Paul the Tentmaker
Rethinking Ministry and Missions in the 21st Century
And because he was of the same craft, he abode with them, and wrought:
for by their occupation they were tentmakers. Acts 18:3
Paul is the Christian's example extraordinaire. The Christian life put into action is summed up in the life of Paul. Paul not only taught by his word but also by his work. James says it this way: “...shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.”(James 2:18) The apostle Paul's life was full of works and many pages of Scripture testify to that fact. Though he once strove to bring an end to the Church, Paul became the hardest worker in the New Testament. There is likely no other person who has been so fully a devoted Christian servant than Paul. How did Paul come to be so zealous for the Lord? As a saved man, as an apostle, as a writer of many of the epistles, was he not worthy to receive financial reimbursement for his services? Of course he was. Why then was Paul a tentmaker, laboring for his daily provisions? Paul reveals for us the motivation for his hard-working attitude: “But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10) Paul explained why he worked harder than all of the rest of the apostles. It is simple. It was because of God's great grace bestowed upon him! He gives testimony to this life by mentioning the Lord's wonderful grace in the closing of each of his letters. “The salutation of Paul with mine own hand, which is the token in every epistle: so I write. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”(2 Thessalonians 3:17-18)
Yet, did not all of the apostles receive this same grace? And, do not all Christians partake of the same great grace of our Lord? Indeed so. Paul was no different than us when it comes to being a recipient of God's grace. His grace is indeed sufficient for us just as it was with Paul. In order to help understand why this servant was so convinced he must work and live as he did, let us consider another person who also greatly treasured the grace of our Lord.
"And one of the Pharisees desired him that he would eat with him. And he went into the Pharisee's house, and sat down to meat. And, behold, a woman in the city, which was a sinner, when she knew that Jesus sat at meat in the Pharisee's house, brought an alabaster box of ointment, And stood at his feet behind him weeping, and began to wash his feet with tears, and did wipe them with the hairs of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee which had bidden him saw it, he spake within himself, saying, This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner. And Jesus answering said unto him, Simon, I have somewhat to say unto thee. And he saith, Master, say on. There was a certain creditor which had two debtors: the one owed five hundred pence, and the other fifty. And when they had nothing to pay, he frankly forgave them both. Tell me therefore, which of them will love him most? Simon answered and said, I suppose that he, to whom he forgave most. And he said unto him, Thou hast rightly judged. And he turned to the woman, and said unto Simon, Seest thou this woman? I entered into thine house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath washed my feet with tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. Thou gavest me no kiss: but this woman since the time I came in hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not anoint: but this woman hath anointed my feet with ointment. Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little. And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven. And they that sat at meat with him began to say within themselves, Who is this that forgiveth sins also? And he said to the woman, Thy faith hath saved thee; go in peace." (Luke 7:36-50)
Paul is like this thankful woman. He understood what a great sinner he was (I Timothy 1:15). This woman was fully aware of her many sins and thus had a great appreciation for her Saviour. She loved much because she was forgiven much. Her gratitude is shown by her caring actions toward the Lord. Paul's gratitude for his great measure of grace is demonstrated in his many works of service. His is a labor of love. It is because he had been greatly loved by the Lord that he showed his love in return. Paul knew forgiveness and grace. Grace motivated him to strenuously labour and abundantly serve. Paul's realization that the Lord's grace was shed upon his life is the reason he labored more abundantly than all of the rest of the apostles.
The obvious question is do we understand the amount of grace given to us? Are we not appreciative of our salvation as was this woman? Hasn't the Lord generously forgiven our many sins? Are not we saved from the same flames of hell as was this woman? All Christians are rescued from the same eternal damnation as was Paul! So, why don't all Christians show abundant evidence of such a life changed by grace? The truth is we all should be moved with great zeal for our Lord. We all deserve to be in the same tormenting place forever. Our labor should bear witness of the wonderful grace of Jesus in our lives.
It is out of his appreciation of God's love, forgiveness, and grace that Paul was a tentmaker. He didn't have to be. Paul could have required compensation for his service to whom he ministered. This apostle could have required the churches to give sacrificially for his teaching and preaching. He did receive gifts once in a while and did not turn away loving care that came in the shape of finances or practical help. Yet, Paul, even with all of his academic qualifications and special gifting from the Lord, willingly took on an ordinary job in order to provide for his daily necessities. This is grace in action! Let's now take a look at some of the things Paul said about his labor for income.
Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? (1 Corinthians 9:6)
Paul and Barnabas had outside employment. That is, they had jobs that earned income apart from any church gifts. The two had a right to receive monetary remuneration from the church for their spiritual ministry. This is what it means that they had power to forebear working. They had the right to get paid by the church for their teaching and service, yet they chose not to exercise that right. Many Christians benefited from those two traveling ministers. The Bible makes it clear that those receiving teaching from the Bible should receive payment for their work. Here are some verses which declare that they had the right to get paid for their spiritual labor.
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward. (1 Timothy 5:17-18; see also I Corinthians 9:7-11)
The pastor who teaches the Bible is worthy of being provided the physical necessities of life. This provision includes monetary compensation. Double honor refers to respect and also to provide the pastor the things necessary to get by in this earthly life. Here is further instruction from the Lord.
Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel. 1 Corinthians 9:14
Those who preach the gospel and teach the Bible should be taken care of by those who receive their teaching. In other words, those whom the Lord is using as pastors and preachers should make their living from this work. Here is another clear statement: "Let him that is taught in the word communicate [share] unto him that teacheth in all good things." (Galatians 6:6) Hard work is required in order to study and to teach properly. 2 Timothy 2:15 teaches that those who study the Bible are workmen. It also takes a lot of effort to reach a city or the countryside with the gospel of Christ. Many hours of labor are required in order to minister properly for our Lord. The Lord himself has made allowance to provide for his servants who are responsible especially for preaching and teaching the Bible. Let's see how the Lord set up distinctive ministries distinguishing between practical helps and the ministry of the Word of God.
Then the twelve called the multitude of the disciples unto them, and said, It is not reason that we should leave the word of God, and serve tables. Wherefore, brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:2-4)
Widows were being neglected. The early church sought a way both to help the women and to ensure that the ministries of prayer and the Bible were not forsaken. The Lord directed certain men to oversee taking care of the widows (probably the first deacons). Other men kept their ministry concerning prayer and the Bible. Until this time there seems not to have been any who were designated to assist the apostles. If the apostles involved too much time with benevolent kinds of service (serve tables to provide food for the widows) they would not have the necessary time to pray, study, preach and teach. Both helping ministry and Bible teaching ministry were important. Neither should be neglected. However, the Lord had appointed some specifically to designate time for prayer and time for the Word. As ministries grow, this distinction may get more pronounced. Nevertheless, we find Paul doing both practical hands-on work and teaching the Bible. He had to make sure that his preaching of the gospel was never neglected. His teaching ministry could not suffer. Paul found time for both. When Paul was ordained an apostle he was not married (1 Cor. 9:5). Some, however, believe he was a widower. He did not have obligations to provide for a wife and family. Still, we find that his personal income provided for others along with him in ministry (Acts 20:34). It is evident he kept his priority to honor the Lord in Christian service and in his paying occupation.
Paul had been commissioned directly by the Lord Jesus. He was a missionary and a Bible teacher. Paul was certainly well educated and experienced. Was he not worthy of getting paid for the spiritual work he performed? Certainly he was. But for the most part, Paul chose to work a regular job rather than take a paycheck from those to whom he ministered. It doesn't make sense … unless grace is factored into his life and ministry! You see, Paul was saved by grace and he did not deserve anything but to be forever separated from the Lord. Out of his great love for the Lord and for the Lord's Church, Paul chose not to take advantage of this right. Consider his reasoning.
What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel. (1 Corinthians 9:18)
Paul freely received the gospel of Jesus Christ. Now he was making that same gospel available with no cost attached. The gospel is free and Paul wanted to take it to others that way. What a wonderful example of grace this is. It is as if he were saying: “I have been freely forgiven of all my sins. I now want to freely let others know of this same forgiving grace.”
Consider also the personal aspect of his ministry. Think about the many days of difficult labor he poured into the churches for the cause of Christ.
I have coveted no man's silver, or gold, or apparel. Yea, ye yourselves know, that these hands have ministered unto my necessities, and to them that were with me. I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive. (Acts 20:33-35)
Paul's outside employment provided not only for his own needs but also for some who ministered along with him. Paul was a giver. He probably could have worked as a high-scale lawyer, as a chief executive, or as a top educator. He turned aside from these higher-paying jobs and worked with his hands. He made tents for people to dwell in. There were many other kinds of dwellings in his day made of rock, brick, and wood. Paul was laboring for those who most likely did not have the money to purchase a higher priced home. Paul the tentmaker made an honest living. He further points out his reasoning for spending time in this self-supporting industry.
So being affectionately desirous of you, we were willing to have imparted unto you, not the gospel of God only, but also our own souls, because ye were dear unto us. For ye remember, brethren, our labour and travail: for labouring night and day, because we would not be chargeable unto any of you, we preached unto you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:8-9)
Paul's was a personal ministry. He was always thinking of others. Not only did he share the gospel but he shared himself as well. He loved people and he was constantly on the lookout for ways to help. In order to give the gospel free of charge he labored making tents. It is important for Christian workers, indeed all those who name the name of Christ, to be employed in those occupations which are wholesome. Paul found a way to honor his Lord while earning an income.
Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: Not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. (2 Thessalonians 3:8-9)
This hard-working apostle stayed industrious throughout the day. Although he had the right to be provided food and the other basic necessities of life, he did not use that right. In this verse he states he was also making himself an example for other Christians to follow. Christians ought to be diligent workers. Of those in the marketplace, Christians should be the ones who are honest, punctual, and pleasant to be around.
Paul labored in the Lord's field by praying, evangelizing, and teaching. Besides these ministries he also worked to earn a living for himself. In this way he was not chargeable to any of those believers. Even though it was his right to receive financial remuneration from them for his work, he didn't take any. He worked at a trade to be an example to other Christians.
And Paul dwelt two whole years in his own hired house, and received all that came in unto him, (Acts 28:30)
Near the end of his life, Paul did not live in a parsonage but in his own rented house. He had the freedom to minister as the Lord directed. This is yet another way Paul was able to give to others. Hospitality and caring for others was part of who he was in Christ. He kept his hard-working attitude all throughout his full life of service.
And let ours also learn to maintain good works for necessary uses, that they be not unfruitful. (Titus 3:14)
Paul left Titus to set in order the fledgling churches on the island of Crete. Cretians were especially known for their laziness (Titus 1:12). Working was expected to be part of the normal Christian's activities. Titus was to give them an admonishment regarding laziness and teach them to stay occupied with profitable works.
And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, ... (Acts 28:3)
Even when Paul was traveling as a prisoner while shipwrecked on an island, we find him doing something that seems a menial task. He was collecting wood for the fire so that he and others could stay warm. The Lord ended up using this act of service as a means to reach the islanders with the gospel of Christ. Some people think it is below themselves to serve others or to do simple tasks for them. Those with this kind of thinking are missing a great quality of God's love.
For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister [serve], and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:45)
Paul served because he himself had been served by the Lord. What meekness was shown by our Lord! Our Creator lowered himself and served sinful man. Cannot we, sinful man, out of gratitude humbly serve others? Would not we, beggars for the salvation of our souls, want to freely show others where to get the Bread of Life? Tentmaking can be a part of ones's grateful service to the Lord. Like Paul, a tentmaking ministry can be a way one can show his love and heartfelt gratitude to his Savior.
A modern day tentmaker is a self-supporting pastor, missionary, or other Christian worker. Tentmaking may not be for everyone. Personal prayer before the Lord would be a prudent place to begin. Yet, a tentmaking church planter or other Christian worker can give not only of his heart but of his hands. Often when churches get a call from a missionary on deputation or a traveling evangelist, money is the primary reason for calling. Speaking engagements sometimes are booked primarily with financial reimbursement in mind. Missionaries may want to "present their ministry" but it is very often for the purpose of raising support. Paul did not take that approach. He sacrificed and worked hard at a secular job in order to give to the church instead of suggesting a church give to him. He never presented his ministry, he just ministered! What trust in the Lord we can learn from this servant. Too many times a missionary in another country will contact a pastor seeking more support (money). It was once suggested that a missionary pick up a part time job in order to make ends meet. The job could also serve as a means to contact people in the community. The response was that the missionary's visa did not grant him the privilege to work. Long forgotten by those who call William Carey the father of modern missions is that he worked as a shoemaker and as a dye manufacturer. There have not been many linguists or educators on the mission field like Carey. Yet, he had time to work for a living. Perhaps a modern missionary who enters a country as a tentmaker would make a more permanent impact on a people. It is worth consideration.
Christians need to take into account what we are teaching the next generation. While short-term mission trips have become vogue in recent decades and their benefit is notable, the means of getting to another destination does not entirely mimic Paul's methods. Many of our readers may have forgotten what youth are capable of doing. There have been many young people who have gotten a part-time job or have helped in a business to earn some extra cash. Teens and college age people earn money for phones, clothes, food, and cars all the time. But, when it comes to going on a short-term missions trip, guess who they think should pay for it? Usually not them. Why can't young people work or get help from family to go on a church trip? Fundraisers and letter writing have taken the place of good old fashioned hard work. Young people who want to go and serve the Lord are learning to expect someone else to pay their way. That is contrary to the simple lessons they can learn from Paul.
Daily in every nation it is becoming more challenging to minister for Christ. Openly spreading the gospel and holding public church meetings is getting more difficult. Tentmaking pastors and missionaries may be a solution to some tough ministry situations. Hard-to-reach areas may become more reachable if a tentmaker can "drive his stake into the ground" and get a foothold in the desired place of ministry.
Paul worked as a tentmaker out of his great love for Jesus Christ. While not all of us may follow in his footsteps in this manner, we all need to serve God with our whole hearts. Let's make a commitment to pray for those in ministry, including tentmaking pastors and missionaries.
Questions for further thought:
1. How might tentmaking pastors help the church be able to thrive in a world hostile to the Christian faith?
2. What are some advantages of a tentmaking missionary, church planter, or pastor?
3. What are some disadvantages of a tentmaking missionary, church planter, or pastor?
4. How might tentmaking situations teach young people to have an attitude to serve?
5. How might tentmaking situations teach young people practical ministry experience?
6. What was Paul's motivation for being a tentmaker?
7. What is your motivation for serving the Lord?
James Utter 1/2016