At some point in the support raising process the idea to be a “tentmaker” may come up. Either you hit a wall in raising support and begin contemplating looking for part-time work. Or, someone you go to raise support from asks something along the lines of, “Have you thought about being a tentmaker? You know that’s how Paul did ministry.”
There are three main texts where Paul is shown to be literally making tents as a way to support himself.The question that needs to be answered is if tent making is descriptive or prescriptive? Is tent making something Paul did based on a specific issue in his context, or was it a practice that is meant to be true of all believers, in all situations, for all time?
Paul in Corinth: (Acts 18:3-5)
Acts 18:3-4 says, “and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath…”
- Paul lived and worked with a family making tents while he was in Corinth.
- Paul was only able to engage in ministry part-time “every Sabbath.”
What often goes unnoticed is what happens in Acts 18:5, “When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul, was occupied with the word, testifying to the Jews that the Christ was Jesus.”
- Silas and Timothy’s arrival allows Paul to become “occupied” with full-time disciple making, and not tent making!
Paul in Ephesus: (Acts 20:33-34)
Acts 20:33-34, “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.”
- Paul took nothing from the Ephesian church.
- Paul provided for himself through manual labor.
Context, context, context…
In Acts 19:24-27 we see that a silversmith named Demetrius gathered men to start a riot because of Paul’s preaching. The reason Demetrius was steamed is because he made idols for the goddess Artemis (or Diana). Paul however was teaching gods made by human hands are not gods at all. Paul literally changed the entire economic structure in Ephesus through preaching the gospel. Demetrius was losing his wealth as a result.
Steve Shadrach explains, “Consequently, if he had accepted financial gifts from believers there, he might have been accused of putting the myriad of heathen craftsmen out of business for personal gain. He chose to forego support for a brief time in order to protect his testimony and win the lost.” (The God Ask, Loc.1089 Kindle Edition)
Paul in Thessalonica: (2 Thessalonians 3:8-9)
2 Thessalonians 3:8-9, “nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have the right, but to give you ourselves an example to imitate.”
- Paul recognized these people were lazy (the section heading in the ESV is “Warning against Idleness”)
- Paul says he has the “right” to have received support from the church, but…
- Paul chose to work “night and day” as an example to be imitated.
- In Corinth Paul only made tents until Silas and Timothy arrived with his full support.
- In Ephesus Paul chose to work to protect his testimony due to the gospels impact on the local economy.
- In Thessalonica Paul again opted to work to combat the laziness of the church, and set an example to be imitated.
In Ephesus and Thessalonica it is clear these are descriptive of a unique situation Paul was dealing with. What is interesting about Corinth is later in the New Testament in 1 Corinthians 9:7-11 Paul goes on an angry rebuke to the Corinthian church. His main point being that he regretted not receiving support from them, because he spoiled them. He uses three metaphors to prove his point.
- A soldier has the right to be paid
- A farmer has a right to his produce
- A shepherd has a right to drink of his livestock’s milk
Rest and be encouraged by Paul’s conclusion to the church of Corinth in 1 Corinthians 9:14, “In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.“