Why I'm Quitting My Job To Become A Tentmaker

By Simon Mason

It might’ve been near the end of another spiel from a visiting speaker or it might’ve been after hearing yet another person say ‘I’m living by faith…” that it really clicked for me. 

We need a better way of thinking about ministry and finance.

As people with a destiny to build Kingdom organisations and social enterprises and to pursue social transformation and justice reformations, there is a significant upgrade we need in the way we think about finance.

The narrative of “support our ministry” is fatigued, and looking around at wider western culture, I’m beginning to get the sense that it is a narrative that is increasingly off-key with our witness of Christ.

Paul was clearly uncomfortable about receiving support from churches to resource his ministry trips; “I robbed other churches by receiving support,” He tells the Corinthians, “so as to serve you.” It’s a point in his wider argument, but you can almost hear the slight offence in his voice. I’m not cool with that, he’s saying, I shouldn’t have had to take their support.

In comparison, in the western church, we have become very cool with that.

It seems sometimes, in surveying the financial culture of the church, like we may be missing some pieces of the puzzle.

A part of our solution may be in the life of the Apostle Paul and his reasons for being a tentmaker. Acts includes in an offhand detail that because “…he was a tentmaker” during a trip to Corinth he stayed and worked with Priscilla and Aquila. It’s a bit baffling that the Apostle Paul, a highly educated, highly motivated and all round pioneer of the early church could spend his valuable time making tents? If anyone could have been able to rely on a steady income from the churches it was Paul. If anyone should have relied on the church tithe it most certainly was Paul, whose missionary trips across the ancient world were by all accounts extremely fruitful. Either choosing to be a tentmaker in the middle of his ministry was bad judgment and an economically poor use of time or he was doing it deliberately to make a point.

It’s clear there was already a cultural momentum in the early church toward church leaders being reliant on the tithe, Peter and the other Apostles were happy to receive support while they prayed and searched the scriptures. Likewise, as a Pharisee, “extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers”, its also a likely conclusion that prior to conversion Paul was on track to receiving a rabbinical salary if he wasn’t already. With this in mind, the decision, likely after his conversion, to adopt a trade and work with his hands signals a major deviation from the cultural paths laid out for him.

So what was it about the value of being of being supported by the church that he was uncomfortable with? I think to answer this, we may need to dig a little deeper into Paul’s worldview. Namely, how he viewed himself and how he viewed the operation of the kingdom.

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Firstly, we find Paul postured himself as a prototype for kingdom living. “Imitate me” Paul told his congregations, “as I imitate Christ.” In saying this, he wasn’t directing himself towards the leaders but the entire body of Christ. It’s hard to see him excluding his personal model for financial support from this pattern. In fact, behind closed doors, Paul must have discipled Titus in kind. “Did Titus make a gain of you?” we find Paul asking the Corinthian church and it’s safe to assume that Titus, following Paul, had his own trade to support his own missional journeys.

Yes, you could argue, this was solely to avoid the accusation that Paul was making profit from the Corinthians, but we also find this rationale appearing in the first letter to the Thessalonians. “Remember our toil and hardship”, Paul says, “We worked day and night in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel.” There is a deliberate link here between ‘not being a burden’ and ‘preaching the gospel’. If this gospel were a gospel of the serving God, Paul seems to suggest, it would be a contradiction if its ministers came without a similar heart of service.

What this shows is that Paul was thinking very clearly about how the culture we express reflects the God we are describing.

Followers of Christ serve as an expression of their message, because Christ Himself served as the expression of His message. Even more broadly, Paul is thinking about how an entire culture of followers that are imitating Christ should look and how he could be a prototype of that. How should we then live, given our high calling and the very practical needs of the world? In response to that question, Paul modeled a life that is accessible to everyone in Christ. The grace of God means that everyone can pursue his or her full calling in Christ without subscribing supporters, not simply a few select leaders who can.

This leads us to the second point. Paul was demonstrating in a practical way the theological point of the priesthood of all believers.

The new priesthood in Christ meant the division between priest and non-priest was completely abolished. Previously, Levitical priests drew a wage in order to fulfill their function of mediating the community’s relationship with God. For Paul, as a leader, to avoid receiving a wage for his ministry was a symbol that pointed to worldview belief that God had broken down this division and that we were all capable of revealing Christ to one another. We are all priests, this symbol shouts, there is no longer an elect group that mediates, but Christ himself is our mediator.

It is here that we can rightly ask about how 1 Corinthians 9, where Paul discourses about the ‘right’ of the apostle to receive a wage, fits with the rest of his worldview. In my view this passage already reveals a bit of an existing cultural undercurrent in the early church towards extending financial support towards leaders and Paul is drawing on this existing understanding. And here, he affirms it. Sort of.

It’s not the first time we see this type of nuance in Paul. It usually involves the statement of high principle and then the cultural concession. “There is neither slave nor free,” concedes to “slaves obey your masters”, “It is best not to marry” defers to “(if you must)… do not be unequally yoked”, and similarly the freedom to eat meat or food offered to idols defers to respecting the convictions of others. Paul is in the unenviable position of explaining the high principles of the Kingdom and then presenting them in practical terms to unique cultures freighted with their own preconceptions. As NT Wright commented somewhere recently, the cultural concession can be likened to scaffolding around the main structure of the kingdom. Necessary, but hardly the point of the exercise.

In this instance we see the core principle of being financially self-sufficient (read: a tentmaker) defer to the cultural concession of the right of a worker to receive a wage. Underlying this concession is recognition of a value even greater than self-sufficiency, that the gospel be preached, and if affirming the “right” of the worker to receive a wage fulfils that, then so be it.

In the inaugurated eschatology of Paul’s world “rights” themselves are meaningless things (especially ones derived from the law), but he is happy to use it to make his wider point to the Corinthians. In summary that point is: “I could have exercised my rights which are clear under the old covenant, but I chose to be like Christ not only so I could be above reproach, but because my reward is in preaching the gospel.” As always, while willing to concede for others, Paul adopts for himself the high value.

Accordingly, when we consider the Corinthian situation, we can conclude that it was a minor violation of principle for Paul to receive support from the Macedonian churches, but one he allowed, if only to rescue the ailing Corinthian church. (It may be that the Macedonians insisted on supporting Paul, but we know for certain he wasn’t comfortable with it.)

The third and final point is merely the natural conclusion to this groundwork. Paul knew the ultimate purpose of the kingdom was to be God’s vehicle of justice on the earth. In short, the purpose of the tithe was the poor. That’s why Paul felt he was ‘robbing’ the Macedonian church by receiving their tithe, because in his mind, according to his high principle, it was already due to the poor.

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Now, at this point, it is worth stating clearly I’m not at all against employing church pastors or honorariums, or the tithe or any of that jazz that tends to go with high-pitched Internet diatribes against finances in the church. Really. This is not about them. This is about you and how you think about your kingdom calling.

We need to honor and recognise people’s contribution and service where honor is due. In fact, I draw a small wage from my local church that pays for my coffees each week and not much more. Hopefully, sooner or later, I’ll either stop drinking coffee or find another income stream.

Likewise, there is a place of senior leaders in the body of Christ to be fully and appropriately paid as “a worker is worthy of his wages.”

Like all of us, I’m in a process of moving towards the high principles of being Christlike.

But in many respects the scaffolding needs to start coming away from around the structure. We need to begin thinking of the next generation of leaders and recognising the need to start modeling, like Paul, a different way of doing the kingdom. Bad culture doesn’t dissipate by being attacked; it’s simply displaced by the light of good culture. The scaffolding was never meant to be the structure, but as we build the structure we’ll recognise the scaffolding for what it is.

As a community it seems we need to drop the expectation that the church will someday provide for us and start steering ourselves towards the Pauline value of being self-sufficient kingdom builders. Consequentially, over the next generation, some of the unhealthy church culture that allows speakers to become salesmen will hopefully fade away and in its place the shared priesthood of the Kingdom will rise to fill it. Conversely, when leaders build their ministry on firm and free-standing financial foundations, we become less beholden to the honorarium and more dependent on the leading of the Spirit (the same Spirit that led Paul into regions that had never heard of the gospel and had no paradigm for supporting its ministers.)

It’s here that the tentmaker metaphor converges with our kingdom calling. As we become self-sufficient we are empowered to fulfil our mandate to build the kingdom.

The image of a tent was used in the Old Testament in parallel with the image of a dwelling place for God, “His tent is in Salem, his dwelling place in Zion” says the Psalmist. In the new covenant, the dwelling place of God is re-typed as the people of God, who are collectively in a process of being transformed into Christlikeness and, naturally, into the cultural likeness of Christ’s homeland; heaven. As we grow and are transformed we are creating a dwelling place for God.

It’s only fitting that Paul, the ultimate community-builder, should find his earthly trade as a tentmaker.

The image of a tent also speaks of our area of influence or covering which we are called to see transformation in. For Paul, his ‘tent’ was spread out over the gentile churches. “I will not boast,” He said, “beyond my measure, but within the measure of rule apportioned to me.” The idea of spiritual covering is not hugely popular in the western context but it’s an idea that goes hand in hand with Paul’s calling as an apostle.

While not everyone is called to be an apostle, we’re all called to build community by serving each other and, if we follow the pattern laid down by Paul, we’re all called to be financially self-sufficient. These three callings converge in the vocation of a tentmaker.

There is nothing more rewarding than building the kingdom. If you’ve ever come to the end of a year, with your debt or mortgage slightly slimmer, another mark in your resume or degree tallied, and an annoying sense of indirection, then you’ve probably felt the call to build the kingdom.

It may sound trite, but the loss of a day’s work fades in comparison to the fulfilment from that day being sown into the kingdom.

So I’m going to keep quitting my job… that is, giving up my career in the world (and in a similar way, my “rights” in the church to receive a wage) to be a tentmaker. I want to see the kingdom on earth, and like Paul, I want to see it built sustainably, from one generation to the next, in a way that truly reveals Jesus.

Your local church needs you. Why not grab ahold of the value of being a tentmaker and lets create a new culture of self-sustaining kingdom builders.

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I would love to hear from you about your thoughts on becoming a tentmaker in the kingdom. How can we change the culture towards a more sustainable model? Does it even need changing at all? How are you planning to support your kingdom calling?

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