that the Church
may be deprived of such ministers. An earnest desire to preserve a gospel ministry led to Paul’s recommendation that proper attention should be paid to good and faithful pastors.”

Application to the minister

The example of the apostle Paul, given his full understanding of all this teaching, is most striking. Frequently we find him reminding a church that he did not demand his rights from them. To the Corinthians he says, “Yet I have used none of these things”, for this is my reward, “when I preach the gospel I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my rights in the gospel”. He
reminds the Thessalonians that he and his companions could be found amongst them “laboring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God”. To the Ephesians he states, “I coveted no man’s silver, or gold, or apparel”. There were many things that Paul had a right to, but frequently he forewent those privileges. For him the chief priority was, what course of action would be most useful in promoting the work of the Kingdom and glory of God?

Also Paul’s awareness of the dangers of covetousness are surely apposite to our condition where some ministers realize the smallness of their salaries compared both to other ministers and to members of their own congregation. It is easy for a root of bitterness to lodge in a preacher’s heart and material matters to dominate his whole outlook. It is enough to know that we are where God has placed us and that He will provide for us, if not through the salary the church is able to give, then He will have some of His own appointed ravens. There are some men who express an interest in a church if they are offered a certain salary; such men have their price, and they may become another Judas. In the hour of weakness that seed of covetousness may germinate and blossom into a repudiation of the truth. There are great pressures upon a man whose salary is small and who is invited by a certain large congregation to be their pastor. He might know that his stipend will be doubled, but also that he must modify some of his convictions in preaching to this particular church. Surely such a man must remember the exhortation “Seek ye first ….” and the promise that accompanies it.

A minister must also remember that an abundant wage can result in increased carelessness; some men may be tempted to laziness and can succumb to that temptation. In a time when the image of the clergy in most men’s eyes is of an easy and secure job, a comfortable salary can become such a snare. It is the
laborer who is worthy of his hire. As John Stott remarks, “Perhaps preaching is at a low ebb in the church today because we shirk the hard work involved. But if the minister throws himself into his ministry with the energy of a laboring man, and sows good seed in the minds and hearts of the congregation, then he may expect to “reap” a material livelihood” [The Message of Galatians, p 168].

Peculiar dangers threaten the minister who seeks to develop his income independently of the support of his church. Many denominations in Britain discourage or even make it impossible for the local church to support its minister; he must be paid by a centralized fund. Some churches have investments which guarantee their clergy good incomes and pensions irrespective of the quality of their congregation. Thus the people are robbed of the incentive to stewardship, and small groups of people meeting in a building are considered a “church” though none of the gifts and officers of a church are present.

Other ministers take on a part-time or even full-time job simply to increase their salary, when by frugality the wage they are being paid could be sufficient. And the time and energy they use in secular employment could more profitably be used to build up the church and in this way receive the blessing of financial increase. As Luther put it, “it is impossible for one man both to labor day and night to get a living, and at the same time to give himself to the study of sacred learning as the preaching office requireth”  [Commentary on Galatians, p 552. James Clarke ed.].

Again, a number of ministers’ wives are in full-time employment and this can be another means of making their own prosperity independent of the spiritual life of the people. This extra source of income can be a discouragement to a congregation to look seriously at its God-given responsibilities in maintaining His servant properly, and when the husband has to look after the children through the day and make the meals to welcome home a tired wife in the evenings, is he able to do justice to his calling in this situation ?

Finally, it must be added that there is no guaranteed equation between preaching sound doctrine under the blessing of God and an increase in the weekly giving of a church. Luther observed this in 1535, writing, “When the gospel is preached, not only is no one willing to give anything for the support of its ministers and the maintenance of schools; but everyone begins to rob and steal and to take all sorts of advantage of everyone else. In short, men seem suddenly to have degenerated into wild beasts. On the other hand, when the doctrines of demons [1 Tim. 4.1] are proclaimed, men become truly lavish and spontaneously offer everything to their seducers. The prophets denounce the same sin in the Jews, that they contributed to
the support of godly priests and Levites only with reluctance but were extremely generous to the wicked ones.” [Commentary on Galatians, American Ed. of Luther’s Works, p 123]. While the minister may find a number in his congregation increasing their giving and new adherents seeing their responsibility in matters of stewardship, a compensating factor may be the presence of a number who have no sympathy with his doctrines and channel off their giving to societies or fellowships more in sympathy with their own opinions. This lack of increase in the giving, although in other ways God is blessing, is a difficult situation which the minister must endure temporarily.

Application to the congregation

Are churches aware of their responsibility in this matter? It must be sadly acknowledged that many are delinquent in this. As Rushdoony points out, “it would appear that some churches are determined to keep their pastors spiritually minded by making it impossible for them to afford more than the bare necessities in material goods” [ibid p 167]. Of course this is not an area where the pastor can make demands. However, he can instruct the people in God’s Word, and they, in terms of their faith and obedience, will provide for the Lord’s ministry to the best of their ability. How does your church care for its minister? Does it place the redecoration and expansion of its buildings before its support of him? Does it whittle away its resources in twenty or so minor donations to distant societies or organizations which it has no responsibility to support and fail to deal adequately with that one God has told them they must maintain? Does it demand sacrifices of the pastor while none of the congregation makes any, but rather lives in ease? And if the circumstances of some in the church be modest, will they resent seeing the minister living somewhat better than themselves? Will they insist on seeing the pastor as their servant rather than the Lord’s servant, even
as he ministers to them?”

This latter point raises another danger, that is of the congregation, by holding the purse-strings, attempting to control the minister. John Stott says, “Some congregations exercise a positive tyranny over their pastor and almost blackmail him into preaching what they want to hear. They pay the piper, they say; so they must be allowed to call the tune. And if the minister has a wife and family to support, he is tempted to give way. Of course it is wrong for a minister to yield to such pressure, but it is also wrong for a congregation to put him in this predicament. If the minister sows the good seed of God’s Word faithfully, however
unpalatable the congregation may find it, he has a right to reap his living. They have no authority to dock his wages because he refuses to dock his words” [op cit p 169].

Tensions over financial matters are bound to affect a minister’s preaching and pastoral oversight of a congregation. The warm sympathy of a pastor’s heart which imparts such fragrance to any ministry cannot easily go out towards those who have led him to severe embarrassment by their thoughtlessness.

Another matter is that of accommodation: most ministers live in a house provided for them by the church. This is often considered as one of the generous emoluments of the work, but it can also be seen as a relic of an outmoded system. Churches might be better advised to sell their manses and use the money for mortgage repayments on a house which belonged to the minister. Even the approach of old age and declining abilities are not enough inducement to encourage some to retire from pastoral duties because this would mean their leaving their home; they cannot afford to purchase another place, and rents would take away much of their pension.

It must be underlined that in this matter, as in every other suggestion made, we are not pleading for a luxurious standard to be afforded to the ministry. We think this statement of Dabney’s the epitome of wisdom: “It is our desire that they shall ever be models to their charges of sobriety and Christian moderation. And may the Great Head of the church ever forbid that this service should possess such
worldly attractions as to entice into it ungodly or selfish men, actuated by the love of lucre. What we demand as the just right of the minister is a decent competence, which will place him on a level in this regard with the respectable classes of his charge, and which will enable him to train his children for
stations of usefulness and respectability in Christian society, and to leave his widow above the fear of pauperism” [Discussions: Evangelical and Theological, vol. 2, “Pastoral Letter on Ministerial Support”, p 192].

A final word of application to the congregation about this matter where we came in: books. Does your minister have the basic tools he needs ? Does he have Calvin’s Commentaries [these are just being reprinted quite cheaply], Owen, Flavel, Henry, the Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit of Spurgeon’s [again just being reprinted at a reasonable price], a good set of commentaries, Bible dictionaries and concordances? Is he able to get some basic magazines? Also does he get standard new books soon after they appear? Is he able to get to the ministers’ conference at Leicester or some such gathering each year? It is up to you as a church to make sure of these things. Does he have a book-grant as well as car expenses? Why not give him $30 a year for books, or pay 25% of the cost of each theological book he buys, or make him an anniversary gift of some standard works each year? Imaginative involvement by a church in such ways would be welcomed by so many ministers – and remember you yourselves will be amongst the first people to benefit from all this. Look upon it as a wise investment!

Application to the church situation

This matter of ministerial support cannot be considered as only a concern of the local church and its minister. This is too narrow a view and is neither sensible nor practicable. Its weakness is demonstrated when a church sends out men to a needy area either in this country or abroad and is unable to support them by itself. No-one would deny that a crying need in our time is the faithful maintenance of such men. Again, what is to happen to men who have seceded from apostatizing institutions? Are they to be supported as they seek to maintain a gospel witness in a barren area? One of the weaknesses of independency [to which most of the reformed churches in England and Wales are committed] is a failure to martial the resources of the churches so as to have the-men at the right spot with the money to sustain them there. If we believe in the spiritual unity of the church, by which all parts sympathize together, we will also remember what the Scriptures command, not “that other men be eased and ye burdened; but by an
equality, that now at this time our abundance may be a supply for their want, that their abundance also may be a supply for our want; that there may be equality” [2 Cor. 8. 13,14]. They instruct us “to look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others” [Phil. 2.4]. They say, “Bear ye one
another’s burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ” [Gal. 6.2]. But, as Dabney comments, “our usage practically leaves each congregation to bear its own burdens, notwithstanding a great, and sometimes an enormous difference of ability [ibid p 187]. The disjointed nature of many of our attempts to get support for gospel outreach has resulted in feebleness and failure, and wasted time and labor. Surely this calls for more united action on the subject of ministerial support by the most trusted wisdom of the churches.

(The above material was published by The Banner of Truth Trust.)

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