We tend to think that for a ministry to be of real value it must be full-time. As every praise-loving Pharisee knows, full-time positions are the status symbols of today’s church. Yet not even the apostle Paul had a full-time ministry.b I can conceive of no greater ministry than that of this tent-maker. I imagine that in his era, financial independence would have demanded particularly long hours, but that’s the path he chose. Scripture records his conviction that a part-time (i.e. self-supporting) ministry is, if anything, superior to a full-time one.c
In fact, it was not apostolic work, but tent-making that was Paul’s special love-gift to God. He seemed to regard his manual labor as his sole triumph, his only free-will offering to God and the church. Supporting himself, unlike his lengthy prayers, study, sermons, visitations, hardships, beatings, and so on, was his one opportunity to toil beyond the call of duty, the one thing particularly worthy of praise and eternal reward.d If that seems overstated, listen to the man himself. Read 1 Corinthians 9:14-18. You may well conclude that I have toned down the significance Paul attached to being self-supporting.
Not all attempts to earn a living reach these lofty peaks. It applied to Paul because he had both the opportunity and right not to support himself. Nevertheless, it scuttles the assumption that full-time ministry is the pinnacle of Christian service.
If I end up in full-time Christian work, it will probably be due to weakness – my inability to keep two things going – rather than a mark of achievement. Full-time ministry is usually valid and scriptural, but it is a serious mistake to regard part-time as inferior. Perhaps a stout case could even be made for the superiority of part-time ministry, but I question whether it is God-like to indulge in such comparisons. It is worth noting, however, that those who give their services without charge, have a second ministry – the important ministry of giving.a This second ministry was so important to Paul that to attain it he even forfeited his right to a wife and family.b
We have missed something significant if we imagine Scripture views the financing of one’s ministry as unusual. We cannot be sure whether the financial arrangements of Paul and his companion apostles placed them in a minority amongst apostles.c For most Christians, however, Paul considered his approach to be the norm. Indeed, one of his stated reasons for supporting himself was to establish a pattern that he expected his converts to emulate.d He even expected church leaders to follow his financial example.e ‘Make it your ambition,’ wrote Paul on another occasion, ’... to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that ... you will not be dependent upon anybody.’f Over and over again, Paul’s instructions abound with such exhortations.g
The Lost Weapon
A Christian leader flew from America to Calcutta to put an extraordinary proposition to missionary Mark Buntain. Mark, who was approaching his sixties, was offered what his daughter called a ‘fantastic’ salary for life plus an expensive house in the United States. In return, he would be asked to devote the rest of his life to prayer.11
Let that haunt you for a moment and join me in 1 Timothy.
I used to be perplexed by Paul’s guidelines for the selection of widows financially supported by the church.h In general, Paul favored widows remarrying.i So why, for these widows, was remarriage regarded as a broken vow?j Why was as much scrutiny given to their character and past service as to their material need?k The requirements read like the selection criteria for deaconesses, not welfare cases. And why were the ‘real’ widows those who pray night and day?l After years of bewilderment, the pieces suddenly fitted: these elderly ladies were more than charity recipients, they were the church’s paid staff, devoted – like Anna in the templem – to the ministry of prayer, with perhaps other duties as well. That’s why such high standards were expected. That’s why marriage would interfere.
Intercession is no frolic through the daisies. In parts of the globe wars rage to determine whether multitudes will be dominated by Islam. I shudder. I would rather be killed than kill. Yet, as I contemplate the horrors soldiers endure in order to kill, I wonder what I should be willing to suffer, battling in prayer for the liberation of souls. That’s the gutsy ministry entrusted to women we might have thought had past their usefulness. The very class who today are perhaps most tempted to view themselves as worthless, formed the early church’s prized power-house.
If I remain diligent, I, too, will have a full-time ministry when I retire. Like widows with children,a I probably won’t receive my finance from the church, but that makes it no less a valid, full-time ministry. While everyone else has one foot in the grave and the other caught in the hearse’s door, I could be mightily used of God. They could be my most productive years. Or does God only use widows?
‘Full-Time’ Missionaries and Other Fables
Many of us have highly romanticized views of full-time service.
Until foiled by ill-health, I was briefly engaged in supposedly full-time Christian work with a missionary organization. The position was available only to select Bible college graduates. Like most of the permanent staff, my duties consisted entirely of clerical and store work. The only thing differentiating me from a secular worker was my almost non-existent pay-packet. (Don’t tell the unions.) Theoretically, I could have taken a normal well-paid job and financially supported a non-Christian to do my ‘missionary’ work. The result would have been identical.
Even front-line missionaries often can reside in foreign countries only by working as full-time nurses, school teachers, agricultural advisers, and the like. Their time for evangelism, prayer or Bible teaching is severely curtailed.
The ‘part-time’ nature of missionary enterprise was evident long before visa restrictions. As Livingstone trudged across Africa on his great explorations, he obviously had little time for church work. His goal was to open the way for other missionaries. Prior to this, however, he had established a mission station and spent several years there. David described a typical busy day during this phase of his life ‘to let you know a cause of sorrow I have that so little of my time is devoted to real missionary work’.12
From 1732, Moravian mission stations were established in the Virgin Islands, Greenland, North America, Lapland, South America and Africa in the space of just four years. In two decades they sent out more missionaries than all of Protestantism had produced in the two entire centuries prior to their involvement. (You may recall that Moravian missionaries profoundly influenced the still-unregenerate John and Charles Wesley.) One in sixty Moravians was a missionary. One in five thousand is the Protestant norm. A master key to this phenomenal achievement was that Moravian missionaries were self-supporting lay people. They believed that monetary donations could never adequately fund world evangelism. Their crafts and business pursuits not only released them into the mission field, but tended to upgrade the economy of their adopted country.13
Dr. Gutzlaff, a gifted man of considerable wealth and influence, pioneered the evangelization of remote parts of China. This he did, not as a revered emissary borne on coolies’ shoulders, but working on a Chinese junk as a cook or a sailor.14
For much of his time in India, William Carey supported not only himself, but other missionaries through secular work.
Dr. Paul Brand’s most valuable contribution to suffering humanity is unquestionably his leprosy research. Yet though he was a full-time medical missionary, this research, especially during the critical early period, had to be restricted to his almost non-existent spare time, forcing him to work till near exhaustion.15
Missionaries are devoted Christians who speak the local language worse than a six-year-old. They stand out from the crowd because they look funny. Other than that, if we share their zeal and sacrificial dedication, their lives often differ little from our own.
Let’s move closer to home.
The following revelation has not been officially cleared by the CIA but I think I can safely leak a few details. I was a spy using electronic surveillance. Almost. Because I’m a lay person (I spend most of my life in bed) they wouldn’t let me attend a pastor’s conference, but I got my hot hands on a tape. I was staggered by what that tape revealed. Would you believe many pastors long for retirement when they can finally get involved in ‘real’ ministry?
Pastor Bigwig works seventy hours a week. With travelling time, administrative duties, and so on deducted, we find that only about thirty hours are given to essentially ‘spiritual’ tasks. Miss Smallfry, on the other hand, in addition to her secular work, devotes hours to prayer, Bible study, church attendance, helping various church departments, witnessing at work and to neighbors and friends. In fact, if she added it up it would sometimes total thirty hours a week. The difference between these people is ninety per cent illusion.
I clash swords not with those who praise Bigwig, but with those who fail to praise Smallfry. In my view, Miss Smallfry emerges from her prayer-closet as Supersaint. Cleverly disguised as a mild-mannered reporter, bank-teller or whatever, she’s more powerful than a hoard of demons, able to move tall mountains with a single prayer. For her Lord she talks faster than a locomotive, bends hardened souls with her bare faith, in a never-ending fight for Truth – Jesus, the only Way.