The Word of God lays down the principle that the ministers of the Gospel must be supported by the churches which they serve. This principle was established already in the Old Testament era. When God gave to Israel the land of Canaan as a type of the heavenly Canaan each tribe and each family of each tribe was given an inheritance or allotted portion of the land. This portion was typical of each family’s eternal inheritance in glory. The tribe of Levi which served Israel as the priests had no inheritance in the land, “for the Lord was their inheritance” (Deut. 10:9). For this reason the rest of Israel was admonished “not to forsake the Levite,” but to support him (Deut. 14:27). The food of the Levite was supplied by the sacrifices of Israel. He depended upon his brothers for shelter and the rest of his earthly needs. Our Lord Jesus Christ taught us the same when He sent the twelve to preach to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. Among His instructions to them Jesus said, “Provide neither gold, nor silver, nor brass in your purses, Nor script for your journey, neither two coats, neither shoes, nor yet staves: for the workman is worthy of his meat” (Matthew 10:9, 10). This principle is taught repeatedly in the Epistles. The apostle Paul speaks of it at length in I Corinthians 9:1-23. In verse fourteen of this chapter the apostle writes: “Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel” (cf. also: Phil. 4:14-18; I Tim. 5:18).
What this means is that the congregation to which the pastor ministers the Word of God is bound by God to provide adequate support of the pastor. The pastor must be free from “worldly cares and avocations” in order to be able to devote all of his time and effort to the work of the ministry. With this principle few, if any of us, would disagree. In the Reformed tradition, churches have always and do today provide for the material needs of their ministers and families. It is our contention that this principle of Scripture must be universally applied. It must be implemented also on the mission fields. Missionaries are supported by the sending churches. This is proper and no one would disagree. When churches are established as the fruit of missionary preaching, these churches must be indigenous to their native land. Elders and deacons and ministers must be ordained out of these churches to serve these churches. These churches must be: “self-supporting, self-extending, self-governing” (The Spontaneous Expansion of the Church, Roland Allen, pp. 26ff). Native pastors are needed for the newly organized churches. And these native pastors must be supported by the churches which they serve. Again, few would disagree. This very plainly is the biblical principle. What applies to the “home church” also applies to the mission church.
But in the mission context the church is often faced with a vexing problem. What if the situation is such that the new church is so poor that it is unable to provide for the support of its pastor? This is often the case. Many mission churches, at least by our Western standards, are extremely primitive and poor. Must these be expected to support ministers? They barely are able to support themselves. Perhaps the most common answer to these questions is: let the sending denomination support the native pastors and missionaries. In this way the work of the church can continue and grow. The native churches are unable to support their own pastors, hence, the home church must assume that responsibility. All of this seems sensible. After all, the church needs preachers and the preachers need to be supported.
This is, however, the wrong answer. It is certainly not the biblical answer, and for this very reason it is neither desirable nor practical. In fact, this practice has caused considerable harm to the cause of Christ in the world. We do well to listen to a seasoned missionary and professor (Presbyterian) of a century ago, Dr. Kellogg, quoted by John L. Nevius: “This plan [that of organizing churches without pastors in the modern sense of that term] would also meet the vexations, and—as it has proved in some missions that we could name—the hitherto insoluble problem of the support of a native pastor. The pecuniary question has been one of the main difficulties, thus far, in the establishment of independent churches in our foreign mission fields. It is plain that if a man be set apart to give his whole time to the pastoral care of a church, he is rightfully entitled to a full support. But where is this to be raised? Most of these young churches (this is 1879, R.D.D.) in India, China, and Africa are very poor. Fix the stipend as low as we will, they are not able to pay it. Shall the church in America or Europe supplement their contributions? This is often done, and to the inexperienced might seem a very simple and excellent solution of the difficulty; but in fact, with this arrangement, difficulties multiply. (emphasis mine, R.D.D.) For example, what shall be the salary? If, as has often been done, it is fixed at a point much higher than the average income of the people, this works great mischief. It elevates the pastor unduly above the average condition of the people of his church. It degrades the ministry by making the pastorate an object of ambition to covetous and unworthy men. It makes the church, in many cases, despair, from the first, of reaching the position of self-support. A moderate salary they might in time hope to be able to pay of themselves; a high salary they, with good reason, look upon as unattainable. We affirm, without fear of contradiction, that no one thing has more effectively hindered the development of independent, self-sustaining native churches in many foreign fields, than the high salaries which, with mistaken wisdom, are paid to many of the native pastors and helpers from the treasuries of the home churches. Shall we give them a low salary? We shall not thereby escape serious difficulty. Men educated even as pastors commonly are in heathen fields feel that they are justly entitled to more; and when they hear of the hundreds of thousands which the church at home contributes for the support of the Gospel and which are supposed to be at the disposal of the missionary, they will not and generally do not take kindly to the refusal to pay at a high figure. In this way alienations often occur between the foreign missionary and his native helpers” (Dr. John L. Nevius,The Planting And Development Of Missionary Churches, pp. 66, 67). This quotation needs no further comment.
Biblical principles are always the foundation of biblical practice. When the church functions according to the sound principles of the Word of God it may expect the Lord’s blessing. When the church fails to implement sound biblical principles it brings upon itself misery. Nevius makes a point which illustrates this truth when he writes: “Here we meet with the important Scriptural principle that teachers in the Church should look for help in temporal matters to those whom they teach. Many advantages spring from this relation of mutual dependence. As the pastor gives his time and energies to his people and watches for their souls as one who shall give account, his people naturally accept from him not only instruction but admonition and reproof. The fact that he depends upon them wholly or in part for his support gives to them a reasonable claim upon his services, and to him a strong motive for the diligent and conscientious performance of his duties. When the native pastor is supported by the Foreign Board the advantages growing out of this mutual dependence between pastor and people are lost, and a one-sided and unnatural relation is introduced of people and pastor depending on foreign aid, which works evil rather than good” (Nevius, p. 64).
If, as had been shown, it is wrong from the point of view of both principle and practice for the sending churches to support native pastors, how must’ the church labor in foreign fields where the believers are very poor? Let it be said first that the goal of an indigenous .church ought never be abandoned. The converts need to be organized into a manifestation of the church of Christ in their own land and culture. They need elders and deacons according to the requirements of Holy Scripture. They need pastors too, preachers of their own nationality and culture. Toward this goal the missionaries must labor. Converts must be taught the whole, counsel of God. And, that whole counsel of God includes their responsibility to support those who minister to them in the name of Christ. They must be taught that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” even if all they have to give is a widow’s mite. Those converts who give evidence of possessing gifts suitable for office in the church must be trained so that in time they can be called and ordained as elders, deacons, and ministers. Until such time as the group is prepared in every respect, prepared also to support its own minister at least in part, it cannot be organized. The work of the missionary would then continue. It may be possible to organize a group which cannot afford to support the minister completely. The apostle Paul, after all, was a tentmaker so as not to be a burden to the churches. There is precedent in church history for this as well. But this is not ideal. The biblical principle is that congregations are bound to support their own pastors. In, no case ought this support come from the Foreign Mission Committee of the churches.