What About Ministerial Support If We Don’t Teach Tithing?

Answering Arguments That We Must Teach Tithing Because We Must Make Sure People Give Enough To Support The Ministry

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In this chapter, we are going to briefly examine how we have read more into scripture than it actually says concerning ministerial support. It won’t be an in-depth treatment of the subject, but it should be enough to get us to reconsider how we are interpreting some scriptures.

I have received free-will offerings when ministering at churches and to support missions and ministry work. I always greatly appreciate these gifts, and they help me to do more. I’m also currently contributing to the monthly support of a friend who recently left his job to do full-time ministry.

In fact, I’ve been a bit bewildered by the offense of some people towards this particular friend when he’s asked for donations. He ministers to people freely, sometimes giving money to people with needs as the Holy Spirit leads and as he ministers healing. I’ve never seen him promote a “give to get God’s blessing” message or use any form of manipulation. It seems strange that people would be offended by a simple “Please consider supporting us monthly.” Yet many people who’ve been financially abused by teachings of “give to get” or “give to avoid a curse” have become bitter and tend to make blanket judgments against ministers that “They’re all in it for the money!”

I’ve heard embittered people say they wanted to make all the pastors get “real jobs.” Of course, I disagree with this sentiment. My purpose here is not to argue against ministerial support. Rather, I challenge how we have used it as an argument for tithing or other compulsory “giving” rather than free-will giving.


The Cultural Background of Jesus’s Teachings

In our culture, we’ve often interpreted scriptural teachings about ministerial support as meaning more than they actually say. Jesus’s teachings and practice concerning ministerial support were consistent with the culture of his day. He was not a Levite or a priest who received tithes, but a rabbi. His disciples also became rabbis when he sent them to make disciples, and Paul was a rabbi who had been a disciple of Gamaliel. Consider how rabbis received support:


“…it was forbidden to charge a fee to teach the Torah, so it was common for rabbis to practice a trade part of the time and teach part of the time. Disciples did the same. Some rabbis were from priestly families, so they would have a stipend from the Temple, but many were manual laborers. There are many reports of teaching sessions held in the evening or on the Sabbath or festival days, so often men worked and studied at the same time. Some could work seasonally and take time off between planting and harvesting, etc. This makes sense with how the Gospel accounts describe the disciples fishing occasionally, even after they had become disciples of Jesus…

Often disciples would travel together with a rabbi, and they would take weeks away to go on a teaching trip. A disciple had to ask his wife’s permission to be away from home to study longer than 30 days. When they traveled, rabbis and disciples would pool their money to buy food, etc. Jesus received contributions from wealthy women, and they were known for supporting other rabbis too. When they traveled, the villages they taught in were expected to extend hospitality, giving them food and shelter.”[1]


If this section was a whole book and not just one chapter of a book, we could extensively quote other sources on Jewish and early church history in support of these facts, which are generally accepted by scholars. Not only did Rabbis and their disciples usually work part-time, first-century local church leaders did not receive salaries!

Charging a fee for teaching God’s word was forbidden, but Rabbis and their disciples received contributions and there was an expectation that they would receive hospitality. Notice how this is consistent with Jesus and Paul’s teachings:


Matthew 10:7-11  “’As you go, proclaim this message: “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give. Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep. Whatever town or village you enter, search there for some worthy person and stay at their house until you leave.’”


2 Corinthians 2:17  “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit. On the contrary, in Christ we speak before God with sincerity, as those sent from God.”


John 10:12-13  “The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.”


Rather than receiving tithes, Jesus and the apostles received hospitality and free-will offerings. Jesus and his disciples pooled their money, consistent with historians’ descriptions of Jewish Rabbis and their disciples at the time. Although they took significant time off from fishing to go on teaching trips, scripture does mention them fishing a few times.

Jesus’s statement that they were to give freely was consistent with the prohibition on Rabbis charging for their teachings. His statement that the worker deserves his keep was in the context of receiving hospitality. His words about the “hired hand” who wouldn’t be there if not for the pay, were also consistent with the prohibition on Rabbis charging money to teach.

Paul was quoting Jesus in 1 Timothy 5:18 when he said that the laborer was worthy of his hire.[2] Although Jesus and Paul both taught ministerial support, it was not necessarily full-time. Historical context and early church history give strong reasons to doubt that they were mandating full-time support. Paul himself exhorted first century church leaders to work hard with their own hands.[3]

Hospitality was expected, and receiving free-will gifts which enabled them to go on teaching tours was proper. When there were needs beyond what hospitality and gifts supplied, they continued to work. I think it is probable that Jesus himself and the apostles in Jerusalem received full-time support and did not have to work at all in a trade, as the gifts abundantly provided for them to be able to do so. Yet it is unlikely that anybody else in the first-century church did.


Galatians 6:6  “Nevertheless, the one who receives instruction in the word should share all good things with their instructor.”


This scripture likewise is an exhortation encouraging free-will giving, but it is not a command that one who teaches must receive a full-time salary for doing so. In fact, scripture encourages us all to teach each other.[4] Some excel in teaching and devote a lot of time to it. Yet the scriptural model of support is simply free-will giving. It’s not all-or-nothing.

Although Jesus’s teaching about ministerial support was consistent with the rabbinical support practices of his day and not tithes, even those who received tithes did not rely completely on them for their needs. Edersheim, an expert on Judaism, explains that priests received income from 24 sources and their tenth of the tithe was one of the least.[5] Scripture is clear that the Levites also did work outside of the temple, such as herding animals. So even those who received tithes were not in “full-time ministry” by our standards. According to Dr. Russel Earl Kelly:


“Most church historians document that even high priests in Jesus’s time also had and worked other vocations.”[6]


Apostolic Ministry

In this context, let’s consider what Paul was saying to the Corinthians about ministerial support:


1 Corinthians 9:3-15  “This is my defense 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?

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 plows 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? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

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? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.”


“Receive their living by the gospel” is a bit of a paraphrase for “live by the gospel.” In the context of scripture, this most likely refers to receiving food and lodging as they go and preach. When Paul said “The Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel,” what did he mean by “those who preach the gospel?” After all, every disciple of Jesus is supposed to preach the gospel!

Paul was referring to Jesus’s instructions when he sent out the 12 and the 70 to preach. The context is apostolic ministry. Not only was traveling extremely dangerous at the time, but not everybody’s profession was as mobile as Paul’s was. Paul’s words were consistent with the expectation of his day that Rabbis should receive hospitality. It was consistent with the free-will financial gifts of benefactors which enabled rabbis and their disciples to go on teaching tours. It was mobile ministry.

Some take Paul’s reference to those who serve in the temple getting their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar sharing in what is offered at the altar, as support for tithing. However, what the priests received from the altar was animal sacrifices and other offerings, and nobody is arguing for reinstating those! Paul is sharing a principle, not laying down Old Covenant law for gentile Christians! When we read this, we must remember that those who served in the temple and often even those who served at the altar had other professions, and only received these things when they were working in the temple! The Levites were not in what we would call “full-time ministry.”

Paul was not teaching a right to demand money or to charge a fee for ministry, which was forbidden! He was defending the right to receive hospitality and to accept free-will offerings. Among them, he had paid for his food when it was expected that a traveling rabbi would receive food and lodging. Even so, he wasn’t complaining about that. Although he wasn’t even receiving support from the Corinthians, some people complained that he was a freeloader for accepting support freely given by other churches! They were trying to “muzzle” him.


Is “Double Honor” Double Money?

1 Timothy 5:1, 17-20  “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity… The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’ Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning.


This passage is often taken as a reference to financial compensation. However, I’m not aware of anybody who holds that position applying this scripture accordingly.

Paul was quoting Jesus when he said “the laborer is worthy of his hire.” In context, Jesus was talking about receiving food and lodging, not demanding money. While extending hospitality is honoring a guest, and honoring your aging father and mother includes caring for their needs, the word “honor” is still not a reference to a salary, and “double honor” does not mean “double money.” Jesus himself had said “freely you have received, freely give.” This is not talking about monetary compensation. In context, Paul instructs us to speak to elders with honor and not treat accusations against them lightly.

Honor is a theme in Paul’s writing to Timothy. Right after the above text in chapter five, Paul begins chapter six by saying slaves should honor their masters. He then continues by warning against people who think godliness is a means of financial gain. Paul speaks of being content with having food and clothes. He warns Timothy not to be ensnared in the desire for riches. In Acts 20 Paul encouraged the Ephesian elders to follow his example by working with their own hands so as to help the weak. Considering all this, it seems quite strange to imagine that Paul was saying Timothy or anyone else should receive a double salary!

Dr. Russel Earl Kelly points out that the word “honor” can be used once in a while in certain context to mean “value” but is never used in the New Testament to mean “wage.” Other language in Greek would be more appropriate for that. Furthermore, the Greek word “kopiao,” translated “labor” in verse 17 does not implicitly mean “labor for a living.” It differs from the word “ergazomai” which is the common verb in Greek meaning “work to aquire,” and is used 41 times in the New Testament. The Greek word “mithros,” which is translated as “wages” in the NIV above, occurs 29 times in the New Testament and could only possibly be translated as “wages” or “salary” in five of those places. It is used to speak of Paul’s “reward” in 1 Corinthians 9:17-18 as he works with his hands and does not charge for the gospel, as well as our “reward” in heaven. In all, Dr. Kelly lists 19 reasons why 1 Timothy 5 is not talking about a salary or a tithe.[7]

I have always noticed that so many people treat 1 Timothy 5 as a reference to salaries, yet nobody seems to apply it thus. If 1 Timothy 5 were a command to give salaries to elders, then all elders in the church should receive salaries. Few who interpret “honor” as “salary” actually propose giving salaries to all elders and double salaries to those who do well. If 1 Timothy is mandating salaries for elders, many more people have a right to demand full-time salaries than are currently receiving any compensation. For example, many large churches have dozens or even hundreds of cell-group leaders. If 1 Timothy is talking about salaries for elders, all of these workers should be receiving salaries!


The Ecclesiological Implications of Mandatory Pastoral Salaries

The underlying issues keep going deeper, and it’s too much to deal with more extensively in this book because then we get into ecclesiology. The New Testament only uses the noun “pastor” in one place referring to any church leader other than Jesus,[8] and it’s in the plural. However, the New Testament uses of the verb “to pastor” show no distinction between “pastors” and “elders.” The New Testament denotes a plurality of leadership. If scripture teaches that “elders” have a right to demand a full-time salary, then to be scriptural we should be giving all elders a full-time salary, and a lot more people would be getting a salary from ministry than are currently. As we have noted, the strong passages for ministerial support are in the context of apostolic, mobile ministry, and must be understood in their cultural context.

I discussed the ecclesiology in my first book, “I Am Persuaded.” We examined the enormous pressure on many pastors, as well as high burnout rates caused by overemphasis in our culture on the role of a single pastor. We also examined the tendency for this heavy emphasis on a few leaders to stifle church multiplication. When a few leaders are expected to do so much, many Christians fall into a co-dependent relationship with leaders rather than each person acting as a minister of Christ.

Again, I do not write with the intention of telling all pastors receiving full-time support that they must “get a real job” or start meeting in houses. Rather, I point out the pitfalls which many experienced missionary church-planters have noted with pastoral salaries. Many of the world’s fastest-growing church-planting movements, including the one Victor Choudrie leads, intentionally have no salaried pastors.

As I sought out literature on church multiplication movements, I read experienced missiologists saying repeatedly that pastoral salaries hinder the church from multiplying. Yet I was really surprised when I read a Christianity Today article in which even Heidi Baker said the same![9] Many of us highly appreciate Heidi and are familiar with the rapidly-growing multiplication of churches in Mozambique and Africa which she and her husband lead. There seems to be a good deal of consensus among the leaders of such movements that pastoral salaries hinder multiplication.

The Holy Spirit is always working, and he is moving in many different models and cultural expressions of church. I’m often overwhelmed with thanksgiving for what he’s doing. Some churches which have a more institutional expression still have a good deal of participation with many members of Christ’s body ministering to each other, and have been experiencing great moves of the Holy Spirit. This is why I’ve written so prayerfully here, not to tear down such movements but to point out that they are a particular cultural expression of church, and not the essential biblical pattern for all churches.

This relates closely to the issue of tithes because so many leaders in our culture seem to feel that the kingdom of God would fall apart without a great deal of money. Many of the things that we feel we couldn’t do without are the very things that leaders of church-multiplication movements name as hindrances to growth! Along with this, we must consider the fact that the earliest local church leaders did not receive salaries. George E. Ladd comments in the Wycliff Bible commentary:


“The main objective of giving in the early church was to provide for the needs of the poor brothers rather than to support the preaching of the gospel, as is the case today.”[10]


Salaried pastors and buildings are not forbidden and may be helpful in some cases, but if we will have them we must support them by the biblical model of free-will giving. So many feel that they must hold to the human tradition of the modern tithe to support them, and thus the perceived need becomes the reason for teaching tithing, rather than truth. We can no longer continue the tithe tradition when we consider how the tithe is undermining a pure gospel message, the need for integrity with handling scripture, and the many commandments of God which the church has been breaking for the sake of this tradition. The perceived “need” doesn’t justify corrupting our wisdom and continually seeking support for what simply isn’t true.

Even so, I believe there are people who the Lord has called to leave their jobs in order to preach. There are plenty of full-time gospel workers who do not rely on tithes for their incomes. We are also in a more prosperous time of history than ever before and are able to sustain many full-time Christian workers with free-will giving.


Support for Apostolic Workers Intentionally Put Them in Dependency Rather than in Power!

In his Luke 10 Manual for church planters, Stephen W. Hill explains Jesus’s instruction to not take a purse as they went:


Luke 10:4  “Do not take a purse or bag or sandals; and do not greet anyone on the road.”


“As we read down the passage, we find Jesus instructing His disciples to find a person of peace, enter their home and eat and drink with them. His instruction is that they would stay with that person and serve them in their home. If we do that and especially if we begin the journey without money, we are dependent upon that person for our daily living. Thus, the money bag, while literally true, also becomes a metaphor for power in relation to the other and how we handle differences in power. If we take our money with us, we have the power to create a little island of our own preference in the middle of any culture and that is exactly what western missionaries have done all around the world”.[11]


Stephen continues, explaining how the one who has the money has the power and how this has been a hindrance to the spread of the gospel. Many modern missiologists concur about the danger of the ones with the money imposing their cultural ideals on another culture rather than letting the gospel take root within that culture.

The way that Jesus sent his disciples and taught them to receive provision on missionary journeys did not put them in power, but in dependence. Jesus’s words “The laborer is worthy of his hire” were in this context, yet they have been wrongly interpreted as denoting a right to control the money!

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[1] Online: https://ourrabbijesus.com/a-question-about-disciples-rabbis/ Accessed December 10th. The author of this text states his source:  “My reference here is the chapter, ‘Education and the Study of Torah’ in The Jewish People in the First Century, by Safrai & Stern (Van Gorcum, Brill.) Shmuel Safrai spent a lifetime engaging the original rabbinic texts, and distilled the results of his research here. It is the best scholarly source available on the topic.”

[2] Matthew 10:10 is about the sending of the 12, and Luke 10:7 is about the sending of the 72. Both are very similar passages, but they use a different word in the Greek to say what the worker is worthy of. Matthew 10:10 in the NIV says “the worker is worthy of his keep,” and Luke is translated “The worker deserves his wages.” The wording of Luke 10:7 in the Greek is the same as that of 1 Timothy 5:18. See Dr. Kelly’s comments a little further down on the Greek “mithros” usually not meaning “salary.” The use of the word “trophes” (translated “provisions” or “keep”) in the nearly parallel passage of Matthew 10:10 helps us to understand the sense in which Luke used “mithros,” and that it was not a “salary” as we think of it today.

[3] Ephesians 20:17-36

[4] Colossians 3:16

[5] Edersheim, Alfred. The Temple: Its Ministry and Services as They Were at the Time of Jesus Christ. London: Religious Tract Society, 1900. Pg. 102-103.

[6] Kelly, Russel Earl Online: http://www.tithing-russkelly.com/ Accessed January 2nd, 2020

[7]Kelly, Russell Earl. Should the Church Teach Tithing?: a Theologians Conclusions about a Taboo Doctrine. New York: Writers Club Press, 2007. Chapter 24 1 Timothy 5:17-20 Worthy of Double Honor Also online: http://www.tithing-russkelly.com/id35.html

[8] Ephesians 4:11

[9] Bakery, Heidi Miracles In Mozambique Online: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/may/miracles-in-mozambique.html?type=prev&number=13&id=96235&start=7 Accessed July 7th, 2019

[10] Pfeiffer, Charles F., and Everett Falconer Harrison. Wycliffe Bible Commentary. Chicago: Moody P., 1962.Commentary on Acts 20:34

[11] Hill, Steven W. and Marilyn. Luke 10 Manual, Page 35. Available Online: https://www.harvest-now.org/uploads/media/LK10_Manual__26_04_01.pdf Accessed January 1, 2020.