A Commentary by John Stott
*Let him who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches*. The Greek word for ‘him who is taught the word’ is *ho katechoumenos*, the catechumen, a person who ‘is under instruction in the faith’ (NEB). This is how Luke describes Theophilus in the preface to his gospel (1:4).
Whether the instruction is given in private, or in a catechetical school in which converts are being prepared for baptism, or to a whole congregation by their pastor, the principle is the same, that he who is taught the word should help to support his teacher. So a minister may expect to be supported by the congregation. He sows the good seed of God’s Word, and he reaps a livelihood.
Some people find this embarrassing. But the biblical principle is emphasized many times. The Lord Jesus said to the Seventy whom He sent out, ‘The labourer deserves his wages’ (Lk 10:7). And Paul makes explicit use of the sowing and reaping metaphor to teach the same truth: ‘If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?’ (1 Cor.9:11).
If the principle is properly applied, it contains its own safeguards. Nevertheless, we ought to consider its two possible abuses.
a). Abuse by the minister.
Luther saw in his own day the danger of obeying this apostolic injunction too readily, for the Roman Catholic church was very wealthy as the people poured money into it, and ‘by this excessive liberality of men, the covetousness of the clergy did increase’. Similarly today, although few ministers could be described as overpaid, the popular image of the Christian minister (at least in the western world) seems to be that his job is both ‘cushy’ and secure. In modern slang, he is ‘on to a good thing’. And there is some truth in this. Some Christian ministers are tempted to laziness, and some succumb to the temptation.In England ministers are classified as ‘self-employed’. Nobody exactly supervises their work. So it is not unknown for ministers to grow slack. It is understandable, therefore, that Paul, although asserting the Lord’s command that ‘those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel’ (1 Cor.9:14), nevertheless renounced his own right and preached the gospel free of any charge, earning his living as a tent-maker. Perhaps more of us should endeavour to do the same today in order to correct the impression that ministers are only ‘in it for the what they can get out of it’. And yet the scriptural principle is clear, that the minister should be set free from secular wage-earning in order to devote himself to the study and ministry of the Word, and to the care of the flock committed to his charge. As Luther put it, ‘it is impossible for one man both to labour day and night to get a living, and at the same time to give himself to the study of sacred learning as the preaching office requireth.’
Is there any safeguard against this possible abuse? I think we may find one in 1 Timothy 5:17: ‘Elders who do well as leaders should be reckoned worthy of a double stipend, in particular those who labour at preaching and teaching. For Scripture says, “A threshing ox shall not be muzzled”; and besides, “The workman earns his pay”’ (NEB). It is not particularly flattering, perhaps, to find the preacher likened to a threshing ox! But he is also called a ‘workman’ or labouring man. The Greek word is strong and indicates that he ‘toils’ at the Word with all his might and main, seeking to understand and apply it. Perhaps preaching is at a low ebb in the church today because we shirk the hard work involved. But if the minister throws himself into his ministry with the energy of a labouring man, and sows good seed in the minds and hearts of the congregation, then he may expect to ‘reap’ a material livelihood.