Based on the Apostle Paul’s example of making tents to support himself, missionaries can use their professional skills to provide the income needed to support their ministries overseas, without having to take money from North American churches.
This suggestion presupposes that Paul’s practice of tentmaking serves as the model for all Christian workers. The problem with this premise is that it contradicts Paul’s explicit teaching in 1 Corinthians 9:3-14. In this passage, Paul lays out six arguments for the financial support of Christian workers:
1. An appeal to customs (v. 7)
“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 its milk?” Should not a Christian worker likewise receive compensation for engaging in spiritual warfare, sowing the seed of the gospel, and planting churches?
2. Principle of just remuneration (vv. 8-10)
“You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” was probably a proverbial expression taken from the Law of Moses. Those who work in Christian ministry can rightly hope to share in the crop, and should be remunerated for their work.
3. Principle of community reciprocity (v. 11)
“If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you?” Service that is beneficial spiritually for the church should be rewarded materially from the church.
4. Precedent of other church leaders (v. 12)
“If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?” This would imply that other church workers who were serving amongst the Corinthians were not spending their time making tents, and were rightfully receiving compensation for their ministry. How then can we say that tentmaking is the biblical model for all others to follow?
5. Precedent of the priests (v. 13)
“Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings?” Even the pagan priests were remunerated for their service.
6. Teaching of Jesus (v. 14)
Finally, Paul appeals to the teaching of Jesus—“the Lord commanded that those who proclaim that gospel should get their living by the gospel.” We see this is Luke 10:7 and Matthew 10:10, where Jesus taught that the laborer deserves his living. This principle was modeled when Jesus sent the disciples out on missionary tours, as he directed them to derive shelter and sustenance from those to who they ministered (Luke 9:3-4; 10:4-7).
Applying the Text
The above passage makes it clear that Christian workers not only have a right to receive financial support for serving in ministry, in fact this is to be the model. Why, then, did Paul refuse to accept financial support from the church in Corinth? Interestingly, proponents of tentmaking as a biblical model for missions neglect to point out that we have no indication of Paul himself using this model at any other point in his missions career outside of Corinth. So what was unique about Corinth that led him to forfeit his right for support?
It would seem that there were false apostles who had received financial gifts from the Corinthian church designated for the poor in Jerusalem, and then had diverted some of that money to themselves for personal gain. Paul did not accept support from the Corinthians to avoid being associated with these false apostles (cf. 2 Cor. 2:17; 11:1-21; 12:11-18). Although he had a right to receive support, he writes “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. 9:12)—even tentmaking!
Had he accepted support from the Corinthians, some might have presumed he was simply another itinerate teacher motivated by profits and would have refused him a hearing. As a result, Paul “robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you” (2 Cor. 11:8). Yes, although Paul was a tentmaker in Corinth, he still received support from other churches to allow him to continue his gospel ministry in Corinth.
Likewise, in foreign church planting contexts, many missionaries would do well to avoid taking financial support from the local church where they are serving in order to avoid accusation from unbelievers that would hinder the spread of the gospel. That does not limit them from taking support from other churches.
Clearly, there is nothing wrong with self-supporting professionals using their personal income to do ministry. Many of our international partners and ABWE Associate missionaries are doing just that, not to mention many lay church leaders in North America. Obviously this limits their capacity to do ministry outside of their professional jobs, given the constraints of time and energy, but these “lay workers” have made a substantial contribution to missions.
The point is that this “tentmaking” approach was never intended to be a biblical model for missions. If we truly want to follow Paul’s methods, we will not only encourage churches to continue to financially support missionaries, we will commend them as an example for others to follow (2 Cor. 8:1-5; Phil. 4:15-16). By supplying missionaries’ needs, the generosity of North American churches will enable the Great Commission to be fulfilled among every people, without burdening the fledgling churches overseas or hindering the spread of the gospel (2 Cor. 11:9).