“Don’t you remember, dear brothers and sisters, how hard we worked among you? Night and day we toiled to earn a living so that our expenses would not be a burden to anyone there as we preached God’s Good News among you” (1 Thessalonians 2:9 NLT).
Paul took extreme measures to avoid being a burden to the Christians at Thessalonica. Paul and his team worked day and night to prevent being financially dependent on the church. Preaching by day and laboring by night? Laboring by day and preaching by night? We are not told the details we would love to hear. Paul just shares his desire to support himself and the resultant moonlighting. Elsewhere we learn Paul was a skilled tentmaker (Acts 18:3, 20:34-35). Perhaps that was how he earned his living in Thessalonica, bringing in enough money to pay for his room and board with Jason so that he would not be a burden to these already poor people (Acts 17:6-7; 2 Thessalonians 3:8; 2 Corinthians 8:1-2).
Paul made it clear he had the right to ask for financial support from the church (2 Thessalonians 3:9). Paul makes a similar, extended argument to the Corinthians (complete with a quotation from the Law) in which he asks some thought provoking questions (1 Corinthians 9:3-12; Deuteronomy 25:4).
- Don’t we have the right to food and drink?
- Is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?
- Who serves as a soldier at his own expense?
- Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the grapes?
- Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk?
- Doesn’t the law say the same thing?
- If others have the right of support, shouldn’t we?
On some occasions Paul accepted support from the church. For example, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul thanks the church for their generous support of his ministry. He lets them know that he has learned to do without if necessary, but he has also learned to live appropriately with the blessings of their generous gifts. The Philippian church repeatedly sent Paul gifts, even when other churches did not. Paul goes so far as to describe these gifts as worship offerings given to God. “They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (see Philippians 4:10-18).
So why does Paul sometimes refuse financial support and other times welcome such?
Paul never viewed ministry as a job for which he was paid a wage. Paul never views support from the church as a way to supplement his income. When he accepted pay, he received it as support so he could devote his full-time to ministry. The idea of ministry as an 8-5 job is completely foreign to Paul. Paul was passionate about ministry as a lifestyle, not a profession. He never clocked-out. Thankfully, when he did receive financial support from the church, he didn’t have to clock-in at another job that would divert him from his passion.
Other situations called for Paul to work in order to support himself. Sometimes the people were in extreme poverty and he refused church support. Another time the church was struggling with members refusing to work and instead becoming busybodies. Paul could have asked for support. Instead Paul worked in order to provide a model for the people to follow; after all, if you refused to work, you didn’t eat (2 Thessalonians 3:15). One of my heroes is a brother who has worked his entire life in the coal mines of West Virginia to provide for his family. He has actively worked in ministry and preached for a congregation for years – not to use the church for financial gain, but to serve the Lord in a way called for by the circumstances in the community.
Ministers who receive support from the church should be very grateful and realize those gifts are an offering to God. May God help us never view our support as professional wages and our job as 8-5. May God help us be filled with a passion to minister to people for God. Not clocking in and out, but giving our life to the ministry.