Clergy and Cash: Early Christian Attitudes Towards Money and Clerical Remuneration

By Chase E. SpencerHumanities, Cycle 11, 2023

This paper argues that early Christian writers and communities almost unanimously considered clerical roles as non-market services. This is evidenced in the earliest extant Christian writings, the Pauline example of bi-vocational ministry, and scholarly understanding of the various early Christian church structures.

The New Testament texts are foundational to discussions of clerical remuneration both directly, with express commentary on the subject, and indirectly, with its treatment of money more broadly. Less overtly, the New Testament influences clerical remuneration by shaping the early Church’s understanding of money. In the Synoptic Gospels, about the desire for wealth, Jesus argues that “you cannot serve God and wealth,” praises those who give “everything” they have and uses “lovers of money” as a pejorative (Matthew 6:24, Mark 12:44, Luke 16:14). 1 Timothy 6 agrees that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (6:10). Specifically regarding the intersection of wealth and faith, Jesus comments on his sower parable that “desire” and “lure of wealth” make the logos unfruitful, and in John, Jesus charges temple goers to “stop making my Father’s house a marketplace” (Matthew 13:22, Mark 4:19, Luke 8:14, John 2:16).

Famously, a young man with “many possessions” approaches Jesus and inquires about inheriting eternal life (Matthew 19:16, Mark 10:17, Luke 18:18). First, Jesus explains that one must “keep the commandments” but then goes further, arguing that to be “perfect,” one must sell their possessions and give to the poor (Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22). Here, Jesus proclaims that “it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (Matthew 19:24, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25). 1 Timothy 6:18 agrees that the rich should be generous and share. The Book of Acts then reports on the earliest Christian communities taking Jesus up on this challenge; the first Christian community after Pentecost “would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds,” and later, believers are described as selling property and distributing the proceeds by “need” (Acts 2:44-45, Acts 4:34-35).

While this method of organization may be lauded by the text, such radical nonparticipation in the market is unnecessary for participation in Christianity. Because we have examples like Zacchaeus and Joseph of Arimathea, rich Christ-followers who are not condemned but instead depicted as sorts of disciples, scholars like Lupieri argue that it is not engagement (or even success) in the market that is condemned but a mixture of economic activity and the spiritual/religious that is condemned (Hagen 2014, 384). Thus, we must now look specifically towards such spiritual and economic mixtures.

The New Testament contains many explicit references to religious labor. In each of the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus sends out followers to preach and perform miracles; they are instructed to take “no bread, no bag, no money” because someone “worthy” will provide for them (Matthew 10:5-15, Mark 6:7-13, Luke 9:1-6). Jesus explains that they will be provided for because “laborers deserve their food,” making it clear that apostolic service is a type of “labor” in these passages (Matthew 10:10), but from comparisons to Luke’s account of Jesus sending out the seventy-two, it is clear that the “wages” for such apostolic labor are limited, at least for these early apostles, to housing, food, and water (Luke 10:7). More radically, the command in Luke 10:4 to “carry no purse, no bag” further clarifies that receiving money for these labors would be inappropriate for the apostles. In this view, religious labor aligns well with other forms of

non-market labor, like modern-day domestic work: if a spouse stays home to, say, take care of children or the house, then this is no doubt labor; such labor undeniably entitles the laborer to support from their spouse, but it would be inappropriate to receive a salary and a 401(k) to take care of your own children. So too, these apostles appear undeniably entitled to support but on questionable ground beyond that.

Moving to the Epistles, we see this general principle (that apostolic work is a form of labor that deserves compensation, but this compensation should be limited to the essentials) continued and expanded upon. When Paul elaborates on the rights of an apostle in 1 Corinthians 9, he rhetorically claims that they have the right to “food and drink” while also affirming that Apostolic service is labor, comparing them to soldiers, vineyard workers, and flock attendants (9:4, 9:7). Further, Paul slightly expands upon this right by analogy, arguing that just as soldiers do not pay the expenses of war, neither should apostles pay the costs of ministry (9:7). In 2 Corinthians, the collection for Christians at Jerusalem is described as supplying “the needs of the saints” (9:12). Later, Paul similarly describes the Macedonians supplying his “needs” (2 Corinthians 11:9). Beyond Paul, 1 Timothy 6:8 reinforces this radical austerity, commenting that if apostles have “food and clothing,” they “will be content.” In the same passage, the author argues that only the depraved imagine “godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). 1 Peter further cements the notion that church leadership is “not for sordid gain” (5:1-2).

That said, a few verses complicate this understanding of apostolic work. Most problematically, 1 Corinthians 9:14 posits that “those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” That said, understanding that they should be compensated monetarily for their apostolic work is nothing more than eisegesis, dragging the modern understanding of “making a living” into First Century Macedonia. It is clear from the previous verse that this “living” described in verse 14 refers to food: “in the same way” that those in temple service “get their food from the temple” and those serving at the altar “share in what is sacrificed,” Paul says the apostles get their “living” from those they serve (1 Corinthians 9:13-14). Finally, 1 Timothy 5:17-18 states that church leaders are “worthy of double honor” because the scripture says, “‘the laborer deserves to be paid.’” That said, this verse quotes Luke 10:7; thus, the payment referred to in 1 Timothy would be the same as discussed in Luke 10:7, housing, food, and water. Further, this double honor is reminiscent of the “double portion” of the Old Testament, which rarely refers to actual monetary gain. In 1 Samuel 1:5, it refers to an extra amount to be sacrificed; in 2 Kings 2:9, it refers to God’s spirit; and in Isaiah 61:7, the double portion describes overwhelming joy.

Further, it is unclear whether Paul’s argument that traveling apostles like himself have a right to support would even apply to sedentary church leaders like a local bishop. Clarke (1922) argues that Paul is looking at itinerant ministers, who may or may not have a trade that could be easily performed while traveling (75). Some, like himself, could easily bring their tools with them, but others (Ex. shopkeepers, carpenters, fishermen, etc.) would have to forsake their trade to travel apostolically, and for those, it is appropriate to accept such support (Clarke 1922, 75). This interpretation of the reading would not have applied to local bishops, so they would be expected to continue their trade.

Moving beyond the New Testament texts, the model of Paul’s ministry sets an even loftier standard for later Christians to follow. In 1 Thessalonians, Paul makes it clear that he supported himself with another job at the beginning of his ministry. On top of his ministerial duties, Paul “worked night and day” so as not to “burden” the Thessalonians’ resources (1 Thessalonians 2:9). Ehrman argues that he worked in secular manual labor, like tentmaking, for two main reasons: first, to support himself so the local Church did not have to, and second, as a point of contact for evangelism (Ehrman 2012, 277). Later in 1 Corinthians 9:12 and 9:15, we see Paul still “did not exercise” his right to the meager support for apostles outlined in the New Testament. Further support for Paul’s modus operandi is found in Acts 20:34, where he works to provide for himself and his companions in Ephesus. While not rigidly prescribed, Paul’s model of bi-vocational ministry is clearly “an example to imitate” of “holy, righteous, and blameless” ministry (1 Thessalonians 2:10, 2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).

As the first Christian gatherings took form, practical necessity led to the earliest church leaders adopting Paul’s method and operating as non-market laborers. With the earliest Christians gathering in homes, non-market labor like that of the domestic sphere would have become entwined with labor related to Eucharist gatherings (Matheson 1982, 28). Further, the small size of these early churches made unpaid leadership de facto, as house churches would be too small to support their religious leader. If these early Christian communities celebrated Eucharist as dinner banquets (deipnon), they would have needed to fit around the table, the triclinium or the stibadium, which suggests only one to two dozen participants (McGowan 2014, 20-21 and 48).

Even by 100 CE, realistic estimates put average church community sizes close to about 70 members (Hopkins 1998, 9). Despite this, early church leaders were still “a numerous class,” with multiple leadership positions in each of these early communities (Clarke 1922, 75). Further, this church community did not include many of the socially elite/wealthy (Ehrman 2012, 282). With such a sparse and mostly impoverished church population, it would have been burdensome for the fledgling community to, even possibly, offer a salary for their clergy.

Similarly, with such a small church population, the everyday responsibilities of the church leadership would have been equally small, meaning there was no full-time job that required compensation. Further, if these early leaders were supposed to be elders with no young children to support and respectful adult children to support them, then they would be in less need of congregational support (Clarke 1922, 76).

Unsurprisingly, our earliest evidence supports the notion that clergy was unpaid (Young, 1977, p. 4). Instead, the earliest Christian leaders “worked at trades” and “kept shops” (Clarke 1922, 74). Most early Christian writers reinforce this reality, more explicitly outlining clerical roles as non-market services.

The Didache, an early Second Century church manual, outlines such a refusal to pay apostles and even a slight discomfort with supporting them with necessities (Easton 1934, 9). When speaking of the rules for a traveling apostle, it asserts that “if he asks for money, he is a false prophet” (Didache 11:6). Even short of asking for money, the text appears skeptical of any support, limiting shelter provisions to “one day” or two in cases of “necessity” (Didache 11:5). More radically, they are to accept nothing but “sufficient food” to get to the next location (Didache 11:6). Supporting Clarke’s argument that the early Church viewed support for traveling apostles differently from support for local religious workers, the Didache also orders that if these travelers do decide to settle down, they must “work for [their] living” (Didache 12:3). The Didache also condemns “trading on Christ” advancing Lupieri’s claim that the early Church took its most significant issue with the mixture of commerce with religion.

Next, Hippolytus’ Apostolic Tradition, a church manual from around 217 CE which aims to reassert the alleged doctrine of the Apostles, agrees with the Biblical case for alimentary remuneration with no extra compensation mentioned (Easton 1934, 25). Both the broader comparisons to the “high priests” of the Old Testament who were supported by Israel’s offerings and the more specific comment that bishops must “eat [offerings] with the other believers” make it clear that the bishop was to eat from their congregation’s offerings (Apostolic Tradition 3.26.1). The Didascalia (before 250 CE) and later the Apostolic Constitutions (around 390 CE) also say that those in ministry are to “be nourished” either “in the function of episcopacy” as the Didascalia puts it or “from the Church” as the Apostolic Constitutions expresses it (Apostolic Constitutions 2.25.14; Didascalia 2.25.14). These documents seem to draw from the New Testament sources above to reach a similar conclusion and even further clarify the early Church’s understanding of 1 Corinthians 9:14’s “living” to be limited to nourishment.

Early authorities also confirm that the remuneration due to clergy is, as St. Jerome puts it, “not for the gratification of covetousness” but instead for “mere necessities,” as John Chysostom would characterize it (Commentary on Matthew 10.9-10; Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 32.8.2).

With it clear that the wages for religious labor in these early sources are the necessities like food and shelter, Cyprian, Chrysostom, and Augustine draw a more concrete dichotomy between the secular trading of labor on the market and the non-market labor of church leaders. Cyprian comments on the disappointment that “too many bishops” are leaving the “ministration which God had entrusted to them” for “the administration of secular business” to seek out “profitable deals” (On the Lapsed 6). Insightful in two ways, On the Lapsed confirms that bishops were commonly leaving their positions for secular roles, implying that their roles as bishops were much less lucrative. The text also clearly delineates between market activity, the ‘administration’ of secular business, with non-market ecclesiastical roles, and the ‘ministration’ that God left to them. Chrysostom later makes this distinction less descriptive and more prescriptive, stating that the Lord has forbidden Christians to “make merchandize of spiritual things” (Homilies on the Gospel of Matthew 32.6.7). Chrysostom argues that God holds the “spiritual things” separate from economic endeavors.

Finally, Augustine adds that “the Gospel is not for sale,” reiterating Chrysostom’s notion that spirituality is separate from the commercial (Sermon 46). While Augustine allows for the “necessary support from the people,” he clarifies that this support is not to be thought of as “pay” but instead as a “stipend” to support the minister, further removing any conflation with commercial labor (Sermon 46).

In conclusion, the New Testament texts laid the foundation for how clerical compensation is to be understood, both indirectly (by outlining a suspicion of and discomfort with excessive wealth and the love of money alongside an appreciation for giving wealth away) and directly, by painting a picture of religious leaders only compensated—where they are at all—with the necessities. Then, Paul’s example more radically sets the gold standard for honest apostleship by accepting no help from specific communities. Both previous points, alongside practical necessity, lead to an early church quite reminiscent of Paul’s model. That conception of leadership—one where leaders only accept help when necessary and only enough to meet their needs—persists through the early church period.




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Chase E. Spencer