Today, most pastors around the world earn their living from means other than serving their churches.
A Church History of Bivo
Tentmaking from the beginning until now
Bivocational ministry is trending today. Driven by missional theology, incarnational ministry, theology of work and realities of post-Christendom, conferences and cohorts are being organized to equip pastors for bivocational ministry.
“Bivo” pastors and missionaries are not new, however. Dual-role ministry, or tentmaking, as a means for Christian leaders to finance their mission has been the practice of the Church since its inception. In fact, throughout church history, the full-time, fully funded pastor is the exception and bivocational ministry is the norm.
Moreover, bivocational ministry is not rare today; most pastors around the world earn their living from means other than serving their churches. This may sound unusual to Christians in America, where we have become accustomed to fully funded clergy as the norm.
It started with Jesus’ apostles
Bivocational ministry was commonly practiced in the early church. Jesus’ apostles were commercial fishermen before He called them to follow Him.1 They returned to this livelihood after His crucifixion and before their mission of preaching the gospel to the world (John 21:1–25).
The apostle Paul was bivocational (1 Corinthians 4:12). In contrast to Peter and the other apostles, who were supported by church collections, Paul made tents (Acts 4:34–37; 18:1–3). His example led to the term tentmaking to describe dual-role pastors, missionaries and church planters who engage in ministry while having other employment.2
Both church-supported and self-supported pastors and missionaries were equally valid in Paul’s eyes.
Paul did not want to be a financial burden to the churches he founded (1 Thessalonians 2:7–9; 2 Thessalonians 3:6–8). He hoped that his work would build credibility among those who were not-yet-Christians and give him the chance to win them to faith (1 Corinthians 9:19; 2 Corinthians 11:7). When he and Barnabas were sent out as missionaries, they traveled at their own expense (Acts 13:1–3; 20:33–35; 1 Corinthians 9:15–18).
Nevertheless, Paul validated paying Christian leaders full support (1 Corinthians 9:7–14). He stated: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17). Those who labored were not simply to receive a stipend; Paul was concerned that they receive twice that amount, presumably because they devoted more of their time and energy to the work.3 Honor and respect in the congregation were included, but material rewards were his primary concern.
He continued: “For Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18, cf. Luke 10:7).
While Paul preferred not to take advantage of such material support himself, he stood vigorously for the right of apostles and co-laborers to be supported by the Christian community.4 In other words, both church-supported and self-supported pastors and missionaries were equally valid in Paul’s eyes.
From Zeno to Spyridon
Paul’s practice continued as the general pattern during the formation of the church throughout the Roman Empire.5 In the first three centuries, bivocational ministry became common among apostles, prophets, evangelists and pastors.
Tertullian (160–220) said, “Let the young persons of the Church endeavor to minister diligently with all appropriate seriousness, so that you will always have sufficient funds to support both yourselves and those that are needy, and not burden the Church of God. For we ourselves, besides our attention to the word of the Gospel, do not neglect our inferior employments. For some of us are fisherman, tentmakers, and farmers, so that we may never be idle.”6
In the fourth century, fully funded positions emerged, fostering a class of theologically trained, professional clergy.
Examples of bivocational ministry in the early church are common. Spyridon of Cyrus (ca. 270–348) served as bishop of Trimythous and as a shepherd. Basil of Cappadocia (330–379) reported that his priests were working and earning their daily bread. Chrysostom (ca. 347–407) spoke of rural pastors as yoking the oxen and driving the plow. Zeno (d. ca. 400), bishop of Maïouma, whose church in Gaza was quite large, was a linen weaver.7
In the fourth century, when the era of Christendom began, the church transitioned from a minority existence in a largely hostile world to a close alignment with the Roman state.8 What began with Constantine’s vision for one empire and one Christian faith continued under emperors like Theodosius. Consequently, fully funded positions emerged for bishops as well as for presbyters (pastors) in well-established congregations, generally in urban areas. This fostered a class of theologically trained, professional clergy.
Widening of the clergy/laity divide
During the era of Christendom, the gap widened between clergy and laity. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), for example, distinguished between the active life, the contemplative life and a composite.9 While he viewed them all as good and praised the work of farmers, craftspeople and merchants, he saw the contemplative life as a higher order. Soon this view dominated Christian thinking.10 Only those who pursued the contemplative life were said to have a religious or sacred vocation.
Monastic communities of monks or “regular clergy” were founded for those who devoted themselves to a life of prayer—to the contemplative life. Some monks like Pachomius of Egypt (ca. 292–348) and Benedict of Nursia (480–547), however, included in their monastic rules the practice of work, in addition to prayer and study.
The monastic movement in Europe, following Benedict’s rule and variations of it, became the missionary and church-planting force of the medieval period.11
Augustine of Hippo’s view soon dominated: Only those who pursued the contemplative life had a religious or sacred vocation.
Martin Luther (1483–1546), the Reformer, held that all of life, including daily work, could be understood as a calling from God.12 According to Luther, the Christian responds to the call to serve God and love one’s neighbor by fulfilling the duties associated with everyday work. Some interpreters of Luther, such as Philipp Jakob Spener (1635–1705), held that Luther’s notion of all believers being “of one body” referred to the priesthood of all believers.13 This teaching challenged the division of Christians into “spiritual” (sacred) and “temporal” (secular). Luther himself said: “All Christians are priests.”14 His teaching was foundational to reforms of his day and shaped views of vocation and work, both inside and outside the church.
In Herrnhut, Germany, Count Nicholas von Zinzendorf (1700–1760) inspired Moravian Brethren toward missionary activity around the world. While attending the coronation of the King of Denmark, Zinzendorf met a slave from the West Indies who told him of the needs of his people on the Island of St. Thomas. Soon afterward, Leonhard Dober, a potter, and David Nitschmann, a carpenter, volunteered to go there as self-supporting missionaries.15
Even if the Herrnhut community had been able to support its early missionaries by sending them money, Zinzendorf would not have approved it. Rather, he and the community expected and regulated self-support on the part of the missionaries, sending them out to witness to the gospel, earning their living as they went.16
Bivocational ministry was not without its challenges. In Labrador, Canada, for example, Moravian missionaries in the 1850s established a trade store for the welfare of the Eskimos, providing for the poor, the sick and the elderly in harsh winters and for everyone during poor hunting and fishing seasons. However, the effort became difficult when the missionaries often had to turn down appeals for credit. They found themselves increasingly conflicted by their dual duty—behind the pulpit and the counter.17
Bivo on our own shores
In America, bivocational pastors emerged out of necessity when new congregations did not have resources to support them. Even when churches had resources, some preferred bivocational ministry. For example, colonial ministers of the Church of England in the 1600s maintained themselves by means of the parson’s glebe, a piece of land set aside for the pastor’s use to support himself.18 Moreover, many Southern Baptist congregations were led by a farmer-preacher who tilled ground, split rails, planted corn, fed hogs, preached sermons, performed weddings and conducted funerals.19
Furthermore, early Evangelical Free Church preachers in America were mostly bivocational. At the 1884 Boone Conference that was called to discuss theological questions regarding the nature and practice of the church, the 22 who attended were mostly itinerant evangelists and lay preachers who served one or more newly established congregations.20
It may be time to rethink the “professional ministry model” of Christendom.
Twenty years later, however, one church after another was calling a resident pastor.21 This caused tension between two schools of thought: E. A. Halleen, former president of the Swedish Evangelical Free Church who went on to become the first president of the EFCA, favored resident pastors; August Davis, an early pastor in the Swedish Evangelical Free Church, preferred itinerant preachers who traveled for a few months of the year to minister to the congregations. During the rest of the year, the itinerant preachers earned a living from farming or their trade.
As local churches became more established, resident pastors became the common practice.
Throughout church history, God has led His people to carry out His mission in the world through pastors and missionaries who have supported themselves, as well as through those who were supported by churches. From the beginning, tentmaking missionaries like Paul’s emerged, serving both voluntarily and by necessity. Where Christianity was established and local churches received adequate funding—generally in cities—fully funded pastors became the norm.
Today, however, as the West becomes increasingly post-Christian, bivocational ministry is again a viable means to proclaim the gospel, offering it free of charge (1 Corinthians 9:18). It may be time to rethink the “professional ministry model” of Christendom and again consider the validity of bivocational ministry. It has not merely a biblical basis but a long history.
1 Although Jesus was an itinerant preacher, He was also a carpenter (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55). There is, however, no mention in the Scriptures of Jesus working as a carpenter during His three-year ministry.
2 The term σκηνοποιοὶ translated “tentmakers” may also be “leather-workers,” according to F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 367. Bruce notes: “It was not considered proper for a scribe or rabbi to receive payment for his teaching, and many of them therefore practiced a trade in addition to their study of the law.”
3 J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles: Timothy I & II, and Titus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 1960), 125.
4 Paul, by not using his rights or giving up his rights (1 Cor. 9:18) in order to promote the gospel, demonstrated his full commitment to it with his whole heart and will. Moreover, his ministry became a living paradigm of the gospel itself. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987), 421.
5 Edward L. Smither, Mission in the Early Church (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2014), 45–47.
6 Tertullian, “Constitutions of the Holy Apostles,” II: LIX, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 7, Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), 424.
7 Marvin J. Miller. The Case for a Tentmaking Ministry (Elkhart, Ind.: Mennonite Board of Missions, 1978), 3.
8 Bettenson and Maunder, eds. Documents of the Christian Church, 18–20.
9 Augustine, The City of God, 19.19 edited by Dyson, R. W. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 494.
10 Cf. Eusebius of Caesarea, The Proof of the Gospel, Being the Demonstratio evangelica, trans. by W. J. Ferrar (New York” Macmillan Co., 1920) 1:8. “Two ways of life were thus given by the law of Christ to His Church. The one is above nature, and beyond common human living; it admits not marriage, child-bearing, property nor the possession of wealth, but wholly and permanently separate from the common customary life of mankind, it devotes itself to the service of God alone in its wealth of heavenly love!”
11 Smither, Mission in the Early Church, 39–43.
12 Martin Luther, “To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate,” in Luther: Selected Political Writings, J. M. Porter, ed., (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1974), 128–130.
13 Philip Jacob Spener, Pia Desideria, trans. by Theodore G. Tappert, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 91–95.
14 Martin Luther, “A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church” in Three Treatises (Philadelphia: The Muhlenberg Press, 1947), 15.
15 William J. Danker. Profit for the Lord: Economic Activities in Moravian Missions and the Basel Mission Trading Company (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), 31.
16 Ibid., 32.
17 Ibid., 47–48.
18 Luther M. Dorr, The Bivocational Pastor (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988), 24.
19 Dorr, The Bivocational Pastor, 25.
20 David M. Gustafson “The 1884 Boone Conference of the Free Mission Friends: Founding of the EFCA or Theological Discussion?” Trinity Journal 34 (Fall, 2013), 254–257.
21 Frank T. Lindberg, Looking Back Fifty Years over the Rise and Progress of the Swedish Evangelical Free Church of America (Minneapolis: Frank T. Lindberg, 1935), 66.
David M. Gustafson is associate professor of evangelism and missional ministry at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.