Money and ministry (part 3)

Money, power, social significance: together, they’re a heady and potentially toxic mix, adding a whole new layer of complication to already complex relationships.  Families squabble over inheritance (even in the Bible!) in ugly and demeaning ways.  Couples lose trust and intimacy when a spouse takes the attitude, “I make the money, I call the shots.”  I’ve seen academics rejoice to have the opportunity to do some funded research, but then struggle with the strings attached to the funds.

And there are congregations who treat their pastors as mere employees, paid to do the will of some powerful subgroup within the church, be it the deacon board or the family without whom the church couldn’t keep the lights on.  In such situations, pastors may wrestle with their consciences as they feel pressured to compromise the gospel.

Despite what may have been an unimpressive appearance and demeanor, the apostle Paul was no dummy.  If he chose to make his living as a tentmaker in Corinth rather than accept the church’s patronage, he had his reasons.  He would do nothing to hinder the gospel, not even if it made his life easier.

Many pastors today are forced to be “tentmakers” out of economic necessity rather than theological conviction, because a large number of the communities in need of pastors can scarcely afford to support one full-time (though “afford” can be a highly subjective judgment!).

That’s not Paul’s situation: the Corinthians can afford to support him.  And as we’ll see in the next post, Paul firmly believes he has a right to that support.  But he refuses to take their money:

But I haven’t taken advantage of this.  And I’m not writing this so that it will be done for me.  It’s better for me to die than to lose my right to brag about this! … What reward do I get?  That when I preach, I offer the good news free of charge. That’s why I don’t use the rights to which I’m entitled through the gospel. (1 Cor 9:15, 18, CEB)

In the Greek, Paul’s words actually break off in the middle: “I would rather die…”  Preaching and pastoring isn’t just a job for him.  Having encountered the risen Jesus on the Damascus road, Paul has no choice: he must preach the gospel (vs. 16).  But he will do it free of charge, without the strings attached to the Corinthians’ patronage.

The Corinthians had been thinking, “What’s wrong with Paul that he doesn’t accept our patronage like an apostle should?”  But Paul’s stance should cause them to ask instead, “What is it about us that Paul would react this way?”  For me, the takeaway question is: do I personally, or do we as a congregation, handle money in any way that would compel someone like Paul to make the same decision?  When I give money — indeed, when I give anything — are there strings attached?  Does generosity come with a price?

That’s not to throw fiscal accountability to the winds: fraud and embezzlement happen even in the ministry.  But even then, there’s a difference between a community that strives for mutual accountability in the use of God’s gifts, and one in which giving is attached to the need to have a controlling interest.

The final post will circle back to the assertion for which Paul argues so strongly: that those who preach the gospel should be able to make their living from the gospel.