Paul the Tentmaker
On the subject of repetition, this summer, I’ve had the pleasure (or displeasure, depending on your penchant for manual labor) of rebuilding parts of my house. As some of you know, I produce written content as a ministry, and that ministry sometimes requires me to actually earn my keep, so to speak. Much as I like thinking about theology all the time, that central focus on one methodology to the exclusion of many other things could turn you crazy. I need to do different things and go different places, or so I have resolved to do. Thus, I need other tasks, whether jobs or whatever else.
Working to earn your own living wasn’t an uncommon thing in the early Church, especially for people in ministry. Nowadays, pastors and church staff actually get paid to do the ministry stuff, which makes things easy on one level and complicated on another. The larger the church, the more likely that church functions less like a community and more like a company. The distance between the CEO and the janitor, while essential in a large money-making enterprise, shouldn’t work like that in a church! Thus, it surprises me little that most of the apostles and other leaders of the early Church worked some job or another. In Act 18, for example, we know Paul was a tentmaker, and it’s mentioned entirely in passing:
After these things he left Athens and went to Corinth. 2 And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, having recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. He came to them, 3 and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and they were working, for by trade they were tent-makers. 4 And he was reasoning in the synagogue every Sabbath and trying to persuade Jews and Greeks.
Paul did not believe that the local churches of whatever area he visited should somehow feel the obligation to “pay” him for his “services”. Seriously, that would look tantamount to paying for the Gospel, and that certainly will ALWAYS mess things up. As a servant of God, he saw zero need to impose himself in his travels on churches, and instead sought to support himself to do the work God gave him. Even if “tentmaker” is better translated “leatherworker”, the connotation remains the same. Paul himself uses his “extracurricular work” as proof of his own apostolic nature, strangely enough:
Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.
3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we not have a right to eat and drink? 5 Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas? 6 Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? 7 Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat the fruit of it? Or who tends a flock and does not use the milk of the flock?
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul actually affirms repeatedly that, though it seems completely normal that he would receive some monetary or material compensation for the local congregations, he refuses this right.
11 If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? 12 If others share the right over you, do we not more? Nevertheless, we did not use this right, but we endure all things so that we will cause no hindrance to the gospel of Christ.
In fact, he sees receiving that compensation as a hindrance to ministry. The situation appears very, very strange if we compare our modern model to the ancient one. So how does Paul justify something so incredibly counter-intuitive to nearly every Christian denomination?
13 Do you not know that those who perform sacred services eat the food of the temple, and those who attend regularly to the altar have their share from the altar? 14 So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel. 15 But I have used none of these things. And I am not writing these things so that it will be done so in my case; for it would be better for me to die than have any man make my boast an empty one.
Paul intends to “live off the Gospel”, in that God’s providence and sovereignty remain sufficient for his needs. If he works in all things he does to the glory of God (wow, does Colossians 3:17 make a whole lot more sense now, doesn’t it?), then the Gospel will continue; it does not rely on material things, but spiritual assurance. It would be better for him to die than not affirming the Gospel’s real power. To take money would be a certain kind of enslavement to someone other than Christ, and we know Paul loves that slavery language.
16 For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for I am under compulsion; for woe is me if I do not preach the gospel. 17 For if I do this voluntarily, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have a stewardship entrusted to me. 18 What then is my reward? That, when I preach the gospel, I may offer the gospel without charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.
You cannot do something voluntarily if you’re paid to do it. Paul would have none of that! Any way in which Paul would find himself compelled to serve people other than for Christ and Christ alone, he rejected that help right from the get-go. Because he’s not bound to anyone, he can become a slave and a servant to all peoples for the glory of God, and this explains the following verses as well (feel free to look them up). Context matters much!
None of this explains why Paul specifically chose manual labor. Certainly, as a trained Pharisee, you could imagine any number of other jobs he could obtain. He had the additional benefit of being a Roman citizen in an age where that citizenship meant all the difference to being trated like a human being. Even Augustine got a job as a teacher of rhetoric and an orator due to his educational background, and you would suspect Paul would implement this talent. Clearly, as a gifted intellectual, he could do pretty much anything with his prior life’s benefits.
Instead, Paul outright refuses this, living the life of a nomadic preacher and wandering contract worker who makes leather products. Common sense would tell us that Paul made a wrong decision, but obviously he felt a need to connect with people on a very real level. To become humble, you must, in a very real sense, lower yourself to the status of a servant. How can one be humble without experiencing what it means to be humble? You need to feel it yourself to get the full effect.
Not only could he relate to them through the repetitive actions required to work his craft, but he could also think and reflect. Letters and epistles don’t emerge out of thin air, after all; the content of that letter obviously comes from a measured (and later, audibly transcribed) approach. He thought about the best way to say things, and the only time you think about things correctly often comes in the strangest circumstances. The most innocuous things turn into the most profound – quite a Christian turnabout.
I imagine all of you, at one point or another, experienced the so-called “epiphany” – only it occurs in a place less cool and awesome than a crime scene or murder mystery. Rather, the shower holds all the wonders of the universe in its grasp, and suddenly a great idea forms out of the ether for no particular reason. Truly, the human brain works in the most mysterious ways.
Probably this explains why Jesus was a carpenter too. What other reason would you pursue that profession if not to work with your hands and see things in a different light. Jesus, as fully God and fully Man, could certainly choose to do whatever he wanted, and yet He chose to do something seemingly simple. Of course, carpentry provides an opportunity for mastery, crafting, and creating some pretty excellent furniture! I imagine that nuance (speculating) made this an interesting choice. Can we assume said tables and chairs were literally the best ones ever made on the planet? Heck, I will say yes and play my chips.
What exactly does manual labor mean in all of this, you wonder? The coincidence in many Bible figures doing some sort of handiwork seems too connected to become a simple passing detail. So what of it?