Kenneth Hanko is a missionary-pastor of the Protestant Reformed Churches in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
The principle which Paul outlines in I Corinthians 9:7-14 is not a difficult one to understand: the Lord has ordained “that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” Yet it is a principle which the church of God in the twentieth century does not clearly understand nor faithfully apply.
The principle can be restated to make the point clear: the church of God is under obligation to give an adequate living to those who preach the gospel in and for it. The Lord has ordained it (v. 14). It is a principle of the law of God given in the O.T.: “Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn.” Those who waited at the altar were partakers of the altar. Jesus said (Luke 10:7) when He sent His disciples out to preach, “The labourer is worthy of his hire.” That so many preachers of the gospel today derive their living from other work is due to the disobedience of the church to this clear ordinance of God.
But you will say to me, “What about Paul? He made his living from the trade of tent-making rather than from the preaching of the gospel. Does not this mean that what you have said is not true?”
No, it does not. It is clear that the example of Paul is not to be the pattern for the church today. The pattern for the church today is given in I Corinthians 9:7-14.
That Paul made his living from tent-making is, of course, undeniable. In fact it is in connection with this that Paul here defends the right of preachers to live of the gospel. He says in verse 6, “Or I only and Barnabas, have we not power to forbear working?” He does not refer to the preaching of the gospel (he did not have power to forbear preaching, v. 16), but to the other work which he and Barnabas were doing. So he adds (v. 12) “If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power.” Therefore, in spite of the fact that Paul was not earning his living from the preaching, he claims such power over the church.
Why, then, did he not use it? Paul willingly gave up his right, and did not use his power, “lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ.” The preachers may (and even ought to, if circumstances require it) give up this right to live of the gospel. But that must be left entirely to them. No one may take the right from them against their wills. The church may not refuse to support preachers. That is disobedience.
There is another principle stated here, though indirectly. It is that the support of the preacher belongs to those to whom he preaches. Therefore Paul claims a right to a living, not from the church at Antioch which sent him out, but from the church at Corinth to which he had preached. Therefore also when Jesus sent His disciples out to preach, He sent them out empty-handed. He said (Luke 10:4-8):
Carry neither purse, nor scrip, nor shoes: and salute no man by the way. And into whatsoever house ye enter, first say, Peace be to this house. And if the son of peace be there, your peace shalt rest upon it: if not, it shall turn to you again. And in the same house remain, eating and drinking such things as they give: for the labourer is worthy of his hire. Go not from house to house. And into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you, eat such things as are set before you . . .
This does not mean, however, that we may not help other people of God support those who preach to them. But it does mean that all such help is properly the work of benevolence. It is contributing to the relief of the poor, helping those who are not able, for good reason, to fulfill their obligations. Congregations ought, therefore, to do their best to support their preachers by themselves. And only if they cannot do it by themselves ought they to seek contributions from other churches. Likewise on the mission fields: the people to whom the gospel is preached ought to do their best to support the missionary fully by themselves, and receive help only as necessary. Denominational support of missionaries and needy churches is not necessarily wrong, but it ought to be designated and handled as help for the poor.
Now a few remarks.
First, this does not mean that preachers ought always to quit preaching if the people of God will not support them. In this respect the preaching is different from other jobs. Generally speaking, if employers fail to pay the wages due, employees have no further obligation to them. But for preachers, the matter is not quite so simple. The preaching of the gospel must continue. Therefore Jesus said to His disciples, “When I sent you without purse, and scrip, and shoes, lacked ye anything? And they said, Nothing. Then said He unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.” It is better for preachers to tolerate the disobedience of the church, than to let the preaching of the gospel fail.
Second, because preaching is, generally speaking, a full-time job, the wages which the church pays its preachers ought to be adequate for the full support of himself and his family. Some churches seem to think that it is spiritually edifying for their preachers (though not for themselves) to have to pinch pennies in order to make ends meet. Because preaching is in many ways different from other jobs, we tend to think of it as different also in the matter of wages. But in verse 7 Paul deliberately compares it to other jobs, and says that the same principle which applies in those jobs applies to preaching. Just as the soldier, the farmer, and the shepherd all earn their livings from their work, so the preacher ought to earn his living from his work. Churches ought to pay an adequate wage.
But how are we to define adequate? Is the preacher to be supported at a certain standard of living no matter what the cost to the congregation? No. I think that a good rule of thumb here is that the preacher be supported at approximately the average standard of living among those to whom he preaches. Thus the missionary to a foreign country ought to live among the people to whom he preaches and at their level, lest his wealth or poverty become a hindrance to the gospel and he place too great (or too small) a financial burden on them.
Third, the preacher does not have to receive money. If the people prefer to give him room and board in their own homes, or if they can find some other way adequately to provide for his needs, that is acceptable. Jesus urged His disciples to room and board with any worthy family which would receive them. The method of payment will differ from preacher to preacher, depending on needs and circumstances. Obviously the preacher who has a family will have different needs from the one who does not, and the missionary may have different needs from the pastor of an established congregation. But the preacher ought to be willing to receive his living in any form that makes adequate provision for himself and his family.
Fourth, in light of the above and the present very common abuses of their power by “preachers” like Jim Bakker, it is necessary to warn preachers against greed and fleecing the sheep. Preachers must be exemplary, and must be willing to forego many things for the sake of the gospel. If they are not thus willing they are far from the example of the apostle Paul, and from the example of Jesus who had nowhere to lay his head.
Yet there is another side to the picture. In verse 11 Paul makes a comparison between spiritual things and carnal things. Spiritual things are those things which pertain to salvation, and carnal things are those which pertain to life on this earth. The spiritual things are of far greater value. And so Paul says, “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” It is impossible adequately to remunerate faithful preachers of the gospel. The spiritual things which they minister to you are beyond price. There is not here, as in many other things, an approximately equal exchange of goods and services. Those who hear the preaching get by far the better part of the deal. If, then, we are grudging about the preacher’s wages or try to pinch pennies when we consider his salary at the annual congregational meeting, then surely God will “pinch pennies” in the administration of His blessings to us.
But this is not to say that we ought to attempt adequate remuneration of the preachers. Besides being impossible, it is not what God requires. He requires that we give them an adequate living: no more and no less, and that we give it cheerfully. The contributions we are willing to make to the preachers of the gospel and to the various things connected with that work are a measure of the love which we have for God and His church.