Supporting the Ministry

by Glenn Conjurske

“Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? Or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he that ploweth should plow in hope, and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power, but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ. Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.” (I Cor. 9:6-14).

By these words Paul plainly establishes the right (ejxousiva, verses 6 & 12) of those who preach the word to be financially supported by those to whom they minister. Paul insists upon this as a right, though affirming that he voluntarily gave up that right when preaching the gospel, in order to make the gospel without charge. While doing so, however, he continued to receive support from those to whom he had ministered in the past, saying, “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service.” (II Cor. 11:8). “Robbed,” he says, for those who gave him the money were not then partaking of his labors. But the fact remains that he had a right to the support of those who were.

This is a principle which has been generally acknowledged by all Christians, and yet when we look at the actual practice of the church throughout history, we find that principle but very poorly exemplified. We see the most unworthy ministers generally the best supported, often living in luxury, and faring sumptuously every day, while the most worthy ministers languish in poverty, scarcely supported at all. Many of the best of ministers have been forced out of the ministry by poverty, or forced to greatly curtail their spiritual labors, while they labor night and day for their daily bread.

Various things have contributed to the generous support of unworthy ministers. In all of the established churches, such as the Church of England, and the “standing order” in the early days of America, ministers have been supported by monies levied upon the people by the state. Any man able to secure the office was secure of the support, whatever his character or gifts. And whenever the spiritual state of the people is fallen to a low level, unfit men will be found in the pulpits. “Like priest, like people” is an old proverb, but the reverse of it is equally true. Unspiritual and ungodly members of churches will always “heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears,” and pay them well to preach soft and smooth things to them, and it may be to lead them to hell. So long as men are sinners, such a state of things is likely to prevail.

It is also a fact that the most worthy ministers have often been the least supported. This may be harder to account for, but numerous historical testimonies, of the most shameful and distressing character, might be cited in proof of it.

Speaking for the Baptists, and writing in 1859, David Benedict says, “it is a well-known fact that half a century since most of our ministers, everywhere, were under the necessity of laboring and planning for their own support, and that the Baptists generally were more parsimonious in their doings in this line, than almost any other party in the country.

“`The Lord keep thee humble, and we’ll keep thee poor,’ was then the doctrine of the South, according to Dr. Furman. `They loved the gospel, and they loved its ministers, but the sound of money drove all the good feelings from their heart,’ according to J. Leland.

“But still these same people were generous at their homes, so far as hospitality was concerned. In this business there was no stint nor reluctance.

“The great mass of our ministers then had no settled income for their services, and where moderate sums were pledged, in too many cases they were slowly paid, if paid at all. Under these circumstances, the zeal and assiduity of so many laborious men is the wonder of the present age. Their perseverance in their ministerial work, in the midst of so much ingratitude and neglect on the part of the numerous churches which they planted, and the poverty and privations which they endured through the whole of their ministry, are matters of high commendation and grateful remembrance.”

Of one prominent Baptist we read, “When Dr. Baldwin first commenced his ministry, he was employed in carrying on a saw-mill. He was also pastor of the church to which he belonged. He was frequently called from home to perform ministerial service in different parts of the town and vicinity, and his business suffered. All he asked of his brethren was, that they would pay the wages of the workman whom he was obliged to employ in his absence. This they often promised, but never performed. When he had left his family in straitened circumstances, and could with difficulty meet his traveling expenses in aiding some destitute church, a wealthy brother would sometimes most affectionately squeeze his hand, and say, with great cordiality, `Thank you, thank you, Elder Baldwin, such men as you will never want,’ and having said this, turn away, leaving him to find a resting place where he could.”

The same state of things was prevalent among the Methodists, but with one great difference. The Baptist preachers were more permanently stationed in one place, and able therefore to engage in farming or other pursuits to support themselves. The Methodist preachers were itinerants, changing circuits every two years at the longest, and constantly on the move within their circuits. The choice before many of them, therefore, was either to starve (and let their families starve also), or to drop out of the itinerant ranks. Their poverty forced most of them into celibacy also, for to marry generally meant to drop out of the itinerant ranks, as they could not support a wife and family on a preacher’s income. Hear the pitiful lamentation of the great apostle of American Methodism, Francis Asbury: “Marriage is honourable in all—-but to me, it is a ceremony awful as death: well may it be so, when I calculate we have lost the travelling labours of two hundred of the best men in America, or the world, by marriage and consequent location.” (“Location” was the Methodist term for dropping out of the itinerant ranks, and locating in one place.)

Peter Cartwright writes, “Owing to the newness of the country, the scarcity of money, the fewness of our numbers, and their poverty, it was a very difficult matter for preachers to obtain a support, especially married men with families. From this consideration many of our preachers delayed marriage, or, shortly after marriage, located. Indeed, such was our poverty, that the Discipline was a perfectly dead letter on the subject of house rent, table expenses, and a dividend to children; and although I had acted as one of the stewards of the conference for years, these rules of the Discipline were never acted upon, or any allowance made, till 1813, when Bishop Asbury, knowing our poverty and sufferings in the west, had begged from door to door in the older conferences, and came on and distributed ten dollars to each child of a traveling preacher under fourteen years of age.”

The following is from the life of Thomas Morris, another Methodist itinerant, and afterwards a Methodist bishop: “During that year, at a time when he and his family were in very trying circumstances, being in want of apparel and in debt for provisions, the Lord raised them up an unexpected friend in the person of Mr. Pierce, a merchant of Zanesville. This gentleman was not a professor of religion, nor even a stated hearer at the Methodist Church, and was, besides, a stranger to Mr. Morris, who had no acquaintance with him whatever. The weary itinerant, on reaching home one evening, toil-worn and depressed by the gloomy prospect before him, unable to see how he could much longer continue in the work with his feeble health and helpless family, was surprised to learn that Mr. Pierce had called on Rev. D. Young to inquire into his history, circumstances, and worldly prospects. As a result of his inquiries, he was soon seen on the streets with a subscription paper in his hand. Meeting a member of the Church, who was also a merchant, the following conversation ensued:

“Methodist. What are you doing, Mr. Pierce?

“Mr. P. I am making an effort to relieve your minister.

“Methodist. Well, I’ll give something to help in that case.

“Mr. P. No, sir; your name don’t go on this paper, nor that of any member of your Church, except T. Moorhead. You ought to be ashamed to let such a man suffer while laboring for your good; this effort is to be confined to poor sinners like myself.”

This took place in 1819. Cartwright and Morris were laboring in the West, where most of the people were poor, but the preachers in the East did no better. Newell Culver, of the New Hampshire Conference, writing in 1873, says, “The disciplinary claim for a single man forty years ago was $100 and his traveling expenses. For a married man, for self and wife, $200 and traveling expenses, then understood to mean for moving bills and horse-shoeing. For children under fourteen years of age it was $16 each, and for minors over fourteen $24. Seldom was this small claim received.

“It is presumed that in New England not more than one half of this amount on an average was paid them.”

Further, “In 1833, the next year, I joined the New Hampshire Conference, and was appointed to the circuit in the bounds of which I had spent all my early days. This was regarded as an average one for support. In this I received my disciplinary proportion paid in, and it amounted to $53, for one year’s service.

“The next year, on a laborious circuit, with a sickly preacher in charge, which added much to my labors, I also shared my proportion with him, which amounted, all told, to $47.

“I am confident that these receipts were equal, with rare exceptions, to the average amounts of other preachers, who were similarly stationed in those days. A small support, it is true, not adequate to meet our real needs; but we had souls for our hire, and, thus encouraged, were content to wait for better days. We seldom heard the subject of small salaries alluded to by the preachers, or any complaint of hard fare.”

Such testimonies might easily be multiplied. This same state of things seems generally to have prevailed whenever preachers have been dependent upon the gifts of the people for their support, and Culver says further, “While some of our members and supporters were possessed of moderate wealth, and paid liberally toward supporting the Gospel, there were others who had never been properly educated to do for this cause `as God had prospered them.”’

Well, but who was to “properly educate” them, if not those same preachers whom they were thus neglecting to support? Yet this puts the poor preacher in a very difficult position, and most men of sensitive natures would rather suffer than try to teach the people to support them. I have been in the same position—-once when I was young, and once again more recently. In the first instance I said nothing, and most of the people never gave me a dime, though they must certainly have been able to divine how poor I was. In the second instance I continued for nearly three years before I took up my cross and preached on the subject. I had a business which gave me a meager support, and though poor, was not destitute. If my poverty had been the only consideration, I might never have spoken on the subject, but a deeper consideration stared me in the face: such a state of things was not good for the people. A. B. Simpson also had his own business, and supported himself till within a couple of years of his death, receiving no salary or allowance from the Gospel Tabernacle which he pastored. But—-“Regarding this relationship to his congregation, he more than once said to an associate pastor that it might be a very good school of faith for the pastor but that it was very bad discipline for the flock.” This I deeply felt. I was often in poverty enough, and really needed the support of the congregation, but the deeper consideration was, “Not because I desire a gift, but I desire fruit that may abound to your account.” (Phil. 4:17). I was often convicted by Paul’s words, “I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you.” (Acts 20:20). And yet because it was obvious that to address the congregation on this subject would also be profitable to me, I shrunk back from it. At length, however, conviction prevailed, and I took up my cross and preached from “forgive me this wrong” (II Cor. 12:13). Paul penned these words with sarcasm, but I preached them sincerely, for I really believed I had wronged the people in shrinking from teaching them their responsibility, though feeling at the same time that they had wronged me, however ignorantly.

The same evening a letter was handed to me, which began: “Thank you for your message this morning. It was the instruction I’ve been waiting for for three years. I feel bad that I have been so ignorant, but believe me, it really was ignorance. I have often thought that we ought to be doing more, but did not know what to do. Though I understand that this was difficult for you to preach on, it really has been needed.” This may encourage ministering brethren who are reluctant to preach on this subject.

Most modern churches have eliminated all difficulties along these lines, by hiring a pastor or pastors, and paying them a salary. But such a course opens the way to all kinds of evils, and the lower the spiritual state of the people, the more the evils. Yet we are not to determine the right or wrong of the matter solely on the basis of its results. The fact is, to pay a preacher a salary is unscriptural. The fact that it is so widely done in our day only goes to prove how far the church has departed from the Bible. Multitudes go so far as to arrogate to themselves the title of “New Testament churches,” and yet it has never entered their minds to follow the clear and simple instructions of the New Testament for the support of the ministry.

What are those instructions? The first thing we may say is that there is no hint anywhere of hiring a minister, or paying him a salary. Instead we read, “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.” (Gal. 6:6). There is no committee here, no organization, no contract, no salary—-no church even. There are only two parties mentioned, two individuals: 1. “him that is taught in the word,” and 2. “him that teacheth.” The one who is taught is to communicate of his goods to the one who teaches him. This is a personal thing, between two individuals. And herein lies one of its chief excellencies. By carrying out this simple precept a personal bond of love and appreciation is established between “him that is taught” and “him that teaches.” What a cold thing it must be to receive a monthly check from an organization, according to a previous contract, in comparison with this frequently repeated expression of personal appreciation on the part of those who are taught.

This simple scriptural precept goes a long way also to prevent the many evils attendant upon hiring preachers at a stated salary. By this system men are more likely to receive support according to what they are worth. If their ministry actually profits many souls, they will have many who will cheerfully support them. If not, let them labor with their own hands, and support themselves, while they endeavor to earn the support of the people.

Besides this simple precept, we also have the Scriptural example of a whole congregation taking a collection to support the man of God, when he was laboring in the gospel far from them. Paul alludes to this in II Cor. 11:8, where he says, “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service.” The same example will be found also in Phillipians 2:25-30, and 4:14-18, which I do not quote, but only remark that this example (of a congregation taking a special collection for the support of a faithful preacher) is evidently meant to be followed, for Paul says of it, “ye have well done, that ye did communicate with my affliction,” and calls their gift “a sacrifice acceptable, wellpleasing to God.”

Beyond this Scripture says nothing. The practice of hiring preachers at a stated salary may be traced to the Church of Rome, or to Protestant established churches, but not to the Bible.

Glenn Conjurske