Sunday, March 05, 2017

Seminary PL37: Muzzling Oxen and Burying Talents

This is the sixth post on church administration in my "Seminary in a Nutshell" series. In this series, I first did a section on the Person and Calling of a Minister. Now this is the thirty-seventh post in a section on the Pastor as a Leader (see at the bottom).

The previous post was on risk management. In this post we look at some passages in the Bible that relate to church administration.
1. The Parable of the Talents (Matt. 25:14-30) is about a man who goes on a journey, but entrusts some incredibly large amounts of gold with three of his servants. A talent was well over what would be a million dollars today, so an ancient person hearing such amounts would perhaps shudder at the responsibility given to these three. The first servant gets five talents (over six million dollars). The second two (2.5 million). The final servant got one talent.

As you know, the first two servants invest and double the amount of money. But the third servant is afraid, as perhaps most hearing this parable would have been. He hid the talent in the ground and only had the same talent to return to his boss when he returned.

The first two servants are rewarded. The third, in the imagery of Matthew, is sent into the fire of hell, while his talent is given to the first servant.

Luke has what may be another version of the parable, the Parable of the Ten Minas (Luke 19:11-27). A mina was a sixtieth of a talent, more like $20,000.

2. In their contexts in Matthew and Luke, it is clear that these parables have to do with the time between Jesus' resurrection and return, the time we are in right now. In Matthew, the parable is situated between a parable about having our lamps full of oil when Christ returns (Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids) and a parable about helping others in the meantime (Sheep and Goats).

In Luke the context is similar. Those with Jesus think that that the kingdom of God is going to appear immediately. The Parable of the Minas is thus about what we are to do as we await Jesus' return.

So what does the "investing" of the money stand for? The context of Matthew 25 makes it quite clear. "I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me" (Matt. 25:35-36). The investment in Matthew is focused on investing in others.

3. Certainly the parable has been used in a much broader way, and of course the English word talent comes from this parable. God has given us all different gifts. While we await his return, we should put those gifts to work for his kingdom. Yes, that includes the material resources he has given us. We should invest them into his kingdom and steward them wisely.

As it relates to leading the church, we should be good stewards of what God has given us and his church for the betterment of the kingdom. It goes without saying that leaders should not get rich off the gospel. I have always admired Billy Graham who took a salary from his organization rather than getting rich off of it. Similarly, we should not waste the resources our congregations entrust to us, for we then will have less to give to the master when he returns.

But we must not be too timid either with those resources, like the one who buried the master's money in the ground. I wonder if I have known leaders promoted beyond their capacity (the "Peter principle") who seemed to get paralyzed at the weight of new decisions. But like someone in a house on fire, failure to move can be the worst decision of all. So leaders must at times force themselves to invest their minas, rather than hide them away for safety reasons. And if they cannot handle the pressures of such responsibility, they might honorably seek to work for others who can.

4. The second passage I wanted to cover today is in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11. In this particular chapter, Paul is using himself as an example of how the church is not about personal freedom or rights but about giving glory to God and building up the community of faith. So if I feel free to do something in the Lord but I know it will damage the faith of someone else in the church, I should not exercise my freedom.

Paul uses himself as an example. While he technically should have been materially supported by the Corinthians when he was there, he did not expect that support for the betterment of the gospel. Paul worked with his own hands and at times took material support from other churches perhaps so that he would not become entangled with the strings of patronage at the church he was at.

The ancient world functioned extensively on the basis of what are called "patron-client" relationships. Someone with resources gave to someone without, with an informal expectation of receiving honor in return. [1] If Paul had taken such patronage from the Corinthians, he may have felt it would tie his hands some when it came to preaching the gospel with forthrightness. Without such strings, he could exercise full apostolic authority.

So Paul uses himself as an example of giving up his "rights" for the betterment of the kingdom in hope that the Corinthians would stop using their freedom to eat at pagan temples in a way that threatened to destroy the faith of others in the church.

5. Nevertheless, this passage provides a model for churches needing to support their pastors and spiritual workers materially. "Do not muzzle the ox when it is treading the grain" (Deut. 25:4). Being from the city, Paul finds the literal meaning of this verse irrelevant. Rather, this verse for him had everything to do with those who minister the gospel. He receives a word from the Lord from this verse indicating that ministers should be supported materially for the spiritual work they do.

During the Depression, many preachers were paid in food. Certainly there are ministers who work for almost nothing so that church doors can stay open. Many ministers are bivocational, working other jobs like Paul to support themselves.

But if a church can, it should not be stingy with its "spiritual oxen." Hopefully the days when people think "The pastor only works one hour a week" are over. Churches with a preponderance of that kind of thinking (or worse, with a pastor who is actually like that) are doomed to close. Better to take their mina and give it to another church anyway.

But a pastor should get a living wage from a church. A pastor should get reasonable health insurance and a retirement of some sort. A pastor should either get a parsonage, a housing allowance, or be paid enough to have housing. If a church cannot manage such things, it should think of closing and joining another church.

Next Week: Pastor as Leader 38: Budgeting

[1] This patron-client system arguably is the key cultural background for understanding grace and spiritual gift language in the New Testament. Grace was the propensity to give to others disproportionately to what they might give back in return. It would be wrong to think, however, that one might not play a role in getting that grace or that there were never any informal expectations of how you might respond. We would be wrong, therefore, to assume that grace in the New Testament was unconditional.

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