Sunday, January 17, 2010

Vocational Ministry

This is sermon #21 from First Corinthians. This one needed some editing (it was so contextualized to my congregation at the time), and I tried to add broader perspective.

1 Corinthians 9:1-14


Mention preachers and money together in almost any group of people and you can likely get a good discussion going. It is a tragedy that there is sufficient evidence for criticism of money-grubbing ministers. What is the right way to look at ministers and money? What is the basis of paying someone to do Christian ministry? Christian ministry has come to be viewed by both the church and the world as a profession with certain standards of training –– college and seminary.

There is a danger that turning Christian ministry into professionalism destroys it. If by "professional" we mean someone who has merely made the ministry a ‘job,” then Christian ministry has been destroyed. Jesus made a distinction between a true shepherd and a hireling –– the good shepherd devotes his life to the sheep while the hireling runs at the first sign of great adversity. If we had to choose between integrity and a person who has studied Greek, Hebrew and systematic theology, then let's have integrity. But let us also remember the choice should not have to be "either/or" –– it should be "both/and."

Another way professionalism can destroy Christian ministry is by creating an artificial distinction between the clergy and the laity, as we often call the two. As soon as pastors try to do everything in the church because they are the professionals, then Christian ministry is destroyed. Likewise, if people in the pew say, "we pay the pastor, let him do it all," then Christian ministry is destroyed. That is not what we are after when we try to bring professional standards to ministry.

At the heart of this concern is the realization that ministry is basically the function of every Christian believer. If you are a Christian living in biblical faith, then you are a “minister.” That is why I call this a case for vocational ministry. While every Christian is called to ministry, not every Christian is called to earn their living through ministry (which goes beyond the office of pastor). That is vocational ministry, and it is vocational ministry that needs to chart its course carefully between the two extremes of crass professionalism on the one hand, and untrained voluntary service on the other.

I once hired a youth pastor who had been involved with youth in an unpaid capacity in a prior congregation. Was that not youth ministry? What is different once he is began to be paid? Why are some people paid? Why not pay everyone?

It is an almost unbelievable privilege to be paid to do what one loves.... of being paid to serve the Lord. When I was pastoring I would sometimes facetiously say “I'm paid to have good devotions.”

Why do congregations do that? Why give to the church so that pastors, especially, do not need to work elsewhere.... especially if all Christians are “ministers”?

Using the youth pastor as an illustration, was he any less a minister at the previous congregation without financial compensation than he was on my staff with a salary? The answer is both yes and no. No, he was no less a youth minister previously, at least qualitatively. He did not give less of his heart to the kids. He did not add more integrity in his life once he began to be paid. In both situations his ministry was service to Christ and the church. Yet he did have a greater ministry once he became vocational; he was able to do more quantitatively. Before, he couldn't put all his available time and energy into ministry –– he had to work a job to support himself and the family. With vocational ministry he was free to put all that time and energy into his ministry.

That is one thought behind vocational ministry. It is vocational because all Christians are supposed to be ministers, and the idea of ministry should not be restricted to those who are paid. It is vocational because some people are supported by the church so they can be free to give all their time and energy to ministry instead of part of it.

The next question is, who decides who is vocational and who is not? What separates those who are paid for ministry from those who are not? Some might say a certain kind of education –– a seminary degree. Others can claim it's a person's call from God. To that I would say the education can be important; the call from God is very important, if it's genuine. But neither of those things guarantee vocational ministry. I know people who have seminary degrees and people who claim a call who are not in vocational ministry. The decision is really made by the church. The process of ordination is one way a church validates a person’s calling. Ordination is one particular seal of approval on vocational ministry.

What are some issues for making that decision? One of the most basic is integrity and commitment –– a character that would not belittle Christian ministry. But all Christians should have that, so there is more. A good understanding of the Scriptures and doctrine is important, but any intelligent person can acquire that. What else is needed for the church to set someone apart for vocational ministry? In addition to integrity and orthodoxy, there is the factor of giftedness. Paul told the Ephesians that Jesus gave gifts to all, but to some he gave special gifts –– apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor-teachers. Vocational ministers are those people who the church has validated by saying, "God has gifted you in such a way that you need to be available to the church without the worry of other work." That is how a person is called to vocational ministry.

Now so far, this has been a rather pragmatic look at how the concept of a paid ministry works in the church. The deeper question is its scriptural basis. This chapter in 1 Corinthians is part of that. Paul is dealing with his own situation here, as you might imagine, and I'll get into that more in the next part of this chapter. But for now I only want to point out a few things the text clearly teaches are legitimate expectations for those who give their whole lives to Christian ministry.

In v4 we see that vocational ministers can expect the basic necessities of life –– do we not have the right to our food and drink?. Another legitimate expectation is a spouse (v5); the Latin rite of Catholicism has placed a restriction here for practical (not dogmatic) reasons; Eastern rite Catholics have married priests, but not married bishops.

A big issue here is financial support. Paul asks a rhetorical (and almost sarcastic) question of three other workers: Who pays the expenses for doing military service? Who plants a vineyard without eating its fruit? Who has a herd and does not drink the milk? (v7)

Then he appeals to the law of Moses, which said, You shall not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain (v9). He then applies that to the church workers' situation (v11): If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits? As a capstone, he refers (v14) to Jesus' own words (from Luke 10) those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. One cannot argue with the concept of a vocational (paid) ministry without violating the Scriptures.

Still, all of our questions and concerns are not answered. What should be expected of a vocational minister? Is he a spiritual superman? I hope you know the answer to that is "of course not." Pastors and others who serve the church vocationally have faults and weaknesses. No servant of the church will make anyone happy all the time. Not everyone will be happy at any one time. Some may be unhappy with all the time. The one non-negotiable that Christian ministry needs is integrity.

On the other side of things, what shall the church do for those in full-time service? One thing it does is validate calling and give authority to one’s ministry. There are questions, though, the Bible does not answer. How does the church decide its financial support?

Sometimes a pastor can think about how much he could be making in another field with the same amount of educational investment, but a (true) pastor does not choose his vocation for the money. In fact, it is beyond the pastor’s “choice” –– God chooses in a way that a person can do nothing else.

One last thing, though, is the reminder that all of us are ministers. God has put each of us here to do our respective part, and it is only as we all do it that the work of Christ's body in this place is done –– with remuneration or not. The real Christian pay is out of this world.

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