A reader pointed me toward a four part series on “Ministerial Compensation” by Doug Wilson. Doug Wilson gets a lot of attention with his blogging so I wanted to see what he had to say. It is a well written series as most of Doug’s stuff is. I read the four articles eagerly looking to engage Doug’s arguments on why we should pay pastors, expecting the typical arguments but in a more reasoned and forcefully portrayed manner. Here is what I found in the lead article, Double Honor.
That said, the Bible says that we are to pay ministers, and pay them well. The text does not expressly say what it is that is to be doubled, but it is likely in the extreme that it will at least be double what some people think appropriate.
Wilson then quotes 1 Timothy 5: 17-18, an old standby for those who support paying clergy:
Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Tim 5: 17-18)
That is pretty much it. That is the whole argument in favor of paying ministers. Doug states that the Bible says we are to pay “ministers” and that is that. I guess that notion is so entrenched as to be above question in spite of the very real problem that the Bible says nothing of the sort, at least not in the sense we assume. I was hoping for a cogent argument but you just don’t get one, leaving us with the brief assumption in the above paragraph to deal with.
The “worthy of double honor” idea is a tricky one. It certainly seems to imply that elders should be compensated. What is problematic is what it actually says and likewise what it does not say. This passage is not nearly as clear as those who throw it out as a defense of paying ministers might think. These are issues I have addressed before but just briefly….
First and foremost, “worthy of double honor” is not synonymous with “permanent salary and benefits including a retirement plan”. The misuse of 1 Tim 5: 17-18 in this respect is a case of taking our cultural understanding of the clerical system and forcing it onto the text. We culturally expect that ministers will have a certain minimum level of education, have a certain skill set and will work full-time for a local church and be compensated for it. Because that tradition is so entrenched, with over 1500 years of history, it is easy to read that expectation into 1 Timothy 5: 17-18.
It is interesting that Wilson points out that Paul is referencing Luke 10:7 and he presumes that in doing so he is supporting his assumption that we of course should pay ministers. As Lee Corso might say: Not so fast my friend. What is the context of Paul’s quote of Luke 10:7? Well, what does the passage say? Let me show ya something:
And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. (Luke 10:7)
What are the wages these laborers expect? To stay in a home and eat and drink what is provided. Um. Where is the salary and benefits package here? This is something that any Christian traveling about and preaching the Gospel should expect, the hospitality of the home of fellow believers. Our assembly in East Lansing typically welcomed visiting teachers with a meal at the chapel or in someone’s home, something perfectly understandable and acceptable. I assume we also gave them a financial gift to help defray the cost of traveling. Also perfectly understandable and Biblical. The men who live and gather with this assembly week after week? They don’t get paid because they don’t need to be, we all have jobs. We serve and teach out of love for our Savior, not an expectation of pay.
Second, Paul is the author here and in many places takes great pains to point out that he did not typically receive financial support from the church and certainly he never received support in the form of a permanent salary. It seems odd to turn to Paul to support the paying of clergy when Paul himself eschewed that support and wrote multiple times and in multiple places to point out that he worked a “real” job for a living.
Third, being an elder in a first century church when this was written is not equivalent to the professional clergy we traditionally understand. Paul was not a pastor of a local church, he was an apostle and an itinerant minister. Timothy was the same, an assistant to Paul and someone who traveled all over the place. It is disingenuous to use Paul and Timothy as support for our traditional clerical system.
So the first article doesn’t even try to defend the system beyond a perfunctory assumed statement and the rest of the series assumes that you bought into this assumption. In the second and third articles, Shepherds Who Feed Only Themselves and Shortchanging for Jesus, Wilson deals with the problem of men who are looking for an easy way out, becoming a pastor so they can spend most of their week hiding in their offices and reading books & blogs. I didn’t actually think this is as big a problem as Wilson makes it seem although he does make a strong point that the Bible warns about there being many men who are merely hirelings (referencing 2 Cor 2:17):
Paul says here that many are gospel-mongers, and we have no reason to believe that the number has diminished since Paul’s day.
That is a valid point. Why should I assume that something that was problematic in Paul’s day, i.e. Gospel peddlers, wouldn’t be actually worse today when Gospel peddling hirelings who are in it for the money can actually get a nice salary and be culturally respected, a world of difference from the difficult days of the first century. If there were many gospel-mongers back then, there are certainly many today. I have only met a few but they are clearly out there.
In the fourth article, Actually Count the Shekels,Wilson tackles the question of how much is enough and the numbers he bandies about are stunning. Here is one example:
Say that you are looking to call a minister with an M.Div. He is 30-years-old, and has 4 kids. That’s not an unusual set-up. His level of responsibility is that he being called to be an assistant pastor. His wife is a homemaker. Suppose you are not in a place like California, where housing prices are ridiculous. Within just a couple years, all his kids will be in school. If he were given a base line salary of 65K, just the private school tuition alone will have his family living on 49K. His wife is not working outside the home, and they are living in a community where husbands and wives making an average of 35K each create a household bringing in 70K. Those are the households which shape the cost of living in that community.
Wow. Apparently $70,000 for a thirty year old minister is what he is hinting at. Really? To make that sort of money in the private sector requires either a superstar worker or a professional advanced degree, something like accounting or law or actuarial science. I wasn’t making $70,000 when I was thirty and I work in the exciting world of finance. I don’t know of many 30 year olds who do make that sort of money. Keep in mind a couple of assumptions here. The first is that he is an assistant pastor. If the 30 year old assistant pastor is being discussed with a salary of $70,000, what is the 55 year old “senior” pastor making? $100,000? $150,000? Second, Wilson assumes that this young man should make the equivalent of two individual salaries at $35,000 each. Well, I work outside of the home and my wife cares for my kids. We have to live on my salary but a 30 year old assistant minister should be paid the average salary of two wage earners because it is unseemly for his wife to work? Apparently it is countr-cultural to pay an assistant minister enough so that his wife is not tempted to work outside of the hone and so that they can send their kids to private school. The poor working slob in the pew? Well if your wife has to work and you have to either homeschool your kids or send them to public school, sucks to be you. You shoulda gone to seminary dude!
This is what you are supposed to take to your church, that somehow they are being unfaithful if they don’t pay a minister a hefty salary while the people in the church struggle along at the prevailing wage. It is great that the assistant pastor is compensated so that he can send his four kids to private school but what about the families who have a plate shoved in front of them every week who cannot afford it? Hey Mr. Thirty Year Old Assistant Pastor. If you want to send your kids to private school, get a job and pay for it yourself. Don’t demand that the struggling families and widows and single moms in the pew pay for it. What Wilson is describing is not "double honor" for elders, it is an elitist mentality of an exalted professional clergy that is perfectly within their rights to expect the church to fund their lifestyle.
So here is the “BIG PROBLEM”. Doug Wilson does a four part, very well thought out, series on ministerial compensation without ever seriously addressing the first question you need to ask before any discussion of this sort: should elders/pastors/ministers be paid to serve in the church? If you skip that question by assuming the answer, you really are wasting your time because you are answering questions without having established your underlying position, i.e. that pastors indeed should be paid. That leads you to the absolutely staggering discussion of how much is enough that paints a picture of ministers getting paid well above the prevailing wage. For all of the talk about ministers not being professionals, it seems that we should look to professionals with graduate degrees to determine just how we should “honor” our elders.
I am all for honoring elders, I just reject the traditional notion that is unsupported from Scripture that honoring elders requires paying them a salary so they don’t have to work a “real” job. I had hoped for a better argument from Doug Wilson but what I got was a series of articles based on a flawed and unsupported tradition.