In Defense of Full-Time Vocational Ministry

The Masculinity Craze

Biblical masculinity is a big topic in the Reformed stratosphere, or so it seems to me. The last few years I have seen a rising emphasis within the Reformed community on discussing masculinity. There is no shortage of podcasts, blogs, and social media accounts dedicated to addressing a masculinity crisis within the church. I plan to share my thoughts on this trend in another post, but first I want to begin by critiquing a mindset related to, but slightly separate from masculinity.

Bi-vocational Expectations

In the midst of the conversations surrounding masculinity, full-time vocational ministry has entered the cross hairs. While men are being encouraged to work with their hands, strengthen their muscles, develop profitable skillsets, own businesses, and discipline their lifestyles, pastors are being constantly encouraged to venture out into secular vocations where these traits can best be learned and developed. Like the tweet I shared at the beginning of this post, it appears the work of full-time vocational ministry is insufficient to make men out of us and to make other men respect us.

I certainly understand that ivory tower academics can be harmful to masculinity, but I deny that full-time ministry ought to be thought of this way in every case, and I would like to push back against the animosity I am seeing toward full-time pastors.

An Important Qualification

Let me begin by first being fair to Mr. Conn and admit that all I will criticize is not contained in his tweet. (It would be worthwhile to every Christian man to follow him on Twitter. I am blessed by his insights regularly.)

In fact, I have no problems with the tweet by itself for a number of reasons. First, I think the sentiment is often times true; I have experienced it in my own life. My own father is the pastor of a small church and has been bi-vocational for most of his pastoral career. This earned him a great amount of gravitas (dignity, seriousness, or solemnity of manner) from me. I certainly have more respect for the bi-vocational minister than most of the filthy rich, celebrity pastors with whom I am familiar.

Second, the tweet is not worth much protest because he is not binding anything extra-scriptural on Christian’s consciences. Conn is not dogmatically declaring all pastors must be bi-vocational, and he is not declaring that earning gravitas as a pastor cannot be accomplished any other way. For all of those things, I am thankful. There is practical wisdom to the suggestion, and so I am not responding solely to Eric’s tweet, but instead to the general antagonistic mindset toward my vocation growing in the church, to which tweets like this seem to provide fuel. Look no further than the comment sections of the tweet if you’re interested in more evidence. I am using this tweet like a diving board, jumping head first into the masculine mindset and its apparent expectations for full-time pastors, which often times do come across more dogmatically than Mr. Conn

Have We No Right to Refrain?

The push for more pastors to willfully become bi-vocational is simply not biblical. Bi-vocational ministry is never presented as being advantageous or desirable in Scripture, and I think the opposite is actually the case.

Perhaps the most helpful passage for discussion comes from Paul’s discussion of vocational ministry in 1 Corinthians 9,

3 This is my defense to those who would examine me. 4 Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have the right to take along a believing wife, as do the other apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 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 the milk? 8 Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? 9 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? 10 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. 11 If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? 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. 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? 14 In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. 15 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.

3-14

Paul is defending the idea that the Apostles (and all professional ministers by extension) have a right to expect to make their living from their ministry work. Notice a handful of things from the text, first of which what the text directly says.

Men who labor over their church deserve more than financial assistance, they deserve to make their living from their work. Paul is claiming that pastors should be paid full-time salary for full time work, which would exclude the need for an additional vocation.

Now focus on what the text does not imply. It does not ever imply that a second, secular vocation is an ideal tool for growing in character or earning respect. In fact, in none of the passages where Paul deals with the ministry as a vocation does he ever teach or imply such a sentiment. According to this text, the only reason Paul surrendered his right to full-time vocational ministry was for the sake of the Gospel, it was not to grow in gravitas or become more manly. Paul was tentmaker, but that was more something to lament than celebrate. It was closer to a necessity than a tool for improving his masculine dignity. Thus, as Christian communities grow in maturity and knowledge they should work toward providing for (at least) one man who preaches and teaches to make his living off that work. Healthy churches should not desire a teaching elder to devote half (or more) of his weekly work time elsewhere. To Paul, a second line of work was a sad reality forced upon him by mass ignorance among the fledgling churches; it was not an ideal situation. Tent-making was not the tool that made a man out of Paul. In fact, we are never told by Paul or any of the Apostles that secular vocations are preferred or helpful means for pastors (or those who desire the ministry) to become more holy, more dignified, or to earn respect from the laity. It’s simply not in the text; it’s not in any text. The passages in Scripture where Paul does commend hard work and earning a living are not passages that would exclude the work of vocational ministry today (more on that when I discuss masculinity claims separately).

Additionally, if we were to draw some implications from the text, Paul’s use of the Mosaic Law implies that a second job should actually be seen more as a hindrance to ministry than an aid, and therefore should not be an ideal situation for ministers. All the time a pastor spends at his second job is time away from his family and his ministry to the church. The church is getting less work. The ministry is being affected and partially neglected. The bi-vocational pastor has less time to pray, study, read, counsel, visit, evangelize, and do all the other duties of his ecclesiastical calling.

I think this point is also demonstrated by the Apostles in the early church.

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them. And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

-Acts 6:1-7

I have a question: how much gravitas did the Apostles lose when they decided they could not even tend to issues within the church because they were too busy with prayer and study? It seems to be this diligent, serious approach to their ministry that established their gravitas. It was not achieved by balancing a secular vocation with ministry, but rather by a total devotion to the weight of their ministry. It appears that pastors need to be on guard against things that distract them from their duties as elders. A second job is something that could very well do such a thing.

There is one last thing to mention about 1 Corinthians 9. Mr. Conn does not ask men to get another job, but a job. Is pastoral ministry not itself a job? It is true that Paul seems to distinguish pastoral ministry from “working for a living,” but he nonetheless makes his point about paying pastors by comparing the labor of ministry with other vocations. Every other laborer deserves his wages, why not the pastor? Pastors have jobs. They labor just as the soldier, the farmer, and the shepherd, and Paul leaves no impression any of these jobs are more virtuous or masculine than vocational ministry. (Remember, this cuts both ways. I am in no way insinuating that secular vocations are less dignified, less holy, or easier than vocational ministry.)

Conclusion

There is plenty within the life of the church for pastors to earn the respect of the men entrusted to their care. Perhaps ministry is itself sufficient enough to garner respect and make a men out of us. The work of equipping saints for ministry is plenty masculine enough for any man to be content. I would not respect Calvin more if I knew he had a side hustle. I would not respect Augustine any more if it turned out he was a skilled agricultural laborer. I certainly don’t wish those men would have studied less and devoted more time to additional skillsets.

So I say to the full-time pastor: exemplify the holiness you needed to be qualified for your job. Alongside your teaching, a holy conduct and healthy family is all Paul required of you to lead the church and be worthy of respect and honor. Those areas where your gravitas will be tested and displayed. Do you want to earn gravitas among the men in your church? Out pray them. Do you want to earn gravitas among the men in your church? Out study them. Do you want to earn gravitas among the men in your church? Be the holiest man in your church. Preach the word. Rebuke with all confidence. Lead the church through conflict with biblical wisdom. Lead your family well.

There might be many good reasons for a pastor to work a second job, whether it be a financial necessity, or that he simply desires a particular skillset, or maybe like Paul, taking a paycheck would be a stumbling block to your mission field. I have seen bi-vocational ministry be done successfully, and I have a great deal of respect for it. I myself have pursued it. But there is no guaranteed advantage to be found there. It is not necessarily the next step in the pastor’s masculine development. It is not mandatory, and quite frankly, it should not even be preferable given its ability to become a distraction from the pastor’s calling.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s