The Holiness of Financial Independence
I recently felt compelled to teach I Thessalonians 4:1-12 at my church. We live in an age of sexual chaos, both inside and outside the church. Paul makes it clear that God’s goal is to lead us into holiness; and holiness, he insists, includes sexual purity: “Now this is God’s desire: your sanctification—that you keep away from fornication…” (I Thessalonians 4:3)
In deciding to teach this passage, the last thing on my mind was to re-think my understanding of financial support for Christian ministry, but the end result was just that. The final portion of the text (I Thessalonians 4:9-12) led me to a newfound clarity regarding what is and is not appropriate for a minister of the gospel relying on the financial support of other believers. This article is an attempt to explore some of this fresh thinking.
The exhortation in I Thessalonians 4:9-12 which provoked my thinking runs like this:
As for brotherly love, you have no need for anyone to instruct you. God has already taught you of your need to love one another. Indeed, you have been showing brotherly love to all your brothers throughout the whole of Macedonia. We urge you, brothers, to show brotherly love all the more. At the same time, we urge this as well: that (just as we instructed you) you make it your earnest desire and goal willingly to accept your obligation to work and willingly and eagerly to do that which God has given you to do—working with your own two hands. We want you to be people who, because of your diligence in work, have furnished your own needs, who do not lack for anything, and who, as a consequence, can walk with dignity in the midst of and in contrast to those outside the believing community. [my translation]
Paul begins by urging the Thessalonians—a community strong in their desire and willingness to show brotherly love toward one another—to “show brotherly love all the more.” Immediately following that exhortation, however, he urges them: “make it your earnest desire and goal willingly to accept your obligation to work and willingly and eagerly to do that which God has given you to do—working with your own two hands.” In other words, Paul immediately exhorts them to take personal responsibility for their own financial needs. He does not want them to rebel against their need to work nor to shirk their responsibility to care for their own financial needs. This responsibility is a reality of human existence, and Paul wants the Thessalonians to submit to that reality and to shoulder the responsibility for their own financial upkeep willingly and peacefully.
Why are these two exhortations offered in such immediate connection to one another? The likely answer is that there were two important realities about the Thessalonian culture: The first, as we have already seen, is the value the Thessalonian believers placed on brotherly love. The second, it would seem, is a significant propensity to idleness. Whatever the cause, many Thessalonians apparently rebelled against the need to work and refused to be economically productive. Other endeavors struck them as more interesting; they pursued those rather than submit to their need to earn a living for themselves. I suspect this was a cultural phenomenon, present both inside and outside the believing community. Undoubtedly the idleness and lack of economic productivity of these slackers was defended by one philosophical rationalization or another. Inside the church, perhaps the immanence of our Lord’s return was offered as one such rationalization. But whatever defense was given, there was a strong tendency toward forsaking economic productivity in favor of other, more interesting pursuits.
The net result, it would appear, was financial lack among those who had forsaken economic productivity. Those who had material resources, therefore, were put in a position to have to meet the needs of those who were without—or watch them suffer from their lack. Because the Thessalonian believers valued brotherly love and the compassion and charity which flow out of that, it would appear that they expressed their brotherly love in charity. They came to the aid of the believers in their midst who had forsaken economic productivity in favor of “doing their own thing.”
(I am reminded of a similar scenario which developed within the hippie culture of the 60s and 70s. An important tenet of hippie philosophy said that we must forsake the money-grubbing, materialistic culture of the establishment—the culture of our parents—in favor of a purer, simpler, back-to-the-earth existence. Many [but not all] who embraced such a philosophy gladly accepted the financial gifts of their materialistic, money-grubbing parents so that they did not have to be deprived as they went about “doing their own [anti-materialistic] thing.”)
Paul’s response to this situation is the two-fold exhortation outlined above: he exhorts the Thessalonians to continue to manifest the compassion out of which they are providing for the idle believers in their midst; but he also exhorts the idle believers who are being a burden on the rest of the Christian community to stop being idle and to begin to be economically productive.
Particularly interesting is the reason Paul gives for why these idle believers should start being productive. He writes: “We want you to be people who, because of your diligence in work, have furnished your own needs, who do not lack for anything, and who, as a consequence, can walk with dignity in the midst of and in contrast to those outside the believing community” (I Thessalonians 4:12). Paul is making two very significant points in this statement.
First, he suggests that being economically productive is an important part of being sanctified. It is a part of the very holiness to which God is calling us. In giving this exhortation, Paul has not left the theme he introduced back in 4:3—”What God wants, simply enough, is your sanctification.” This entire section is a call to holiness. The pursuit of sexual purity (4:4-8) is an aspect of the holiness to which God is calling us. Brotherly love (4:9-10) is an aspect of the holiness to which God is calling us. But, finally, so is our quiet submission to the reality of our need to be economically productive and our willing attempt to fend for ourselves financially (4:11-12). My striving to be economically independent is just as much an aspect of my sanctification as is my striving to be sexually pure and my striving to practice brotherly love.
(Paul is not, of course, defining holiness in terms of actual economic independence. Clearly, one may—due to circumstances beyond his control—be physically incapable of economic independence. That does not make such a person unholy. One is unholy only when he has a financial need as a consequence of his rebelliously refusing to submit to his obligation to work.)
The second point Paul makes in verse twelve is: economic dependence involves indignity. Because it is not immediately obvious why economic independence is a necessary aspect of holiness, Paul includes this explanation: economic dependence upon others involves a kind of indignity that is incompatible with the dignity God created me to have.
God created me to maintain my own existence, to fend for myself, and to be resourceful, creative, and diligent in my tending to my own material needs. There is inherent dignity attached to being just that sort of creature. If I choose idleness over economic productivity, therefore, I cannot help but experience a loss of dignity. In the vernacular of the street, I have made myself a “no-good,” or a “good-for-nothing.” The language of the street may be unsophisticated, extreme, overly harsh, and simplistic in its judgment; but it captures a very real and objective truth: the economically unproductive person has lost some of the dignity he rightfully ought to have as a human being created by God to provide for himself. To choose idleness deliberately, to thumb one’s nose at God and the world and say, “I don’t have to be economically productive to be valuable and significant,” is an act of rebellion against objective reality. It is an act of rebellion against the nature of human creaturehood as God designed it. And any such rebellion against the reality God has created is utterly inconsistent with holiness. One of the true marks of holiness in a creature is his willing submission to the reality God has made; and one of the important realities God has created is this: adult human beings are intended to take responsibility for their own material needs and not to be dependent upon others.
(A note regarding women who do not work outside the home: This is not the place to discuss a biblical view of marriage. The marriage relationship is, by its very nature, one wherein the two partners are mutually dependent upon one another in all kinds of ways—including financially. Financial dependence upon the person I am “one flesh” with is not, I think, a violation of the reality I have just articulated. Even though in a traditional marriage a wife may appear to be economically unproductive [though, I would argue, she is not] and she may appear to be dependent upon her husband for her material well-being [though, I would argue, she is no more dependent upon him than he is upon her], I am confident that Paul would not judge her as “idle” in the sense he is teaching against in this passage.)
Coming to realize what Paul was saying in I Thessalonians 4:11-12 confronted me with a very disturbing personal question. For the past fifteen years of my life, I have been utterly dependent on others to meet my financial needs while I “did my own thing” of studying the Bible, clarifying its meaning, and proclaiming its promise to anyone who would listen. Have I been off base for the past fifteen years? Have I been living in a manner utterly inconsistent with holiness? Do I need to alter radically the way I think about my financial well-being? At first blush, it would appear that the answer to these questions is “Yes, I have been off base, living in a manner inconsistent with holiness.”
In the past, I have presumed that I had a right to be financially dependent upon others on the basis of two truths: (1) the minister of the gospel is worthy of support, for “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (I Timothy 5:18), and (2) I am not idle; I labor long and hard doing what I do.
Paul’s exhortation in I Thessalonians struck hard, precisely because it challenges—and ultimately eliminates—one of the important bases upon which I had presumed I qualified for support. In I Thessalonians, laboring hard at what you do is not the issue. The question holiness asks of me is not: “Are you laboring hard?” Rather, it is: “Are you taking care of your own financial needs? Are you being economically productive?” The “idleness” which I Thessalonians 4 exhorts us to avoid is not the “idleness” of ease, sloth, and laziness; it is the “idleness” of being economically dependent upon others to meet your financial needs because you are not being economically productive yourself. Verse twelve states: “We want you to be people who, because of your diligence in work, have furnished your own needs, who do not lack for anything…” Therefore, I Thessalonians makes irrelevant my defense that I labor hard and am not lazy or slothful. Laboring hard is not the issue. The issue is economic productivity. Am I diligently doing what I need to do to take care of my own material (financial) needs? If not, then I am shifting that burden off of myself on to others, and I am losing my God-intended dignity in the process.
This clarification of the real issue puts my personal situation in a completely different light. I may work hard—I may work very hard—but that does not alter the fact that others are bearing the burden of my financial upkeep, not me. For all the work that I might do, I still find myself at the end of the day as one in financial need. My efforts have not resulted in my “furnishing my own needs” (4:12). They have not met my obligation to strive to “not lack for anything” (4:12). After all the effort expended in study and teaching, still someone else must step in to shoulder the burden of my material needs. On the surface, at least, this seems to be exactly the sort of situation Paul is urging the Thessalonians to avoid. It is the simple reality of being dependent on someone else for my material well-being that involves losing the dignity of self-sufficiency God created me to have.
IN SEARCH OF FURTHER CLARIFICATION
The challenge to my prior assumptions which this discovery in I Thessalonians brought about led me on a wider search. I had to think more carefully about what the New Testament taught concerning ministers of the gospel in relation to their material and financial needs. I cannot, in the space of a short article, lay out all my evidence and reasoning. I can only lay out some of my conclusions.
Perhaps most important of all my conclusions is this: a comprehensive study of the New Testament reveals three legitimate reasons why a believer might give of his financial resources to help support a minister of the gospel.
GRATITUDE is one important reason. It will not be uncommon for a person who has been told the good news of the promise of the Kingdom of God to feel so exceedingly grateful to the one who proclaimed that good news to him that he feels compelled to give a token of his gratitude. In such a case, it is utterly right, good, and appropriate that he express his gratitude in the form of financial support of the messenger who brought him the message.
PATRONAGE is another important reason. One way to characterize a true child of God is this: a child of God is one who has come to recognize how utterly precious the promise of God’s kingdom is and who, in seeking to have within himself the very heart of his Father, wants everyone in the world to hear of this promise and to respond to it in belief. As such, a child of God will recognize that no pursuit in this world is more valuable than the proclamation of the gospel. Therefore, recognizing how inherently valuable is the task of being a servant of the gospel, the true child of God will be ready, eager, and willing to invest his financial resources in the support of those who are genuinely called to that task. He will desire that those who serve the gospel might be free of the distraction of making a living and might be all the more focused on the task of clarifying and proclaiming the gospel message. In other words, being a “patron of the gospel” is a very important reason why a believer might share his financial resources with one who has been genuinely called by God to proclaim it and teach it.
CHARITY is the third reason why a believer may share his financial resources with a minister of the gospel. By “charity” I mean specifically an act of mercy and compassion in the face of financial need. Particularly, I mean stepping in to assume responsibility for meeting the financial needs of someone who lacks the resources to meet them. Charity is purely and simply an act of kindness; and it involves a desire to fill up what is lacking on the part of the one in need (in this case, what is lacking on the part of the minister of the gospel).
Now, while all three of these motivations (gratitude, patronage, and charity) are valid and legitimate reasons to give, only the first two are legitimate bases upon which a minister of the gospel can structure the way he makes his living. The third basis—charity—is an unholy and illegitimate way to make a living, even if one is a minister of the gospel. For charity involves an indignity which no child of God can righteously tolerate. In other words, if I am a minister of the gospel, it is valid for me to receive financial support on an ongoing basis if I am receiving money which is freely and spontaneously given as a token of gratitude by those who are giving. Likewise, it is valid for me to receive financial support on an ongoing basis if I am receiving money which is eagerly and freely given by people who truly value the spread of the gospel and want to free me up to concentrate on that task without being distracted by having to make a living. But, in my capacity as a minister of the gospel, it is not valid for me to receive financial support from others on an ongoing basis if that support is being given out of charity—i.e., out of sheer mercy, where the donors feel compelled by compassion to shoulder the burden of my financial lack. This latter basis of making a living, charity, is clearly and distinctly ruled out by the nature of Paul’s exhortation in I Thessalonians 4:9-12. If a minister of the gospel is living off “charity”—as I have defined it—then he is in exactly the same situation as the “slackers” and “idlers” in Thessalonica whom Paul is urging to stop being dependent upon others.
THE DISTINCTION BETWEEN PATRONAGE (OR GRATITUDE) AND CHARITY
In practice, what is the difference between financial support given as charity and financial support given as patronage? Can we tell the difference? I think we can.
Charity, by its very nature, involves taking upon oneself the burden of the minister’s financial need. Patronage, on the other hand, is a settled desire to support the minister in order to free him to minister. Patronage is a rational choice to use my money to “buy” the minister some freedom; and I do that because that is what I most want to do with that money.
The psychology of patronage is very different from the psychology of charity. Patronage is in no sense a burden to the donor. A patron of a minister is no more burdened by his obligation to the minister than he is by his obligation to pay his phone bill or grocery bill. He is obligated to pay his phone bill because he has made a rational choice to have a phone. He is obligated to pay his grocery bill, because he has willingly decided to eat. He is obligated to donate money to the support of a minister because he has made a rational choice that buying some freedom and time for that minister to minister is something he really wants to do with his money. Charity, on the other hand, will always be experienced as a burden by the donor. It is, by its very nature, a burden; for charity is the willing shouldering of a burden which belongs to another (the minister), but which he (the minister) has no resources to bear. By its very nature, charity is a spontaneous response of compassion to the need of the minister; it is, therefore, always something that circumstances force upon the donor.
In light of this, we can understand the wisdom of what Paul is saying in I Thessalonians 4. True charity involves the shouldering of another’s burden cheerfully and willingly, because it is done out of a heart of compassion. Nonetheless, does it not become annoying and irritating when the recipient of my charity always expects me to shoulder his burden for him and never does anything to assume that burden on his own behalf? Yes, I think it does—and not just because I am a selfish sinner who really does not want to be compassionate and charitable (although undoubtedly that has something to do with it as well); but because something deep within my intuitions tells me that everyone ought to shoulder his own burden—everyone ought to work to meet his own financial needs. It is one thing when someone has diligently attempted to meet his financial needs and failed; it is entirely another thing when he has done nothing to meet his own needs and then presumes that I should step in and meet his needs for him.
Being a minister of the gospel cannot change the dynamic reality of this truth. If, as a minister of the gospel, I continually find myself lacking financially, it is wrong of me to presume that others must meet my needs and shoulder my burden. Reality, as God created it, poses me with a fundamental question: “If you have a lack, Jack, why don’t you do something about it? It is your responsibility, no one else’s. God gave you the task of providing for your own material needs. Do it!” I fear that, in the past, I have been all too willing to assume that God was requiring others to meet my need. Theirs was the responsibility to fill up what was lacking in my finances. On the basis of “the worker is worthy of his support” (Matt. 10:10)—which, rightly understood, is true—I made the mistake of assuming that my financial maintenance was others’ burden to bear, not mine.
I can remember how annoyed I used to get when my then three-year-old son used to dive off the counter, unannounced and uninvited, presuming, of course, that I would catch him. I wanted to save him from a broken skull, of course. He knew that. He was counting on that. But he was giving absolutely no consideration to how much a burden he was placing upon me to keep him and the consequences of gravity apart. Keeping upright and supported safely on firm ground is a God-given responsibility that every individual must assume on his own behalf. It is wrong of me just to leap off a counter and expect those who love me to save me. If they have not invited me to jump, I have a responsibility before God to keep my own two feet planted firmly on the counter.
Financial upkeep is an analogous sort of responsibility: even as a minister, I must assume this responsibility on my own behalf. Others who love me will undoubtedly catch me when, financially, I begin to fall. But if I insist on jumping off the counter, expecting them to catch me, when it is in my power to never leave the counter, then—although they will most certainly catch me—they cannot help but get annoyed with me. I am not doing my part. I am not assuming my God-given responsibility to meet my own financial needs. If I were doing my part, they would not mind catching me when, beyond my control, I fall. But if I will not even try to attend to my own financial needs, it becomes burdensome and obnoxious—because it is unfair—to have to continually bail me out. This, I think, is in the spirit of what Paul is saying in I Thessalonians 4.
OBJECTION: ISN’T THE WORKMAN WORTHY OF HIS SUPPORT?
As I mentioned above, one of the pillars of my defense for living on support has always been the sentiment expressed by Paul that “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (I Timothy 5:18; see also Matthew 10:10). But what did Paul mean by that sentiment? Is Paul meaning to suggest that it is right for a minister to live off the charity of others? I think not. Rather, he is suggesting that it is right and appropriate for a minister of the gospel to live off the patronage and gifts of gratitude of others. That, Paul argues, is utterly appropriate; for the labor of proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God is as important and valuable a labor as any done on the face of the earth. There would be something wrong with a person, Paul is suggesting, if he actually begrudged a minister of the gospel being financially supported. One could only begrudge a true minister’s receiving financial support if he just didn’t see the true worth of what the minister was doing. And if he couldn’t see that, Paul would say, there is something desperately wrong with his eyes.
Even though Paul clearly taught that the laborer is worthy of his wages, yet there were times when Paul refused even these wages for his ministry. From neither the Corinthians nor the Thessalonians would Paul accept any financial support. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul was intent on making clear the difference between him and the false teachers in Corinth who were preaching another gospel. Accordingly, in order to make it clear that—unlike the false apostles in Corinth—his proclamation of the gospel was not motivated by a desire to profit materially, he accepted no financial support whatsoever from the Corinthians. In the case of the Thessalonians, because idleness and financial dependence was a significant problem within that culture, Paul was intent on being financially independent in order that it might be crystal clear that there was never any justification for idleness and rebellion against the need to work. In both of these cases, Paul was foregoing a right he believed he otherwise had. But he did not believe that he had the right to insist on using his right to be supported. If love demanded that he forego his right, then that is what he had to do. And he accepted gladly and proudly his responsibility to support himself in order that he could make the gospel available without being a burden upon those to whom he ministered.
Now whereas Paul saw his not receiving support from the Corinthians and the Thessalonians as foregoing a right that he had to their support, it is important to understand exactly what he is saying. This “right” was to receive money from those who would show their gratitude to Paul and/or who would be patrons of Paul’s ministry. Nothing in what Paul says would suggest that he thought he had a “right” to live off the charity of others—as I have defined charity in this paper. No one ever has that right. To live off charity is inconsistent with the dignity for which every human being should strive—whether he is a minister of the gospel or not.
Paul’s practice, it would appear, was always to try to live off his income as a craftsman (a leather-worker). Except when he refused it, in the case of the Corinthians and the Thessalonians, Paul did receive gratefully the financial support of believers who wanted to express their gratitude and/or who wanted to aid the spread of the gospel. But it would appear that he never expected, insisted on, presumed upon, nor relied upon such support being there. If it was there, he took advantage of it to perform his task as an apostle all the more freely; if it was not there, then he plied his trade and supported himself financially without neglecting his charge to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Nothing in the pattern of Paul’s life would suggest that he relied upon the charity of other believers; everything about his life suggests that he believed such an attitude was inconsistent with a pursuit of holiness.
WHAT DOES THIS NEWFOUND CLARITY MEAN FOR SOMEONE IN MY POSITION?
The amount of money that comes in as patronage for my ministry is, I believe, inadequate to meet my financial needs. The question of what and how much I or anyone “needs” is, of course, an exceedingly difficult and complex moral question—beyond the scope of my argument in this paper. If I have not rightly assessed the level of my material need, then I have another and deeper problem besides that of who should bear responsibility for meeting my financial needs. Assuming, however, that I can and have rightly assessed my material need, what do I do?
Before this study of I Thessalonians, I would have been tempted to assume that my financial lack was not my problem; others must pick up the slack. Others must step in and meet my need. After this study, I cannot in good conscience adopt such an attitude. My financial needs are my problem to solve. That is part of my dignity as a creature made by God. I must apply my creativity, energy, and resources to the task of making sure that the financial needs of my family are met. If that means having less time and energy to engage directly in ministry, then so be it. God knows that; God is in control of my circumstances. It is God who must supply my need just as surely as it is His to chart my course; my responsibility is simply to meet my God-given obligation to be diligent in striving to meet my need. If I cannot do that through donations, without relying on the charity of those who love me, then I dare not try to do it through donations alone. (If, of course, my perceived needs are significantly greater than my actual needs, then I could bring my perceived needs into line with my actual needs. Perhaps donations are adequate to meet my actual needs. Perhaps greed and an attachment to material things has driven me to want what I should not want and to “need” more funding than I actually do. In such a case, repentance from my greed and love of mammon is the only appropriate response. But how we know whether we have rightly assessed our material needs is a difficult question which I probably have no good answer for and, in any case, cannot take up in this paper.) If I have rightly assessed my needs and the donations fall short, then I think Paul would counsel me to look for something in addition to donations to meet my need. I must not presume upon the charity of others, for then I am not doing what I, before God, must do.
THE IMPLICATIONS OF THIS STUDY
It has been impossible, in this limited format, to explore every aspect of my recent thinking. Let me close my discussion by simply summarizing what I think are the most significant features of the understanding to which I am coming as a result of my recent reflections about financial support for a ministry. I divide my observations into those to be made from the standpoint of the donor and those to be made from the standpoint of the minister.
Implications for a Donor
(1) It is not my responsibility or obligation to shoulder the burden of a minister’s financial well-being; the minister himself must take responsibility for his financial well-being. Consequently, if a minister (or ministry) is in the midst of a financial crisis, it is not my problem to solve; it is his. It is right and good that he assume responsibility for his own financial needs. I must make a settled, rational, and practical decision as to how much I want to and can afford to underwrite a ministry and do it. It is not my burden to make him financially viable. That is his burden before God, not mine.
That is not to say, of course, that I have done a bad thing if—having the resources—I respond in compassion and rescue a minister or ministry from a crisis. Of course not! Compassion is a noble and godly passion. Charity, given from a heart of mercy and compassion, is a mark of the spirit of God within me. Indeed, woe to me if I have no compassion within me. But, in giving to a ministry, I must never be compelled by the notion that it is my duty to rescue the ministers. Nor must I ever give in such a way that I allow a minister (or ministry) to avoid responsibility for his own financial well-being.
(2) The obligation which is in truth placed upon me, as a donor, comes to this: A true child of God must come to value the gospel message and to see clearly enough the abiding worth of its proclamation. From such a perception of the value of the gospel message should flow a willingness and eagerness to invest financially in its clarification and proclamation. (Incidentally, this moral obligation is in lieu of any religious obligation. In the light of the gospel, the child of God has no obligation to religiously and dutifully tithe. Rather, he is faced with a much more searching and demanding moral obligation: earnestly to value the gospel such that he willingly and eagerly desires to support its propagation and proclamation financially.) The moral obligation on the child of God is fundamentally to value properly the gospel and its promise. Typically, that will result in actual financial support proportionate to the believer’s financial resources. It is not actual financial support, however, but a genuine, from-the-heart desire to support which is the true mark of the authentic child of God.
(3) The moral obligation to see financial support of the gospel as a worthy investment does not necessarily translate into a moral obligation to support any particular work of any particular servant of the gospel. Naturally, gratitude will dictate that I give to the minister who has served me in such a valuable and important way. And, of course, I am morally compelled to give to those who are genuine and authentic servants of the authentic gospel. It would be wrong to give to spurious servants of a false gospel. The foundation of my moral obligation is genuinely to love the truth of the authentic apostolic gospel. If I do that, there may be many different ways that I can express that love in financial support. Any of them would be a valid manifestation of the love of the gospel that must exist in me if I am a child of God.
Implications for a Minister
(1) Under normal circumstances, it is fully valid and acceptable for me, as a minister of the gospel, to accept financial gifts from (a) those who are grateful for the effect of my ministry in their lives, and (b) those who value my ministry and want to do what they can to free me to devote myself to it without the distraction of having to make a living. But it is my responsibility to shoulder the burden of my own financial well-being; I must not attempt to shift the burden off myself and on to someone else. If funds given freely to me out of gratitude or patronage are not sufficient to meet my needs (given, as I have said above, that defining one’s “needs” is a very difficult problem for every child of God.), then I must willingly and eagerly look to other avenues of employment (unrelated to my ministry) to meet my financial needs.
(2) As a minister of the gospel, I must not rely on ongoing and persistent appeals asking other believers, out of charity, to help me in my time of financial need. It is not inappropriate for me to ask for charity on an occasional basis—that is, when on occasion I confront a short-term, unforeseen need. But when I can clearly see that on a continuing basis I cannot reasonably expect to receive sufficient financial support to meet my needs, my course of action should be clear: I must assume the burden for my own financial well-being and not attempt to convince others that my financial well-being is their responsibility. To presume upon the charity of other believers to meet my financial need (whether I am a minister of the gospel or not) is incompatible with the dignity God created a human being to walk in and is, therefore, incompatible with a pursuit of the holiness to which God has called me as a believer.
(3) A minister must understand clearly that his brothers’ and sisters’ responsibility to offer financial support is not rooted in their responsibility for his (the minister’s) financial upkeep; they have no such responsibility. Rather, their responsibility to offer financial support is rooted in their obligation to evaluate rightly the significance and value of the gospel and its proclamation. Accordingly, what is most important is not that, in the end, the brother or sister actually gives to the support of the ministry, rather it is that the brother or sister is eager and ready to give if and when they have funds in excess of what they need to meet their own material needs. (See II Corinthians 8:12-15 in the context of the larger discussion.) If they do not themselves have adequate funds, it is enough that, recognizing how utterly precious the gospel is, they be ready, willing, and eager to see its advance.
(4) The minister of the gospel is doing a worthy work. There is no question about that. And there can be no question that his work is worthy of receiving financial payment (“wages”) from those who benefit by it or those who otherwise value it. Even though it is worthy of pay, however, it would be unrealistic and naive of the minister to expect to be paid for it, and it would be ungrateful and wrong of the minister to demand that the benefactors of his ministry meet his financial need.
It is unrealistic and naive for me, as a minister of the gospel, to think that I shall be paid for my proclamation of the gospel, for I live in a dark and ignorant age, surrounded mostly by people who have absolutely no regard for the truth and who do not value the divine promise I announce. I am surrounded mostly by people who love “the things of this world” and do not love “the things of God.”
And further, it would be ungrateful and wrong of me, as a minister of the gospel, to “charge” for my work by demanding that the benefactors of my ministry meet my financial needs. I must make my work of spreading the gospel “free of charge” to anyone who is interested. I must offer it “free of charge,” not because what I do lacks value; it is the most valuable thing in the whole of reality. I offer it free of charge because my Father, whom I am seeking to emulate, has given it freely to me. For me to put a price tag on that precious and valuable gift God has offered free of charge to every human being on the face of the earth would be fundamentally evil; the ultimate sacrilege. What has been freely given to me I must freely give to others.
(5) The child of God is indeed morally obligated to love the truth of the gospel; and under ordinary circumstances, he is obligated to express that love by financially supporting those who authentically “serve” that gospel. But it would be utterly inappropriate for me to teach or imply that this obligation to support the service of the gospel, which rests on every child of God, necessarily translates into an obligation to support me. That would be evil, faithless, and presumptuous. Granted, in specific instances, support for me in particular may very well be what obedience to God entails for a particular person—but that is for God to decide and a reality the other person must confront. That is not for me to presume.
Copyright October 1995 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.