Originally published on the Forge Scotland blog.
Since the beginning of the church, both within the mainline denominations and on the fringes, there has always been discussion about how we fund and pay our leaders. Even Paul talks about it a few times in his letters to the churches.
Paul himself is often lauded amongst church planters, with his “tentmaker ministry”, working hard at his chosen profession, whilst also working hard preaching the gospel to everyone who would listen.
But as these discussions over financing rage across the internet1, I’m beginning to wonder: did he? Was Paul a model of bivocation? And are we even using the word correctly?
First up, a confession. One of my biggest bugbears with the house church/church planting/missional movement has been it’s tendency to place the early church on a pedestal of perfection that it clearly doesn’t deserve (otherwise we wouldn’t have most of the rest of the New Testament). My second biggest bugbear is the tendency to read Acts as if it was primarily prescriptive rather than descriptive - as some kind of how-to manual for a “proper” church, rather than an historical record.2
And so Paul, who it is clear did receive financial support from at least some churches (see 2 Corinthians 11:8), and seems to support the payment of leaders, is forever regarded instead as an unpaid preacher supported by his tent-making business, based on a single verse in Acts.
So, and I think this is a worse problem, we have ended up singing the praises of those who are struggling to hold down paid employment and leading a church - usually a time-intensive missional pioneering role - as being “bi-vocational”. But this is misleading and potentially very harmful when it comes to thinking about how we structure the future of the church financially.
Bi-vocational, to me at least, means that someone has 2 callings. That’s the nature of the word. But for someone to be truly bi-vocational they have to have both of those callings. 1 is not enough. 3 is too many. 4 is right out. I don’t believe that most of those church leaders holding down a job because the church can’t (or won’t) pay them enough to support their family are truly bi-vocational. They’re part-time.
Now, you may regard this as a bit tomato/tomato, but I think it’s important that we make the distinction for a couple of very important reasons:
That’s not to say that we can get some very useful principles from reading Acts - it is, after all, the Word of God. But to read it as a straight manual of principles is a poor hermeneutic to employ. ↩