I want to use this passage from 1 Corinthians tonight to answer a specific question. “Do churches really need full-time ministers?” I have to begin by admitting that that is not really the question which Paul is answering here. The proper way to approach the Bible is to see what the original author was talking about and focus on that. We should let the Bible frame the questions we ask, rather than use the Bible to ask our own questions.
But if you will forgive the way in which I am using the text to address my own specific question, I think it is legitmate in this case. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul is defending his own calling as an apostle and the way that he exercises that ministry. As such it gives us a glimpse of what being an apostle was about and from that churches through the century have derived patterns for what being priests and ministers should be. And I ask the question tonight not only because I am a full time minister in the Baptist Tradition but also because it seems increasingly likely that ministers like me are becoming an endangered species and quite possibly in my lifetime may become almost extinct. So – “Do churches really need full-time ministers?”
The pattern for full-time Christian ministry comes as much from the Old Testament as from the New. So let’s begin by seeing what God commanded Israel regarding their priests. The priests in the Old Testament had very special duties and very special privileges. They were the cornerstone of the faith and religion of Israel. The word priest or priesthood occurs a staggering 937 times in the Bible. And the Levites are mentioned another 312 times. That’s an average of more than once every page across the Old Testament! We read about them in many different places in Deuteronomy, and just that one book it speaks about the different responsibilities of the priests.
10:8 At that time the LORD set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the LORD, to stand before the LORD to minister and to pronounce blessings in his name, as they still do today.
The priests were guardians of God’s truth, the commandments and the book of the Law of Moses. They taught the faith of Israel to the people. It was the priests’ privilege to offer sacrifices to the Lord, to attend his tabernacle and stand and minister in the Lord’s name. The priests, and only the priests, had access into the very presence of God. They represented the people before God and they also represented God to the people. And to enable them to do this, the people supported the priests in all their daily needs.
18:3 This is the share due to the priests from the people who sacrifice a bull or a sheep: the shoulder, the jowls and the inner parts. 4 You are to give them the firstfruits of your grain, new wine and oil, and the first wool from the shearing of your sheep, 5 for the LORD your God has chosen them and their descendants out of all your tribes to stand and minister in the LORD’s name always.
All these privileges of the Old Testament priests came at a specific and great cost to the whole tribe of Levi. They were set apart from the ordinary people of Israel. They had no land and no inheritance of their own. They lived hand to mouth dependent entirely on the generosity of God’s people.
18 The priests, who are Levites—indeed the whole tribe of Levi—are to have no allotment or inheritance with Israel. They shall live on the offerings made to the LORD by fire, for that is their inheritance. 2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them.
Day by day the Levites were dependent on God’s provision and the offerings his people brought.
Deuteronomy 14:27 And do not neglect the Levites living in your towns, for they have no allotment or inheritance of their own.
This pattern of priests and people was in place for at least 1500 years before Christ. And after a short period of transition in the first century, this has been the pattern for Christianity ever since. Christians have found that pattern in the New Testament as well in particular in the letters of Paul.
What is an apostle? Somebody called by God.
1 Cor 1:1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
A servant of Christ
1 Cor 4:1 So then, men ought to regard us as servants of Christ and as those entrusted with the secret things of God.
A fool for Christ who suffers for Christ.
1 Cor 4 9 For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. … 11 To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. 12 We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; 13 when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world.
Someone appointed by God to serve the body of Christ.
1 Cor 12 27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. 28 And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, …
So apostles were seen as the pattern for priests and ministers in the developing church. And more than anywhere in the New Testament, 1 Corinthians 9 talks about the rights of an apostle.
9:1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
So the church in Corinth, and all the other churches Paul had planted, were the proof of Paul’s calling and the effectiveness of his ministry as an apostle. But that fact has implications, Paul says. In fact, the Corinthians owe him a duty of support for his ministry.
3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 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? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who must work for a living?
The apostles who were the leaders of the church in Jerusalem were supported by the gifts of the church there. In Acts 6 we read that they had been set apart so they could “devote their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” This should be the pattern for all apostles, and has been taken as the pattern for priests and ministers.
7 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? 8 Do I say this merely from a human point of view? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 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? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?
So apostles have a right to be supported by the church. And through the centuries this has been the pattern for Christian ministers.
13 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? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.
There are other places too where Paul argues that those who serve the church have a right to be supported by Christians.
Galatians 6:6 Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.
1 Timothy 5 17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
This has been the pattern in the church for 2000 years. Priests and ministers and pastors safeguard the faith of the church. They are set apart to serve God by ordination and supported by the gifts the ordinary Christians make to the church. This pattern is most obvious in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, but with the exception of the Brethren churches it has been the pattern in most Free Churches as well. I was set apart, trained, ordained and nationally recognised in the Baptist tradition to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament – to teach and preach the Word of God and to minister the sacraments especially of believer’s baptism and of the Lord’s Supper, communion.
But I ask again the question: “Do churches really need full-time ministers?”
The Old Testament pattern of the priesthood continues even in the church today. But not, I suspect, for much longer. Because I see a number of factors diminishing the place of ordained ministers in the life of the church. Recruitment to the clergy has been decreasing over the last half century. As the churches numbers and strength have been waning resources to pay for clergy have been severely stretched.
There are all sorts of reasons why Christians might think they don’t need clergy any more, especially not full-time clergy. Time was when the priest would be the only educated person in the community, the only one able to read and write. That is no longer the case. Baptist Churches especially have also rightly insisted on the priesthood of all believers. We do not believe that there exists a separate class of “ordained ministers” distinct from every other Christians. More than that, our Post-Modern world is increasingly suspicious of any forms of hierarchy or authority structures, of institutions and of “experts”. So new Christians do not inherit the implicit trust of clergy which previous generations used to have.
But across all the denominations there has been as shift away from full-time paid ministers for one simple reason. Money. More and more clergy are described as “non-stipendiary” or “self-supporting ministers.” In Baptist circles we seem to like the word, “bi-vocational” which means a minister who does two or more jobs. This may be a full time or part time secular “day job” which is not only a sphere of ministry but also a source of income allowing the minister to serve a church in a part-time or unpaid capacity.
I believe there is still a place for paid full time Ministers of Word and Sacrament, set apart to devote their lives to teaching and prayer, and supported by the church to do so. I believe there is still a vital place for priests and ministers in the church. 18:2 They shall have no inheritance among their brothers; the LORD is their inheritance, as he promised them. That’s the way it always has been and that’s the way I believe it always should be. But I do fear for the future of the ministry. I do wonder whether in even a hundred years time, churches will have Ministers of Word and Sacrament any more.
But what do you think ????