Preacher’s Rights

By Edward O. Bragwell, Sr.

My defense to those who examine me Is this: Do we have no right to eat and drink? Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? Or Is It only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? (1 Cor. 9:3-6, NKJV).

With so much world-wide attention being given to human rights issues, this may be a good time to put in a word for preachers’ rights. After all, preachers are almost human.

Preachers are in an awkward position. They must “declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), including what the Bible says about their own rights. If they don’t teach it they open themselves to being charged with failure to teach all the Bible teaches. If they do teach it, some may charge that their teaching is self-serving. So, what shall we do? Do what Paul did. Teach it and hope that brethren will understand and learn their duty on the subject. Yet, at the same time, use good judgment about when it is best to use or not use those rights.

The ninth chapter of I Corinthians, as well as other passages, deal with preachers’ rights. It was not Paul’s purpose, nor is it ours, to demand any rights, complain about any personal ill-treatment, nor was it for any personal considerations (cf. vv. 15-16). It was to inform all of God’s will and to show that Paul sometimes would forego lawful rights for the over-all good of the Cause. If Paul could voluntarily forego his lawful rights for the good of the church, why could not the Corinthians forego their lawful right to eating of meats (as discussed in chapter 8) for the good of weaker brethren?

Now, let us look at some of the rights that Paul says that preachers have:

A Right To Be Paid

To establish this right, Paul appeals to common sense (v. 7). If a soldier does not have to pay his own way to war, and a planter of a vineyard can eat from the vineyard, and a tender of flocks can drink milk from the flock – a preacher can live from the gospel. He then appeals to the law (vv. 8-13). He quotes Deuteronomy 24:4. He also shows that those who serve the temple lived from the temple. He concludes, “even so the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should live from the gospel” (v. 14).

Brethren seem to have a problem with paying a preacher. They will support him, but not pay him. When they support him, they approach it much like supporting needy saints, i.e., he must show that he is in need before they decide if and how much they will support him. What is wrong with paying a preacher? Paul took wages for his service (2 Cor. 11:8). Jesus told the Twelve to take wages or hire for their labor during the limited commission (Lk. 10:7). These are different words in the original conveying the same idea – pay for service rendered. It is interesting that the word for wages in 2 Corinthians 11:8 is translated charges in 1 Corinthians 9:7 (KJV). Sometimes “necessity” does enter the picture and the support may be considered a gift (Phil. 4:16,17). Yet, the word for gift there is different from the ordinary idea of a free gift or charity. Thayer says it is a “thing given, cf. medical ‘dose’; . . . yet not always gratuitous or wholly unsuggestive of recompense.”

It seems to me that there are some extreme attitudes about preacher’s pay. Some want to base it wholly on “need.” Others want to give no special consideration to preachers that have exceptional needs. Some preachers blatantly declare that “it is nobody’s business what I am paid,” resenting being asked to report all wages received from preaching the gospel to the churches that pay them. Churches need to know how much the preachers to whom they supply wages are receiving from preaching. How else can they judge whether they are being adequately paid for their service they are rendering?

On the other hand, lately, I have seen some wanting a preacher to give the church a detailed report of his personal expenditures before they decide his wages. I wonder how many of these would be willing to submit themselves to the same indignity before those who supply their wages. A preacher’s personal expenditures, like anyone else’s, is none of the brethren’s business unless they know his spending is sinful. How would you like to go to work for a company, asking them how much the job pays, and being told to submit a copy of your personal budget so the company can decide how much your services are worth? Does not this get very close to being a busybody in other men’s matters?

When brethren see that their paying preachers benefits them as much as (and maybe sometimes more than) the preacher they will quit wrangling so much over “how much is enough” to pay. Paul said the fruit that is produced abounds to the church’s account (Phil. 4:17). Maybe we need to say a word about how much.

Some preachers have a hard time because brethren often ignorantly and sometimes willfully under pay them. Brethren need to either wake up or be awakened to this fact. Personally, I have no gripe. Thanks to the generosity of good brethren, my family and I have lived comfortably – probably more so than had I followed any other line of work for which I am qualified. But, I do know what some preachers are making if, reports posted on bulletin boards across the country are telling the truth. Frankly, I would like to know, their secret for avoiding bankruptcy.

There is no way to make a universal hard and fast rule for how much is adequate pay for preachers. Yet, there are some things that brethren need to be aware of as they make that a judgment. Here are some things, I believe brethren need to know:

1. The amount you see on the bulletin board is not “take home pay.” It is not all profit. Many of the withholdings (income taxes, etc.) and fringe benefits that brethren never see on their paychecks have to be paid by the preacher after he gets his check. Also, his operating expenses have to be taken from the amount you see. Because he does not have to punch the clock for secular work, he often can do extra things for the Cause. He is also called on and gladly responds to requests from brethren to do various things that he would not be asked to do if he were not a preacher. Most of the things have extra expenses connected with them. Most preachers put far more miles on their cars than the average person. These expenses must be subtracted from his gross pay to know what he is really making.

2. In 1987, unless he has filed that he is conscientiously opposed to it, 12.3 percent of his pay went to Social Security. If the church furnished him a house to live in, he had to pay 12.3 percent of its rental value – yet, he is not building one dime of equity in that house. If you gave him a housing and/or utilities allowance he had to pay 12.3 percent on that – even though the rental value or allowance is not taxed as income.

3. Some churches pay preachers’ health insurance premiums, but not many. Usually he must provide it from salary. If he gets reasonable coverage, it will likely cost from $200 to $350 per month, depending on his circumstances.

These are just a few things that brethren need to consider to be reasonable and fair in deciding how much to pay preachers.

A Right To Family Life

Paul says he and Barnabas had a right to “take along a believing wife” (v. 5), though they had not exercised that right. Peter, Catholic doctrine notwithstanding, did exercise that right.

Paul is affirming more than the mere right to have a wife. He is affirming that those who preach and live from the gospel have the right to a wife and that she too live from the gospel. If that is not what he is saying, I have missed the point. Verse 5 is part of the discussion of his right to live from the gospel. Verse 4 talks about a preacher’s right to be paid so he can eat and drink. Verse 5 talks about the right to be paid so he can “take along a believing wife.” Verse 6 continues the same subject. In short, preachers have a right to normal family life and to be paid so that they can support their families.

If a preacher exercises this right, then he should take the responsibilities that go with it; not only taking care of his family’s financial needs, but other needs as well. A family requires time to be spent with wife and children. I am afraid too many preachers have exercised their right to a wife and consequently children and then became so busy “saving the world” that they lost their own families to the world. A preacher’s wife and children need the same time and attention that any other brother’s wife and children need. Preachers and brethren who supply their wages and profit from their service need to understand this. Of course, a preacher and his family must be willing to sacrifice for the Cause of Christ – just as with any other Christian and his family.

Preachers’ kids need a daddy to take time and even have the money to do fun things with them, just as much as anyone’s kids. Preachers’ kids have to go to doctors and dentists just like any other kids. In short, preachers’ families are almost normal folks. It would be good if all preachers and all those who supply their wages understood this. There is a simply rule that governs this – it sometimes is called, “The Golden Rule. “

A Right To Stay Put

Many look on preachers as itinerant workers in the church that must always be moving from place to place “to find work.” Some have even formulated doctrines that forbid preachers from locating for a long period with a particular congregation. That was the contention of the old Garrett-Ketcherside team.

The New Testament clearly establishes the right of a preacher to stay put for an indefinite time. Paul told Timothy to “remain” or “abide still” (KJV) at Ephesus. Earlier, Paul had remained there for three years (Acts 20:31). The length of stay is a matter of judgment, not of law, whether three weeks, three months, three years, or three decades. Who can scripturally set an arbitrary time for a preacher to remain at a place? Good judgment must determine the wise course in each case. One of my friends, while talking with some brethren about moving to work with them, was asked, “How long do you usually stay at a place?” He replied, “I have only worked at two places while being fully supported by the church. I stayed at the first place seven years and left at least a year too soon. I have been where I am now for eighteen months and have been there at least a year too long.”

Preachers and congregations need to learn to let other factors determine the length of time they work together, rather than some notion that preachers need to move ever so often just for the sake of moving. I know some good men who have quit fulltime preaching because they felt that they and their families needed some roots. It is easy to say that if one preaches then he should be willing to make such sacrifices – and I agree, if a move is really needed for the sake of the Lord’s work. However, if a preacher is really doing the Lord’s work at a given place, why should his family be uprooted simply for the sake of making a change? It is my considered judgment that both preachers and churches need to be more considerate of preachers’ wives and children in this matter of arbitrarily moving them about. Often preachers are just as inconsiderate as the brethren in this thing.

A Right To Waive His Rights

There is no Scripture that says that a preacher must “live from the gospel.” Or that he must have a wife. Or that he must stay at a place many years. Circumstances may dictate to the preacher what he does about such rights. Sometimes it might even be unwise to exercise any or all such rights given him under the gospel. Yet, these rights should not be denied to him by brethren who ought to know better. For example, he may choose, as Paul did, to remain unmarried. He may even think it is best for him, his circumstances, and the particular work that he wants to do in the Lord’s vineyard. Yet, Paul declared that a sign that men had departed from the faith would be that they “forbid to marry” (1 Tim. 4:3). There is a vast difference in one voluntarily waiving his rights under the gospel for the gospel’s sake and having these same rights taken away by brethren who would bind their will (not the Lord’s) on another.

A Right To Be Different

Just because Peter, a faithful apostle and preacher, was married did not mean that Paul had to be – or vice versa. Just because some brother decides that he can serve the Lord by being fully paid from his preaching does not mean that all who preach must. Preachers may differ greatly from each other in matters of personal judgment and rights under the gospel and all still be faithful to the Lord and preach his gospel. There is too much judging the worth and faithfulness of men based on how much they are like our favorite brother in matters of personal judgment. If we know a wonderful preacher who does a wonderful work and is married, then it is easy to conclude that for any preacher to do a good work he must be married. We may know a wonderful preacher who does a marvelous work while depending on the gospel for his living and decide that unless one elects to live from the gospel that he cannot do a good work.

This list goes on. One preacher may deliver sermons with a little different twist or style or even length than what we would prefer and still be a good preacher. One may be stronger in certain areas of preaching than another. One may be strong in public speaking. Another may be more apt at “personal work.” Another’s strong suit may be writing. Each may choose to “major” in those areas where he feels he can be the most effective. Does his placing his major emphasis at a different place than that of our Brother Favorite make him any less worthy of respect and support? Do not preachers have the right to be different if they do not sacrifice any principle of the gospel in the process?

We should not deny anyone any right given him by the Lord. We need to respect the rights of others to exercise or waive their rights under the gospel. If one exercises his rights in a way that violates God’s law and damages his cause, then that is another matter. Paul discusses such a possibility within the context of our text. One would do well to read and heed it all.

Guardian of Truth XXXII: 6, pp. 180-182
March 17, 1988