When it comes to work, ministry, missions, and calling, no topic gets people sweating quite like wages and compensation.
All Christians are to have an occupation—a “calling” to work in order to provide for their own physical needs, the needs of their families, and the needs of society. There are no Christians who are called simply to a life of contemplation or gentlemanly ease.
For you yourselves know how you must imitate us: We were not irresponsible among you; we did not eat anyone’s food free of charge; instead, we labored and struggled, working night and day, so that we would not be a burden to any of you. It is not that we don’t have the right to support, but we did it to make ourselves an example to you so that you would imitate us. In fact, when we were with you, this is what we commanded you: “If anyone isn’t willing to work, he should not eat.” (2 Thessalonians 3:7-10, emphasis mine)
Those Christians who disobey this command are called “irresponsible” (vv. 7, 11). They are shirking their God-given responsibilities. We shouldn’t even associate with such people (v. 14).
There isn’t a class of Christians who are meant to avoid work while living off he gifts of others. That’s not how God intended the church to function. Instead, everyone is to work and contribute as they are able.
The elders who are good leaders should be considered worthy of an ample honorarium, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says: Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain, and, the worker is worthy of his wages. (1 Timothy 5:17-18, emphasis mine)
Good leaders in the church are worthy of earning their livelihood by means of their hard work in the ministry. We can clearly see examples in the New Testament of Paul accepting that honor, but also sometimes refusing it in order to make a point (1 Thessalonians 2:9; 1 Corinthians 9:12).
What this passage does not teach is that there is a special, exalted status to those who engage in spiritual work. In fact, we see just the opposite. Paul describes what people commonly refer to as “full-time vocational ministry” and he compares it to an ox treading out the grain in order to convince people that it is worthy of payment. Rather than putting ministry in a special vocational category, he puts it in the common category of work to show that it is worthy of wages just like any other occupation.
Spiritual Work is Still Work
When done correctly, leading, preaching, and teaching are all forms of labor. Notice how these good leaders are to “work hard” at it. It’s not simply a life of contemplation; it’s genuinely taxing. It is compared to an ox treading grain; does that sound easy? Ministry can be rewarding too, of course—but look again at Acts 6:2.
And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. (Acts 6:2 ESV)
Are the apostles seeking to avoid work in this passage? Certainly not. But they are realizing that there are two necessary jobs that need to be accomplished in the church ministry: serving tables and preaching the word. And the apostles could see that they, personally, couldn’t adequately do both at the same time. It wouldn’t be right for them to spend all their time serving food because preaching was also a necessary task for them to accomplish.
Does this mean an apostle would never serve food to anyone ever again? I doubt it. But they made sure that they won’t have to “give up preaching” by doing other necessary tasks.
Does this passage speak of a special calling on a person’s life to a particular vocation? No. Would this mean that certain leaders in the church would never serve food and that other would only ever serve food? Certainly not. They didn’t say, “I can’t serve food because I’m an apostle.” That would be an argument based on identity or class system. They reasoned that they couldn’t serve food because that would detract from other necessary works.
In sum, a person’s work—whether sacred or “secular”—doesn’t define their identity. Our identity is defined in Christ, as we are a new creation in him (cf. 2 Corinthians 5:17), not by the specific tasks we perform in his service. As a result, there is no exalted, spiritual class of Christians that are exempt from the ordinary biblical commands governing work and compensation.
In the next installment, we will see how the Bible uses the terms calling and vocation to refer to far more than just one’s day job.
Editor’s Note: This article is part 2 in a series on calling and work as it relates to Christian identity and missionary life.