Supporting full-time ministries

Let him who receives instruction in the Word [of God] share all good things with his teacher [contributing to his support]. (Gal 6:6 Amp)

The Greek word translated 'share' in that verse is the same word used in Rom 12:13.

God chooses leaders

The Book of Numbers in the Old Testament gets its name from the two censuses that were taken of God's people during their wanderings in the wilderness. The first was taken thirteen months after they left Egypt (Num 1:1–46) and the second was taken thirty-eight years later, just before they entered the promised land (Num 26:1–65).

The intervening chapters describe their journey and their grumblings and rebellion against God. One such instance is recorded in Num 17, where the people challenged Aaron's appointment as high priest.

To prove that God had chosen Aaron, Moses took twelve staffs, one for each of the tribes of Israel. On each of the staffs he wrote the name of the leader of a tribe. On Levi's staff he wrote Aaron's name. He then placed the staffs in the Tent of Meeting in front of the Testimony where God met with him.

God said that the staff belonging to the man he had chosen would sprout. When Moses entered the tent the next day Aaron's staff had not only sprouted, but had budded, blossomed and produced almonds—miraculous proof that God had chosen Aaron.

The Bible says that all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2Ti 3:16), so what can we learn from this event in Israel's history? It shows that God chooses the leaders of his people.

For Aaron's staff to bud, blossom and produce almonds, God's power had to come upon that staff; for a Christian to become a church leader, God's power will have to come upon that person. Churches can appoint leaders, but unless God has chosen and anoints (empowers) them, they will never bear fruit, they will just be dry staffs.

Full-time for God

Num 17:8 tells us that Aaron's staff represented the house of Levi. It wasn't just Aaron the people were complaining about, but the whole tribe of Levi.

At the beginning of Numbers, God announced that he had chosen the Levites to serve him in full-time ministry (Num 1:47–53; 3:5–10). Every male between the ages of twenty-five and fifty were to devote themselves to the service at the tent of meeting (Num 8:23–6).

Some members of the other tribes resented that appointment. Whether their resentment was due to a desire to be in full-time ministry themselves, or because they would have to support them financially, we don't know. It may have been both. Is there an equivalent to the Levitical tribe in the New Testament? Yes, there is.

Even though every Christian is called to serve God with their life and has at least one function in the church (1Co 12:12–20), God still chooses individuals to serve him full-time today. They are Christ's gifts to the church, comprising apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:7–11). Their purpose is threefold (v12–3):

They do this, primarily, through the ministry of the Word.

Prayer and the Word

In Act 6:1–7 we read of a problem that arose in the church soon after Pentecost: some believers were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. That was serious, but Jesus said that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God (Mat 4:4).

Christians need spiritual food as well as physical food. The apostles said that it would not be right for them to neglect the ministry of the Word of God in order to wait on tables, so they delegated the task to others and gave their attention to prayer and that ministry.

Others would supply these believers with physical food; they would supply the church with spiritual food. What was the result of their decision? The Word of God spread, the number of disciples increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith. The church grew significantly as a result.

Do we want to see God's church grow today? Then we should follow the principle taught in Act 6. Ministers of the Word should avoid all sidetracks and concentrate on what they are gifted to do. Paul wrote to Timothy:

Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. Do not neglect your gift, which was given you through prophecy when the body of elders laid their hands on you.

Be diligent in these matters; give yourself wholly to them, so that everyone may see your progress. (1Ti 4:13–5)

Paul told Timothy not to neglect the gift God had given him—the ability to preach and teach the Word of God. He was to give himself fully to that task. By doing so he would refine his gift and make it even more effective. People would see his progress and the impact of his ministry would increase.

Think how important God's Word is:

The ministry of the Word of God is the most important ministry in the church. When God speaks, things happen; but it depends on prayer. The ministry of the Word comes through prayer (Act 6:4). The preacher or teacher gets his message through prayer and his anointing through prayer (Eph 6:19–20). There are no short cuts.

In the seventeenth century Thomas Boston wrote:

'How wilt thou get a word from God if thou do not seek it? And how canst thou seek it but by earnest prayer? If otherwise, thou mayest get something that is the product of thy empty head to mumble over before the people, and spend a little time with them in the church. But O, it is a miserable preaching where the preacher can say, "Thus say I unto you, but no more"; and cannot say, "Thus saith the Lord." '

Have things changed since then? Not at all. People don't come to church to hear men speak, they come to hear God speak. They want a word from the Lord, but that can only happen through prayer. Prayer and Bible study takes time, which is why the ministry of the Word of God is usually a full-time calling.

Paul's tent making

In the Old Testament God set apart the tribe of Levi to minister to him and to the people. That was a full-time calling. They were not allowed to do any other work and were given no land in Canaan on which to grow crops, so how did they live? In return for the work they did at the tent of meeting God gave them the tithes that were presented to him (Num 18:21–4).

Tithing is not commanded in the New Testament, so how are full-time ministries to be supported today?

In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. (1Co 9:14)

God has commanded that those who minister the Word of God should get their living from their ministry. But if that is true, then why did Paul work as a tent maker?

In Act 18:1–5 we are told that when Paul first arrived in Corinth he provided for his needs by tent making. He did that out of necessity because he had no other means of support. But when Silas and Timothy brought him gifts from the churches in Macedonia, he devoted himself exclusively to preaching, which is what he'd been called to do (1Co 9:16).

There were already believers in Corinth when Paul arrived. He later met up with them and stayed with them for eighteen months, preaching the gospel and teaching them the Word of God. But throughout that time they refused to support him financially (2Co 11:7–9).

The church at Corinth had a problem with giving. That was surprising considering how powerfully the Holy Spirit was moving in their midst. We are told that they were not lacking any spiritual gift (1Co 1:7), which means that all nine spiritual gifts were operating in their church, including the gift of healing and the working of miracles.

The people were so eager to manifest the gifts that Paul had to teach them about orderly worship (1Co 14:26–40); and yet there was sexual immorality among them (1Co 5:1–13) and they refused to supply his needs.

What does this teach us? It shows that the gifts of the Spirit, which are to be eagerly desired (1Co 14:1), are not everything. We also need the Word of God so we can live godly lives. Paul had to instruct them about moral living and giving to those who were in need, which included himself.

The preacher's rights

This is my defence to those who sit in judgment on me. Don't we have the right to food and drink? Don't we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord's brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living? (1Co 9:3–6)

As far as we know Paul wasn't married, but he was stating a biblical principle: that those who are called to full-time ministry should be supported by those they minister to. They should receive enough to supply their own needs and the needs of their wives and families.

That was true under the Old Covenant and it's also true under the New Covenant. However, the saints at Corinth wanted Paul to minister to them for free. Inspired by the Spirit he wrote:

Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn't the Law say the same thing? For it is written in the Law of Moses: 'Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.' Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn't he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever ploughs and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? (1Co 9:7–11)

Paul described himself as a spiritual soldier; one who was fighting on the front line, battling with the powers of darkness to bring the gospel to Corinth. Should he do that at his own expense? No. He wrote to Timothy:

No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer. (2Ti 2:4)

The Greek phrase translated 'civilian affairs' refers to the business side of life, the things we do to provide for our daily needs. The Lord didn't want Timothy to be involved with that, so how would he live?

The hardworking farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. Reflect on what I am saying, for the Lord will give you insight into all this. (2Ti 2:6–7)

Both in his first letter to the church at Corinth and his second letter to Timothy, Paul described those who minister the Word as spiritual farmers. They sow spiritual seed into the hearts of the people so they can reap a material harvest. They may not see it like that, but God does.

They pass on to the people what they receive from the Lord, and it's a privilege to do that. It shouldn't be money that motivates them, but love and a desire to serve. However, God says they should expect a material return from their ministry. Why? Because it's their livelihood; it's the work he has given them to do.

Supporting ministers of the Word

When Jesus sent his apostles out to preach the Word he said, 'Freely you have received; freely give (Mat 10:8b).' In other words, 'It's cost you nothing to receive it, so don't charge for it.' No one should charge anyone to hear the Word of God, it's been given freely by God for the benefit of his people. However, those he uses to minister it should be supported.

Jesus told his apostles not to take gold or silver or copper in their belts (Mat 10:9) which meant they were not to travel at their own expense. Why? 'For the worker is worth his keep (Mat 10:10b).' Or, as Luke records it: 'for the worker deserves his wages (Luk 10:7a).'

God views ministering his Word as work, and those he calls to perform that task should be kept by those they minister to. It's obvious that this can be a problem in the church because the New Testament says so much about it.

As we've seen, the church at Corinth had a problem in this area, particularly in respect to giving to Paul, and he had to write to them and explain at length why he deserved their support.

Don't you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? (1Co 9:13)

In the Old Testament God gave the Levites portions of the sacrifices that were offered to him (Lev 10:12–5). That principle is carried over into the New Testament.

Most churches take up an offering to the Lord during their meetings. Those who are in full-time ministry in that church should be the first to benefit from those offerings (2Ti 2:6–7). Supporting their pastor or spiritual leader should be a congregation's first priority.

However, many are blessed by ministries in addition to those in their church. If they benefit from such ministries they should help to support them financially as the Holy Spirit leads them (see opening text).

Those who minister the Word are Christ's gifts to the church (Eph 4:7–13); they minister on his behalf. When we give to them, we give to the Lord. The Lord has ministered to us through them, and we give to the Lord by giving to them.

Accounts in heaven

Not that I desire your gifts; what I desire is that more be credited to your account. I have received full payment and have more than enough. I am amply supplied, now that I have received from Epaphroditus the gifts you sent. They are a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God. And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus. (Phi 4:17–9)

Paul was not in need when he wrote those words, he'd already been supplied by the people he was writing to. Not only were they supporting the ministries in their own church, they were helping to support his ministry as well.

He said that he didn't desire a gift from them, but that more be credited to their account. That means that everything we give to support full-time ministries is recorded in heaven.

He said that their gifts were a fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice that was pleasing to God. Do we want to please God? Then we should support full-time ministries that feed us spiritually.

Paul assured them that as they supplied his needs, God would supply their every need through the riches of his glory in Jesus Christ (see 1Ki 17:7–16 for an example of this).

Michael Graham
November 2007
Revised April 2021

Scripture quotations taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Anglicised edition). Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica (formerly International Bible Society). Used by permission of Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, an Hachette UK company. All rights reserved.

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