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  • Writer's pictureLeonard G. Castañeda

Full Time vs. Bivocational: Is One Better Than The Other?

The question of “full time” pastoring vs. bivocational pastoring often comes up in evangelical circles. There are some who even insist that the former is the only “true” form of pastoring, and look down on the latter as “part timers.” The traditional model today seems to imply that one must set aside his secular job to answer the “call” for full time ministry. But what of the early church?

Apostles and missionaries were itinerant preachers who planted churches and evangelized. they were normally supported by various churches since what they do normally does not allow them to work (eg. fishermen), with the exception of Paul and Barnabas, since tentmaker/leatherworker sila, so they can find work somewhere else. they established leaders in their church plants (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5), who came from among the congregation, and probably also had their own jobs aside from serving as elders of the church (similar to synagogue rules, some of whom became leaders in their local churches - Acts 18:17, 1 Cor 1:1, Acts 18:8).

This seemed to be the pattern until the rise of bishops who would oversee multiple churches around AD 150 (Robert Baker, but the cited work not named). He said the earliest bishops and presbyters engaged in secular work until the time when Christians increased in number and affluence, so they were asked to resign from their secular work and focus on religious duties. Noted that sa first 120 years of the church, churches did not fully fund their pastors. They received some support only.

Doran McCarty writes that "Paul was one of the great missionaries of the early church. We know more about him because the early church preserved more of his writings. one thing he related was that he supported himself (at least part of the time) by making tents. This was not unusual for a person from the rabbinical tradition.” (Doran McCarty, Biblical/Historical Background of Bivocationalism, in Meeting the Challenge of Bivocational Ministry, p.24). He goes on and cites FF Bruce, who wrote that “"It was not condidered proper for a scribe or a rabbi to receive payment for his teaching, and many of them therefore practiced a trade in addition to their study and teaching of the law."" (FF Bruce, Acts, NICNT, 1973,p.367) This was in contrast with Hellenistic thought.. McCarty also cites Leon Morris, who said that "This is all the more significant in that the Greeks despised manual labor, thinking of it as fit only for slaves.": (Leon Morris, 1 Corinthians, TNTC, 1973, p.81)

Augustine was instrumental in sharply differentiating an increasingly professionalized priestly/clerical class from the laity, and that is where we get most models of church today. Another factor is the rise of the monastic movement, which further differentiated them from the rest of the church.

But what about 1 Cor 9:14? Here Paul wrote that “ In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.” it seems to me that it was primarily about apostles like Paul, per 1 Cor 9:1-2 (and by extension missionaries and church planters) rather than about elders (though by extension of the application, and considering that we do not have apostles today, it becomes valid). It was him as an apostle who was challenged and he was responding to them based on that premise. It should be noted that Paul refused support from the Corinthian church (1 Cor 9) but received support from the church in Philippi (Philippians 4:15)

A pastor may choose not to be supported for various reasons. In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul was using his refusal to receive support as a corrective example to the church and to remove any room for misrepresenting his ministry. It can also be that the church simply cannot afford much. This is where the idea of bivocational or tentmaking pastors come in.

Now, whether full time or bivocational, each type carries its own advantages and disadvantages. The full time pastor has more time to directly serve the church, whether in Bible studies, counseling or even studying for the sermon. In contrast, bivocational pastors have to juggle between the demands of their jobs or businesses in addition to all their responsibilities as shepherds of the church. You can almost imagine Paul preparing for a sermon from Isaiah (and they did not have handy Bibles but huge scrolls) while trying to cut leather for a tent.

However, bivocational pastors with jobs are not a financial burden to the church. Giving up one’s rights can be a blessing to others. In this case, it means not having to support someone, thus freeing up the resources for other important priorities. Not only that, but as a mindset, it frees us from the very self-centered and worldly value of putting ourselves, our rights and our entitlements first. It is an act of love, saying that the opportunity to serve is a gift in and of itself.

Does this mean the full time pastor is less loving? Of course not! For many pastors, the choice to devote one’s full attention and abilities to serving the church is also a personal huge sacrifice, especially when there’s more money to be made elsewhere. I know many full timers who testify that they took huge pay cuts when they gave up their jobs to serve as pastors. But warning: Some people like to spiritualize this as “living by faith,” but honestly, both types are actually living by faith, since it is God who ultimately provides, although the mode may be different.

I am thoroughly convinced that while these are descriptive rather than prescriptive matters (eg. not commanded), the most viable model is a plurality of elders, most of whom are bivocational, with the option to call a fully supported elder.

A bivocational elder enables the church to save money. Since he is not supported financially, or at least only minimally so, funds in the church may be utilized for other needs. He is also able to better relate with the members, since he is one of them in every sense (eg. works Monday to Friday, struggles with traffic daily etc.)

A fully supported elder has more time: to study, disciple, lead Bible studies, evangelize, visit, etc., while the bivoc has more constrainst on his time. However, his financial support is somewhat more limited than the bivoc (there are no reliable sources for average salaries for pastors, but verbally, I was told that it ranges from 5-15k on the average for smaller churches) and capped by the capacity of the church to support. In some cases, he is held at the mercy of big givers, whom he may be loathe to challenge since losing them would directly hurt his capacity to support his family. Bivocs are not hampered by such limitations, since they do not depend on the church for their livelihood.

In a plurality of elders, each one can leverage on each other's strengths and minimize on each other's shortcomings. They can take turns in doing certain tasks, allowing a measure of rest for the others. They can divide the ministry responsibilities as well. However, if their team is not united, it can become a venue for conflict and unhealthy competition.

Is one setup (full time or bivocational) better than the other? No! Each one was present in the early church, and each one has its own unique strengths and challenges, which shows how they can complement each other in a Christ-centered plurality of shepherds.

It is to both kinds of elders then, that Paul’s words should be kept close to the heart: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.” (Acts 20:28)


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