Money and ministry (part 4)

Don’t muzzle an ox while it is threshing grain.  (Deut 25:4, CEB)

In Deuteronomy, the verse sits oddly in its context, preceded by instructions limiting the punishment meted out to a guilty criminal (forty lashes!), and followed by a section on Levirate marriage.  In 1 Corinthians, Paul picks up the verse and reads it broadly: This isn’t just about oxen, but a general principle of laborers sharing in the fruit of their labor — one application of which is that pastors have the right to material support from their congregations.

I just wonder how most pastors would take to being compared to an ox.

Then again, I wonder how many congregations treat their pastors like beasts of burden, without necessarily even thinking about it.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul had to address a money-related issue with the Corinthians: why wouldn’t he accept their patronage?  He seemed to think the offer had strings attached that would hinder him from preaching freely, so he refused.  But note that Paul doesn’t insist that all preachers be tentmakers.  Indeed, the ultimate lesson requires that the Corinthians recognize his decision as an unusual one, rather than some new norm.  The teaching is clear: “those who preach the gospel should get their living from the gospel” (1 Cor 9:14, CEB).

I began this series with a personal story illustrating an often unspoken value in the church: that “ministry” means “doing things for free.”  We need to go carefully here.  It’s true that people in public roles can be tempted by greed and a prideful sense of entitlement.  But in my experience, most people don’t go into the ministry to find their fame and fortune; unfair advantage should not be taken of their dedication.

It’s a sad sociological fact: too many pastors are without the financial security that members of their congregations take for granted.  Many lack adequate health insurance.  Pastors’ spouses are often expected to be part of a two-for-one deal: hire the pastor, get the spouse’s work for free!  Some who live in church-owned parsonages have the projected market value of the rent deducted from their salaries, and eventually retire with no home and no equity.  And so on, and so on.

This is not how it should be.

In arguing his point, Paul piles up rhetorical questions, as if to say, “Isn’t this all perfectly obvious?”  Building to a crescendo, he draws upon commonsense metaphors (1 Cor 9:7-8a), the Law of Moses (vss. 8b-10), actual temple practice (vs. 13), and finally the teaching of Jesus himself (vs. 14).  As Jesus sent out the seventy-two, he told them to leave their wallets behind, and to receive the hospitality of others instead, “for workers deserve their pay” (Luke 10:7, CEB).  Interestingly, at the end of that same chapter, Jesus and the disciples themselves received the hospitality of Martha and Mary in Bethany (Luke 10:38-42).  (And by the way: if we’re too ready to judge Martha for her anxious busyness, we should ask ourselves how distracted we would be if thirteen hungry men showed up for lunch unannounced.)

Thus, again, Paul gives us a word from Jesus: “the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Cor 9:14, NRSV).  It’s been said that even a congregation of ten people should be able to afford a pastor if they really tithed properly.  In today’s economy, that formula may be a little simplistic.  But the point remains that our own gratitude for the gospel and our desire to see it flourish should be expressed in our tangible — and ungrudging — financial support of those who are called to preach.