Should Ministers Get Paid?

Teeter Totter1 Corinthians 9:3-7

But if you want to pick a fight with me, this is what I say:

Don’t I have the right to eat and drink like everybody else? Don’t I have the right to get married like the other apostles, like Jesus’ brothers, like Peter? Am I the only one who has to have a second job to support myself?

You don’t ask a soldier to pay his own airfare to Afghanistan, do you? And you don’t expect a wine-maker not to taste her own wine. And you don’t tell a rancher never to eat steak.

Churches have been arguing over how much to pay their pastors ever since churches started. Paul says he’d rather not get a paycheck, even though he has a right to one. That way he can say what’s really on his mind. And, I’ve got to say, from personal experience, I agree that it’s a lot easier to say what you’re really thinking about church when you’re not getting a paycheck from one. From conversations with people who make their living outside the church, I’ve heard the same thing is true of any profession. It’s hard to say what people don’t want to hear when they’re holding your paycheck and might decide to give you a pink slip at the next meeting.

Paul’s way out of the bind was to have another job that made the money while he did what he loved following Jesus. And it’s not just Paul. You can find lots of big names doing the same thing. Hugh MacLeod calls it the “Sex & Cash Theory.”

Martin Amis, the bestselling British author. He writes “serious” novels, but also supplements his income by writing the occasional newspaper article for the London papers, or making the occasional television appearance…

Or actors. One year John Travolta will b e in an ultrahip flick like pulp fiction (“Sex”), another he’ll be in some forgettable, big-budget thriller like Broken Arrow (“Cash”)….

It’s balancing the need to make a good living while still maintaining one’s creative sovereignty.

My best guess:

  • The church did much better when it didn’t pay clergy. Paul’s churches didn’t pay him. And guess what. They’re the ones that grew into the church we know today. Jesus’ brothers and Peter all took a paycheck, and the churches in and around Jerusalem never amounted to much. (Note: We’re not counting the Roman Catholic claim to be Peter’s descendents. We all know they made that up. Whose letter is that to Rome in the New Testament? Not Peter’s.)
  • The clergy did much better when they did it because they were passionate about it rather than because it was a paycheck. To a great extent, that’s still the case. The happiest clergy I know are the ones who are doing little part-time gigs at churches who don’t really pay them much. They, like Paul, have other jobs (or a retirement income, or a spouse with a real job) to actually pay the bills.
  • We’ll always have paid clergy anyway. Because it’s much easier for both laypeople and clergy to substitute cash for passion.

Like any rule, there are sure to be exceptions. But even if you’re not clergy and don’t belong to a church, it’s worth pausing to consider where the line is between what you do because you’re deeply in love with doing it, and what you do just to make the rent.

Don’t Be the Weakest Link

Weakest Link1 Corinthians 8:9-13

Be careful that your freedom doesn’t hurt somebody else! What if someone who’s an addict sees you walk into a bar. Won’t that person think it must be OK for them to have a drink, too? And then that person – Jesus wanted that person in the movement – that person gets screwed up because of you. You’re not following Jesus if you lead other people to mistake libertarianism for salvation. In fact, if it would help keep a friend away from drink, I’d never drink again myself.

I confess, I’m not satisfied yet with the rendering of this passage. But perhaps you can suggest some revisions.

In Paul’s context, this was about eating meat from animals that had been sacrificed to idols. New Christians, having come into Paul’s churches with this kind of religious background, would have been told that idol worship is no longer permitted. They would have “had knowledge” of the rites of pagan sacrifices, and if they were to see Christians eating that meat, Paul thought they might revert to their former idolatrous ways and be lost.

In today’s world (well, the world most of us are likely to be familiar with) sacrificing animals, in the religious sense, isn’t a widespread issue. So I’m looking for another issue that might be more familiar. Above, I’ve rendered it as alcoholism:

  1. because consumption of alcohol is controversial in some Christian circles, and
  2. because there is a real element of danger to someone who is in recovery and is tempted by the bad example of another.

But I’m not sure it’s the best possible modern-day equivalent.

Having said that, though, it doesn’t really matter what the particular issue is. Even Paul is using the issue of food sacrificed to idols as an example of a larger principle: consideration. The issue here is that just because you can do something without risk to yourself doesn’t mean you should. In fact, if there is some question whether you actions might be harmful to someone else, you should refrain. This doesn’t mean caving in every time someone disagrees as a matter of conscience. But it does mean not leading others into temptation.

Or, to put it another way:

If a community is only as strong as its weakest link, people will tend to think of the person who has some kind of weakness (an addiction, a propensity to defect, peanut allergy, whatever) as the person who is that weakest link. But, Paul says that in fact the weakest link is the person who is the bĂȘte noire, the kryptonite, that sets someone else to self-destruct. Paul’s point: don’t be that person.

What About the Virgins?

Madonna: Like a Virgin album jacket, 19841 Corinthians 7:25-26

With regard to independent women, God hasn’t told me anything, but I’ll tell you what my opinion is (and you know my opinions are nearly always right). I think that, since we’re so close to the end of the world, you shouldn’t pressure anybody to get married.

[Credit: What follows is derived from some radical monastic characters I know of second hand, and who would probably be excommunicated if they said it themselves in public.]

If you comb through the writings of the early church fathers you will find a peculiar expression crop up here and there: “widows who are virgins.” It’s such an awkward expression that it sometimes gets mistranslated “widows and virgins,” or some such thing. But there it is. Could there really be that many sexless marriages out there that the first generation church would have had to deal with a whole class of people who are “widows who are virgins”?

Here’s an eye-opener. It’s well documented that the in that provincial Roman society being a woman nearly always required being attached to a man, whether by attachment to a father or brother, or to a husband. When a woman’s husband died, she either returned to a father or a brother, or got remarried. It’s just what you did. Otherwise, you were a kind of societal pariah. Women-as-independent-people was an unthinkable concept.

And yet, as a result of Jesus example, the first-generation church somehow got the idea that women were people too. Imagine! But if women are people, too, on their own, apart from the person-hood of whatever man they were attached to, what do you do about this whole new class of people? What do you even call them in a society that doesn’t have a word for such a person. What about the widow (who certainly has had marital relations) who is now independent, her own person, and who has not gone back to live with her father or brother?

Or could it be that the early church was so egalitarian in its view of women that they had to come up with a word for that class of person? Could it be that they picked a readily available word for a virtuous woman (parthenos) and applied it to this new class of virtuous Jesus-following women? Could it be that’s who the early church fathers were writing about when they had to deal with all these “widows who are virgins”?

What’s a church to do with all these “loose virgins?” Do you make them get married? Paul says, no. What’s the use in conforming the practice to the world’s practice? The old system, where women aren’t really people, sucks. And besides, the whole thing is slated for demolition? Don’t conform! Don’t pressure them to get married!

Too bad that kind of egalitarian practice only lasted a generation. But, hey, it’s not too late to start treating women like real people in the church again now!

[Bonus thought – get ready to have your mind blown: When Luke writes the Christmas story, 30 years after Paul has already written to the Corinthians about what to do about the independent women, and other early church writers had already been talking about “widows who are virgins,” what do you think he really means when he says that Mary was a young “virgin” betrothed to a man named Joseph? Luke’s use of the word has nothing to do with Mary’s sexual status. What he means is that she was her own person. And of course Joseph “knew her not before she had borne a son.” Having sex with a pregnant woman was taboo, and Joseph was “a righteous dude.”]