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Guest Column – Support the ministry – Robert Letham

June 2007 | by Robert Letham

Support for the ministry

By Robert Letham

Last month I stressed the need for an educated ministry, warning against the dangers of belittling the use of the mind. In this, church authorities have a vital part to play. It is imperative that congregations should recognise the need to nurture and develop the capacities of their ministers. Their own good and the future of gospel ministry are at stake.

Paul refers to this obliquely in his final letter. Languishing in a Roman dungeon, awaiting almost certain martyrdom at the hands of Nero, he writes urgently to Timothy about the need to pass on his legacy.
The church was in a precarious position. Persecution had erupted and the survival of Christianity appeared to hang in the balance. In 2 Timothy, Paul condenses his most crucial concerns for the Christian church and its preachers.

Support needed

In chapter 4 he focuses on three areas where he himself needed support – each of which is relevant today. First, Paul had been abandoned by Christian leaders in Asia and Rome. Following his arrest, many turned away from him to protect themselves and their families. Others did not defect but were elsewhere on legitimate work (4:9-12,16).

Paul is alone, with few to encourage him. He feels this keenly. He is as human as the rest of us. In his loneliness he shows how far gospel preachers need the support of their colleagues in church leadership.

The life and work of a minister of the gospel can be lonely at the best of times. Today, the ministry is not a high status occupation as in the past. The danger of pride from positive feedback is minimal – depression and discouragement from isolation and restrained approval is a far greater threat.

Unless the one who brings you God’s Word has deviated from the truth or fallen into serious sin, he should know that his congregation supports him strongly and enthusiastically. If this is not so, the church should change its ways.

Worthy of hire

Second, as winter approached, Paul knew he would be cold. Rome boasted elaborate central heating systems but not in its dungeons! A Roman winter could be colder than London. So Paul asks Timothy to bring the cloak he left at Troas – possibly his sudden arrest prevented him gathering his belongings (4:13).

Today’s preachers also need material provisions – the basic needs of food and shelter; enough to live from day to day; and longer term provision for sickness or retirement. While many small congregations give more than they are able, the general level of remuneration for ministers in this country leaves much to be desired.

At the very least, a minister should be remunerated at a level commensurate with the average income of his congregation. Many believe that Paul advocates payment at double this level (1 Timothy 5:17-18). This is no peripheral matter.

A believer who deliberately fails to provide for his own family has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever (1 Timothy 5:8). So what does this say about congregations that withhold proper support from those who bring them the Word of God – or worse, use monetary means to coerce their minister? How will such people give account to God on the day of judgement?

Feeding the mind

Third, Paul misses his books and pleads with Timothy to bring them – the papyri and the parchment scrolls (4:13). He needs to read, to feed his mind. And so do all ministers of the gospel.

Does your congregation provide your minister with the opportunity to buy the books he needs? Does it encourage him to attend suitable conferences, to study in areas of benefit to his ministry?

The church I served most recently for 17 years gave the ministerial staff time each year for study, and also set money aside in the annual budget for expenses relating to conferences, books and research.

Any self-respecting profession or corporation makes provision for in-service training of its staff. Scientists, for example, need to keep up with advances in their field. Is it any less important for ministers of the gospel to hone their skills – and contribute to the wider church beyond the congregations they chiefly serve?

I appreciate that many congregations are small, with meagre resources. Some are in poorer areas. We must be realistic. Yet, even here, there are ways to meet these biblical standards.

However, there can be no excuse for the more affluent churches. Many British Christians own homes, cars and other material possessions whose value is colossal. How are these resources – these ‘panelled houses’ (Haggai 1:4) – being deployed for the furtherance of the kingdom of God?
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