Charging For the Ministry

Many people reject Christianity because they perceive it to be a big money-making racket. And sadly for far too many Christian leaders and ministries it does seem that way. They not only preach a gospel of prosperity (‘God wants you rich, and if you are not, it is due to sin or lack of faith’), but they live it as well.

The opulence, indeed decadence, of so many of these prosperity preachers is really quite alarming. They live in the best of mansions, travel in private jets, get first-class treatment wherever they go, and think they are doing God a favour. Some years ago I mentioned the demands of one big-cheese Christian celebrity preacher:

“One friend of mine in Texas recently inquired to see if a prominent preacher could speak at her conference. The minister’s assistant faxed back a list of requirements that had to be met in order to book a speaking engagement. The demands included:
-a five-figure honorarium
-a $10,000 gasoline deposit for the private plane
-a manicurist and hairstylist for the speaker
-a suite in a five-star hotel
-a luxury car from the airport to the hotel
-room-temperature Perrier”

While most preachers and Christian leaders are nowhere near this in terms of greed and selfishness, the tragedy is that there are some – maybe even many – who operate this way. They seem to think that doing ministry for the Lord is a money-making enterprise, and hefty profits must be made along the way.

This stands in stark contrast to the biblical testimony. Indeed, just this morning in my daily reading I came across this interesting account in 2 Kings 5. It is about how Elisha healed Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, of his leprosy.

In verses 15-16 we read this: “Then Naaman and all his attendants went back to the man of God. He stood before him and said, ‘Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel. So please accept a gift from your servant.’ The prophet answered, ‘As surely as the LORD lives, whom I serve, I will not accept a thing.’ And even though Naaman urged him, he refused.”

And to highlight the importance of just how bad greed is, we read in the second half of this chapter about how Gehazi, Elisha’s servant, actually ran after Naaman and lied to him:

“‘My master sent me to say, “Two young men from the company of the prophets have just come to me from the hill country of Ephraim. Please give them a talent of silver and two sets of clothing”.’ ‘By all means, take two talents,’ said Naaman. He urged Gehazi to accept them, and then tied up the two talents of silver in two bags, with two sets of clothing. He gave them to two of his servants, and they carried them ahead of Gehazi. When Gehazi came to the hill, he took the things from the servants and put them away in the house. He sent the men away and they left” (vv. 22-24).

The story ends in v. 27 with Elisha rebuking him: “‘Naaman’s leprosy will cling to you and to your descendants forever.’ Then Gehazi went from Elisha’s presence and his skin was leprous—it had become as white as snow.” That is a pretty strong warning indeed, one which we need to heed today, especially those who are in Christian ministry.

The example of Paul

But some might protest here and ask, is there not a place for getting recompense for the ministry? Did not Paul say the ‘laborer is worthy of his hire’? Yes to both, but we must look at this a bit more closely here. It was Paul’s practice to not accept money for his ministerial services, even though he was fully entitled to do so. Given the extravagant lifestyles of so many of the prosperity preachers, and their constant appeal to money, the pattern Paul sets forth is well worth exploring (and imitating).

The main passages in this regard are 1 Cor. 9:1-18, 2 Cor. 11:7-12 and 2 Thes. 3:6-10. These passages are clear enough, and warrant little discussion. A few remarks will suffice to drive home the point. Charles Wanamaker offers a good summary:

“Paul’s refusal to accept support would appear to have formed part of his missionary strategy (cf. 1 Cor. 9:1-18; 2 Cor. 11:7). Not only was this policy intended as an example to be imitated, but … it also served to distinguish Paul himself and his message from that of the many charlatan preachers who made a living hawking their messages (cf. 1 Thes. 2:4…).”

It is noteworthy that Paul says in 2 Thes. 3:9 that he does this “in order to make ourselves a model for you to follow”. Many of the prosperity preachers seemed to have forgotten this model altogether, charging hefty fees for speaking engagements, or more usually, putting a lot of pressure on listeners to contribute to the “free-will offering”.

Paul’s sacrifices for the sake of the gospel seem so unlike many of today’s preachers. The set of passages at hand make it quite clear that Paul had every right to remuneration, but he was eager to renounce that right for the advance of the gospel. As Leon Morris puts it, “just as it is characteristic of him to assert that he had full rights, so it is for him to waive those rights whenever he judged that to do so would forward the cause of Christ” (1977, 253-254).

While I am not here asking all ministers of the gospel to renounce a salary or stipend, I am pleading for a more sober look at how we deal with money, and how we preach about money. To reduce the Christian gospel to a means of getting rich is a distortion and a deception. It not only lets believers down, but it becomes false advertising when we present it to non-believers. And it of course bears false witness to God. As David Henderson puts it,

“It is also a great temptation to make Christianity attractive to seekers by misrepresenting the faith as a relationship through Christ with a God who is the divine vending machine in the sky, there to meet our every need. ‘Unhappy? Unattractive? Unsuccessful? Unmarried? Unfulfilled? Come to Christ and he’ll give you everything you ask for.’ We forget God is not primarily in the business of meeting needs. When we make him out to be, we squeeze him out of his rightful place at the center of our lives and put ourselves in his place. God is in the business of being God. Christianity cannot be reduced to God meeting people’s needs, and when we attempt to do so, we invariably distort the heart of the Christian message.”

Promising people material riches as a reward for their faith is both deceptive and unspiritual. The one person most full of faith and therefore the one most likely to experience God’s material blessings – according to the thinking of the prosperity crowd – had nowhere to lay his head.

Why do we presume to merit more than our master? As John Cowart incisively notes, “The God of the Bible is likely to give us just as many gold watches as Jesus wore. Jesus is our Master; we are his servants. Can servants expect to live better than their master?”

True discipleship involves seeking to do the father’s will, and following that wherever it may lead. For Jesus, the prophets, the disciples, and most Christians throughout church history, that did not lead to luxury and a life of ease.

Thus we need to think carefully about how we do ministry, and what we preach about concerning such matters. Many church leaders today may scoff at the idea that Elisha or Paul should be a model for us to follow today, but why shouldn’t they be?

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22 Replies to “Charging For the Ministry”

  1. I am so glad I learned this lesson from a crusty old preacher many years ago.

    His policy on visiting ministry was that his pulpit would be available to ONLY those visiting preachers who were prepared to doss down in his spare bedroom.

    He and his gracious wife lived in an ordinary three bedroom suburban home.

    Anyone who expected or demanded five-star accommodation was below his radar.

    John Angelico

  2. If we are living by faith then our hand should be stretched out to God and not to other men.

    That’s my way of looking at it.

    Debra Franklin

  3. Thanks guys

    I was rather shocked when I was first asked what my “speaking fee” was, when I offered a church leader to speak at his place. Did Jesus have a speaking fee? Or Paul? Or Peter? Sure, if I can get my petrol money reimbursed, that is nice. But charging money to proclaim the gospel? I am still shocked when they ask me that.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  4. “While I am not here asking all ministers of the gospel to renounce a salary or stipend”

    But perhaps in the great majority of cases this would be highly recommended, and you rightly cite Paul’s as an example above. What are the reasons for this unhealthy situation? One word probably sums it up – clericalism.

    The NT never envisages a professional salaried ‘clergy’ class which undertakes virtually all ministry in the church. But this is what we have got universally right across the board. “Professional” clergy expect, and receive from churches a stipend or salary comensurate with other professions – doctors, lawyers & etc, as of right. This in turn stifles a true NT mutual ministry and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit, as the “minister” class virtually dominates a Christian gathering.

    The N.T pattern for church ministry is therefore strongly discouraged, if not altogether suppressed, and we wonder why God is not raising up teachers, leaders, and other spiritually mature men and women in our churches to undertake such ministry within them.

    As you say Paul waived the right to payment for his labours in the Gospel as he did not wish to burden churches financially. The same should apply today.

    The “honour” and “double honour” of which Paul speaks did not refer to a professional clergy, but rather to itinerants and Gospel workers who were to be respected and probably offered hospitality in the NT – and indeed was the pattern for the early church until about the early 2nd century.

    The answer to the professionalisation of ministry and all that is associated with that artificial innovation, is to restore a true, and functioning, priesthood of ALL believers in our churches when gathered – as Paul encourages in 1 Cor. 12-14, Eph 4. and Romans 12.

    Graham Wood, UK

  5. Freely we received, freely we give. The Word of God has been given to me freely by Godly people, so that I am able to know Jesus. I will share with my brothers/sisters a little love-gift whenever I could afford it to enable them to do kingdom work, as I too have freely received such love-gifts for counselling people with God’s words. It is sad that some church leaders are conditioned to believe that we need to be paid for giving what we have received freely.

    Eddie Sim

  6. I would imagine being offered a bed and a hot meal would be enough?

    Jenna Priest

  7. Hmmm the figures for the speaker in Texas sound very much like a certain well known lady we see on our TV’s out here. When I was there years ago in the 1980’s I remember one couple the happy Hunters required $10,000 up front, all expenses, a five star hotel, limo and a hefty percentage of all offerings, I forget the rate, but it was high. I think eventually they got wiped out after some one sued them. Nearly all churches in the US give some sort of a payment to their invited speaker, some it is just a token $20. When I was at bible college we had a big name speaker 6 times a week, many would just stay in a small unit on campus and eat in the cafeteria but there was an small elite who would only stay in 5 star hotels and arrive by limo. Some I used to escort to their cars as I was head of campus security (how in the world did I end up doing that job and at $3.50 an hour) WOF elite were the worst and generally were unapproachable by us pagan (farmer types)
    Rob Withall

  8. You should publish your own annual income if you’re going to stand by this. What do you drive? Do you live in poverty? What “expenses” do you claim? Let’s have transparency.

    Rick Majors

  9. Thanks Rick

    I don’t have any income, as CultureWatch is entirely a faith ministry. The last car we bought was a second-hand Pulsar which is 20 years old now and on its last legs. I claim no expenses. As I already said, if I can get my transport costs reimbursed that is helpful, but I have often driven all day round trip to speak somewhere and not received a penny.

    So are you going to now disclose your full financial details to all of us? Let’s have transparency. Or is this just one-way traffic here – and hypocrisy?

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. In a similar vein, the christian music industry seems to be quite glad to earn a nice income from churning out large amounts of new worship songs. It disturbs me that they even take over old favourite hymns by changing them slightly or introducing a new bridge or verse, thus obtaining copyright. A lot of local church worship leaders seem quite happy to go along with this, introducing the new songs at a fast rate and eagerly going to the latest trendy conference to support the whole process.

    David Stanhope

  11. Yes, the thought has always bothered me that churches should have to pay royalties for singing certain songs. I wonder what the old hymn writers would have to say about that.
    Many blessings
    Ursula bennett

  12. I stand by Bill.
    Come on Rick. What do you earn? Let’s see how you compare.
    Rosemary Boyd

  13. Wow Rick. That was aggressive don’t you think? You catch more flies with honey.
    Bill once again your common sense prevails. It’s so frustrating to me you even have to write this. It should be so obvious. If Jesus had nothing, why should we expect more? Did Jesus walk around starving and naked? Clearly God provided for Him and we all know the issues with the love of money. Surely preachers and teachers should know about the pitfalls of money.

    Naomi Ferstera

  14. I have just finished reading the biography of John Stott. He accepted a salary, quite rightly I believe, but he lived simply and he did not keep the often large royalties from his book sales. Some ministers I have known have modest salaries and give all wedding and funeral fees away. We can’t be prescriptive about these things, but some do set a good example.

    Another aspect of this is the sometimes mean or unthinking attitude of some Christians who expect ministry without regard to the earthly needs of those who minister to them.

    David Morrison

  15. Beaut article Bill, have seen this sad state of affairs in churches around oz and of course by so many well known televangelists, sad really, the bible message is so simple.

    Brian Carrick

  16. Graham Wood, you said:

    “Professional” clergy expect, and receive from churches a stipend or salary comensurate with other professions – doctors, lawyers & etc,

    Hmm therein lies some of the trouble – comparison with highly-paid professions of self-employed specialists.

    In a few churches where I have been privy to the setting of stipends, the rough (and I mean rough) “benchmark” has been secondary teacher salaries, measured on a pre-tax basis if there are fringe benefits involved. It’s more complicated when the church provides the ministers manse/vicarage/home.

    What they do with it is their business, and what they do with special fees is their business too.

    Let’s be careful about the problem of envy. As someone said: most comparisons are odious…

    I have no problem challenging gross excesses, but if a minister is remunerated somewhere within cooee of average community incomes, that’s time to leave well enough alone.

    John Angelico

  17. If you are paid a salary, I do not know how you can teach or live faith and as the scripture says without faith it is IMPOSSIBLE to please God.
    Roger Marks

  18. There is some fairly strong teaching in the NT on us being accountable for our use of resources. I think this has massive implications for the use of money by ministers of the gospel. It’s not a sin to receive lots of money, but God will be asking you one day how you used it. Furthermore if someone is demanding large amounts of money from churches for their ministry, can this person claim that this is a good use of that church’s money rather than charging less and letting that church spend the rest on something else? We all impact each other in this matter, and there will be an accounting one day, in the highest court.
    John Symons

  19. Roger – I would like to know why you say receiving a salary makes it impossible to teach or live faith.

    David Morrison

  20. John Angelico. I think you miss my point with your half quote of my comment:
    ““Professional” clergy expect, and receive from churches a stipend or salary comensurate with other professions – doctors, lawyers & etc, as of right. This in turn stifles a true NT mutual ministry and the exercise of the gifts of the Spirit, as the “minister” class virtually dominates a Christian gathering.”

    Whether ‘pay rates’ are deemed to be high or low is a relatively minor issue – what results from a professional, hierarchical, separated class of ministers called clergy, often careerists, and separated from the people is equally far removed from the NT pattern.
    What we have is an entrenched clerical system – the money element is but a part of that.
    My point was that this sytem’s primary error, stifles or forbids a true priesthood of all believers to engage in ministry when the church is gathered.
    The body (of Christ) is not one part (minister, cleric, & etc) – but many!

    Graham Wood, UK

  21. It is totally possible to ‘live by faith” while earning a salary, otherwise any Christian with a paid job would be in trouble. For the last 22 years I have been a full-time non-salaried missionary who is regularly supported by faithful people with an income and I am so grateful. I certainly don’t claim to have more faith than they do just because God has called me to this. For me it is a matter of Obedience. The issue as I see it raised by Bill is ‘Does money or lack of hinder interfere with our willingness to freely serve in God’s kingdom. When humility & servant hardheartedness is replaced by pride & arrogance then truly we should ask: Who are we truly serving? Yes there are many preachers who should take a long hard look at their motives but I also have great respect for those paid preachers who put their heart & soul into what God has called them to do week in and week out.

    Lyle Hutchinson

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