The Pastor’s Salary and Martin Luther

John Piper’s book Desiring God is well known for his adage that God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. This is often true. 

But an American brother I know, who has lived in the UK for a few years, observes that many British evangelicals seem guided by a parody of those words. He says quite a lot of us have a mindset that ‘God is most glorified when we are most frugal’. We are marked by frugality rather than generosity. If we can get away with doing anything on the cheap, we think we will know the smile of God. And sadly, that attitude can govern how much a church pays its pastor.

Through Pastors’ Academy we sent out a short questionnaire a couple of times in the past year about how pastors were faring as the cost-of-living crisis began to bite. It went to a select few and was kept anonymous. From those who responded it was clear that though only a minimal number were in dire straits, quite a few were struggling to make ends meet. Generally, pastors of ordinary independent churches are still not well paid.

Luther on stipends

This was in my mind as recently I read Martin Luther’s Commentary on Galatians[1]. (John Bunyan says of it, ‘I do prefer this book…excepting the whole Bible, before all books I have ever seen’.) I found that the great Reformer has some striking things to say in the sixth chapter about minister’s stipends.

His kicking off point is Galatians 6:6: ‘Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor’. He laments how often gospel ministers are ill-paid, while to his astonishment he finds that false teachers never seem to have much trouble in getting money. The devil seems at work here. 

Luther comments that this command to properly support faithful preachers reflects on the calibre of Christians in the churches: ‘For it is impossible that such as are godly should suffer their pastors to live in necessity and penury’. And then he reinterprets the troubles which beset many churches in terms of their failure of proper support: ‘This sin must needs be grievously punished; and I think that the churches of Galatia and Corinth, with other places, were so troubled by false apostles for no other cause, but that they little regarded their true pastors and preachers’.[2]

Mocking God

However, Luther’s most telling step is to connect Paul’s instruction concerning the upkeep of pastors with the following verse which says, ‘Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows’ (Gal 6:7). It comes like a sledgehammer. When a church does not support its pastor properly, they mock God. Not only are they letting God’s servant down, but they are making a fool of God, who sent the man out to preach his word. The Reformer declares:

[God] doth not suffer himself to be mocked in his ministers. For he saith ‘He that despised you, despiseth me’ Luke 10:16…Therefore, O ye mockers, although God defer his punishment for a season, yet, when he seeth fit, he will find you out, and will punish this contempt for his word. Ye deceive not God, but yourselves, and ye shall not laugh at God, but he will laugh at you.[3]

Sowing to the Spirit

Galatians then pushes on with the metaphor of sowing to the flesh and sowing to the Spirit. According to Luther, to give well, in support of the ministry, is one practical way in which we ‘sow to the Spirit’ (Galatians 6:8). I wonder if church folk see their tithes and offerings like this?

Luther writes: 

Although this nourishment is but a corporeal thing, he calleth it, a sowing to the Spirit. Contrariwise, when men greedily scrape together what they can, and seek their own gain, he calleth it a sowing to the flesh. He pronounceth those which sow to the Spirit, to be blessed both in this life, and the life to come; and the other to be accursed both in this life, and that which is to come.[4]

Could it be that many churches see so little fruit because the rather threadbare support for their pastor means that they are out of step with the Spirit who brings life?

‘We will keep him humble’

The people of a church sometimes justify the financial neglect of their minister by telling themselves that if they pay their pastor more, he is likely to get above himself. ‘We must keep him humble’, they say.

I was recently down on the south coast and heard a most blessed, Spirit-filled sermon. The preacher rightly decried this ‘we will keep him humble’ attitude in a congregation as truly of the devil. Who do such people think they are to take to themselves to keep others humble! ‘It is not for you to keep your pastor humble,’ he said, ‘That is God’s work, not yours, and God has many ways of doing it. It is your job to encourage your pastor.’ Such justifications of keeping a pastor and his family in relative poverty (and who can say what effects this has on a pastor’s children?) need calling out and exposing.

What to do?

If you are a pastor who is struggling to make ends meet for your family, perhaps a way forward would be to pass this blog on to your elders or deacons or treasurer or church meeting or whatever you have? Let the brothers and sisters feel the challenge. Maybe some of them are in straitened circumstances themselves and wish they could do more but can’t. But perhaps others could do something.

And meanwhile, if you are reading this as the pastor of a rich church which looks after you well, perhaps you could get your leadership to think about how they could be more creative with their giving and so sow to the Spirit. Why couldn’t your church help out a nearby poorer congregation (with no strings attached)? Remind them of the apostle Paul’s words: ‘In everything I did, I showed 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 20:35).

[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians (Kregel Publications, 1979).

[2] Luther, Galatians, 368.

[3] Luther, Galatians, 369.

[4] Luther, Galatians, 371.