Supporting church staff salaries – what the Word says and what it doesn’t

This is another very interesting question when it comes to giving. By staff here I mean people like pastors, assistant pastors, youth pastors i.e. “professionals” who somehow are supposed to carry the main ministry work of the local church. This question becomes even more interesting because staff salaries probably make up the biggest portion of the expenses a modern church has. Before we move further, we have to note that the church hierarchy we see today in the contemporary churches, is not something we will find in the Bible. According to this hierarchy we have the senior pastor who is – implicitly or explicitly - something like the head/boss of the church. Under him you have other similar professionals that do the work of youth pastor, assistant pastor etc. and they are usually full time employees of the church, working under the senior pastor. The senior pastor himself may be under the authority of a “bishop”, who is kind of in charge of the clergy in a region. Then you have the elders. These are usually not “professionals” i.e. they are people with “normal” full time jobs and participate in the church administration. Finally you have all other believers, that together with the elders are the so called “laity”. Though not every church follows such explicit distinctions, these exist, even though implicitly, in the vast majority of churches. Going to the New Testament now, we will see that there are no such structures there. There you do not see pastors, assistant pastors, bishops and elders as separate categories of people. In the New Testament, what you see in the local church leadership is elders. These are also called shepherds and bishops. In the New Testament, elders, shepherds (pastors), bishops are all terms used for the same people. The function of these people is to shepherd, to pastor, the local church, overseeing the flock (the Greek word for “bishop” means overseer) as they are elder brothers i.e. elders in the faith, mature believers. There are plenty of Scriptures that make this clear and I will soon have another study dealing with this matter exclusively, but here is a passage that encompasses everything: In Acts 20:17 Paul, on his way to Jerusalem, passed from Ephesus, where he “called the elders (plural) of the church”. Notice that there was one church, the church in Ephesus, and many elders. Notice also that Paul called for the elders. The text does not say that he called for the elders and the senior pastor and the assistant pastors and the bishop. It is just elders! All the same, without any special title attached to any of them. There was no person called “senior pastor” or “assistant pastor” etc. They were all elders. And they were many! Let’s see now what he told them:


Acts 20:28
“Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.”


In this verse you have everything. The people invited in this meeting were the elders of the church in Ephesus. Now what was the role of these brothers? Their role was to be OVERSEERS. The word translated “overseers” in this verse is the Greek word “episkopos”. It is this very word that in I Timothy 3:2 translated as “bishop”, saying: “A bishop [episkopos] then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober…”. It is again translated as such in Titus 1:7 “For a bishop (episkopos) must be blameless as the steward of God”. The elders of the church in Ephesus - and for this, the elders of every New Testament church - were “episkopoi”, which means overseers. In the other way around: the “episkopoi” mentioned in the Bible are the elders of the local church. As Vine in his dictionary says:


“the term “elder” indicates the mature spiritual experience and understanding of those so described; the term “bishop”, or “overseer” indicates the character of the work undertaken” (Vine’s dictionary pp. 130-131).


Bishops and elders are the same thing in the Bible. It may be that in today’s world these are presented as two different classes of people but such a distinction does not come from the Bible.

But Acts 20:28 tells us more: notice that the elders were appointed to shepherd the church of God or to be shepherds as some translations have it. The word “shepherd” that appears in this passage is the Greek word: poimaino that means: “to act as a shepherd” (Vine’s dictionary, p. 427), in other words “to shepherd”. A shepherd is somebody that feeds a flock. Not only does he feed it but he also guides it, going in front of it. Furthermore he takes care of the broken ones. We can find all of the functions of a shepherd from the Word of God, but as I said I wouldn’t want to go much further in this study as the purpose of it is different. There will be another study coming out dealing with these matters. What we need however to keep in mind here, is the following: nowhere the Word of God makes the distinctions we have today in most of the churches. It knows nothing about pastors, bishops, assistant pastors and elders as separate categories of people. All that it knows about is elders who shepherd the flock of God, the local church, being overseers of it. These elders were not people with theological degrees. They were ordinary people from the congregation. They were believers that had matured and were ready to shepherd and oversee younger believers with final aim to build them up in Christ. There is no indication in the Scripture that these people had to leave their normal secular jobs. There is also no indication in the Scripture of elders getting a normal monthly or otherwise regular salary from the local church for what they were doing. In fact, there was no New Testament church in which the elders that shepherded, oversaw, the flock were full time employees of the church, getting a regular salary from the church. Do we have a proof for this? Yes we do. Just read on.


On church staff salaries: the example of Paul.

Paul and his team were apostolic workers, going from town to town preaching the gospel and planting churches. They never stayed in one particular place permanently. They were more or less always on the move, preaching the gospel. For these people, and we will also see this later, the Lord commanded:


1 Corinthians 9:14
“Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel.”


This is not a reference for elders, permanent residents of a local church. It is not used for them in 1 Corinthians 9. The reference here is to apostles, to apostolic workers that were going from town to town, preaching the gospel and planting churches. In other words, they were what we today call missionaries. These apostolic workers were entitled to live fully from the gospel. Paul was one of them, Barnabas was another. As Paul says in verses 3-6 of the same chapter:


“My defense to those who examine me is this: Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working?


To rephrase the last question so that it fits in the way the first two questions are phrased: “Don’t Barnabas and I have the right to stop working ?” The question implies that the apostles did not in general have a secular occupation. But Paul and Barnabas did. Paul and Barnabas, with “the care of all the churches” (2 Corinthians 11:28) on Paul, were still working. The Lord had given them the special right to not have a secular occupation but live from the gospel. But they did not use this right. Here is what Paul says:


1 Corinthians 9:14-18
“Even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel. But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void. For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ free of charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel.


Paul had the right to live from the gospel. Nevertheless, he did not make use of this right, though, as we will see, he indeed occasionally received unsolicited voluntary contributions from the believers. At the same time he was working. As Acts 18:1-3 tells us:


“After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome); and he came to them. So, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them AND WORKED; for by occupation they were tentmakers.


The gospel did not and should not have a price tag assigned to it. It must be free of charge and Paul made sure that it was so. But there is also another reason that he did this. And this is shown in 2 Thessalonians 3:9-12 :


“But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone's bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, not because we do not have authority, BUT TO MAKE OURSELVES AN EXAMPLE OF HOW YOU SHOULD FOLLOW US. For even when we were with you, we commanded you this: If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat.”


Paul and his team had authority to “eat anyone’s bread free of charge”. They had authority to it as apostolic workers, not as elders of a local church. But they never used it. Instead they labored, day and night as he says. Why? So that they make themselves an EXAMPLE for the brothers to follow. “Example” is the key word here. And what is the example: that they should work and if anyone will not work, neither shall he eat. Now what does this mean for the churches that Paul founded, the New Testament churches ? If Paul and his co-workers were working wherever they went, and they were doing this to be a model, an example to the other believers, do you think that there was any elder in this church that was not working but had a salary from the church? I don’t think so. In addition, though apostolic workers - church planters - have the right to skip making their living through a secular occupation, elders don’t have this authority.

But the references of the Word of God to Paul’s example don’t stop here. I Thessalonians 2:9 tells us.


“For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God.


They were laboring day and night so that they are not a burden to any of the believers. Ministry was not an occupation for them; something to earn their living from. Doing the will of God was their life but they wouldn’t earn their living from this. To earn their living they would labor, as anybody else, giving an EXAMPLE to everybody else.

Acts 20:33-35 is another characteristic passage. It is part of the same speech we saw Paul giving to the elders (shepherds, overseers) of the church in Ephesus. See what he tells them:


“I have coveted no one's silver or gold or apparel. Yes, you yourselves know that these hands have provided for my necessities, and for those who were with me. I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.”


Again Paul presents himself as an example to them. You know, he tells them, that in my necessities my hands provided. This is a clear reference to the fact that when he was in Ephesus, he was working to support himself and the others. But there is more to it. See what he says: “I have shown you in every way, BY LABORING LIKE THIS, THAT YOU MUST SUPPORT THE WEAK.” Paul is speaking to the elders (shepherds, overseers) of the church in Ephesus. He speaks to the leadership of the local church. And what is he telling them? He is telling them “look at how I walked among you. I worked hard to support my needs. DO THE SAME”. So that “by laboring like this you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive”. The local church leadership was to follow Paul’s example, laboring hard to support their needs. They were not to be the recipients of salaries from the congregation. Paul, the example, was not a recipient of such a salary! How could they? They would rather be help and support to the weak. They would rather be givers than takers.


Commenting on Paul and his example here is what some well known commentators and scholars say:


F.F. Bruce - (The New International Commentary on the New Testament: Acts [Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1986] p.418)

“Returning once more to the example which he had set them, he reminds them finally that those who take care of the people of God must do so without thought of material reward. As Samuel called all Israel to witness when he was about to lay down his office as judge (1 Samuel 12:3), so Paul calls the Ephesian elders to witness that all the time he spent with them he coveted nothing that was not his; on the contrary, he did not even avail himself of his right to be maintained by those whose spiritual welfare he cared, but earned his living--and that of his colleagues--by his own labors: "these hands," he said (inevitably with the attendant gesticulation), "ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me" (v.34). Let those to whom he was speaking likewise labor and thus support not only themselves but others as well--the sick in particular.”


Simon Kistemaker (professor of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary) - (New Testament Commentary: Acts [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990] pp. 737,740)

“In his [Paul] letters he discloses that he worked night and day with his own hands to support himself, so that no one would ever be able to accuse him of depending on the hearers of the Gospel for his material needs (compare 1 Samuel 12:3). He refused to be a burden to anyone in the churches he established. By performing manual labor, he provided for his financial needs. Paul received gifts from the believers in Philippi, as he himself reveals (Philippians 2:25; 4:16-18), yet he declares that he did not solicit those gifts... The Ephesian elders had observed Paul's ministry and physical work during his three-year stay. They were able to testify that he had never exploited anyone (2 Corinthians 7:2), but had always set an example of diligence and self-sufficiency, in the good sense of the word. He was a model to the believers and taught the rule: "If you will not work, you shall not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10)... It appears that Paul generated sufficient income to support not only himself but even his companions... In every respect, says Paul to the elders of Ephesus, I taught you to work hard and with your earnings to help the weak... He exhorts them to follow his example and to labor hard.”


Roland Allen, author of the classic work, Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? (Grand Rapids: Wm.B. Eerdmans, 1962),

“When I wrote this book I had not observed that in addressing the elders of Ephesus, St. Paul definitely directs them to follow his example and to support themselves (Acts 20:34-35). The right to support is always referred to wandering evangelists and prophets, not to settled local clergy (see Matthew 10:10; Luke 10:7; 1 Corinthians 9:1-14) with the doubtful exceptions of Galatians 6:6 and 1 Timothy 5:17-18, and even if those passages do refer to money gifts, they certainly do not contemplate fixed salaries which were an abomination in the eyes of the early Christians (p.50).”


Carl B. Hoch, Jr., professor of New Testament at Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (All Things New [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995] p.240).

“In New Testament days, leaders were normally not paid. That is, money was given more as a gift than as an income or a salary. Leaders like Paul could receive money, but Paul chose not to receive any from the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 9:8-12). He wanted to serve without depending on any church for financial support. Churches had a responsibility to "reward the ox" (1 Timothy 5:17) and to share with those who taught (Galatians 6:6). But money was never to be the driving force of ministry (1 Peter 5:2). Unfortunately, churches today will not call a man until they feel they can support him, and some men will not seriously consider a call if the financial package is "inadequate" (All Things New [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995] p.240).”


Watchman Nee - The Normal Christian Church Life (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry, 1980)

“It is not necessary that elders resign their ordinary professions and devote themselves exclusively to their duties in connection with the church. They are simply local men, following their usual pursuits and at the same time bearing special responsibilities in the church. Should local affairs increase, they may devote themselves entirely to spiritual work, but the characteristic of an elder is not that he is a "full-time Christian worker." It is merely that, as a local brother, he bears responsibility in the local church (pp. 62-63).”


To me it is beyond any shadow of a doubt that there was no New Testament church with salaried staff. What a contrast to today! Today I have yet to meet a church without paid personnel. Salaries take up a whopping 50 to 60 % of the church budget with an addition roundabout 20 - 30 % going to building expenses. Another item the New Testament church didn’t have. Sadly to say, yet true, almost 80-90 % of a modern church budget is for items the first century Christians didn’t know about. This is definitely sad.


Supporting the elders: what does the Bible say ?

Now, having said the above doesn’t the Bible provide anything about those that spend their time teaching and shepherding others? The answers is yes it does! Though there were no salaried employees in the local churches, there is however a clear indication in the Scriptures that the elders, the shepherds of the local congregation, were to be recipients of honor by the people. As I Timothy 5:17 tells us:


“Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain," and, "The laborer is worthy of his wages.”


Notice again that the passage does not speak about one elder or one shepherd or pastor. It speaks about elders, many of them. The burden of shepherding the local church was never to be the job of one individual only but of many different mature brothers. This is the New Testament collective leadership under the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ vs. the one-man leadership that is in most of the cases the model today and essentially throughout the past many centuries. Returning to verse 17, the reference to honor means respecting, valuing, honoring the elders, especially those that labor in Word and doctrine. This could also include free will offerings to them.

That the double honor includes - though not only – support via voluntary gifts is also obvious from the reference to the ox in the above passage, as well as from the following passage of Galatians 6:6, where we read:


“Let him who is taught the word share in all good things with him who teaches.”


Those that are taught are to share in all good things with the one that is teaching them and one of the functions of a mature brother is to teach (I Timothy 3:2). Again, it is not a salary, but it is a sharing, a voluntary support. Seeing from the elders side this is not a job for living. They are to do this not for money or due to money. They are to do it anyway, without any money. As Peter says speaking to elders:


I Peter 5:1-2
“To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder ….. Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve;"


Again notice that elders, shepherds and overseers (or “bishops”) are all terms used interchangeably. As we see, the elders were to be shepherds of God’s flock, overseeing it. Notice also that shepherding the local church is not a “job”. It is not something that you do when you get a salary and something you don’t do without one. Shepherding the local church is a gift, a ministry and it has to be seen as such. Now, it is difficult to be seen like this when the task of shepherding is resting on the shoulders of only one brother, whom people call the “pastor”. But it was never supposed to be like this. This burden was to be resting on the shoulders of many brothers, the mature ones in Christ. They were to share it. And, to return back to our subject, they were to be recipients of honor from the congregation, including voluntary gifts from them. These however were gifts, they were given voluntary and they were not solicited. The elders were not to base their living on them. They had to earn their living on their own as everybody else. They had no salaries from the church. They had to follow the example of their father in the faith, Paul, who, with so many responsibilities on him, was going to the market place to work his trade and support himself and the others with him. This is in so much contrast to today where ministry is so often considered to be an occupation that somebody would not do without being paid for it.


Tassos Kioulachoglou






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