I came to believe that there was no valid support or defense for paying the salary of a pastor or elder while I was at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. This was while I was training to become a vocational/paid pastor! It was through my experiences at the seminary and studying the scriptures that made me realize that just about everything we we do in “traditional church” cannot be defended or supported with the scriptures (try as we might). So, I have been inspired, by a conversation with my brother-in-law, to write about the misguided idea that pastors/elders should receive a salary. But before I start, let me say that I am not saying it is wrong or sinful to pay a man to teach you every Sunday morning, all I am saying is that this practice cannot be justified using the Christian Bible. I would also say that in most cases, paying the salary of a pastor/elder is quite often detrimental to the maturity and growth of the church.
1 Timothy 5:17-18
So, let us talk about the most popular verse use to support paying an elder, 1 Timothy 5:17-18…
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
The ultimate question with this verse is what does honor mean… or in this case double honor. Many people equate honor with wage, the laborer deserves his wage and the elder deserves his wage too. Which does not really make sense. In essence, what Paul is saying here is “Elders are worthy of double honor, just like oxen are worthy of their grain, and laborers are worthy of their wage.” We cannot rightly say that elders are worthy of their wage because laborers are… not unless you are prepared to say that elders are worthy of their grain too. You see, elders are not oxen and they are not laborers, they are elders! (technically, an elder could be a laborer, if they got real jobs to support themselves and their families)
You may be inclined to say that elders work at least 40 hours a week and are on-call 24 hours a day , 7 days a week! Surely that is a job and quite labor intensive. And yes, I would agree with you, but that is not an elder’s job, no where in scripture can you defend the practice of making eldership as employment. In fact, you would be hard pressed to find any description of an elder that prescribes the job requirements of a modern day pastor. An elder is someone who has simply been recognized as being mature in Christ, not someone who gets paid to perform certain duties.
There is another fundamental problem with associating the term “double honor” with “wage” in this text. If we read a few verses from before, 1 Timothy 5:3…
Honor widows who are widows indeed
You see, just a few lines above where Paul talks about double honor he says that widows are worthy of single honor. If we are confident that double honor is the same as a laborer’s wage, then all the true widows in your church should get half the salary that your senior pastor makes (and half the grain).
I have not heard anyone, ever, suggest that we need to pay a widow an annual salary. So what does honor mean here? Well, the Greek words for honor (τιμἁω / τιμἡ) is used in both verses to literally mean, “respect.” In other words, the godly people in the church deserve respect, especially if they teach and preach — and the widows should be respected too.
We should also consider a few verses that come after 1 Timothy 5:17-18, namely, 1 Timothy 6:1…
All who are under the yoke as slaves are to regard their own masters as worthy of all honor so that the name of God and our doctrine will not be spoken against.
If double honor means that we should pay our elders a salary, then logically speaking, slaves should pay their masters a salary, right? And yes, this is the same Greek word τιμἡ used in 1 Timothy 5:17-18. It truly does not make sense to say that Paul meant “honor” as one meaning in between two other uses of the same word. Not to mention, how could a slave pay their masters a salary at all? Unless of course these slaves were paid, which may be historically accurate, why would they then be required to give all that money back to the person who paid them?
1 Corinthians 9:14
Let us move onto the next verse, 1 Corinthians 9:14…
So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.
Well, this is pretty damning evidence, is it not? No, not really. Let us consider the some of the context surrounding the verse, 1 Corinthians 9:9-18 (bolded to illustrate my point)…
For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” God is not concerned about oxen, is He? Or is He speaking altogether for our sake? Yes, for our sake it was written, because the plowman ought to plow in hope, and the thresher to thresh in hope of sharing the crops. If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ. Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.
But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one. For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
You have to realize, Paul (the author of this letter) repeatedly says that although they have the right to receive money for their work, they did not pursue this right. They did this so they would not hinder the gospel. Oh, and there is also an often ignored smoking gun in this verse. Do you see it? This verse has ABSOLUTELY NOTHING to do with pastors or elders! This is about missionaries. Paul was not an elder or a pastor, he was a missionary. He was travelling from town to town as a missionary spreading the good news of Jesus Christ. Now, I would be the last person to argue that we should not support missionary work, but Paul here says it is ideal for a missionary to find their own work and support themselves! But we cannot deny the fact that in this context, those who proclaim the gospel get their living from the gospel is talking about people who are leaving their home town and travelling far away to share about the Christ. In other words, these are people who would, in any normal situation, have a hard time finding employment and supporting their own physical needs.
The next verse is pretty weak, Galatians 6:6…
The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.
I am not even sure how this verse can be used to support paying someone a salary. Especially considering how the verse continues, 6:7-9…
Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. Let us not lose heart in doing good, for in due time we will reap if we do not grow weary.
In other words, if you teach the word (sow), you can expect to reap spiritual blessings from that work. This has nothing to do with money, I think many people out there who share the gospel can speak to the blessings they have received from the people who they have shared with or continue to disciple.
The last verse that is commonly used to support paying a pastor/elder is Philippians 4:14-19…
Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction. You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
We still have to deal with the same smoking gun as above, Paul is a missionary, not an elder/pastor. But yes, apparently the Philippians supported Paul when he was going through a rough patch, and he considered it a blessing. Though he did not seek the gift, he is glad that their graciousness will profit the Philippians. I would also like to point out that this is not a salary, it is a gift of support they sent Paul while he was away. In other words, this verse does not support paying a pastor/elder a salary!
The Old Testament Priests
Many people look to the Old Testament priesthood as an example or model of how we should support our pastors and elders. There is one hugely fundamental problem with this concept though. We are all priests, we have direct communication with God, we do not need to go to a human to have our sins overlooked. The priestly system was setup in a certain way for a certain time. And that whole system was ultimately fulfilled through Jesus (thankfully).
Of the four verses I talked about today, the only one that has any direct bearing on elders is 1 Timothy 5:17-18. If there were a verse to support paying a pastor a salary, it would be that one. Unfortunately, it does not… it cannot! The fact is, the church system is not meant to function the way that it does, the way that requires one or a few men to teach every Sunday, to be on-call 24×7, to be the only people who visit the sick in the hospital, the men who sets the vision for the church (as if God did not already do that 2,000 years ago), etc. The church should function in a way that we all share in the responsibility of discipling one-another, we should love one-another, we should visit one-another and help one-another. This responsibility should not, MUST NOT, fall on one man (or a few men). Earlier I said that paying a pastors salary was detrimental to the maturity and growth of the church. What I meant was this, when we pay a man to do the stuff that we should be doing, we fail to grow. Sure, we might learn something every now and then as we mindlessly sit in our pews, but that is not growing or maturing. We grow spiritually when we learn how to give up our own wants and needs for those around us. That is extremely hard to do when we think that paying a mans salary to do those things for us is what God wants from us. With all that said, let me leave you with a few quotes from the scripture that do support the ideal of being unpaid…
For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. – 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10
What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel. – 1 Corinthians 9:18
I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.'” – Acts 20:33-35
Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. – 1 Peter 5:1-3