Should Churches Pay Their Pastors?

My last two posts have primarily addressed the issue of money. This post is the first of three (for now) on the pastor…er elder…uh…overseer/bishop/preacher…you get the idea. However, it will also be addressing the issue of money. (Henceforth, “pastor” and “elder” will be used interchangeably.)

Namely, should believers pay their pastors?

The mere fact that I would ask such a question made some of your stomachs turn. I say that because mine did when I first asked it for myself. Mind you, I just graduated with a B.A. in Christian Ministry. I intended to go on to seminary, get degrees, plant churches, and be paid by my church. All that to say, it wasn’t easy for me to open my mind to the things I’m about to say.

Let’s first ask the simple question: do we find it in Scripture?

An argument I’ve heard when discussing this issue with friends is that just as the Israelites provided for their priests through the tithe, the NT church should provide for our leaders. The problem with this argument is that we have no such system. The priests were not allowed to own land. They did not share in the inheritance with Israel except through the tithes. Elders are not prohibited from owning land or having a job. Moreover, the priesthood has been changed–we have no separate class of Christian. In fact, the resurrection of Christ makes us all priests. By that logic, we should be paying each other! It is a violation of the priesthood of all believers to say that we should treat pastors as the Israelites treated the priests.

There are two main passages used to support the salaried pastor:

1) 1 Cor 9:14 — In this passage Paul says, “Those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” Seems pretty clear, right? Yes, only if you take this verse by itself. If you leave the verse in its context it tells us a very different message.

We see in v.1-3 that Paul is defending his apostleship. He says to the Corinthian church that as an apostle he has the right to receive material provision from them. Why is it important to distinguish this as an apostolic right? Because apostles were very different from pastors. They were itinerant church planters and missionaries. Paul and his companions traveled from town to town, staying only as long as it took to plant and train a church. As such, they were not able to set up a trade or work the land–they couldn’t make a living.

However, we see that Paul usually refused to participate in this right to receive provisions from the churches. (He did receive support from the church in Philippi.) He provided for himself by making and selling tents as he traveled. Apparently, at times he viewed such provisions as an obstacle to the preaching of the gospel (v.12).

We see, then, that this passage has nothing to do with church elders.

2) 1 Tim 5:17 — “Let the elders who rule well among you be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

It’s amazing how this verse has been interpreted over the years. On numerous occasions I have heard people use this verse to say, “You should pay pastors well.” It has been said that the word honor can also mean wages. However, such an interpretation ignores the evidence. Verse 3 of the same chapter states, “Honor widows…” It is exactly the same word! I have never heard anyone argue that we should give widows a salary.

The verses following state, “You shall not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” These statements are used to promote the “wages” interpretation. It is said that the pastor is the laborer and the honor is the wages. However, this is a careless way to read it. The elder is no more the “laborer” than he is the “ox.” Honor is no more “wages” than it is “grain.” Paul simply uses two metaphors to make his point, which is: “Elders are worthy of double honor.” This is certainly not defined as “double salary.”

Many are unaware of what Paul actually tells elders in regard to their work. In Acts 20:17-38 Paul addresses the elders of the Ephesian church. It is noteworthy that he is speaking to the exact same elders addressed in 1 Tim 5:17. In v.33-35 he tells them how he provided for his own needs. He did not accept material payment for his ministry. Listen to his reasoning behind that decision:

“I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 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.'”

Paul says–very bluntly, I might add–that he provided for his own needs in order to show the elders how they are supposed to live and work. They should provide for themselves so that they can give to those in need, not the other way around!

Another important note is that elders were not chosen in the way modern elders are chosen. Scripture shows us that elders were raised up from within the church. They were people who had good reputations in their communities. There is no doubt that these people already had a means of living in their town. So then, why would the church need to give them a salary if they already had one?

In a discussion on this issue some friends of mine mentioned the all of the work a modern elder does. “It’s a full-time job!” they said. I wouldn’t argue with that. The modern pastor often works more than full-time. To require them to accomplish all of their “church” responsibilities and have a full-time job is completely unreasonable. However, as I will discuss in the next post, the modern pastor takes on jobs and responsibilities which are far from–and even contrary to–what we find in scripture. The responsibilities of the New Testament elder did not in any way require one to work full-time for the church. If modern elders functioned along the same lines as those in Scripture, paying them a salary would be unnecessary. More on that in the next post.

The next argument made was, “Things are different now. Culture and the church are different, so we have to adapt to what we have now.” I (hesitatingly) agree with this. The modern, American church is in a bad place. Many are biblically illiterate, having a profound misunderstanding of the gospel, church, and biblical interpretation. This stems from centuries of unbiblical ecclesiology and a tendency toward anti-intellectualism (among other things). If we were to make a sudden attempt to organize an institutional church around the New Testament model of church–in which regular tithes/offerings are not law; we meet in homes (or similar venues); everyone participates in teaching, prophesying, singing, praying, speaking (cf. 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4:11-16; Col 3:16; Heb 10:24-25, etc.); and the eldership is not a career–it would be a disaster. However, we cannot leave our brothers and sisters behind. We cannot neglect the existing churches. I propose that the modern elder should work toward a biblical model. How does that transition work? I can’t say, but I would assume that it would look different in each situation.

I do not, however, believe that the argument of cultural difference should dissuade us from the New Testament model of church permanently. While this argument is valid on some issues, I believe that it does not apply here. There certainly are times when the Bible addresses issues which are limited to its culture, but I would argue that this is not one. The reason: this concerns the manifestation of God’s Kingdom on Earth, not merely sociocultural norms. To have a separate class of Christians who are salaried for being a minister denies the actual DNA of the church: it denies the fact that we are all ordained ministers; it denies the priesthood of all believers; it denies mutual, participatory ministry; it sucks even more of our money out of the things which we were actually told to support. We need to work toward a biblical understanding and expression of the church. Staying where we are is not a valid option if we wish to express ourselves as the church Jesus and the Apostles established.

Do you think that paid eldership is found in Scripture? Do you think that our separation from the First-Century culture justifies the ways in which we have departed from the New Testament example?

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19 responses to “Should Churches Pay Their Pastors?

  1. I just re read this post , which appears you wrote two years ago and I was curious as to whether you’ve changed your thinking regarding this topic. I personally still agree with the post as-written but wondered if your seminary training has given you any additional insights.

    • Hey man! How’s life, marriage, and school? I didn’t officially take a position in the post, but I most definitely affirm that pastors/elders can be paid based upon biblical evidence. My understanding of it developed while attending a church in KC, and my conviction of that point has only been strengthened by seminary. So that’s where I am on it, but I thought (and still think) you make a good argument. Date: Tue, 28 Apr 2015 15:48:43 +0000 To: bill.jeffery@hotmail.com

  2. I have often wondered about these things and I enjoyed this thought provoking post. Churches I’ve been involved in easily spend 75 -85% of their budgets on salaries/overhead etc. and I can’t believe that this is what God has as the plan.

  3. Terse means few words. Shaky means not completely standing on solid ground. And foolish means lacking good sense. To make the statement that the elder isn’t to be likened to the laborer any more than the ox is lacking good sense. I don’t seek to tear down Pagan Christianity, this is a book that is not new. As for my interpretation, I see the physical provision of grain and wages; I see the work element in the ox, laborer and elder. Paul chose these physically compensated examples to speak to physical compensation. You can’t accept a bi -vocational model either with your exegesis. I look forward to reading your next post, yet stand by the thought that these thoughts are more edifying within a church context of dialog, not a blog context of competing monologues.

    • 1) I never said that the pastor isn’t “likened” to the laborer. Actually, if you read my first reply to you, you will see that I stated that the pastor is “compared” to the laborer. Likened means compared.

      2) I’m not sure why you brought Pagan Christianity into this discussion.

      3) The Greek word “timeo” means “honor.” It is the same word used for widows and masters in this passage. Would you suggest that we give widows and slave masters physical compensation? Also, the honor idea is carried forward in v 19 when Paul says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” This has to do with dishonoring the elder. Nothing here about physical compensation. He simply makes the point that people/animals deserve proper recognition for what they have done. In the case of the elder he is clear that it is double honor.

      I do understand how one would come to the conclusion, as you have, that the pastor, like the laborer, receives physical compensation. But I believe that one must stretch Paul’s actual statement to make it means that. It is my view that if Paul meant that, he would have said it. But, he didn’t. He said to honor them–just as with the widows and masters. Also, Paul tells these exact same people in Acts 20 that they are to provide for their own needs. In fact, this is part of the reason Paul chose not to receive physical compensation from the Corinthian church.

      4) I never claimed that bi-vocational pastors is biblical.

      5) I really don’t know what you want me to tell you about your discomfort concerning internet dialogue. You imply that these “competing monologues” aren’t edifying, yet you continue to engage in them. What’s more, you litter your monologues with condescension.

  4. So Tylor, I feel this may add to what you’ve said. The thing that bothers me so much is that people do not even consider bi-vocational a valuable option.
    Many just see it as a feeble necessity for a poor community or church planting. They don’t even think of it as something any sane person would choose to do when given the option between that or paid ministry. Here were the four reasons that have always made be attempt bi-vocational:

    1) Boldly proclaiming Christ is a freedom, a voluntary act, rather than the mandate of a job (1 Cor. 9:15-18).

    2) You express your love for your sisters and brothers in Christ by reducing the burden on the church. (2 Cor. 11:7-11).

    3) You separate yourself from the stigma of false laborers who do ministry for a living or for a profit and not for Christ. (2 Cor. 12:11-13) .[Which came in handy, when Paul was dealing with False teachers in the church at Corinth]

    4) You have a genuine way of meeting people rather than being an entity for a religious organization. (Acts 18:1-4).

    What concerns me more than the fact they ignore an apostle’s own extremely positive outlook on “bi-vocational” or other “non full time” ministry, is the underlying reasons why. You will ask people and instead of it being a matter of the gospel, their first response is “compensation” instead of “Is it better for Christ and His church?” Church members will respond about “accountability” instead of “Is it better for Christ and His church?” The reason why people are so defensive on the matter is rather sad: church members and Christians like being able to control (keep accountable) ministers with the threat of no income and ministers care more about their own life support rather than actually serving Christ. Having ministry as a vocation is a convenient system that doesn’t require a community of faith and mutual, relational, accountability to support. There are postive reasons for ministry, being full time salary. I just wish people would actually have those as their reasons for doing it.

    One more thing to add to the hermeneutic discussion is simple enough. Wages and compensation referred any where in the New Testament had nothing to do with salary. You will often find mentioning of eating, drinking, and gifts whenever the idea of ministerial support or compensation comes up. That’s probably because they were referring to the idea/model Christ gave when it comes to “persons of piece.” Notice when it comes to free will charitable acts towards ministers (not a salary) the words “wages”, “laborer” are even used (Luke 10:1-6; Philipians 4:10-19). Notice also the idea in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy were both talking generally about benefits ministers freedoms get as believers rather than solely talking about wages. 1 Timothy 5:17, if reading the whole paragraph, is talking about the privilege ministers get of the double respect (thus the benefit of the doubt) when it refers to “wages.” Notice in 1 Cor. 9 [The Don’t Muzzle the Ox While Treads Out the Grain Passage] the list of benefits, or “wages” in verse 4: “Don’t we have the right to food and drink? Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?”

    Not exactly a salary like we think of it.

    • You are definitely right about some of the reasoning behind having paid ministers. It may not always by that way, but unfortunately, it sometimes is.

      As for Luke 10:1-6; Philipians 4:10-19, these are speaking of apostles rather than elders, which I address in the article. The 1 Tim passage is entirely about honor. 1 Tim 5:1-16: honor widows; 17-25: honor elders; 6:1-2: honor masters. You’re right, it isn’t about a modern idea of “salary,” but neither is it concerning a material provisions.

      • Agreed. I was merely saying the wages was the “double” or extra honor that justifies the benefit of the doubt when an accusation is brought an elder’s way. The 72 in Luke 10 were not apostles and if you relate Paul’s encouragements at the endings of his letters to people to provide the needs of the messengers he sends, you would realize that (assuming “wages” means benefit of the gospel, or freedoms like accepting gifts) the “wages” were extended all served in the gospel as they. Not to mention that Timothy, during the time of some epistles had an elder/pastoral role and Peter himself did at a point. There is no reason to say that financial assistance is extended to the 13 apostles and not all workers of the gospel but there is a reason to understand “wages” and other such references merely the freedoms one has being a minister, such as accepting hospitality for the sake of the ministry, a family, a certain degree of respect so your teachings, guidance, and leadership mean something, etc. The point is to that preaching these passages as justification for a salary goes beyond their original intentions. Ascribing compensation solely as an apostolic rite and reducing the ministry of the gospeler is not within the bounds of scripture either. An elder/pastor/bishop is another human being and just a believer, yes; but the service they render is a responsibility that comes with those freedoms/privileges as an aid for that service. In short, saying “This means salary is good.” isn’t the scriptural point and saying “Apostles were the one’s who got compensation.” isn’t there either.

        • I meant to say the Apostle John rather than Peter at that last example. It happens.

          • Even if you argue that the 72 were not apostles, they still aren’t elders either. Neither were the people Paul sends as his messengers. I highly disagree that Timothy was an elder. The only reason that idea has been accepted is because a couple hundred years ago they started calling them “pastoral epistles.” Timothy functioned as an itinerant church planter/missionary–aka: apostle. I don’t believe that “The 12” (plus Paul) were the only apostles. There were many, many more.

            So, I still see no evidence that elders reserved the same provisional rights as the apostles. As I say in the post, there is a specific reason why apostles needed that provision: they couldn’t settle down and work like everyone else since they were traveling.

  5. So, I read this. What are your thoughts? How should pastors be compensated if they are compensated?

    • In my next post I’ll go into detail about what I believe is the function of an elder. Essentially, he/she does no more “work” than the rest of the body. So, I don’t see any biblical example or implication that they should be compensated. Though, I have no problem with giving them material gifts any more than giving another member a gift. However, as I say in the post, we may have to keep our current system for a time as we move toward a biblical ecclesiology.

      • Criticism is actually a needed form of encouragement. Or what you are doing isn’t encouraging to the church, because you are greatly criticizing it. Do you see the inconsistency in your response to me, or am I missing something?

  6. Do I struggle with some of the points you mentioned? Absolutely. Do I believe you executed eisegesis on 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians? Absolutely. To write off the elder as the laborer, because he isn’t the ox is foolish. And to say that it was an Apostle’s privilege is also overlooking Barnabas being mentioned. I appreciate your truthful consideration of problems, and simply encourage you not to perpetuate a rather terse and shaky handling of verses.

    • I didn’t “write off the elder as the laborer, because he isn’t the ox.” I was making the point that nothing in that text suggests that an elder should be paid and that the following statements (ox and laborer) do not support that idea. I believe that Paul was simply comparing the elder to the ox and laborer, not calling them such.

      I do not overlook Barnabas. He was an apostle–an itinerant church planter/missionary who was assisted by Paul.

      In what way was my handling “terse” or “shaky”? I addressed each verse clearly and in context. I would be more than willing to expound on them more. Would you be willing to give your interpretation? It would help to engage in dialogue rather than criticize me and call it “encouragement.”

      • Mike, I’ll respond to your second comment here.

        Indeed, criticism can lead to encouragement. But, you have blatantly called my ideas foolish, terse, and shaky. My criticism of the institutional church’s practices has been worked out in utmost respect. My criticism also provides what I believe to be the correct belief/action, which makes it “constructive” criticism. In that way it is, as you say, “encouraging.”

        I still would like to know how my interpretation is eisegesis and how you think the passages should be interpreted.

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