Part XVII: Paul’s Tentmaking

Inevitably, the figure of the Apostle Paul looms large over the discussion, both in terms of his personal practice and his defense of his right both to accept financial support and his equal right to earn his own living. In one of the very few books dealing with bivocational church planting, Steve Nerger and Eric Ramsay claim that tentmaking “was part of (Paul’s) ethos, his ideal, his thought pattern…his theology.”

Allen says that, on the issue of earning a living through being a minister of the gospel, the church has turned a permission into a demand. Chrysostom argued that “earning a living” denoted subsistence living rather than the accrual of wealth. Elsewhere, Allen wrote that Paul used the maxim in 1 Corinthians 9:14 “not as a law inviolable and immutable, but as a permission which he himself declined to use.” New Testament scholar Gordon Fee agrees. Commenting on this passage, he challenges the contemporary church:

“The whole reason for the argument is to assert that his giving up of these rights does not mean that he is not entitled to them. In a day like ours such rights usually mean a salary and “benefits.” On the other hand, the reason he feels compelled to make this kind of defense is that he has given up these rights. Contemporary ministers seldom feel compelled so to argue!…All too often one fears the objective of this text is lost in concern over “rights” that reflect bald professionalism rather than a concern for the gospel itself.”

Various reasons are advanced in the literature as to why Paul chose to “work hard with his own hands” (although all are agreed that the work in question would have been in tentmaking). There has also been debate over the type of tent he would have been making and the exact material Paul would have been working with, although the strong consensus is that he was a leatherworker. (see Hock  social context)

Dorr mentions five possible reasons for Paul’s choice: Jewish boys were expected to learn and practice a trade, rabbis were forbidden to earn from their teaching, it was a natural trade for a Cilician like Paul, Greeks despised manual labour and Paul deliberately set an example of humility to the church, and Jewish priests did earn and were often unpopular and satirised as greedy. He continues, “Paul refused church financial support so he would not be classified with institutionally supported religious workers and would hopefully escape any taint on his ministry of the gospel.”

Hock emphasizes how tentmaking fit into Paul’s “boasting in weakness” paradigm, and how he viewed his work as “toil, slavery and humiliation.” He explains,

“His life was very much that of the workshop…of leather, knives and awls; of wearying toil; of being bent over a workbench like a slave and of working side by side with slaves; of thereby being perceived by others and by himself as slavish and humiliated; of suffering the artisans’ lack of status and so being reviled and abused.”

Paul Barnett agrees: “all romantic notions must be dispelled,” he writes. “This was exhausting and stinking work, done at night…It was one of the chief sources of his exhaustion and humiliation in a culture that despised physical labour.” Later, in the same commentary, he notes, “Most likely, Paul’s hands and arms were permanently stained” so that “the stained hands of Paul the tentmaker who preached Christ crucified were a ‘sacrament’ of the generosity of God giving his righteousness by grace, but not cheaply.”

The issue of patronage is also relevant. Barnett points out that “the practice of patronage was deeply embedded in Graeco-Roman society,” and that in Corinth especially it would be important to distance himself from that aspect of the culture.  In an attempt to reconcile Paul’s apparently different attitude to financial help in Corinth and Philippi, Barnett makes the interesting observation that “Corinth due to its position and wealth, was plagued with visiting money-hungry prophets and philosophers. In provincial, unsophisticated Macedonia the apostle could perhaps accept support without compromising the Gospel, but not in the regions of Achaia.”

This is also the position adopted by Ciampa and Rosner, who write that Paul “chooses to demonstrate his pleasure in (preaching) by not accepting support from those to whom he is ministering…The language of vv.13-18… strongly implies Paul’s understanding that God is his patron, and he is under obligation to serve his agenda rather than anyone else’s.”

Joel Lohr, in one article, recognizes the multiple possible reasons behind Paul’s bivocationalism (not all of them mutually exclusive). He acknowledges the patronage issue, and with Hock and Barnett he recognizes that Paul’s decision to remain a tentmaker would have caused embarrassment to some of his followers or would-be disciples from the higher social elite.  As Ralph Martin observes, “The typical Greek ‘upper class’ sentiment…was to treat manual labour with disdain and insist that no free citizen – certainly no philosopher – should get himself entangled in physical work.” The thrust of Lohr’s argument concentrates on Paul’s humility and the issue of identification. Yet, such identification was not a self-deprecating end in itself. There was undoubtedly a missiological dimension:

Although he has the freedom and right to make a living as a missionary worker, he has refused to do so for the sake of the gospel and unity of the body. Paul is free to accept the gift, but he chose not to exercise this right and became a slave, plying his trade and remaining financially free in order to win some to Christ.

Hock is actually more explicit in this and draws attention to the peculiar mission opportunities presented by tentmaking. He explains, “His trade also may have served directly in his missionary activities in the sense that workshop conversations with fellow workers, customers, or those who stopped by might easily have turned into occasions for informal evangelism.”

So it appears that the reason for Paul’s “non-stipendiary” status was not financial. Paul did receive financial assistance gratefully on other occasions, perhaps most notably from the Philippians.  Martin says that he adopted “a pragmatic, not  doctrinaire approach,” and Nerger and Ramsay maintain that compared to the modern church’s neat divisions of “fully-funded,” “partially funded,” and “unfunded,” Paul seems at various times and in various places to have been in all three camps!   They comment, “We find it interesting that the Apostle Paul was just interested in doing whatever it took to plant churches and disciple people.” This is echoed by Rodney Harrison, who says, “At times Paul served as a tentmaker. At other times in his ministry he was supported by churches and individuals. There were likely times when he received support from both sources. At all times he was faithful and obedient to the call.”

What is clear, however, is that he desired that his motives not be misunderstood, and that the gospel not be discredited in the eyes of those he was seeking to reach. Paul insisted, says Martin, that he wasn’t setting aside a duty to get support, but a privilege, “because only in this way would he be able to avoid placing an obstacle in the path of the Gospel.” In 2 Corinthians 12:13, Paul claims never to have been “a burden” to the church, and this does appear to be related to finance. However, taken with the 1 Corinthians 9 passage, it seems clear that there were multiple reasons for his tentmaking, and that the financial one was neither the only, nor the main reason that he did not wish to earn his living from the gospel.

In his pastoral epistles, it seems that Paul’s qualifications for office in the church sit much more easily with a bivocational lifestyle. In McCarty’s anthology, David F. Palmer observes:

“(Paul requires) that a man be a good manager and provider for his household (1Tim.3:4-5), have the resources to be a hospitable host (Titus 1:8), be living and working in the community in such a way that his reputation precedes him (1Tim.3:7) and gives evidence of good stewardship (Titus 1:7).  Qualifications for the pastorate include supporting one’s family adequately and raising the family in a community of people who can verify one’s conduct.”

While one could debate whether these passages were addressed to pastors or elders (as they are understood in the contemporary church) nevertheless, within the reformed tradition, the requirements for teaching elders and ruling elders are the same in terms of personal character, and therefore Palmer’s point is worth considering.

So, there seem to be at least seven possible reasons for Paul’s bivocationalism: a desire for identification, to clarify misunderstandings, to stifle dissension among the churches, to prevent the perils of patronage, to eschew professionalism, to avoid burdening the churches, or to facilitate evangelistic openings with local citizens.  Whichever may have been most prominent at a given time, the one thing that is certain is that Paul believed his tentmaking, like that of those he appointed to his churches, was to be “for the sake of the gospel.”


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