I’ve not given bivocational church planting the respect it deserves. I’ve thought of it as an unsavory and occasionally unavoidable method-of-last-resort. I’ve seen it as a strategy to be employed only when absolutely necessary, or once all other methods have failed. I don’t think I’m alone in my aversion to bivocational… most of us think of it as something to avoid, like the plague.
But still, I’m surprised by my reaction. Of all people, I should be biased in favor of bivocational (self-funding) strategies. My dad sold life insurance to start the church of my childhood. And I’ve done it… I’ve worked side jobs to support my church plants. And I’m doing it even today… launching my church-planting network has required I engage in stretches of bivocational endeavors.
So what’s behind this aversion to bivocational and self-funding strategies? I’m not certain I can answer that… but as I confront my bias I am finding that a close look at Paul and his friends, Priscilla and Aquila, helps me rethink this strange aversion.
Paul did it! He engaged in bivocational ministry
Luke tells us that Paul made tents while in Corinth (Acts 18:3). Paul asserted that both he and Barnabus “worked for a living” to support their ministry (1 Cor 9:6). And both letters to the Thessalonians stressed how Paul worked both night and day to supply his own needs (1 Thess 2:9; 2 Thess 3:7-8). But the question has never really been whether Paul self-funded his ministry endeavors. The question is whether Paul used a bivocational strategy and approach voluntarily, deliberately, or even strategically?
Acts 18:5 has been misunderstood
A common misreading of Acts 18:5 is to assume that the text says Paul stopped making tents once Silas and Timothy arrived in Corinth. The implication many infer from this passage is that Paul allowed himself to stop doing “real” ministry –getting sidelined into making tents – only because he had no other choice. Then, once his companions showed up Paul reengaged “real” ministry and left the tent making behind. But that is not what the passage actually says! Luke might have instead meant to say that Silas and Timothy arrived only to find Paul already “occupied with the word” even as he was engaged in tent making. Now I admit that this passage alone is not enough to build an entire argument regarding bivocational ministry. However, a fresh look at Paul’s spirited defense of his own self-funding behaviors, present in his letters, makes it clear that Paul felt tent making and being “occupied with the word” were mutually compatible behaviors.
Bivocational ministry was not Paul’s “Means of last resort!”
In some twisted way the Corinthian congregation questioned Paul’s apostolic credentials precisely because he engaged in bivocational employment. “Hey, you’re working and paying for your own keep – you can’t be an apostle!” That seems to be what these church members thought. Therefore, in their minds Paul was a charlatan! Now had Paul been in the habit of receiving support from his churches, or letting the current church pay his way, he might have shut this argument down by simply pointing to that support. But instead, we find Paul arguing the opposite. His entire defense of his apostolic credentials is bound up with his refusal to accept the support other apostles received. His arguments make it clear that he viewed his self-funding bivocational employment as his strategic and preferred means of ongoing support. It was not something to try after everything else has failed.
So, what are the advantages of being bivocational?
Paul believed bivocational ministry enhanced his credibility
The criticisms leveled at him in Corinth, and the way his apostolic credentials were questioned, might have prompted Paul to accept the support typically afforded apostles. But Paul instead states – three times for emphasis – that he never made use of that support. Why? Because Paul wanted to avoid creating any obstacle that might keep people from hearing the gospel and questioning his motives. He did not want people to think he preached for profit. He wanted to avoid, at all costs, the implication that he was a people pleaser. As one “free from all men” he owed nobody favors. Indeed, his preaching of the gospel cost him dearly. Paul’s letters are full of reminders for disciples to live in ways that are above and beyond reproach. His bivocational strategy was a means Paul utilized to establish himself as a man of credibility.
Paul believed bivocational ministry fostered identification with others
1 Corinthians 9 reveals Paul’s intentionality about identifying with the people surrounding him. To the weak he became weak – even to the point of working like one of them. In 1 Corinthians 4:11-12 Paul notes that “to this present hour we labor, working with our own hands.” His intention was to be able to identify with, at the level of, the people he was reaching. And perhaps because at least 70% of the Roman population were slaves Paul employed a bivocational strategy to build community, a sense of shared identity, with those who found day-to-day life a challenge. When the church received a letter from Paul, and heard Paul refer to himself as a bondservant they knew this was not just flowery language meant to foster a sense of false humility. They knew Paul – and they had seen him work day and night like a slave… like one of them. Paul’s bivocational strategy fostered a strong sense of identification with his hearers.
Paul believed bivocational ministry modeled servant leadership
As Paul was saying goodbye to the Ephesian elders he noted that they themselves could testify to how his hands had ministered to his own necessities, as well as to the needs of his companions (Acts 20:33-35). Paul’s example was well known… evident… unassailable. But Paul then reveals to the elders why he had worked so hard in bivocational employment. He states that his example has “shown you that by toiling you must also help the weak.” Paul didn’t find jobs on-the-side only when he had no other choice. He worked bivocationally it as a means of modeling servant leadership.
Paul believed bivocational ministry reflected a Christ-centered worldview
In Paul’s mind everything he did was an act of worship and ministry. We draw lines between church and the rest of life… between ministry and career. Paul drew no such lines. In the preceding words just before he gave specific counsel to Christian wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters Paul said, “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Colossians 3:17). We do not find Paul dividing life up into secular and spiritual compartments. He clearly had a keen sense of his own apostolic calling (as well as a sense that others were called to be prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers.) But our language that draws a dichotomy between “full-time Christian service” and “lesser part-time ministries” was not in his vocabulary. He simply didn’t perceive life along a secular and spiritual divide. All of life – his own making of tents – was an act of worship and an occasion for ministry.
Note: I have been greatly helped by Ruth Siemens article, “Tentmakers Needed for World Evangelization,” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, 3rd Edition, pages 733-741.
Note from Ralph: Dr. Philip Claycomb oversees Nexus, a church planting network that has launched nearly 50 churches in the United States in 15 years. www.nexus.us You can reach him through the website.
Recent comments are getting livelier. Please keep it up. Hoping this site stages a mix of ideas…