Is bi-vocational “pastoral” ministry [as the norm] biblical? (REVISED)

I understand that this article will probably ruffle some feathers, especially in the current climate where people are trying various ways of successfully planting and growing churches.  And it probably won’t change the minds of many people who may feel my words are merely “opinion”, or have dug their heels into a specific method (and are thereby unmovable).  However, I feel it’s necessary to voice what I have discerned through scripture – since scripture is all we have to go on – and I pray that you will consider the convictions of my heart on this matter.

There are many voices pushing bi-vocational pastoral ministry these days as the “Norm” – not the exception.  Some influential folks, like Thom Rainer for example, call this a healthy movement, and have even renamed the term to “Marketplace Pastors”. I speculate this renaming was in an effort to make it more palatable to ingest or easier to understand for those unfamiliar with the term “Bi-Vocational”.  Then there are folks like David Fitch, who brazenly say that churches and associations should Stop Funding Church Plants altogether (and thereby the church-planting pastors as well), and that churches should be “Bivo from the get-go” (to use his words).  Aaron Coe, a vice president at the North American Mission Board (NAMB) said a few years back “a big part of the conservation we’re trying to lead is that bi-vocational ministry is the new normal” – as reported by the Baptist Courier.

So, as you see, there is a LOT being said about the very topic, and I should add that some of these discussion are quite honorable and much needed. Others not so much.  But there is something I feel is missing in many of these discussions, and that’s this:  what does God’s Word say about Bi-Vocational Pastoral Ministry? What does scripture say about bi-vocational “shepherds” who oversee a specific flock?

Now, let’s be clear from the beginning:  I’m not talking about “preachers”, because one can be called to preach without being called to shepherd/pastor and oversee a flock (my father did this for many years and still does).  I’m not talking about “Evangelists”, because one can evangelize without having the responsibility of shepherding/pastoring (Phillip was called an Evangelist, but never shepherded a church). And I’m not talking about “Missionaries”…because the job of the missionary is to be a catalyst for the gospel in an unreached population – and that is the job of every person who follows Christ (not just pastors). Point being: Each of these roles (preacher, evangelist, missionary), while no doubt are considered aspects of pastoral ministry, can – and should – also happen APART from pastoral ministry. Furthermore, many of these roles NEED to be bi-vocational in nature.

Also…I’m not speaking of “Lay-Elders/Lay-Pastors” in a church…which are fantastic gifts to the church, and are usually Bi-Vocational in their very design (or post-vocational). If you don’t understand the importance of the Lay-Elder, please take a minute later today to read this article by Dave Harvey on The Gospel Coalition website. It is a fantastic look at a lot of the misconceptions with both Lay-Elders/Pastors, and cultural misconceptions in the church. It also touches on BiVo a little, in context to it’s original point.

What I am speaking about today is the “Shepherd”…the “Pastor”… the primary “Elders” or “Leaders” in a church; those who are doing the vast majority of teaching, the shaping, the vision-casting, the counseling, and who are called by God to lead the church body on a weekly basis toward holiness, sanctification, and in the duty of taking the Gospel to the world.

So…what exactly does God’s word say about Vocational -vs- Bi-Vocational Pastoral Ministry?  A LOT actually!  And what is written must be seen within the context of it’s writing, to fully understand what God had planned for the continued leading of His church. With that said, there’s one verse that I personally feel has outweighed them all…a verse we can argue little with:

1st Corinthians 9:14:  In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. (ESV)

Reading into the context of this verse, one will find that Paul is herein defending himself and his apostleship (not pastorate)….he is talking about how he “chose” not to be supported in his ministry. If you’d read even the very next verse (15), you’d find that he has voluntary declined the right he could have claimed, as he said the following:  “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision.”  And we need to learn a little about Paul to understand who he was, and just why he declined such provisions.

IMPORTANT NOTE:  It’s quite vital to say at this point that many pastors/shepherds, much like Paul did in his apostleship, “CHOOSE” to be Bi-Vocational pastors, because it fits the context of their church, the context of their family, the context of their flock, and generally works better for them than any other arrangement. Seeing as how EVERY church is different and operates in a different context, I need to specifically clarify that it is not “unbiblical” to be Bi-Vocational, unless it doesn’t fit the context and causes poor stewarding of the Kingdom’s gifts). 

Let me get back to the question at hand though:  in the general climate of the Church, should Bi-Vocational ‘Pastoral‘ Ministry be the “Norm” in the present or future, or the “Exception”?

Many attempt to claim that Bi-Vocational ministry is more biblical, and should be the “Norm”, because that is what Paul did.  The words “Paul was a tentmaker” comes out of the mouths of many of the advocates for BiVo pastoral ministry. But there is a problem with this attempted rationalization. A huge problem at that.

If you search the scriptures, you’ll find that Paul was not a Pastor. He didn’t shepherd any specific church (and I’ll be happy to redact this if you can prove otherwise).  Sure, he would go to a city/town to preach/spread the Gospel, and plant a church (or a dozen) where possible. But you’ll notice one important detail that many overlook:  he never stuck around and pastored/shepherded the churches in which he planted.  Instead, he instructed the churches he started to install elders, shepherds, deacons, etc. He even wrote the qualifications to Timothy and Titus for such offices. But again, though he taught in the local churches (in Ephesus for 3 years for example) he didn’t fill any of those offices…and that’s because he was an Apostle…NOT a pastor.

You see, the Apostles had a specific job of laying the foundation for the church (Ephesians 2:20). The very word ‘Apostle’ in the greek is derived from two words that means “one who is sent away” or “messenger”.  They took the Gospel to the world, and their role in the “development” of the church is vastly different than the Shepherds or Elders, who are charged with the role of “sustaining” and “growing” the church.

Shepherds/Pastors “disciple” and “grow up” the flock of members who devote themselves to a local church…they lead their flock toward spiritual growth, so that they will be better and stronger witnesses as they take the gospel to their Jerusalem/their community, to reap the harvest that is so plentiful.  Take to heart the instructions of Peter, who wrote to the many churches spread throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia:

So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory.  1st Peter 5:1-4(ESV)

Now my question to you is this:  How can one who is charged with such a task as “developing disciples who make disciples” do such work long term – the work of building up the body of Christ spiritually – while consistently being distracted by the needs of devoting one’s full attention to another job?  How can a person rightly serve the church and it’s flock and properly shepherd the body toward Holiness if they are consistently worried about/distracted by providing for themselves and their family?  How can one person (or group of people) expect another person to balance multiple, weighty things… such as leading their church (the flock) toward christlikeness, full-time secular vocation (40-60 hours/week), family shepherding, being a Godly and loving husband, and being a faithful student (and proclaimer) of scripture, when that one person only has so many hours in a week?  SOMETHING is going to suffer….which of the above would you prefer? The church? The Family? The Marriage? The Job (which impacts the family and marriage)?

I’ve been in both situations – Bi-vocational pastoral ministry and full-time ministry – and unless God has gifted a person with a special context (which is possible and applaudable), I can personally attest to the fact that SOMETHING will suffer (and introduce you to a number of other pastors who will back me up on this)….and furthermore, I feel I need to warn you that if someone attempts to not let one of the above mentioned things suffer (like I did), they’ll QUICKLY get burned out…and that’s definitely NOT what we need in someone tasked with shepherding the flock.

Christ Jesus himself said it best when he said:  “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matthew 6:24 – ESV)  Yet, so many folks in various influential positions think otherwise today. They want the “NORM” to be a person who serves two masters: the church (GOD), and their vocation (Money)….and I see that as being antithetical to what the bible lays before us.



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