Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Does the New Testament Teach Bivocational Ministry?

The New Testament demonstrates that bivocational ministry was normal for the church during the New Testament era. Though many twenty-first century church attendees in North America do not understand that New Testament churches were often led by bivocational pastors, this does not change the reality of history. The most well-known New Testament example of bivocational ministry is the Apostle Paul. Luke records one of Paul's bivocational experiences in Acts 18:1-4: "After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks." This passage indicates that Paul was a tentmaker. This was not just something that Paul did before he went into the ministry, but a vocation he was involved in while he was also in the process of ministry. The word for "tentmaker" (skenopoios) used here actually refers to leather working. When Paul came to minister in Corinth, he met Aquila and Priscilla, who practiced the same trade. They apparently entered into some kind of business arrangement and worked together in their trade. Paul worked his trade during the week and then on the Sabbath he would go to the synagogue to persuade people to become followers of Jesus.

Paul's efforts to persuade people to become followers of Jesus in the synagogue were not just casual conversations he was having with individuals after the synagogue gathering. Darrell Bock, an expert on the book of Acts, points out that the word reasoned comes from the Greek word dialegomia, which refers to “ giving a discourse or to debating, depending on the context. Its combination with the next verb suggests debate in the synagogue." Each Sabbath, Paul was having intense debates which were designed to convince people of the truth that Jesus was the Messiah. This would have required much thought and preparation. Paul found time for this preparation, in addition to working in his trade as a tentmaker.

Bivocational ministry was also normal in North America until fairly recently. The term was not used because almost every pastor was bivocational. This was simply how ministers survived in the early days of American life. The transition away from bivocational ministry came as a result of the desire of churches to have a more educated clergy. Denominations across the nation established a number of colleges and seminaries. As the clergy became more educated, they also began to see themselves as “professionals” who could not be expected to work a second job. Many churches now falsely believe that a professionally trained and fully-funded clergy has always been a significant part of church life from the New Testament era until now. History simply proves that idea to be incorrect.

This does not mean that it is “wrong” to be a fully-funded pastor. It simply means that a fully-funded clergy is actually the exception instead of the norm. We must help church members learn a correct New Testament theology of church leadership and a correct history of church leadership in North American church life. As churches rediscover these truths, they will be able to return to a normal way of functioning. Once churches are functioning normally again, there will be a lot less stress on the church than what often exists in small churches that are trying to be something God never intended them to be.

The above comments are adapted from Developing Leadership Teams in the Bivocational Church by
Dr. Terry W. Dorsett. Published by CrossBooks, the material is full of practical advice to both pastors and the small churches they serve. Many fully-funded pastors are using the ideas to empower the laity as well.


  1. Terry . . . Another "home run" brother! . . . Keep up the good work . . . God's hand is on you as you champion the bivoc's . . .

  2. Sure. Paul was a tent maker.

  3. Pastor. In 1 Cor 4:12 paul says We work hard with our hands. But in chapter 9 he says.... "when the plowman plows and the thresher threshes, they ought to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? If others have this right of support from you, shouldn't we have it all the more?
    the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. How do you resolve the tension in these two narratives??

    1. Once the church gets going well, and the fruit begins to come, then the pastor can expect the support from the people. But in the beginning, when the people are still new Christians, or perhaps not yet believers at all, the pastor must be willing to do as Paul did, and pay his own way. If pastors are only willing to go where they can be paid a livable wage, whole groups of people shall remain in darkness without the hope of Christ.

    2. Thanks pastor. In india the idea of 'bivocational' is totally new..!! They(the independent pastors) always look for support from believers. Some independent Evangelists have a huge flock that they are multi millionaires !! Just google "jesus calls ministries" !! You will know what i mean. But they do good work also.

    3. But i prefer that pastors " give themselves fully to the work of the Lord"

    4. Joshua, yes, I think we all prefer that, most bivocational pastors prefer not to be bivocational too, but sometimes, we are called to sacrifice for the Lord, and in those moments, bivocational ministry is essential. But perhaps there will come a day, when it is no longer needed.