How much should a pastor make? The pastor’s salary is a question we get often. The topic has actually factored into at least three episodes in the past that I can remember, back in APJ episodes 217, 472, and 912. But the pastor’s salary was only a subtheme in all three of those episodes. The time has come for a full episode to explore this question more fully, just because we get asked about it so often.
And to get into that discussion, here’s how a podcast listener named John asked the question. John lives in Los Angeles. “Pastor John, hello to you and thank you for this podcast! What are some guidelines a church should set in place in order to compensate pastors? Could you address the meaning of ‘double honor’ in 1 Timothy 5:17? And can you explain whether background, experience, and education should get factored into this decision too? Thank you!”
This passage in 1 Timothy 5:17 is one of three crucial passages about how gospel ministers are to be supported. I think it would be good to get all three of them in front of us and then draw some lessons.
Let’s start with Luke 10:1–7.
After this the Lord appointed seventy-two others and sent them on ahead of him, two by two, into every town and place where he himself was about to go. And he said . . . “Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves. Carry no moneybag, no knapsack, no sandals, and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace be to this house!’ And if a son of peace is there, your peace will rest upon him. But if not, it will return to you. And remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages.”
Now, that statement at the end there, “the laborer deserves his wages,” is quoted by Paul in 1 Timothy 5:18 as a quote from Scripture. This is the only other place where this statement occurs in the Bible. (There’s something almost like it in Matthew 10:10.) So, it seems that Paul is already regarding the words of the Lord Jesus — preserved by his physician, Luke — as part of Scripture.
Now, I’ll come back to that quote when we talk about 1 Timothy 5:17 in just a minute. But it’s worth noting that even though we, in the way we read the Bible, might just kind of fly by that statement when reading the Gospels, Paul did not fly by that statement. He took it as a principle that would apply to the elders of the church. “The laborer deserves his wages.”
No Muzzled Oxen
Then I go to 1 Corinthians 9:6–14.
Is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working for a living? Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk?
Do I say these things on human authority? Does not the Law say the same? For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain” [Deuteronomy 25:4]. Is it for oxen then that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? . . .
Do you not know that those who are employed in the temple service get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in the sacrificial offerings? In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.
“It should be normal for those who devote themselves full-time to gospel ministry to be paid full-time for gospel ministry.”
Wow. Now that’s amazing. It’s a strong statement, that tent-making pastors — pastors who have to work other moneymaking jobs in order to be a pastor — should be the exception, not the rule. Jesus said that it should be normal for those who devote themselves full-time to gospel ministry to be paid full-time for gospel ministry. It’s a biblical principle. In fact, in this text, it’s more than a principle; it’s a command. The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. Now, that’s the second text.
So first Luke 10, then 1 Corinthians 9, and now, third, 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” Now, why do I think “double honor” refers here to financial remuneration (which I do)? There are two reasons. One is that, just before this verse, Paul has been talking about honoring widows. So, “honor widows,” and now he says, “double honor to the elders.” “Honor widows who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:3).
Then the whole context of 1 Timothy 5:3–16 talks about financial care of widows. That’s the form that the honor should take. He’s talking about widows who don’t have families. That’s what he means about real widows. They don’t have any families to take care of them. They’re going to be destitute if we don’t step up. So there’s good reason to think Paul says, “Now, if that’s the way you honor and take care of your widows financially, do the same, even more — doubly more — for the pastors.”
Now, the other reason I think verse 17 is dealing with the pastors’ pay is that the next verse begins with for, which means it gives a reason or a ground for giving double honor to pastors. And here’s what it says: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18). So, Paul grounds his concern for paying pastors with double honor by quoting Deuteronomy 25:4 and Luke 10:7, calling them both Scripture. And both are clearly relating to the physical needs of the pastor.
Now, it might mean that pastors should be paid twice what the widows receive as their stipend from the church (in the order of widows that Paul had been talking about in the preceding verses). I doubt it. The term “double honor” in verse 17 probably doesn’t mean something that precise, because there’s no reference to a specific stipend for widows. We don’t know how the widows were cared for; they just were. Their needs were met. They had to be honored; they should be honored by their needs being met in the absence of a family.
“Don’t call a pastor who’s trying to get rich, and don’t be a church that’s trying to keep him poor.”
So I would say 1 Timothy 5:17 — “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” — probably means, “Be doubly sure that the elders are honored and are paid enough to meet their needs, like the widows.” And the fact that he says, “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” probably implies with the word labor that this is their job. They are giving themselves to the flock, and the flock should take care of them financially with a double sense of duty that they feel for the widows. Not that the elders are more valuable as human beings than the widows, but that, along with the value of the person, there’s the huge value of the ministry of the word — labor in preaching and teaching — on which the whole life of the community rests.
Basic Principle for Churches
So, my counsel to churches would be that the basic principle for pastoral remuneration would be something like this: Let it be a reflection of the honor you put on the ministry of the word of God. And let it be a commitment to lift financial burdens from the pastor so that he can give himself totally to prayer and to the word and to the flock.
And if it comes to mind that we need to safeguard against a pastor’s greed, the answer to that concern is that it should have been taken care of when the church assessed the elder’s or the pastor’s fitness for the office at the very beginning. Because 1 Timothy 3:3 says an overseer must not be “a lover of money.” You don’t even hire somebody who looks like he might be in it for the money. So, the summary, then, is this: don’t call a pastor who’s trying to get rich, and don’t be a church that’s trying to keep him poor.