Muzzling the Oxen
(The Right to Financial Support)
Originally Published 2011
Robert Wurtz II
“Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock?
Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.”
“If we have sown unto you spiritual things, [is it] a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of [this] authority over you, [are] not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this authority; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:6-12). When Paul says that ministers have “authority” in these areas, he means they have a God-ordained right to be financially supported.
Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17 NKJV)
Since the beginning of the Church, ministers have had to face a begrudging attitude when receiving financial support. Paul challenged this outlook by asking some common sense questions. For example, who was ever drafted into an army and asked to go to war “on their own dime?” Who plants a vineyard but is barred from eating the grapes? Who operates a dairy farm but is banned from receiving milk for personal use? The answer to all three questions is, nobody!
Most people understand that there are expenses involved in ministering. For example, in the business world, companies often charge what they call “windshield time” if they must travel a long distance to perform a service. People expect it. The IRS says this is 57.5 cents a mile for the tax year 2021. However, most people don’t understand the study and preparation time necessary to put together a sermon or teaching. It’s not unusual to spend 2-5 hours on a sermon. This blog post took around three hours to research, write, and post. That does not take into account an already vast familiarity with the subject. These are just considerations.
A Principle of Common Sense, Decency, and Honor
Paul then takes it another step and shows the reader vividly what it’s like in God’s eyes to withhold proper financial support from a deserving minister. For it is written in the law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” What kind of farmer would starve his oxen who tried to eat while they worked? The man would probably be brought up on charges of animal cruelty in this day and age, and rightly so. Paul then asks, “Is it oxen God is concerned about?” He then shows that God inspired this law for the sake of ministers (1 Cor. 9:10).
It’s incredible how cruel, heartless, and abusive people can be. God gave the Israelites many laws to prevent mistreatment of the vulnerable. Indeed, God is concerned about peoples’ flagrant disregard for the needs of others. So in Israel, He made a special law to keep the savagery from manifesting on animals, and Paul extends the principle to laboring ministers. Do ministers not plow fields and sow seed? (1 Cor. 3:5-7) Do they not reap harvests of souls? (Galatians 6:9) It’s disgraceful that the Corinthians didn’t have the good sense to know that ministers deserve the financial support of those they minister to. James said that the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil. (1 Timothy 6:10) Withholding financial support from ministers is one kind.
Plowing in Hope
Paul continues, “Or does He say it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written, that he who plows should plow in hope, and he who threshes in hope should be partaker of his hope.” Paul’s use of Scripture is analogical, even semi-typological. He references farmers plowing a field or oxen eating as they work (agricultural activities) as indicative of God’s will that ministers take their sustenance from those among whom they minister.
Paul writes, “If we have sown unto you spiritual things, [is it] a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?” The hope is that the people will have resources to share. Sometimes they do not. Many years ago, I received an offering during a revival meeting in a small town in South Dakota. Opening the envelope nearly brought me to tears. Someone had folded a couple of Two-Dollar Bills in the offering. These are not regular currency and are typically saved in a piggy bank or collection. I knew that someone didn’t have much to give, so they gave their proverbial “two mites.” I carry one of those Two-Dollar Bills in my wallet to this day.
The Law of Sowing and Reaping
Paul introduces a familiar axiom of life, in this case regarding sustenance, the law of sowing and reaping. Generous people are usually blessed. God gives additional “seed” to sow when we are faithful with the unrighteous mammon (money See Luke 16:11, 2 Cor. 9:10). Naturally, therefore, it was proper for him to explain that God designed for ministers to receive compensation for laboring in the Gospel as surely as a farmer expects a crop. The difference is that spiritual things are sown, and natural things are reaped.
Paul was concerned that people would charge him with being in the ministry for filthy lucre (money). So rather than deal with this hindrance, he worked a secular job and refused financial support. But this wasn’t God’s method; it was Paul’s way of keeping the ministry blameless.
Paul told Corinth that he had a right (authority) to reap their “carnal things.” He further asked, “Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live [of the things] of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar?” This is a clear allusion to the pattern of the Levites in the Old Testament. He continues, “Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel.”
Paul established beyond doubt God’s order in making sure that those that labor in the Gospel have their needs met in the same sense that the Levites had it met that worked in the service of God. He places responsibility for taking care of ministers squarely on those who benefit from it. However, Paul chose to lay down that right. This is key. He did it willingly. What did he say?
But I have used none of these things: neither have I written these things, that it should be so done unto me: for [it were] better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void. (1 Cor 9:15)
Paul was conscious of people who expect ten times more out of others than themselves. So rather than allow the Gospel to be blamed, he laid down the right to be supported. But, of course, he wasn’t suggesting that everyone else do that, and he wasn’t making a law to do it.
God’s word is consistent and clear on the matter. The recipients of the labors of those who labor in the Gospel are obligated to support the person. If the laborer would rather work, for whatever reason, and lays down this right, it is his prerogative alone. It is not being “super-spiritual” or anything else. It is simply the choice of the laborer based on circumstances. For Paul, it was so that his laborers would not be in vain.
Some ministers have abused these principles in modern times by enriching themselves with the Gospel. The scriptures speak of Pharisees “devouring widows’ houses” (Luke 20:47) or Cretians “teaching things they ought not for filthy lucre sake.” (Titus 1:11) Nothing has changed in this regard. But the evil deeds of a few and specifically the abuse of God’s pattern of ministerial support cannot nullify it. The precepts and principles remain in effect.
Moreover, it is vain to probe the scriptures or biographies of sacrificial Christians looking for examples of men who laid down their right to receive financial support in order to evade responsibility to support those who minister to us of the Lord. Finally, it is also vain to imagine that the abuses of so-called ministers (especially of the prosperity sort) justify disobeying the clear teachings of common sense, the Law, and the New Testament.
Standard of Living
How should a minister live? Like everyone else. Wealth is relative. The cost of living varies from place to place. But it seems that those who labor in the word should live the standard of living as non-ministers, especially if they are bi-vocational (work a secular job and minister). As I often say, some Christians are very blessed because they are great givers. I know a man who gives half his bring home salary to the work of the ministry and is still well off.
Some people have nice things because they made them nice or they keep them nice. They worked hard to do that while others were practicing their golf swing or meeting with their bridge club (so to speak). There is no honor or dishonor in any of it. It’s just what one does with their spare time. But, I’ll admit, I’m uncomfortable with lavish-living ministers just like I’m uncomfortable with ministers who try to come off as spiritual by living like a pauper. It’s fake and nonsense and doesn’t give glory to God.
Ministry is not a synonym for laziness. If a man does not work, neither should he eat (2 Thess. 3:10); if he works in the word and prepares for service, this is labor enough. Yet I have known self-impoverished men say they “prayed everything they own in.” Instead of working, they prayed until somebody brought something. This outlook isn’t any more spiritual than the man who works through the week, preaches on Sunday, drives a car, and owns a house.
Ministers Are Not Dogs
I recall as a young Christian hearing the story of a lady cleaning out her cellar only to give the pastor the canned items that her family wouldn’t eat. She then requested, “when your done, please wash the Mason Jars and bring them back to me.” Why would someone give the pastor something they would even want and then ask for the jars back clean? Is it acceptable to offer the pastor something you would throw to the dogs? Never give someone something you wouldn’t want or ask them to do something you wouldn’t do.
Sadly, some people use their contributions to the church to try and control the pastor or minister. “If he doesn’t do what we want, we’ll withhold all together or designate our tithes and offerings to the building fund or women’s ministry,” knowing the pastor’s salary is tied to giving. This is the evil that goes on in society, and then we wonder why there is a shortage of pastors. People who would behave in this way show themselves unworthy of a pastor.
Indeed the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth. (James 5:4 NKJV)
Yet, even though the minister is as deserving of payment as if he had painted your house or fixed your washing machine, they mustn’t demand their “right” to be financially supported but must trust God to deal with peoples’ hearts and obey the precepts of God’s word in this regard. People have to give willingly or cheerfully or it’s of no benefit to anyone. If they are financially able and choose not to, they are blameworthy before God but not by the minister. God judges these things, not man. The minister must continue loving them and ministering to them despite what they do. God is his paymaster, not them. Notice Paul’s testimony, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19 ESV emphasis added)