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).
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. 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, 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. Here we have a man whose greatest desire was to live as a humble bondservant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul was a missionary doing pioneer evangelism and church planting throughout the Mediterranean world. Perhaps we need to rediscover his method of doing ministry if we are to achieve financial health today. I believe 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. 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. 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, sisters and brothers, 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.
What Paul says here 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”! Most of us today would never think of going to the mission field without first being supported. Of course, such support is not sinful. But something is very wrong when our foreign missionaries do not even consider the possibility of becoming tentmakers. Paul refused to become a financial burden on his fellow Christians when he could work for his own living. 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.
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. 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. 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.” 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 American 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!” The Living Bible renders the verse this way: "Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you very well know, and God knows we were not just pretending to be your friends so that you would give us money!" 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 sisters and brothers, we command you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to keep away from all of your sisters and brothers 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 of the charity of the church must stop it.
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.
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 elders 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.
April 8, 2010
David Alan Black is the editor of www.daveblackonline.com.