READERS OF ST PAUL’S EPISTLES are used to his discussions of doctrine or moral issues. This passage, however, sheds light on a specific area of church practice and on Paul’s own custom in that regard.
We know from the Acts of the Apostles that, in response to Christ’s command, the apostles (the Twelve and others such as Ss. Barnabas, Silas, Timothy, and Titus preached the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. We know little or nothing about how they lived.
We do know that these apostles went to cities where there were Jewish settlements and they first presented the Gospel to the Jews. In Acts 17, for example, we see how Paul and Silas “came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As was his custom, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures” (Acts 17:2, 3). Paul converted some of the Jews and of the God-fearing Gentiles who worshipped with them. Through them they may have encountered other non-believers. St Luke says that “Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God-fearing Greeks and quite a few prominent women” (Acts 17:4).
How the Apostles Lived
It seems that the apostles traveled in twos or threes, following the model that the Lord Jesus had given them (cf., Mark 6:7). A brief mention in 1 Corinthians 9 gives us a hint about how they lived.
Paul, we know, was not married but at least some of the other apostles were. And according to Paul, their wives traveled with them: “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?” (1 Corinthians 9:4)
The heart of Paul’s instruction here is about the support which the apostles received. In most cases the apostles were supported by the Church which had sent them or the community to which they had brought the Gospel. Paul and his team seem to have been the exception: they supported themselves so that their hearers would not think they were preaching for money.
Paul brings this to the Corinthians’ attention: “If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more? But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:11-12). Paul believed that he and Silas had the right to be supported by the Corinthian Christians but did not exercise it lest it be a stumbling block to the spread of the Gospel.
Paul then articulated this principle for the Churches: “Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14). Those who serve the Church should be supported by the Church.
When St Paul sets forth his teaching on support for the Apostles, he bases it on “the Lord’s command,” but when did the Lord issue any such precept? We find it as a consistent principle in both the Old and the New Testaments.
When the priesthood was established in the days of Moses after the Israelites left Egypt the priests were allotted a portion of every sacrifice which anyone made to the Lord. As recorded in the Torah, the Lord commanded that “This is always to be the perpetual share from the Israelites for Aaron and his sons. It is the contribution the Israelites are to make to the Lord from their fellowship offerings” (Exodus 29:28). Priests were to be paid by taking a portion of every offering.
When the Israelites entered the Promised Land under Joshua, the territory was divided between eleven of their twelve tribes. The priestly tribe of Levi, the descendants of Aaron, did not receive any land. Joshua gave no land to the priests, “since the food offerings presented to the Lord, the God of Israel, are their inheritance, as He promised them” (Joshua 13:14).
St Paul sealed his argument with a maxim, also from the Torah. “For it is written in the Law of Moses, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain’” (1 Corinthians 9:9, quoting Deuteronomy 25:4). As it would be unfair to oxen to so restrict them that they could not eat the grain they were grinding, it would likewise by unjust to expect the servants of the altar to support themselves.
We find the same precept in the Gospel. When Christ sent out the Twelve to preach that the Kingdom of heaven was at hand, He told them: “Provide neither gold nor silver nor copper in your money belts, nor bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor staffs; for a worker is worthy of his food” (Matthew 10:9, 10). They were not to go prepared to support themselves, but to rely on the support of their hearers.
In the Early Church
In the Apostles’ era most people had much less in the way of material goods than we do. As they went from one place to another did they have more than one pair of sandals, one tunic and one cloak? Their cloak may have doubled as a blanket and their sandals as a pillow. In our society there are people in homeless shelters who have more than that!
Likewise the Church in the days of the Apostles had no property or material assets; its “wealth” was the poor orphans and widows entrusted to it by God. Any offerings collected went to them and to the servants of the Church.
By the fourth century and the conversion of Emperor Constantine, the Church began to acquire buildings and properties. Clergy began to be paid by the state (ultimately by the taxpayer) and offerings of the faithful went to the adornment of the churches and the care of the poor.
In Our Church Today
As our way of life has changed, so have our needs and the needs of our clergy. Besides their modest housing and salaries, they require health insurance and auto insurance. Each church building has utilities, fuel and maintenance costs, liability insurance and perhaps a mortgage. Where will this money come from?
In some countries in the “Old World” the state, endowments, or well-to-do benefactors assume these expenses. This is not the case here – it is up to every believer to do his or her part. Thus the principle which the Lord gave to the Israelites applies to us as well: “No one is to appear before me empty-handed” (Exodus 34:20).
There is no one set amount which parish members are expected to give. Some people have significant disposable income, others are living on pensions. Large parishes have more potential donors, but also larger facilities to maintain or more clergy.
One rule of thumb to use in gauging the amount we should be giving to the Church and charity is to compare it with the amount we spend on TV and other forms of entertainment. Another is to reflect on St Paul’s maxim, “This I say: He who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and he who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully” (2 Corinthians 9:6).
Those who support the Church responsibly can be assured of God’s blessing as invoked by St Paul, “May He who supplies seed to the sower, and bread for food, supply and multiply the seed you have sown and increase the fruits of your righteous-ness, while you are enriched in everything” (2 Corinthians 9:10-11).