Thursday, July 16, 2009

Missionary Support in the Bible (Part 1): Secular Jobs

A short time ago I posted a "This Week" article that included some blogosphere discussion about missionaries working secular jobs for at least part of their support as a solution to the current crisis. I promised to talk more about it at a later time. Having established that there is in fact a coming missionary support crisis among Independent Fundamental Baptists (as well as others), and having hinted at some possible solutions, I think it is now time to delve deeper into some of the solutions. Let's begin with one of the more controversial suggestions.

There is no doubt that we (Independent Baptists) have an aversion to the thought of pastors or church planters working secular jobs to (at least) supplement their income. This aversion turns to horror when we think of missionaries sent to foreign fields doing this. Oh, it is true that we somewhat accept the need for pastors and 'home' church planters to work in this way when the churches they are caring for cannot fully support them. But this is expected to be very temporary. We grow very uncomfortable when this extends itself too long. We also accept that missionaries on foreign fields may work in this way. However, this is only well accepted if it is absolutely necessary for the missionary to work in order to remain in a creative access country. And it is not expected or accepted that this should be done to actually supplement his income.

How do these feelings line up with what we see practiced and encouraged in Scripture? While there are good, and even Biblical, reasons for some to seek full support from churches, there is no Biblical justification for our aversion toward working to support oneself. Let's examine what we see taught and practiced by Paul (a missionary and trainer of pastors).

There is no doubt that one of Paul's primary sources of income while on the field was working a secular job. In fact, this may have been the source of most of his income (Note: henceforth when I mention that Paul 'worked' a 'job' I am referring his practice of working a secular job. We all know that fully supported missionaries work a job in its own right. So I am not trying to diminish what they are doing, but am only making the language simpler here.). Here's the proof:
  • Paul worked in Corinth: Acts 18:3
  • Paul worked in Thessalonica: 1 Thess 2:9-10; 2 Thess 3:7-10
  • Paul worked in Ephesus: Acts 20:33-35
  • Paul made it his general practice to work: 1 Cor 4:11-12
The interesting thing about Paul working was that he didn't have to. Jesus had already made command and set precedent when He sent out the 12 and the 70 (Matt 10:9-13; Luke 10:4-9). While He seems to have made some alteration to this later (Luke 22:35-36), Paul taught that ministers like himself had a right to receive support from those they were ministering to at the time. Likewise, these churches had an obligation to provide them support (1 Cor 9:1-19). Paul even references the teaching of Christ to defend his teaching (1 Cor 9:14 with Matt 10:10, Luke 10:7). With his frequent reference to a principle stated in the OT, he makes it clear that he is applying an abiding Scriptural principle to the issue of minister support (1 Cor 9:9, 13; 1 Tim 5:18; Deut 25:4, 18:1).

If Paul had the "power" or right to receive his support from those he was immediately ministering to, why did he rarely use it? Why did he "work with his own hands" when he didn't have to, Biblically? There are several reasons he gave for his unusual practice:
  • Sometimes using his right would have hindered the spread of the gospel of Christ. (1 Cor 9:12)
  • He did not want to make his "glorying void" by seeming to "abuse his power in the gospel" by receiving support from those he was ministering to. Instead he "made the gospel of Christ without charge." (1 Cor 9:15, 18; 2 Cor 11:7; 1 Thess 2:6-10)
  • He suppressed his rights that he "might gain" or "save" more souls. (1 Cor 9:19, 22)
  • He worked and received support from outside churches to "cut off occasion from them which desire occasion" to accuse him of mixed motives. (2 Cor 11:12)
Not only did he verbalize these justifications, but he also had other reasons for working with his own hands to supplement his support:
  • It was a means of teaching up-and-coming pastors how they ought to work with their own hands to support the weak, to be in a position to give always, and to avoid the appearance of covetousness. Doubtless it also gave him a right to request such a thing from them, having done the same himself. (Acts 20:32-35)
  • It allowed him to be a full example to the believers who were to follow him. He was able to show the believers how they were also to work with their own hands, and not to be lazy or busybodies. (2 Thess 3:7-12; 1 Cor 4:12a, 15-16)
Do missionaries and pastors have a Scriptural right to receive support from those they are immediately ministering to (Note that I am not referring to support received from 'supporting churches' as in our current model of support, but to the churches planted on the field)? Absolutely. Is it always right or wise for a missionary or pastor to use this right? Not always. Paul continually died to himself, to his rights, that the Gospel and his ministry might be unshackled, that he might always be the giver rather than the receiver (1 Cor 9:19-23).

Are there perhaps many cases where we also ought to die in the same manner as Paul? Yes, in our current model of missionary support we don't burden those that a missionary ministers to. We provide the Gospel "free of charge." In fact, this is a primary Scriptural motive behind our model. It is a good and noble motive. However, could we actually be hindering the ministry of our foreign missionaries by refusing them the ability to work on the field? In light of Paul's ministry, I think so.

Well, this has been a long post already. I will save the modern application of all the above for the next major post. What are the pro's and con's to working on the field today? How might this affect the current missionary support crisis? What are some of the practical considerations, especially in light of Paul's ministry? In what situations could this be used, and when could it not?

These are all things we will get into soon, before exploring other methods of missionary support found in the Bible. Please feel free to comment below.


Anonymous said...

I looked into this issue some years ago and came up with these thoughts... Is the “Tentmaker model” of missions Biblical?

I would like to hear your comments. Jeff


Debtor Paul said...

Thank you so much for your comment Jeff, and your blog post. This is an issue that ought to be thought out more.

Here is the comment I tried to leave at Jeff's blog:


Thank you for the comments on my blog. I agree that TM can take a significant amount of time.

I won't make extensive comments about it here, since I have made them on several posts on my blog. There are several reasons why Paul states that he worked and then other benefits to his working that I list on the post you read at

I gave suggestion (based upon Paul’s ministry) to guide in our decisions to work on the next post at

What we often do not realize is that Paul had no Scriptural obligation to work. He did not have to. The only people that had a Scriptural obligation to support him were those people he was ministering to at the time. Outside churches had no obligation (though Paul often “robbed” them to minister to others). He had no obligation. Yet he worked and received outside support for the reasons listed in the above posts. It was a manifestation of him dying to himself. I deal with this further in the post at

Note that I am not talking about working primarily as a ministry to the physical needs of those in the area (as an NGO). I am talking about working to financially enable the missionary to live and to minister to the spiritual needs of those in the area. I am also talking about working to alleviate some of the support crisis that is coming. I recently blogged about this crisis here:

And here:

As a side not, I do disagree with how often you believe he worked. I think his language in several places indicate that he worked much more often.

In answer to your question: Is TM Biblical? Yes and No. No, working to support yourself financially as a missionary is not commanded in the Bible. Yes, there is significant Biblical precedent for it in the life of Paul. Further, Paul, his statements and life, give us some guidelines for working in this manner.

I won’t comment any further about it in this comment. I would encourage you to read the posts that I’ve listed above. Feel free to continue the discussion in comments at my blog. Partially, I believe we may be talking about two different types and motives for TM. I think my posts will clear up some of my take on the matter. Thank you for your writing and the discussion.

Debtor Paul