Setting Aside Your Rights as a Bivocational Church Planter
There goes Paul (you know, that Paul … apostle Paul) messing with us again. That rascal. Does he not know that if he keeps writing letters to churches in these various 1st century cities that 2,000 years later we’ll read them and be confronted by what he’s saying? And then he has the audacity to write about his supposed “rights” as a church planter. Like any church planter delivering a Sunday message Paul jumps back into the Old Testament and proof-texts to make his point as he declares his rights as a paid ministry professional. But then Paul injects a plot twist. Instead he lays these rights aside for the betterment of the churches and his ministry. Does he understand the implications of what he could unleash?
Ok, so what’s going on?
In his first letter to the church in Corinth Paul makes the argument that he and Barnabas have the right to expect compensation for their ministry. He goes on and uses different analogies … “Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk” (1 Cor. 9:7)? If that wasn’t enough, Paul, like any pastor today, begins proof-texting right out of the OT to make his point:
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more (1 Cor. 9:8-12)?
Then he goes on with this clincher … “Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ" (1 Cor. 9:13). Paul makes the point that he has every right to expect and assume some sort of compensation or financial help for his missionary work. But we know that he repeatedly denied these rights. Why? He doesn’t want anyone to question his motives. He also has stated he doesn’t want to be a financial burden to the churches. He adds this in his letter:
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel (1 Cor. 9:15-18).
Paul makes us uncomfortable in many ways. Even Peter says how Paul’s writings are difficult. However, when we refer to that we have in mind things like Paul’s theological deep dives in his letter to the church in Rome. But this portion of his letter to the Corinthians is difficult, but for different reasons. It puts us in an uncomfortable place. Why? Paul makes a “career” move that is the equivalent of career suicide. Because of his love for these churches he is setting aside his right to expect and assume compensation for his ministry.
That’s certainly not a popular notion today. In an era where many church planters and pastors are each focused on building their individual brands and platforms Paul instead moves in the other direction. He opts to not do ministry for financial gain. As I noted in my last article, it’s not like his side hustle was even that lucrative. He experienced hunger and homelessness. Paul’s writings have a way of rubbing our noses in our own stuff. He calls us out. He challenges our brand building, narcissism, and self-centered approach to ministry. He says, “Yeah, I have rights, but I’m setting them aside for you and for the gospel.” Ouch. That smarts.
No, this is not a diatribe against getting paid to do ministry. Paul never said it was wrong. In fact he explained he certainly did have the right. It’s about motives. It’s about our heart. It causes us to ask deep, reflective, and even painful questions … why am I even doing this? Why am I here? Maybe, another question is … do we love the people so much that we’d gladly set aside any rights we have for their betterment and the furtherance of the gospel?
No, you’re not wrong to get paid to do ministry whether full time or part time. It’s more about motives and why we’re in it. It’s also more about the people we’re trying to love towards God. My only hope is that you’ll love them so much that you’ll do anything for them to hear and experience good news … even if that means setting aside your rights.
Written by Sean Benesh
Director of Intrepid