The apostle Paul stands out among the early Christian leaders for many reasons. He was an ardent persecutor of the church before his dramatic conversion. He then became one of the most zealous and effective missionaries, taking the gospel across the Roman empire. Paul also distinguished himself by choosing to support himself financially while preaching, rather than relying on donations from churches. This was an unusual practice at the time.
In this post, we will explore Paul’s reasons for supporting himself in ministry, examine the biblical passages describing his work, and reflect on the lessons we can learn from his example today. Key takeaways include:
- Paul worked as a tentmaker to avoid being a financial burden on churches
- He wanted to set an example of diligence and self-sufficiency for other believers
- His practice gave him credibility and freedom in spreading the gospel
- We should balance our calling to ministry with stewardship and hard work
Understanding why and how Paul supported himself provides valuable perspective for Christians seeking to live out their faith in the marketplace and church life. Though times have changed, Paul’s wisdom still challenges us to financial responsibility and industry.
Paul’s Motivations for Self-Supporting Ministry
Most religious teachers and philosophers in the ancient Greco-Roman world charged fees or solicited patronage for their instruction and writings. The apostles and early Christian ministers, however, tended to rely on the charity of congregations in order to devote themselves full-time to preaching and teaching. They were even encouraged to refrain from secular work so they could focus on spiritual leadership (see 1 Cor 9:1-18).
Paul, however, chose to buck this trend and finance his own ministry. What compelled him to spurn conventional practice and work for a living while spreading the gospel across cities and nations? Based on his letters, we can identify both negative and positive motivations.
To Avoid Financial Burden
The main reason Paul cites for supporting himself is to avoid being a financial burden on the churches he served (1 Thess 2:9, 2 Thess 3:8). Even without a direct statement, this motive seems evident given the material poverty of early Christian congregations. The Jerusalem church struggled at times to meet its needs (Rom 15:26). Expecting small gatherings in Macedonia, Achaia, Galatia and elsewhere to fully support an apostle for long periods would likely strain their resources.
In an effort to serve unselfishly, Paul put the needs of the churches before his own. He was willing to work long hours making tents in order to continue preaching without tapping the meager wealth of believers.
To Set an Example
Paul not only refused support to ease the burden on his congregations but also to provide an example for other Christians to follow. In his speech to Ephesian elders, he declares:
I have shown you in every way, by laboring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:35 NKJV)
By working diligently at a trade while ministering, Paul modeled giving over receiving. He exemplified diligence and hard work, providing for his needs rather than depending on others. In his letters, he mentions this pattern repeatedly:
For you yourselves know how you ought to follow us, for we were not disorderly among you; nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thess 3:7-8 NKJV)
We did not eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (2 Thess 3:8 NKJV)
Paul lived out Jesus’ words, allowing his conduct to inspire other believers. By not availing himself of the conventional support for teachers, he demonstrated an alternative, excellent way of service and stewardship. His ministry was not a means of material gain but an opportunity to model Christ-like humility, self-sacrifice and industry.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul mentions his right as an apostle to refrain from working and receive full financial support from the churches he served. But he goes on to explain:
Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ…For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law (1 Cor 9:12, 19-20 NKJV)
Here Paul acknowledges that his choice to work lent credibility to his ministry and helped him connect with diverse audiences. To the Jews, avoiding extravagance and providing for himself demonstrated humility and diligence in accordance with Mosaic law. Among Greeks who looked down on manual labor, his skills as an artisan showed he was not just a smooth-talking philosopher.
By adapting to social mores, Paul was able to gain a hearing for the gospel from more people. Remaining financially independent meant he could not be accused of preaching for money or taking advantage of converts.
In his letters, Paul also links his self-support to the freedom it gave him in ministry. To the Corinthians he explains:
But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void. For if I preach the gospel, I have nothing to boast of, for necessity is laid upon me; yes, woe is me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this willingly, I have a reward; but if against my will, I have been entrusted with a stewardship. What is my reward then? That when I preach the gospel, I may present the gospel of Christ without charge, that I may not abuse my authority in the gospel. (1 Cor 9:15-18 NKJV)
By earning a living as he traveled, Paul avoided any obligations that might compromise his ministry. He could not be accused of preaching from greed or forced to moderate his message to satisfy financial supporters. This freedom allowed him to follow the Spirit’s leading and boldly proclaim the full gospel wherever he went.
These passages give us a well-rounded perspective on why the apostle Paul chose such an unusual path to fund his far-flung ministry. Though counter-cultural, his approach carried great wisdom and benefits.
Paul’s Occupation as a Tentmaker
Paul provided an income for himself during his missionary journeys by plying his trade as a tentmaker. Tentmaking was a common profession in the Roman world, serving the extensive commercial traffic along major trade routes. Merchants, soldiers, and travelers had constant need for leather tents and canvas goods.
This skilled craft involved cutting and sewing thick hides and fabrics to produce not just tents but also leather garments, bags, ropes and other goods. As an artisan, Paul would have used hand tools like knives, needles and awls to form leather and stitch pieces together. Tentmakers worked long hours each day in cramped workshops or roadside stalls.
We first learn of Paul’s occupation in Acts 18:
After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla…and because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them and worked; for by occupation they were tentmakers. (Acts 18:1-3 NKJV)
Paul lived with Aquila and Priscilla for 18 months, laboring together at the tentmaking craft while also preaching in the synagogue. The manual work likely served to connect Paul with all strata of society, not just religious Jews. His skills as an artisan enabled him to relate with laborers and merchants as well as philosophers and officials.
The apostle continued to work this trade between missionary journeys. To the Corinthians he reminds:
And when I was present with you, and in need, I was a burden to no one, for what I lacked the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in everything I kept myself from being burdensome to you, and so I will keep myself. (2 Cor 11:9 NKJV)
Paul here explains that in Corinth he was able to support himself through manual work even while investing heavily in the fledgling church.
His letters to Thessalonica also mention tentmaking as Paul’s means of self-support while in the city:
For you remember, brethren, our labor and toil; for laboring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God…nor did we eat anyone’s bread free of charge, but worked with labor and toil night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. (1 Thess 2:9, 3:8 NKJV)
From city to city, Paul maintained his diligent work ethic both to spread the gospel without charge and set an example of stewardship for new believers.
Tentmaking provided the perfect trade for an itinerant minister. The skills were transportable and could be practiced anywhere major roads passed through cities and towns. Paul did not have to start up a business at each new location. As soon as he arrived he could purchase leather and fabrics and begin fashioning tents and garments to earn daily wages. Then he was free to preach without relying on church finances.
Lessons We Can Learn from Paul
The apostle Paul’s remarkable choice to fund his own ministry while founding churches presents several important lessons for Christians today:
Selfless Service – Paul continually put the needs of ministry and the church before his own. This willingness to work long hours at a manual job while also pouring time into preaching demonstrates true self-sacrifice. He gave his best for the sake of the gospel.
Good Stewardship – Rather than feeling entitled to material support, Paul stewarded his abilities and time with great diligence to provide for his needs. He took personal responsibility for funding ministry rather than burden others.
Modeling Values – By preaching for free, Paul modeled kingdom values of humility, generosity and integrity for new believers. His conduct aligned with his teaching.
Independence – Avoiding obligations to any patron or church gave Paul freedom in directing his ministry. He could follow the Spirit’s leading and preach the full truth without concern for financial repercussions.
Relatability – Manual work helped Paul connect with all levels of society. As a tentmaker, he shared the experiences of laborers and merchants, not just the cultural elite. This enabled him to minister widely.
Dignity of Work – Paul elevated the dignity of physical labor in cultures that often disdained it. His devotion to useful work alongside ministry combated false dichotomies between sacred and secular.
As modern Christians, we can apply these lessons in our own vocational calling and church engagement:
- Steward our abilities wholeheartedly to God’s purposes whether paid or unpaid
- Avoid burdening ministries we serve and freely give what we can
- Model godly values of diligence and integrity in our workplaces
- Guard against obligations that might compromise or constrain our ministries
- Develop skills that enable us to relate with those different from us
- Honor all honorable work as sacred service to the Lord
The apostle Paul has left us an inspiring and countercultural example of integrating ministry, work, and financial stewardship. Though vital pastoral roles deserve full material support, for lay Christians Paul’s approach still offers wisdom. By embracing diligence, resourcefulness and simplicity, we can advance the kingdom in any vocation or ministry without being beholden to human expectations. Our work can be an act of devotion.
Paul worked tirelessly at tentmaking to offer the gospel freely and fully across the nations. May his remarkable legacy spur us to steward our gifts and opportunities with the same wholehearted zeal.
The apostle Paul stands out as a innovator, embracing manual work to support his far-reaching ministry. By plying his trade as a tentmaker, Paul avoided being a burden on young churches, set an example of diligence for other believers, gained credibility in diverse settings, and maintained freedom in preaching the gospel. His letters provide powerful insight into his motivations and reveal details of his labor across the empire.
Paul’s self-support set a high standard of stewardship and self-sacrifice for ministry, one rarely embraced since. But his approach still carries many relevant lessons today about financial responsibility, independence of obligations, dignity of work, and resourcefulness in funding the spread of the gospel. As modern Christians, we have much to learn from Paul’s remarkable legacy of tentmaking while planting churches.