Thursday, January 20, 2011

tentmaking today

“Tent-making” is the missionary concept that comes from the apostle Paul’s practice of supporting himself by working with his own hands. He was probably a leather worker (what tents were usually made from), whose biggest customer was the Roman military (the greatest user of tents throughout the Empire), that meant he could get work anywhere. He undoubtedly learned this skill as a Pharisee, since it was the common practice for Pharisees to learn a trade and the law at the same time. They were “lay lawyers” of biblical law. But, Paul made this his practice and example for CHRISTIAN reasons all the way through to the very end of his third and final missionary journey:

“You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

Paul, in this final meeting with the Ephesian elders, connected self-support to the highest Christian calling of loving care for the weak, and the blessing of giving (which, in this citation, is linked to self-support, not giving financial offerings!). In this basic practice, Paul identifies with most Christians everywhere who have to work to feed themselves and fund their witness to their friends, neighbors and co-workers.

The question for this post is this: According to Paul’s teaching and example, what is the place of the practice of self-support for CHRISTIAN ministries today? Tent-making is a strategy that has no good press in the church-as-we-know-it. Tent-making is what second-rate ministers do so they can do their “real” ministry on Sunday, or what the missionaries do until they get enough support to be a “full time missionary.” On the one hand, a lot of the feeling we have about tent-making comes from the current model of leader as CEO (and therefore powerful, in control and well-financed). Tent-makers are powerless, without control and poorly financed and so—we somehow feel—they must be on Plan B for those not quite good enough to be a “real” leader. On the other hand, ask any tent-maker. It can really suck. We struggle with feelings of shame (“How come more people don’t support me?”). We struggle with feelings of self-pity (“I’m so tired. If only I had financial support, I could devote my full time to ministry!”). We struggle with feelings of inadequacy, since we are not fully-funded like “real” ministers and “valuable” ministries.

For the remainder of this post I will assume that just because we are used to things being done a certain way does not make that way the best way to do them. I will assume that shame may be well part of God’s plan for authentic ministry, as God puts His son’s shame on the cross at the center of that plan, and Paul affirms again and again the necessity for apostolic leaders to experience shame and humiliation (“working with hands” would be considered shameful for the high society in his day; 1 Corinthians 4; 2 Corinthians 4). I will assume that the Scriptural pattern is more important that our contemporary patterns or long-term traditions or “common sense.”

In 1 Thessalonians 1:9, Paul said he sweat and bled “not to be a burden.” This was not only HIS missionary strategy, he makes it theirs: “Work with your hands so that you win the respect of outsiders!” (1 Thess 4:11). By the time of his second letter to them, some of them had come up with “spiritual” reasons why they shouldn’t have to work, and he makes his own practice of self-support the ethical foundation of his charge to them: if THEY won’t work (like Paul), don’t give them food (2 Thess 3:6-10).

In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul argues from his practice of self-support as an example of why the Corinthians should not use their right/freedom to eat idol meat (see 1 Corinthians 8—10). He bends over backwards to demonstrate why he should be financially supported, but only to make it clear: “I have not made use of that right, and neither should you make use of your ‘right’ to eat idol meat.” It is very poignant that Paul calls self-support his right/freedom/authority (he uses the word exousia which can be translated as either right, freedom or authority). He says this after presenting many reasons why Christian workers and their spouses should be supported in their missionary journeys (I may be wrong, but I think 9:5 specifically makes this passage not about stationed or stationary “professional” ministry). He says he would rather die than have anyone deprive him of this “boast” by financially supporting him (1 Cor 9:15—in typical Pauline irony, he calls a practice that would bring him shame in Corinth something to boast about). Paul calls it a “reward” to support himself (again, rich in irony for those who might think “paid ministry” is “real” ministry). His self-support is an exousia, a source of freedom and authority to live, decide, move and speak as God leads and provides, and not to wait for the approval of others. For those of us who have followed his pattern, we learn there is great freedom and authority to speak when we are not financially beholden to someone else, worrying about what will happen to our livelihood if we address needed issues. Paul, I think, envisioned that this was how we would keep a prophetic-apostolic edge on the church’s proclamation.

Paul’s practice of self-support was essential to blessed mission work he lived. His tent-making took him to the center of the market place where women, slaves, Cynic philosophers, and all sorts of “normal” people spent their time. He had a natural hearing because he was incarnational like Jesus, walking among those he was sent to speak to. Paul didn’t work in the market place so he could merely speak in the synagogue on the weekend. Paul’s tent-making took him to the center of the mission target God gave him that day (just like getting thrown in jail took him to the Philippian jailer). His pattern was apostolic, mobile and multipliable. He could focus on discipling those who were faithful and not worry about what was “fundable.” Geography is mission, is it not? Where does God have me? THIS is where God wants me to be in mission, whether in jail or in the center of the market place.

Some of you reading this may have significant “noise” that may drown out what I am saying here. Many people will say that “church ministry” needs to be paid so the CEO can speak in the worship event on Sunday and run the organization throughout the week. Of course, this reflects our tragically consistent misconception of what “church,” “ministry” and “worship” are. We weaken the fiber of the Body of Christ when we continue the false teaching that “worship” means attending a lecture/concert each week. Paul’s pattern is much closer: true worship is a whole life, one’s whole self, one’s every waking moment and activity (including the work-a-day stuff) offered up to God (Romans 12:1ff). It is certainly how Paul understood his own “offering” of working to support himself (Acts 20:34-35).

That is all to say that I think apostles* and tent-making are still God’s main, blessed missionary strategy in church-as-God-wants-it, and mission-as-God-wants-it. The main problem we have for the salvation of the world is not funding or fundraising, since the main scriptural plan is the Body of Christ spread like salt and positioned like lamps strategically throughout the neighborhoods and workplaces of the world. The problem is mostly our misconception of church, and our misguided reliance on clericalism and the paid priesthood. It is a poor pattern, especially when we hear so many committed disciples talk about “quitting their jobs so they can go into full-time ministry.” Get thee behind me! EVERY Christian already IS in full-time ministry! Paul’s pattern already directly relates to most Christians’ experience of the tension of a working life and a call to full obedience and availability to God. It fits with the needs for mobile missionaries to share Jesus and proclaim His kingdom in new mission fields and pockets. This awareness helps us focus on the people in front of us, rather than the funding we don’t yet have or might lose in the future. Today each of us should remember to work hard “so that we can win the respect of outsiders.” With their respect we have their ear. With their ear, they can hear the indispensable good news about Jesus.

(Personal note: this thinking flows out of my Ph.D. studies at the University of Sheffield, England, focusing on Paul’s style of leadership. Ingrid and I consider ourselves to be obeying this scriptural teaching by being self-employed missionary workers. I was formerly a paid church-as-we-know-it professional for over 20 years.)

slaves of Christ ("apostles")

Why do some people make apostles the new popes? And conversely, why do some claim there are no apostles today? Paul identifies it as one of the five gifts needed for the building up and maturity of the church. Why would some exalt this gift? Why would some believe that God has taken away this gift? The answer is centered in a misunderstanding of what an apostle was in the first place (in the Greco-Roman social context), and is based on a hierarchical understanding that places apostles at the top of the church structure when the New Testament clearly places them at the bottom. The understanding of leadership in the New Testament that should frame our understanding of apostles is the foot-washing, low-status slave (John 13), and the “race to the bottom” to become a “slave of all” (Matthew 20:20ff; 1 Corinthians 9:19).

An “apostle” in the ancient world is simply someone who is sent (Greek: apostolos). An apostle was someone who was sent to conduct someone else’s business on their behalf. There was—originally speaking—nothing religious about them. They were normally an unvalued slave, who was expendable.

Travel in the ancient world was dangerous, and something that individuals did not choose lightly. Who would have the right to send someone on their behalf? A slave owner or a governmental or military commander. The person sent—the apostle—did not have a choice. In the case of the government or military, the apostle sent with orders normally would be a part of an armed entourage. The slave-apostle would not have such protection. The master would pick the slave he could most afford to lose, and send that one to conduct his business in some extended location. The apostle-slave might be the same as the lowest household slave who was given the shameful duty of washing feet (see John 13). Mattering least, and therefore sent.

Paul identifies himself as one such sent-slave in many ways in his letters: “Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God” (Romans 1:1). Paul’s most common self-description throughout his letters is: “I am a slave who is sent by Jesus to non-Jews to communicate the good news that the Kingdom of God has come in Jesus.” English readers of the Bible find it easy to overlook this important aspect of Paul’s self-understanding, since the 190 different Greek terms used for slavery in the New Testament are sanitized to “servant.” This is not a very appropriate translation, since in Paul’s day 1/3rd of the population of the Roman empire were masters who owned slaves, 1/3rd of the people were slaves, and 1/3rd were former slaves. Paul makes it clear what he means: slavery to Christ is about exclusive ownership—Christ is master/lord (kurios is the simple word for master-owner of a slave). “Am I now trying to win the approval of people or of God? Or am I seeking to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be Christ’s slave” (Galatians 1:10).

Another problem in understanding how the word “apostle” is used in the Bible is the medieval pictures we have in our minds of the twelve disciples of Jesus with halos around their heads, or the false assumptions that apostles were only religious figures, they were high status people with a lot of power, there were only a few of them and now they have ceased to exist or their work is now embodied in others with different titles (bishops of various sorts of the Catholic/Anglican traditions). This is a complete revisionistic interpretation of what an original apostle was. “Apostle” was not a title for a high status leadership position. Before and after Jesus “apostles” were low status slaves with no power of their own, and they were as common as dishwashers are today. If we practiced slavery like they did in the ancient world, when you said “apostle” today no one would think of the manager, owner or executive of a restaurant. They would think of the dishwashers and busboys. “Apostle” was not a claim to high status or authority, but a claim to low status and expendability. When you attached the words “of Christ” this communicated whose business and authority the apostle was operating under. Christ is the boss, he sent the apostle and, when the apostle speaks, he is merely the conduit.

Several years ago I wrote, “The leadership we need today is apostolic leadership” (Empowered Church Leadership: Ministry in the Spirit According to Paul [Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999], p. 150). I describe what I mean in that chapter using all extra-biblical language (because we so hopelessly misunderstand the term “apostle,” and lose its import in hierarchical misinterpretation). “Apostolic” is not a scriptural term. If I were speaking scripturally, I would have explained why slave-apostles (like helps, giving, mercy, etc.) were common gifts then, and should be now. There were many apostles in the New Testament who were not the Twelve or Paul, who didn’t author scripture, and would not have considered the gifting a title, status or privilege. What we need more than anything is a release of these kind of slave-apostles for the mission of Jesus to the lost and hurting. God is a sending God and commands his followers to go to those who have lost their way, not waiting for them to come to us.

Many leaders have heard the buzz and read the books and would like to be “apostolic in their leadership” and yet remain in-charge, in safety and security, in the cushy-comfort of some Christian bunker. Can’t be done. To be an apostle is to become expendable, low status, and exposed to ridicule and insecurity in this life: “For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ…” (1 Corinthians 4:9,10).

Apostles are given by God as a gift to the church and the world (Ephesians 4:11), and are needed most desperately. A church without apostles (and prophets, for that matter) is a fire without the flame. What’s wrong with this Body? We have severed an essential limb of apostles through intellectualism, religious control and the flesh (and therefore most gifts lie dormant and unoffered to God—the role of apostles is a mainstay in equipping the Body for service and maturity; Ephesians 4:11ff). Most apostles are not found in the church-as-we-know-it, and that is why the flame is burning hot elsewhere. Jesus is the boss—as He was sent, so He is sending these He owns to suffer and serve in order to make known the presence and coming fullness of His Kingdom. Apostles and prophets are the foundation of the church-as-God-wants-it (Ephesians 2:20; 3:5-6; 4:11).

We need them to be released. They are little “a” and little “p” apostles and prophets, nobodies who have become somebody to God through Christ. We are not talking about a new version of the “one man show” that plagues the church-as-we-know-it. As "foundations" apostles and prophets have the privilege of getting "buried" where no one can see them (see Ephesians 2:19ff). They are little a and little p apostles and prophets, but capital S on the end: “And God gave some to be apostleS, some to be prophetS…” We don’t need individualistic superstars. We need examples of what it means to “submit yourself to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Please Lord, send workers into your abundant harvest!