Supporting full-time ministry

It's God who chooses

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 one (Num 1:1–46) was taken thirteen months after they left Egypt; the second one (Num 26:1–65) was taken thirty-eight years later, just before they entered the promised land. The intervening chapters describe their journey and their grumblings and rebellion against God.

One such instance is recorded in Num 17. There the people challenged Aaron's appointment as high priest. To prove that God had chosen Aaron, Moses was told to take 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!—ample proof that God had chosen Aaron.

It's God who anoints

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 lessons can we learn from this event in Israel's history? The point God is making is that it is he who chooses leaders in his Church.

For Aaron's staff to bud, blossom and produce almonds, the power of God had to come upon that staff. Similarly, for a Christian to become a leader in the Church, God's power and anointing will have to come upon that person. Man can appoint leaders physically, but unless God has chosen and anointed 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, so it was not just Aaron the people were complaining about, but the whole tribe of Levi. Why was that?

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 tabernacle (Num 8:23–26).

Some members of the other tribes resented that calling. Whether their resentment was based on their own desire to be in full-time ministry, or the fact that they had to support them financially, we don't know. It may have been a mixture of 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 his life and has been assigned at least one function or ministry in the Church (1Co 12:12–20), God still chooses individuals to serve him in full-time ministry today.

They are Christ's gifts to the Church, comprising apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers (Eph 4:7–11). Their purpose, as stated in Eph 4:12–13, is threefold:

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

Importance of 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 a serious problem, 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).

Man needs spiritual food as well as physical food. The apostles said that it wouldn't be right for them to neglect their spiritual gift in order to wait on tables, so they delegated the task to others and gave themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word.

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. In other words the Church grew significantly as a result.

Do we want to see God's church grow in our day? Then we should follow the principle laid down in Acts. 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 a prophetic message 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 4:13–15)

Paul told Timothy (a young pastor) 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 that 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 single most important ministry in the Church. When God speaks, things happen; but the ministry cannot exist without prayer.

The apostles said they would give themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word (Act 6:4). The ministry of the Word of God comes through prayer. The preacher or teacher gets his message through prayer, as he gets his anointing through prayer; 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? No they haven't. They haven't changed since Pentecost.

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 cannot happen except 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 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 18:21–24).

Tithing is not commanded in the New Testament, so how should full-time ministries be supported today? God gave specific instructions for their support in the Old Testament and he's given specific instructions for their support in the New Testament.

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 to full-time preaching, which was what God had called him 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 period they refused to support him financially (2Co 11:7–9).

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

The people were so eager to manifest those 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 Baptism of the Spirit is not everything. Christians need the Word of God as well as the Spirit of God if they are to live godly lives on this earth. Paul had to instruct them about moral living, and giving to those who were in need, and that included giving to 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 must work for a living? (1Co 9:3–6)

As far as we know Paul wasn't married, but he was stating a spiritual principle: that those who are called to full-time ministry should be supported by those they minister to. In fact they have a God-given right to that support.

They should receive enough to supply their own needs and the needs of their wives and children. That was true under the Old Covenant and it's also true under the New Covenant. However the saints at Corinth didn't like that idea, they 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 of its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk? Do I say this merely from a human point of view? 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 when the ploughman ploughs and the thresher threshes, they ought 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? Not according to God.

He wrote to Timothy:

No-one serving as a soldier gets involved in civilian affairs—he wants 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 involve himself with such things, so how would he live?

The hard working farmer should be the first to receive a share of the crops. Reflect on what I'm 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 of God as spiritual farmers. They sow spiritual seed into the hearts of the people so they can reap a material harvest.

Those who minister the Word may not see it that way, but God does. We pass on to the people what we receive from the Lord, and it's a privilege to do that. It's not money that motivates us, but love and a desire to serve. However God says we should expect a financial return from our ministry. Why? Because it's our livelihood; it's the work he has given us to do.

The Word is free

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 people for it.'

No one should charge anyone to hear the Word of God, it's been given freely by God for the good of mankind. However the vessels God uses to minister his Word 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 was that? Because 'the worker is worth his keep (Mat 10:10b).' Or, as Luke records it: '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. This can obviously be a problem in the Church because so much is said about it in the New Testament.

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

Ways to support

Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and 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 brought to him (Lev 10:12–15). That principle is carried over into the New Testament.

Most churches take up an offering to the Lord during their meetings. According to God's Word, those who are in full-time ministry should be the first to benefit from those offerings (2Ti 2:6–7). In other words, supporting the pastor or spiritual leader of the church should be the congregation's first priority.

Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor. (Gal 6:6)

Many of us are blessed by ministries in the Church worldwide, not just by those from our own fellowship. If we benefit from such ministries we have a duty, in Christ, to support them financially.

A visiting preacher comes to a church and an offering is taken for his needs. Someone might say: 'I don't need to give to brother so-and-so; he lives by faith, God will look after him.' Yes he will, and he might want to do it through you.

These preachers live in the same world that we do; they have the same bills to pay that we do. God doesn't put manna on the table for them in the morning. He could do, but he doesn't; things have changed since the Old Testament.

Would you like to go to work and not be paid? How would you live? In the same way, if we've been blessed by someone's spiritual ministry we should support them financially.

Those who minister the Word of God 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, in return, give back to the Lord by giving to them.

Accounts in heaven

Not that I am looking for a gift, but I am looking for what may be credited to your account. I have received full payment and even more; 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 his glorious riches in Christ Jesus. (Phi 4:17–19)

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

He said that he wasn't looking for a gift from them, but for what could be credited to their account. That means that everything we give to full-time ministries is recorded in heaven.

Paul 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, and particularly those that minister to us.

Conditional promises

He went on to say that his God would meet all of their needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus (v19). Christians often take that verse out of context: they claim it as a general promise, ignoring the verses that precede it.

God is very gracious; he will meet all of our needs if we ask him to (Luk 11:5–10). However that promise was made to those who had supported Paul's ministry: you cannot take out of an account what you haven't put in.

If we want to claim that promise for ourselves we must fulfil the condition. We're in need and ask the Lord to meet our need. The Lord says, 'Let me look at his account. Oh yes, he's given to this ministry and to that ministry. Fine, no problem.'

The New Testament contains the details of the New Covenant God has made with us through Jesus Christ (Luk 22:20). A covenant is a will, and wills can have clauses that govern inheritance. The New Covenant contains such clauses.

If we do what God tells us to do, he will do for us what he's promised to do. But if we don't do what he tells us to do, he's under no obligation to do what he's promised to do.

If we want to be sure of God's promises coming to pass in our lives, we must obey his Word. If we meet the conditions, God will fulfil his promises (Gen 18:19).

Michael Graham
November 2007

Scripture taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version ®. NIV ®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society.

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