The Thessalonian Road to Self-Support
“What pay do I get, then? It is the privilege of preaching the Good News without charging for it and without claiming my rights in my work for the Gospel” (1 Cor. 9:18).
The Bible says that we cannot love God and money at the same time. We must love one and hate the other. There is no middle ground. The ways of the world constantly creep into our thinking about money, even though we are Christians. From earliest childhood we learn that money is essential to our happiness, and the more of it the better. It takes a great deal of effort to unlearn this false concept. As Jesus said, we must become like little children again if we are to be effective in the kingdom of God.
I cannot tell you how many times I have heard pastoral ministry described as a “profession.” For nearly 35 years of teaching in Christian universities and seminaries I have seen students earn M. Div. degrees for no other reason than to be sufficiently “credentialed” to be hired by a local church. Somehow our wealth blinds us to basic biblical principles. The church in America is particularly blessed. Pastors often have better salaries than many of their parishioners. God has made the United States the richest nation on earth. To those whom much is given, much is also required. I believe that God is beginning to ask for an accounting from the American church about how we have used His money.
To all who would follow Him, Jesus gave the same basic message. We must willingly accept inconvenience, suffering, and uncertainty. No genuine follower of Jesus can put comfort, family ties, or security ahead of His kingdom. Jesus never apologized for calling His disciples to a life of sacrifice. Throughout the New Testament you will find that those who followed Jesus often paid a very high price, even with their lives. One such person is the apostle Paul. He sought to serve Jesus and it cost him everything. Not only did he give up all the privileges of his Jewish upbringing, but he surrendered his rights as a Christian apostle to be supported in his church planting ministry. The Bible says that he willingly worked with his own hands night and day so as not to be a financial burden to other Christians. Paul exemplifies what true Christian ministry is. It is a positive sacrifice for the good of others. His life is an example of the proper attitude a servant of Jesus Christ should have today. His teaching about self-support mocks our convenience store Christianity.
Just how did we get from the kind of sacrificial service modeled by Paul’s ministry to the modern professionalized clergy? This radical paradigm shift took place very early in the history of the church. Within 300 years of the resurrection, the church of Jesus Christ began to look to the Old Testament for its models of ministry. It began to combine the kingdom of God with the kingdoms of this world. This new hybridized form of Christianity – often referred to as the “Constantinian Compromise” because of the role that Emperor Constantine played in its development – began to teach that God had instituted class distinctions among Christians. In New Testament Christianity, all believers are priests and are asked to serve the kingdom willingly and voluntarily. This is true even of church leaders, whom Peter commanded, “Do your work, not for pay, but from a real desire to serve. Do not try to rule over those who have been put in your care, but be examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:2b-3).
With the advent of Constantinian Christianity, however, all of this changed. Rather than taking every aspect of Jesus’ teaching literally and seriously, Christian leaders began to see ministry more as a profession than as an act of voluntary service. The church became clericalized, professionalized, and institutionalized. Christians no longer accepted voluntary servanthood as normative. I believe one of the reasons God called Paul to be an apostle is because He knew that Paul would set an example for others. He was the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim. 1:15), yet by the power of the Holy Spirit he lived an incredible life. Wherever he went, people could not forget his example and the impact he made on their lives. To me, this is one of the most encouraging things about Paul’s life. You see, Paul was an ordinary vessel just like you and me. In 1 Cor. 4:7 he tells us, “We who have this spiritual treasure are just like common pots of clay, in order to show that the supreme power comes from God and not from us.” Here we have a man whose greatest desire was to live as a humble bondservant of the Lord Jesus Christ. The question to ask is, Are you and I willing to do the same?
Paul was a missionary doing pioneer evangelism and church planting throughout the Mediterranean world. What a rebuke his life is to the disobedience and greed of so many Christians and churches today. We need to rediscover his method of doing ministry if we are to achieve financial health today. I believe that his instructions to the church in Thessalonica present us with an unmistakably clear pattern of ministry. As you read these instructions my hope is that you will come to realize that self-supporting ministry is not only biblical but healthy. Paul shows us that the greatest joy in ministry is not found in material possessions. In fact, one may even serve Jesus in utter poverty. Instead, joy in ministry is found when we remember the words of the Lord Jesus, who said “There is more happiness in giving than in getting” (Acts 20:35).
Paul’s teaching about ministry finances is found in several passages in 1-2 Thessalonians, which we will now briefly examine. How different this model of ministry is from the methods that pass themselves off as biblical in today’s church. When we look at the life of the apostle Paul, we are amazed at how important he considered working for a living. He ministered among the Thessalonians at his own expense, even though he had the right to be supported by others. He spent whole days and nights working so as not to be a burden to others. The tragedy of our day is that so few followers of Jesus have the burden to follow this example. To understand Paul’s method of self-support, we must begin with his words in 1 Thess. 2:7-10:
Even though as apostles of Christ we could have made demands on you, we were gentle when we were with you, like a mother who tenderly cares for her children. Because of our love for you we were willing to share with you not only the Good News from God but even our very own lives, for you had become so dear to us. Surely you remember, our brothers and sisters, how we labored and toiled, working night and day so that we would not be a burden to you as we preached to you the Good News from God. You are our witnesses, and so is God, that our conduct toward you who are believers was pure, right, and without blame of any kind.
Every Christian who is concerned about the spiritual life of the church in America ought to read and re-read this passage. What Paul says is astonishing. Rather than asking for support from his fellow Christians, which was his right as an apostle, Paul joyfully and willingly supported himself when he was in Thessalonica. Here is a highly educated, brilliant man eking out a living by performing manual labor. The key verse that explains Paul’s motive is 1 Thess. 2:10: “…so that we would not be a burden to you as we preached to you the Good News from God.” “Not be a burden”! Does this statement make you feel a little uncomfortable? Most missionaries today would never think of going to the mission field without first being supported. Of course, such support is not sinful. But why couldn’t this money be used to support foreign nationals who are better able to reach their nations for Christ? Why couldn’t this money be spent on helping the needy or providing health care for the poor in the name of Jesus?
Something is very wrong when our foreign missionaries do not even consider the possibility of becoming tentmakers. Paul knew it was wrong for him to become a financial burden on his fellow Christians when he could work for his own living. Until we accept self-denial, as Paul did, we will never see the Great Commission fulfilled in our generation. We will always find ourselves following the pattern of financial dependence that has become the norm of our missionary culture. I’m convinced that one of the main reasons we are not reaching the world for Christ today is our refusal to follow Paul’s example. We feel we cannot be missionaries unless we are fully supported by others. In light of all of this, I ask a simple question: When did God change His pattern of doing missionary work?
This concept of self-support is further developed in our next passage, 1 Thess. 4:11-12. If there was any doubt about Paul’s high view of work, it evaporates with this text. Here he commands the Thessalonian believers:
Make it your aim to live a quiet life, to mind your own business, and to earn your own living, just as we told you before. By doing this you will win the respect of non-believers, and you will not have to depend on anyone for your needs.
There are few passages of Scripture that are clearer than this one. Is it any wonder that I am an advocate of self-supporting missions? There are many practical ways to flesh out this teaching. At the very least we can all agree that sloth and laziness have no place in the life of a Christian. Every able-bodied person ought to earn his or her own living – a point that Paul emphasized time and again when he was in Thessalonica. Why should this principle become null and void just because a person today enters so-called “fulltime Christian ministry”? A high work ethic is not reserved only for “laypeople.” It is for every believer, whatever your calling, whatever your vocation, and whatever your circumstances. God has ordained that we demonstrate to a watching world the highest standards of personal responsibility. He wills for us to mind our own business and work for a living. If we don’t, we will lose the respect of non-believers, plain and simple.
When I was in college a good friend of mine went off to seminary and then decided to go to Japan under the auspices of a well-known foreign mission board. His experience has to be the missionary’s greatest nightmare. And I need to tell his story here because I think it illustrates vividly what Paul was trying to teach the Thessalonian believers. As with every other missionary sent out by this particular mission board, my friend had first to undergo deputation in order to raise his financial support. After a long and arduous process of fundraising, he arrived in Japan, where his assignment was to reach Japanese businessmen with the Gospel. For four years he labored in vain. Not a single soul was converted, not a single church planted. And the reason soon became painfully obvious. The news that he was a salaried “missionary” was an insuperable stumbling block to these hard-working Japanese businessmen. They simply could not believe that the person talking to them was not gainfully employed. Greatly discouraged, my friend left the mission field, returned to the States, and resigned from the mission board. Then he immediately returned to Japan and got a job in a Japanese company that specialized in teaching English to Japanese businessmen. Within months he had led several of his students to Christ, and eventually a small church was formed. In the meantime, he had learned to speak fluent Japanese and had taken a Japanese bride.
I believe there may be people reading these words whom God is calling to go to the “uttermost parts of the world.” I am convinced that God wants to send forth thousands upon thousands of believers from our shores. Have you gotten down on your knees and asked the Lord how He could use your God-given gifts and abilities as a tentmaker? Tentmakers are incredibly effective. Their work provides a natural entrée for establishing a network of relationships in which the seed of the Gospel can be sown. Most importantly, in sharing your faith you can never be accused of “being paid to do it.”
Some people might object by saying, “When Paul says we are to earn our own living, surely he is excluding fulltime salaried missionaries and pastors.” To this I have two responses. The first is that there is nothing in this text that would limit Paul’s injunction to so-called laypeople. My second response is really a question: How could the apostle require from the believers in Thessalonica what he himself did not practice? As we read passages like 1 Thess. 4:10-11, there is a tendency, I believe, to dismiss their application to missionaries and pastors. This is partly due to a faulty view of “fulltime ministry.” For example, we often speak of “laypeople” who work behind the scenes at “secular” jobs to help support missions. I think a more biblical way of viewing the matter is this: Every Christian is to be a fulltime missionary wherever he or she is. This means that even if you never end up on the foreign mission field, you can still be sold-out to missions. You can still be committed to living a missional lifestyle. In all of his writings, Paul seems to accept a life of sacrifice for the sake of the Gospel as both normal and necessary. “The only thing that matters,” he writes in Phil. 1:27, “is that your citizenship should be as the Gospel of Christ requires, so that, whether or not I am able to go and see you, I will hear that you are standing firm with one common purpose, and that with one desire you are struggling together for the faith of the Gospel.” Here Paul urges every believer to become a “Great Commission Christian.” He himself had made a conscious choice to deny the rights due him as an apostle and instead chose a life of suffering and incessant physical labor for the sake of the Gospel. Just look at the terrible list of sufferings he describes in 2 Cor. 11:23-29. These afflictions included, not surprisingly, “labor and toil” (v. 27) – yet another reference to Paul’s commitment to self-support. Indeed, his very first boast vis-à-vis the false apostles is, “I have worked harder than they have!” (v. 23). I encourage you to read Paul’s catalog of sufferings in 2 Cor. 11:23-29 slowly and carefully. I might have expected Paul to say, “Since I am suffering so much for the Gospel, surely others will want to increase their financial support so that I will not have to work so hard.” This is precisely what Paul does not say. When he boasts that he has worked harder than his opponents, he is not implying that his commitment to self-support was a mistake!
I often hear the complaint, “Thousands of missionaries are ready to go to the unreached if only support were available.” This is not the greatest need facing missions, however. It is outstripped by the untold thousands of opportunities to reach the lost millions through tentmaking evangelism. Praise the Lord for my friend who went to Japan to serve in “fulltime Christian service” as a layman! God may not be calling you to Japan. But wherever you live and wherever you go, you can find ways of participating in this great work of world evangelization.
Paul’s next reference to work in 1 Thessalonians is in chapter 5, where he writes (5:12-13):
We urge you, our brothers and sisters, to respect those who labor among you, who guide and instruct you. Treat them with the greatest respect and love because of the work they do.
Traditionally, the “work” described here has been interpreted to refer to the spiritual work of church leaders. I once held to this view myself. Today I am convinced that Paul had manual labor in mind when he wrote these words. Earlier he had insisted that the Thessalonians earn their own living by “working with your own hands” (4:11). And here in 5:12-13 there is nothing in the context that would require us to see these workers as the fulltime paid staff of a church. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that Paul is continuing his emphasis on the necessity of work as an expression of our Christian faith and as a witness to outsiders who are always suspicious of religious hucksters whose sole motive in ministry is greed. Paul, in fact, was quick to defend himself against such a charge in 1 Thess. 2:5: “You know very well that we did not come to you with flattering speech, nor did we use words to cover up greed – God is our witness!” Clearly, Paul was above reproach when it came to finances.
Our final passage is 2 Thess. 3:6-12. It is absolutely brilliant in the Greek. Here it is in translation:
Our brothers and sisters, we command you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to keep away from all of your brothers and sisters who are living a lazy life and who fail to follow the instructions we gave them. You yourselves know very well that you should act just like we did. We were not lazy when we were with you. We did not accept anyone’s food without first paying for it. Instead, we labored and toiled, working night and day so as not to be a burden to any of you. We did this, not because we do not have the right to demand our support. We did it to be an example for you to follow. When we were with you, we kept on telling you over and over again, “Whoever refuses to work is not allowed to eat.” We say this because we hear that there are some people among you who are lazy and who do nothing but meddle in other people’s lives. In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, we command these people and warn them to lead orderly lives and to earn their own living.
I believe all of us – myself included – need to learn to live the lifestyle we read about in this wonderful passage. If you are living for Christ, you must be a responsible worker. A greedy, self-indulgent lifestyle is simply out of the question. As Christians, how can we ever be lazy and fail to work to supply our own needs? How can we say Jesus is Lord unless we are quick to obey Paul’s instructions in this passage? Notice that Paul does not exclude the church leaders from this exhortation. The command is clear: Those Thessalonians who were mooching off the charity of the church must stop it.
This passage is a coal of fire on our heads. Our first reaction, I suppose, should be to fall on our knees in repentance. Next, we need to seriously ask ourselves whether it is right to support those who do not work because they will not work. I am convinced that the tremendous material resources of the United States would be better used to address the crying demands of the unfinished missionary task. I believe that 2 Thess. 3:6-12 teaches us that we are all responsible to lead orderly lives and to earn our own living. It is obvious that Jesus will have no one among His followers who wants to be financially dependent when they could be supporting themselves.
Of course, I am not speaking about people with genuine needs. Jesus obviously loved the needy. To all those who would follow Him, He gave them an example of helping the helpless. Paul, too, was emphatic about this. He wrote to the Galatians that “we should remember the needy…, which is the very thing I have been eager to do” (Gal. 2:10). For Christians, then, there can be no other option when confronted with the needy than to do everything we can to help them. Paul himself was willing to receive temporary monetary supplements to his income when the need occasioned it. Clearly, however, this was the exception to the rule.
We need to ask ourselves, What does the Lord Jesus think of our church budgets that are bloated with unnecessary expenses when that money could go to help the truly needy? A look at our ledgers reveals not a body of sacrificial givers but a society of getters. As someone once said, “We tithe to ourselves,” meaning that our church offerings are used mostly for things that will make our lives more comfortable. There is a principle at work here: Self-centered Christians cannot and will not put into practice biblical priorities – priorities such as those found in Phil. 2:3-4 (“Always consider others as more important than yourselves; look out for another’s interests, not just your own”) or Rom. 12:13 (“Share what you have with God’s people who are in need”). The Thessalonian road to financial health requires that we voluntarily go out of our way to put the genuine needs of others before own. How many millions of dollars are wasted each year because we are preoccupied with the fleshpots of Egypt when we should be content with manna from heaven? Why, like the Pharisees, are we consumed with cleaning the outside of pots and forgetting the agony of the lost and dying?
The conclusion is inescapable: In light of the commands of Jesus (Matt. 28:19-20; Mark 16:15) and the consistent example of Paul, and in view of the lost condition of billions of people in this world, churches must give everything above basic necessities to the cause of world evangelization. In his talk to the pastors of the Ephesian church, Paul said:
I have never coveted anyone’s silver or gold or clothing. You yourselves know that with these hands of mine I have worked to provide everything my companions and I needed. I have given you an example that by working hard like this we must help the weak, remembering the words that the Lord Jesus Himself said, “There is more happiness in giving than in getting.”
Paul’s teaching about Christian finances has always offended people. What makes it so difficult is that it is not simply a theological doctrine but a way of life. Paul was one of the greatest apostles who ever lived, yet he didn’t demand his rights – least of all his right to financial support. It is important that we understand that Paul’s instructions about support make sense only to those who have accepted Jesus’ radical teachings about self-denial. “Anyone who does not forsake everything cannot be My disciple,” He said (Luke 14:33). You see, the American church will have to answer to God for what we did about a lost world. Jesus Himself will demand an accounting from what He has given us to invest. What kind of stewards are we being with the blessings He has showered upon us? This, I believe, is the question of the hour.
I urge you to listen carefully – not to anything I have said, but to the voice of the Lord Jesus as He speaks to you through His Word. He has the power to change anybody who is weary of half-hearted Christianity and is unafraid to take a giant step of faith.
April 8, 2010
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.