STOPPING CHURCH THIEVES
When dealing with the financial relationship of the taught with the teacher, it is often not a comfortable subject to discuss because the taught are often so negligent in this Christian responsibility. Nevertheless, because we as disciples seek to live after the mandates of God, we must seriously study these matters. Therefore, we must examine ourselves in order to determine if we are wayward walking in reference to our responsibilities of taking ownership of our spiritual growth.
The subject of this chapter is a continued discussion from previous studies on this matter of which Paul wrote in the 1 Corinthian letter. Paul repeated some of his principles in the second letter that were revealed a year before when he addressed what seemed to be a problem among the Achaian disciples. It is important for us, therefore, to repeat with Paul some of the important principles where the same disciples seemed to lack in reference to stewardship responsibilities. These principles are important to study simply because the duty enjoined upon disciples that is discussed by Paul in the context of the 2 Corinthian letter is often ignored by many who are, as the Corinthians, still spiritually immature.
A few examples might illustrate the problem that often prevails. For example, we received an email from a preacher who was complaining. He said he had been preaching for over thirty years. He had visited a Bible Resource Center and spent some time with the director of the Center. Upon his departure, he asked for a free study Bible, to which the director responded, “There is nothing free. You must pay for them.” The preacher went away frustrated, as we suppose the rich young ruler did when Jesus said that he should sell everything he had and come and follow Him. “But he was sad at this saying and went away grieving …” (Mk 10:22), as did the preacher. But the director of the Center was right. He would not be a “church thief” for the sake of one who should take ownership of this own spiritual responsibilities in paying for a Bible he would use in his ministry.
A Bible printing group once sent over US$1,000 worth of books to a group of church leaders in a particular city. The books were faithfully delivered on the basis that the recipients promised to pay later. But the payment never came. The recipients thus made the senders church thieves in that they expected something free for their own use. Such cases reminded one of Psalm 37:21. “The wicked borrows and does not repay.”
We had a seminar where the Teacher’s Bible was made available, but no contributions were made, either to the teachers of the seminar or the materials. One student in the seminar drove away in his US$60,000 Hummer with a “free” Teacher’s Bible and other materials. We were made church thieves because other poorer brethren paid for the printing of the materials for the seminar, as well as all the teachers who paid their own expenses to travel to and teach the seminar.
But then there are those beautiful stories of faithful brethren who take ownership of their spiritual growth. We labored in teaching for ten hours a day for three days in Lilongwe, Malawi. After the seminar, the delegation of over one hundred preachers who attended the seminar selected a humble fellow laborer of their group to bring, in his raged clothes and worn shoes, a contribution to buy petrol to get us on to the next seminar. These brethren were mature functional partners in the body of Christ. We went away without being made church thieves, but praising these brethren for their spiritual greatness in Christ. Sometimes, the most poor are the ones who are the most willing to assume their responsibility to fellowship in the ministry of the word to the world. We are reminded of the poor brethren in Macedonia who, in their deep poverty, went beyond their ability to sacrifice for others (See 2 Co 8:1-4).
We are now ready to delve into the financial dysfunction of the Corinthians that Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 11:7-10. In this context, Paul sought nothing less than to shame the Corinthians for making him a church thief. He began his shaming of them with an embarrassing question for them to answer:
Have I committed an offense in humbling myself [by making tents] so that you might be exalted [by your opportunity to receive the gospel I preached], because I have preached to you the gospel of God without charge? (2 Co 11:7).
Paul worked with Aquila and Priscilla as tentmakers when he preached the gospel in Corinth. After many Corinthians had obeyed the gospel, he taught them for a year and a half before going on to Ephesus (See At 18:1-3,11). He humbled himself through physical work in order that the Corinthians hear and obey the gospel. And because he worked, they could not accuse him of preaching for money. Paul was no Balaamite. However, after they obeyed the gospel, and thus were brethren in Christ, their financial relationship with him had to change, but it did not.
So as he stated in 2 Corinthians 11:7, did Paul commit an offense? If the Corinthians answered the question correctly, then he did? His offense was that he did not receive wages from them after they became Christians. Within only a few days after their conversion, the Philippians were sending support once and again to Paul, Timothy and Silas when they preached in Thessalonica (Ph 4:16). After only a few weeks in the faith, the Thessalonian disciples were doing the same. But the Corinthians were still not supporting Paul during the year and a half that he taught the disciples throughout Achaia. Neither did they support him when he, Aquila and Priscilla, went on to Ephesus. The Corinthians made the trio church thieves by their need to receive contributions from the saints in Macedonia. In allowing this financial struggle to happen in the life of Paul, the Corinthians manifested their dysfunctional behavior in reference to the support of their father in the faith.
The Corinthians made Paul a church thief while he ministered to them the word of God. Paul supported himself and took wages from others in order to minister the word of God to the Corinthians without their support. “I robbed other churches,” He shamed the Corinthians, “taking wages from them, in order to serve you” (2 Co 11:8). They made Paul a church thief by not partnering with him in his ministry of teaching them.
Paul’s physical situation in Corinth was not good. He was truly in need of food. He, Aquila and Priscilla were simply not making enough money from their tentmaking business. His situation eventually reached the ears of the sharing and loving Christians in all Macedonia. And these Christians took action. They poured out their hearts to partner with Paul in all his physical needs. Paul shamed the Corinthian Christians by saying, “And when I was present with you and in need, I was not a burden to anyone, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied” (2 Co 11:9; see Ep 4:16).
Because of the slanderous actions of some in Corinth who accused Paul of enriching himself, though they enriched themselves by the support of the Corinthian church, Paul rebuked them further: “And in all things I have kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself” (2 Co 11:9). After shaming them for their lack of consideration for a servant of God, Paul said that now he would not take their support if they offered it. He would not because of the messengers of Satan who were masquerading themselves among them to supposedly be messengers of righteousness (2 Co 11:12-15).
In all his preaching in the province of Achaia, of which one city was Corinth, Paul could boast that he preached the gospel without receiving money from the unbelievers to whom he preached the gospel. But he went beyond this. He did not receive wages from the unbelievers who became believers through their obedience to the gospel. None of the masqueraders could say this. Such is not unlike some preachers today who masquerade as ministers of righteousness, when really they are Balaamites selling their gift for money. If a preacher would prove his sincerity before the people, it might be a time to do what one Malawian businessman said to a group of local preachers who were complaining about not being supported. He said to them, “Get a job!”
So Paul had a job. But this was not the problem with those in Corinth. The problem was that Corinthians had not yet fully understood that when one becomes a Christian, he has assumed the responsibility of supporting the preaching of the gospel to unbelievers, and also supporting the teachers who teach the believers. This is God’s manner to preach the gospel and edify the saints.
What the context of 2 Corinthians 11 teaches is that when one becomes a disciple, he is under the obligation of Galatians 6:6. He must take ownership of his own spiritual growth by supporting those who teach spiritual things. Some brethren still have not understood their responsibility that is explained in 1 Corinthians 9:11. “If we [Bible teachers] sowed to you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we reap your material things? If a group of disciples allow a Bible teacher to stand before them week after week without supporting the teacher, then they need to pray over Galatians 6:6 and 1 Corinthians 9:11. They are violating a principle by which God meant for the teachers of His word to be supported.