Following Paul’s Anti-Fragile Example
My wife’s great-uncle was none other than the distinguished, Dr. Ralph Earle, Jr., Chairman of the Translating Committee for the New International Version of the Bible, President of the Evangelical Theological Society in 1962 (the year I was born), and one of the luminaries listed in Oxford’s Who’s Who Among Intellectuals in the World.
I met him when we’d gone to his stately home in Kansas City for a family gathering. An embodiment of old Yankee propriety that even then seemed anachronistic, he’d come to our vehicle to escort my wife into the house. While we walked to the door he leaned over to me and said, “I see you drive a truck. How interesting.” I got the hint. I was working my way through seminary as a deck builder. Driving a truck wasn’t “professional” according to Uncle Ralph. Being a gracious man, he didn’t hold it against me, and we enjoyed many gatherings with him and Aunt Mabel over the years. He even gave me several copies of his books, all signed, “To Chris, from Uncle Ralph.” Since then I’ve written a few books of my own, and I’m sure he’d have been pleased to see that I’ve distinguished myself. But I’m also sure he would still puzzle over my choices when it comes to what I drive (Jeeps), and the tent-making I do on the side.
I don’t actually make tents. I’m referring to the Apostle Paul and the fact that he did make tents. We’re told about it in an off-handed way in the Book of Acts (18:3). It’s hard to imagine a better side gig for an apostle. I’m sure he spent a lot of time in tents, and in the camps that sprang up near cities on trade routes. He probably had more business than he wanted. But his side gig doesn’t appear to have compromised his standing as an Apostle. In certain ways, it seems to have enhanced it. More about that in a moment.
Today, most people think professionals are people who get paid for what they do. But Uncle Ralph’s understanding wasn’t mercenary, it had more to do with the decorum he associated with professionals. Professionals wear suits and drive large American sedans. Ironically, his understanding was actually closer to the historic one. He certainly would have known that dressing and acting the part was only loosely associated with being a professional, at least insofar as the etymology is concerned. (He wrote books on word meanings in the New Testament, after all—etymology was his thing.)
Turning to the origin of the word, a professional was someone with something to say. He “professes” what he knows. Originally, there were only three professions—law, medicine, and religion. Communities depend on professionals to speak authoritatively on those matters. And their knowledge wasn’t private property. Instead, they were stewards of what they knew. That’s why profiting from it was believed to be something like stealing. And selling it only cheapened it. After all, what is justice, or health, or salvation worth? If you don’t have them, everything, of course.
But even lawyers, doctors, and clergymen need to eat. And this is where money came in, and why we now associate it with being paid. But ideally, it was thought of as honoraria, a stipend for living honorably—not payment for services rendered.
That probably sounds idealistic. Today everything is subject to the market. That’s why lawyers now advertise on the sides of buses (something illegal not too long ago), and healthcare has become an “industry.” The mindset has even seeped into religion. In some circles evangelism is indistinguishable from marketing—where the customer is always right, even when he’s completely wrong.
We don’t enjoy the stability and consensus needed to support the professions in the old way. We live in a time in which “the market” is no longer limited to the market. Beliefs are no longer tethered to truths, instead, they’re validated by demand.
Fortunately, Paul gave us a model of professionalism for a time like this.
Paul Gives Up His Rights
In First Corinthians chapter nine, Paul makes the case for those who profess the gospel being supported by the gospel. Here it is—9:7-12 & 13-14.
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 the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? 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? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
Paul then (surprisingly) tells his listeners that he’d rather not take their money. Instead, he’d rather support himself—9:12b & 15-19.
Nevertheless, 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.
But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them.
There are at least two things worth thinking about here.
First, Paul tells us that proclaiming the gospel is his stewardship, I believe it is fair to refer to it as his profession (vv16-17). He must preach—it’s a necessity! But the reward he’s after isn’t a pecuniary one, instead, it’s peculiarly spiritual in nature. And that’s why he offers the gospel “free of charge” (see v. 18).
In this deft gesture, Paul frees the gospel from the market, but he also frees himself. He prefers a spiritual reward to a material one. And apparently those were mutually exclusive. I don’t recall this ever being discussed in seminary.
Significantly, he uses his freedom to be, “a servant to all.” Does this remind you of anything? It should, Martin Luther cribbed it and applied it to Christians in general. “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” Luther seems to miss Paul’s point here. Paul freed himself from one set of obligations in order to submit to another set. Presumably, if he were on a payroll, he wouldn’t be free to serve people who couldn’t pay him. So, to be free for that, he paid himself. (I suspect that there’s more to it—probably the mercenary attitude that Paul condemns in 1 Timothy 6:5, something else to return to.)
Most ministers can’t say what Paul said, not just because they’re on a church payroll, but also because they can’t do anything else. They possess few occupational connections outside the church, and generally, they usually lack the certification that might be required to use what transferable skills that they do possess—for example, teaching. Besides that, assets are often limited, and they might even be saddled with student loan debt acquired to meet standards for ordination. Throw in a mortgage, and auto loans, and they’re caught in a financial thumbscrew.
Whether or not anyone else thinks about it, men who depend on a church for a living think about it. And when it comes to social trends, both in the larger world, and even in the evangelical subculture, they can’t help feeling vulnerable at the prospect that their deepest convictions might make them a target for cancelation. I know, because I once found myself in the thumbscrew I just described. But by following Paul’s example I got out of it.
Before I describe how I made my escape here’s a caveat. Just because you’re in a financially compromised position, that’s no excuse for compromising essential Christian doctrines. We live by faith, not by sight—even in the face of financial ruin.
That said, here’s what I did. I had small children, and a homeschooling wife to provide for, when I realized my denomination was liberalizing and that at some point, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, I would be expected to go along with something that I couldn’t go along with in good conscience. So, I began to plan my escape.
Here’s a brief summary of the situation. I was in a Wesleyan denomination, with all the strengths and weaknesses of that theological tradition. I rose quickly there, earning degrees at one of its colleges, and another at its American seminary. After that, I traveled and spoke at camps, retreats, and “revivals” across the country, and I wrote for the publishing house. I knew people in the bureaucracy, and the pastor of the mother church of the denomination recruited me to come onto his staff. (He later became the president of the seminary and was responsible for the leftward turn it took in the 1990s and early 2000s.) My wife’s family was well-connected, and a ministry I had started in Boston garnered attention. I taught philosophy on a part-time basis at one of my alma maters. And because I was encouraged to get a Ph.D. in order to come on to the faculty full-time, I was enrolled in Harvard Divinity School.
This was the basis for the many conversations I had with the intelligentsia of the church, as well as academe at large. It was easy to see where things were trending. It wasn’t called “wokeism” in those days, but that’s what it was. But I had fingers on the pulses of both Harvard and my denomination, I could sense that there was a sympathetic rhythm developing. This was 1999 or so.
I thought briefly of staying and fighting, but knowing the underlying commitments of Wesleyan theology I concluded it didn’t stand a chance against the tsunami that was coming. Wesleyanism had always been propped up by Reformed theology, but it was an unstable relationship, and by the second half of the 20th century Wesleyan scholars had kicked away the props.
So, I began a quest for two things—first, for a theology that could weather what was coming, and second, a livelihood that would make the transition out of Wesleyanism and into something else as smooth as possible for my family. I found both, first I found Reformed theology, a theological tradition that I thought had deep enough roots to keep it from being blown over by academic trends. And when it came to the other matter, I turned to commercial real estate. For five intense years, I built a portfolio on the side, and by 2004 I owned property in three New England states and I had 18 tenants. My equity in those properties, and the passive income they generated, made it possible for me to resign my pulpit when the last straw fell on the camel’s back. I left that denomination with my conscience intact, then moved to another state where I bought a house with cash, and a new chapter of my life began.
Some four years later I was installed as the pastor of a church in the Presbyterian Church in America. During the intervening years, I continued to work in real estate, and even spent time as a home improvement contractor. Since then, I’ve always had income besides what my churches have paid me, and the income streams have multiplied. And even though my current church pays me well, if I ever needed to, I could transition out of my pastorate, and back to full self-support.
Years have passed—almost twenty of them—but during those years the conviction has grown stronger that we need professionals who can proclaim the gospel free of charge because they’re free men themselves. As odd as it sounds, that may be the best way to recover gospel professionalism in our time.
“Bi-vocationalism” is the term sometimes used for what I’ve described, but I’m not sure it is the right term. Thinking of the Apostle Paul, I doubt that he thought of himself as a man with two callings. My sense is his trade served his vocation. While I’m sure he made good tents, and I can easily imagine he drove a good bargain, his apostleship was his calling. Keeping this in mind, tentmaking wasn’t a second job. Employees rarely have the sort of control over their time that Paul would have required. Paul didn’t moonlight as an apostle—quite the other way around. If you’re going to keep first things first, you absolutely must control your time. He must have been something more like an independent contractor, with the freedom to take work, or turn it down. This means that when it came to the old freedom/security tradeoff, Paul probably favored freedom. He must have relied on his skills, his business savvy, and an ability to generate business quickly rather than steady work.
This means that a false sense of security because you have a fat bank account wasn’t the goal. Freedom means doing without sometimes. Paul told his protégé Timothy that very thing when he said godliness with contentment is great gain. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
A great deal is uncertain in our times—not just when it comes to making a living, but just about everything else as well, including the integrity of established denominations, even Reformed ones. To maintain your integrity as a professional minister, and fulfill your calling, while keeping your promises to your family and dependents, you really should supplement your faith with a measure of self-sufficiency. And don’t depend on seminaries, or ecclesial courts to help with that. The world Paul knew is back, in all its mercenary and heresy-generating power. If we’re going to maintain the integrity of our profession, we will paradoxically have to resort to what Uncle Ralph considered unprofessional behavior. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Apostle Paul needs to return.
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