I see this as a can and should question. Just because something is permitted doesn't mean that we should or must automatically do it. I can with a clear conscience have a glass of wine with dinner (I don't like wine, but just go with it). Provided I am not getting drunk, I think I am OK within the Biblical mandate. But I don't drink any alcohol out of conviction of the evils of drunkenness and to avoid being a stumbling block to my brother. I can but I don't.
There are two questions here to deal with. First can we Biblically pay a pastor/minister/elder etc. to serve in ministry. The second is the one that gets a little stickier, and what I assume will cause some controversy but also hopefully generate some reasonable, humble discussion: should we have paid ministers?
Before I start, again my intent here is not to slander those who labor in ministry or to start a controversy just for fun. I know a number of men who are full-time, paid pastors and they do a wonderful work, they are godly men and great servants of Christ (Joe and Josh come to mind). I don't think they are lazy men who don't want to work in the private sector. I don't think that they are without any useful skills and cannot get gainful employment (I have a degree in Poli Sci and I have always done very well in the business world). People who accuse pastors of laziness have never been a pastor! I am sure there are men who fit the description of lazy or worthless for work in the ministry just as there are men like that in every field, I just haven't met them. I have struggled over posting these thoughts because I don't want to offend but I think we have to seriously ask these questions.
The focus here is on what is proper for the church. Is it healthy for the church, is it healthy spiritually for the man (or men) called to be pastors, is it healthy for the rest of the men in the church to subcontract out the spiritual leadership of the church to one or a couple of men who are paid full-time to work in ministry.
Can we pay the pastor?
The clearest, in my mind, verses supporting the paying of elders comes in 1 Corinthians 9...
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are not you my workmanship in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you, for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. This is my defense to those who would examine me. Do we not have the right to eat and drink? 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? Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? 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 speak entirely 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? 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. 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. 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. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:1-23)
I think that Paul establishes that financial support is permitted, indeed can be considered a right. But notice also what he says along with this. Twice in these passages Paul says that while he could get paid, he doesn't that he "may present the gospel free of charge" and "I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision.". So we have two seemingly conflicting statements here. On the one hand, Paul says it is his right as it is the right of others to make their living by preaching the Gospel, but on the other hand he says that he did not make use of this right for the sake of winning men to the Gospel. That is an important distinction.
(Note that not everyone agrees that it is Scriptural to pay men for what could be done free of charge, i.e. preaching the Gospel. See Alan Knox's series on this very issue, it is very insightful even if it probably will offend many with his position drawn from the Word that elders should support themselves by working and not in vocational ministry. The first of his posts is here, as well as a specific post with great discussion on 1 Corinthians 9 in particular. Agree with him or not one should at least give it a read and compare what he says with the Scriptures and compare what the Scriptures say to our modern church institutions. I will say that I am more and more convinced by Mr. Knox and his arguments to the contrary so I am strongly considering changing my view)
Once we have established can, now we look at should. Is it required to have a paid ministry? Clearly not as Paul pointed out he took nothing from the Corinthians. In other places we read of Paul working as a tentmaker, his trade. His rationale is similar to the rationale we might have today. By rejecting pay, he owed no man, he worked for his bread, he could not be accused of using his call and his gifts for gain. He fed himself by the work of his own hands and was therefore free to preach the Gospel. There was no hint of a conflict of interest in his preaching.
What is the role of the single elder in the church?
If there is a single elder, or even one senior elder who carries a disproportionate amount of authority, certainly a disproportionate amount of the responsibility will fall on him. But if you have a true elder ruled church, with a plurality of elders who share responsibilities of teaching, serving, preaching, etc. then there is no reason that a group of elders couldn’t serve the church every bit as well and do so without compensation. But I know that in churches with one elder, i.e. the "senior pastor", the disproportionate amount of the expected ministry work falls on them. After all, he is gettin' paid for this stuff!
(For more on the plurality of elders, see 9 Marks Ministry which has a number of articles about elders or check out Monergism)
The arguments in favor of a paid ministry
But what of the argument that the average church doesn’t have a sufficient number of men who are Biblically qualified to be elders?
That to me is a cop out. We don’t have sufficient numbers of elder qualified men because we have not trained up men to get to that point, we don’t demand more of the Christian man and because we have set up a system of subcontracting out the Gospel ministry. Far easier to throw some money in the plate to support the pastor than to man up and do the work of an elder yourself. It is a vicious circle. We figure since we pay the pastor, he should do all the visiting, teaching, preaching, leading. The more he does, the more people lay on him and the more separation we see between the pastor and the flock. The elders in the church should spend a great deal of time raising up other men in the church to serve as elders if they are not prepared to serve already. The men in the church will never be prepared to serve as elders if preparing them is not a primary mission of the church. Just because there are a lack of men who are ready today is not an excuse to chuck the whole thing and pay one guy to do it.
What about all the time that is required to minister to a congregation? Sermons to prepare, people to visit, meetings to attend?
Again, in a true plural elder church where the men of the church who are Biblically qualified serve as elders, there is no reason that those men cannot share the burden of pastoral care, teaching and preaching. If you have four elders in a church, each man would preach twice a month assuming two Sunday services. You most certainly can work in a regular job and properly prepare two sermons a month. You can certainly serve in a pastoral capacity when the needs of the church are divided among the elders instead of falling on one man. Will it take sacrifice and a supportive wife. Absolutely. Is that a problem? It certainly shouldn't be.
The potential dangers of a paid ministry
As we go further down this road, I see the role of the pastor becoming more professionalized, more specialized, more separate from the laity. The issue of professional education in ministry is one that seems to me to be an extraordinarily modern invention, even though it has been around for centuries. When we look at the New Testament, the calling of apostles, disciples, evangelists we don’t see Christ seeking out the academics and calling people based on their resume, where they got their diploma. Quite the opposite: Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13 ESV) There is nothing wrong with a seminary degree, in fact it is a wonderful quality and can be a great blessing to the church, but it is not a qualification of or a disqualification for the Gospel ministry.
There are many other potential dangers, some I have seen and some I have personally experienced in my "brief" time as a pastor. I would like to bring them up but I know full well that some will read those concerns, decide they refer to themselves and take umbrage. If my point here were to cause a needless controversy or stir up contention, it would be easy to throw a bunch of hypothetical or anecdotal dangers out, some real and some imagined but that isn't going to prove productive.
The subcontracting culture
Why do yourself what you can pay someone else to do? Because it is easier. We are a subcontracting society. We pay people to fix everything under the sun because we never took the time to learn how to fix things ourselves: cars, plumbing, computers. We pay people to teach our children in schools. We farm out the training of our children in the fear and admonition of the Lord to the Sunday school. We pay people we have met once or twice to be missionaries in far away lands because that is easier than witnessing to your neighbor. We pay a man to be the minister in the local church because that means we don't have to. We expect him to do the studying, the thinking, the struggling with the text and then get up on Sunday morning and tell us what the text says. We sit back and listen, because after all he is the professional. It is stunning how ignorant men and women who have spent their entire lives in the church listening to preaching are of the Word. It is stunning how ignorant I am of the Scriptures! Basic theological concepts are completely absent because many in the institutional church never wrestle with the Word themselves. We are fat and lazy spiritually because instead of working for ourselves, we get spoon fed the Word.
The mormon example
Granted, mormonism is a cult and controls it's membership in subtle ways. It is not a church we should seek to emulate. But something interesting about mormonism is applicable here. Mormonism is a highly demanding religion, very demanding on the personal time of it's membership (especially men). Unlike many Christian churches where women do most of the non-pastoral work, much of the burden in the mormon church falls on the men. There is no paid clergy at the mormon church except at the highest level in leadership (i.e. those responsible for whole regions of mormon churches). Yet mormon men serve many hours on their own, and receive no compensation for it. In fact, it is not only asked but expected that the men in the church will serve in the local body, cheerfully and without compensation, leading and ministering and teaching. Why is it that a false religion can engender such a response from their men and yet the church, which is supposed to be filled with born-again regenerate men, cannot get people to minister unless it pays them to do so?
I am not sure what the answer is. We have a deeply entrenched system in the ministry. Man feels called. Man goes to get a seminary education. Man applies for a pastor position at churches. Church has search committee interview the man. Church pays man to preach and provide pastoral care. This goes on until man dies/retires/quits, finds a bigger/better church or church fires man. What is the end result of this? Men that are burned out in ministry from shouldering all of the burden of leading the church. Churches full of lazy Christians or churches that are full of the unregenerate. The local church devolves and loses it's rightful place as the community center for worship by Christians and becomes an entertainment choice.
Should Christians do for pay what could be, should be done for free? Is a gift for preaching and teaching a mandate to get paid? There are a lot of people with wonderful talents for service in the church who ask nothing and receive nothing. Is preaching the Gospel something that only men with a seminary degree can do? I don't think so. On the other hand if someone works at a lower paying job to have more time to minister, is it wrong for the church to support that person from time to time financially?
I welcome discussion and expect disagreement. I would expect that any disagreement be based in the Scriptures, not in pragmatism or church tradition. As I started with, this topic gets at the heart of one of the most cherished institutions in the church and in Americana. I don't pretend to have the answer here, but I do have the question and it is one that for all our traditions must be asked.