"An Obstacle to the Gospel"

For it is written in the Law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain." Is it for oxen that God is concerned? (1Co 9:9)

When it comes to this topic, there are two places where people who are advocates of the traditional view of paying pastors instinctively turn. One is 1 Timothy 5:17-18 and the other is found in 1 Corinthians 9. I want to look at 1 Timothy 5 first.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17-18)

Of course there are several major problems as it pertains to applying these passages to paying vocational pastors. The first of course is that it doesn’t actually say anything about paying pastors. That is a pretty big problem. I found that the study notes on this passage in the ESV Study Bible interesting. The notes for this section read:

The role of elder (pastor) involves authority, particularly in preaching and teaching. Labor (Gk. kopiaō), translated “toil” in 4:10, implies hard work that makes a person tired. Such exertion in “preaching and teaching” calls for double honor, which could include financial remuneration.

Notice that the comment is that it “could” include financial remuneration, which is a pretty weak statement and is not at all clear from the verse. But then it makes this bold claim:

“Double” could imply ample provision, or financial provision in addition to proper respect. Paul does not actually require that pastors be paid a double amount, but Paul clearly indicates that pastors should receive generous remuneration. 

Clearly? Really? So it “could” include financial remuneration in addition to respect but then the comment assumes that it does and demands a generous remuneration (what does “generous” mean?). I also found it interesting that the ESV Study Bible uses the word “remuneration” which is a perfectly good word but one that many people have never seen or used, and certainly is not a word that people outside of human resources or the legal profession would use commonly. I wonder why they chose remuneration instead of commonly used and understood words like “pay”, “salary” or perhaps the most applicable word: “compensation”?

Then there is the problem of paying some elders and not others. Those who “rule well” are to get double honor, especially those who preach and teach. I would say that in most plural elder churches, not all of the elders are paid a salary. If elders who preach well are due double-honor and we assume that honor equals salary, doesn’t that imply that those who are mediocre teachers deserve at least "single" honor? I don’t know of a plural elder led church where every elder is paid. So at best we are traditionally pretty selective in how we apply this passage.

Another problem is this idea of “honor” because earlier in the same chapter we are told to honor widows who are truly widows (1 Tim 5:3). Should widows get a salary? We know that widows got a daily distribution (Acts 6:1). Should we provide for elders, honor them in other words, in the same way as widows? Conversely, shouldn’t the church honor widows the same way it traditionally does pastors, i.e. by paying them regularly?

I just don’t see the natural reading of 1 Tim 5: 17-18 leading us to a permanent, regular salary with benefits for one or a couple of men in a local gathering of the church. In fact, the only way to get there is if the word honor is defined unequivocally as a monetary salary; implying that Paul specifically had in mind men who have a vocation of exclusively serving in the local church. Given Paul's personal beliefs and sentiment with regard to preaching the gospel "without cost," it's quite a stretch to believe that the text supports that assumption.

The next place people turn is 1 Corinthians 9. Let me clarify that, 1 Corinthians 9 selectively read. 1 Cor 9 seems to be read by skipping from one verse to another while ignoring the verses in between. How we traditionally read 1 Corinthians 9 is to read verses 1-halfway through 12 and then skip to verses 13-14 and finally on to verse 16. Verse 14 is the biggie.

In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (1Co 9:14)

Well that seems pretty clear and straightforward, right? Sure, prooftexting always does. When we ask the question, what is the bigger argument, what is Paul saying from beginning to end, we get a far different answer.

Twice we see Paul making a clarifying comment regarding his financial support.

If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ. (1Co 9:12)

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. (1Co 9:15)

Paul would rather endure anything, even death, rather than give up his boasting in the Gospel - and his boasting was not his sweet compensation package. It is odd that people skip verses 12 and 15 in order to race to verse 14 especially because verses 12 and 15 are pivotal to the argument Paul is making. Why did Paul refuse to make use of his right to get paid? Was he independently wealthy and didn't need the money? Not hardly. Paul made himself an enemy of the culture and the state by being a vocal evangelist for Jesus Christ. His job prospects were dramatically hampered by his public stand for Christ. As a spokesperson and a frequent target and also as an apostle, Paul had more right than anyone to demand "remuneration" for preaching - but he didn’t. And that's a major stumbling block for those men who will preach the gospel for no less than commensurate monetary compensation.


Paul refused to take pay to preach the Gospel and instead worked and supported himself (and those who traveled with him) by the work of his hands because he contends that being paid to preach the Gospel is an obstacle to the very Gospel we are called to preach. Did you catch that? Exercising the right to get paid is an obstacle to the preaching of the Gospel. If someone claims to be in the “Gospel ministry”, shouldn’t that be a sobering statement?

For Paul, the reward of preaching is not getting paid a salary or even intermittent financial support. It is the pure joy of the Gospel and indeed he found his reward in preaching the Gospel free of charge which he summarizes in verse 18:

What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. (1 Cor 9:18)

That is the capstone to Paul’s entire argument in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul is echoing something in this topic that we see elsewhere in the New Testament, that for the sake of the Gospel our rights are set aside. The right to get paid. The right to defend self and property against evildoers and lawsuits. These rights and others are placed aside because compared to the Gospel they are counted as nothing. For the pastor who says “I have the right to get paid!”, my reply would be that perhaps you do but does that mean you should exercise it, especially if Paul is correct and that being paid to preach is an obstacle to the Gospel? I can understand why this is problematic. After living the dream of going to seminary, spending a bunch of time and money to get a M.Div. and then going to work as a pastor in a church, the prospect of abandoning that to work a secular job while still serving the church can be daunting. Being a pastor doesn’t translate to the secular job market very smoothly.

Conversely, the example of Paul working for a living elsewhere in Scripture provides a more explicit example of what Paul is advocating. I think it is instructive to turn to the example of the man who wrote the very verses used to support the paying of pastors. Besides 1 Cor 9 where Paul is boldly stating that he makes no use of the right to be compensated (keeping in mind that Paul was not a pastor of a local church but was instead an apostle, a traveling evangelist/missionary, an itinerant preacher), Paul also is recorded in Acts 20 as working a "secular" job for a living...

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.’ (Acts 20: 33-35)

Paul is preparing to leave and he calls the elders of Ephesus to him in Miletus, conscious that he is never going to see them again. What does he spend his time, after summoning the elders of Ephesus to come see him, talking with them about? He warns them about wolves coming into the flock with false teaching. Then he boldly declares that he took money from no one, preferring instead to work with his own hands to provide not only for his necessities, but for those traveling with him and also for the weak. If this issue was so crucial to Paul that he took the time amidst the tearful farewell to bring it up, it apparently was very important to him. This concept is reinforced in Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians.

Now we command you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from any brother who is walking in idleness and not in accord with the tradition that you received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone's bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-12)

What is Paul saying here? Those who can work, should work and not be a burden on the church. If a church is facing financial hardship, lots of line items in the budget will be on the chopping block but likely not the pastors salary. Pastors are indispensable because if you don’t have a pastor, the church can’t function or at least that is the logic we employ. It is hard to see pastors as a burden on the church but when the pastor and his family depend on the giving of the church to survive, their financial well-being takes on a whole new meaning. (Dave Black has an excellent treatment of this passage that does it far more justice).

Nowhere do we see Paul advocating paying elders/pastors a permanent salary, nor does Paul himself accept compensation from the church. Quite the contrary, Paul works for a living and commends that lifestyle to others. If that was true in the 1st century amidst an incredibly hostile world, is that not equally true in America where the clergy is generally well-respected? I can’t think of a workplace where being an elder of a church would hurt your job prospects.

The Biblical pattern that emerges from Acts and from Paul’s letters is that Paul and his companions traveled about the world preaching the Gospel, often staying in one place for a while and working a “job” while there, establishing churches and then moving on after appointing elders. We don’t see anyone ordaining clergy, sending men to seminary or hiring believers to be pastors. That may be the pattern that developed early on after the time of the apostles but that doesn’t make it Biblical.

Is it sinful to pay pastors? I wouldn’t go that far. Is it unhealthy for the church and is it unhealthy to put a disproportionate amount of the burden of a local gathering on one man because he is getting paid? Without question. My intent here is not to wag my finger at those who are pastors and get paid for their efforts. I have a number of friends who are paid clergy and I don’t hold that against them. With this topic like so many others, my intent is to raise the hard questions and to challenge prevailing traditions. For me, the topic of paying pastors is one of those loose threads in the fabric of the traditional church model. When I yanked on it a little, it started to unravel the whole thing. Far from a bad thing, it has been a positive move. It is far easier and more profitable to study the church when you are able to set aside the traditions that infuse the topic. I am not so naïve as to assume that I am above traditions or presuppositions but I am confident that I am seeing more clearly what Scripture has to say about the church than I have been in the past.

By: Arthur Sido

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