Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Peddling the Word of God for Profit (a follow-up exchange)

My friend Peter posted a challenging and helpful comment to my post on selling Bibles for profit. Without his permission -- and I'll change this post if he says otherwise -- I have decided to respond to him in a post rather than in the comments (because my response was becoming far too long!). I'll reprint his thoughtful comment here, and respond to it below:

Continue reading Peddling the Word of God for Profit (a follow-up exchange)

Jay:You seem to be missing a link in your chain. Let's not forget this
whole thought began with a purchased Christmas Card. Someone's making some
scratch off that as well.

But besides that, they are many ways someone can get their hands on
scripture for no cost. Some churches and other organizations give them out for
free. But you are paying for some service, perhaps some concordence and some art
from Zondervan.

However, don't just look to Bible publishers. Is their duty to spread the
word any different than clergy? How much should clergy be paid? What is too
much? What if you didn't get paid for the sermons you preached but instead the
church found a very worthy charity and sent the money to them?

Of course I'm taking this to an extreme. As one who lists many clergy in my
immediate family and friends, I'm not suggesting that we stop paying clergy. But
I know that the package my church provides; salary, housing allowence and car
allowence, to our pastor is approx. $xx,xxx.* Pastor Matthews has 35+ years in
ministry and has help guide the growth of our church. Could he do with less?
Yes. But the congregation votes every year on his compensation. So the people
most influenced by his work agree to that level of compensation.

Thanks for this opportunity to return to the initial thoughts which stimulated this post.

Actually, within the parameters of my post, your comparison of clergy and Bible publishers is wide of the mark, as there is a relevant difference between the two: namely, profit. The salary paid to a minister is not something which is potentially limitless; on the contrary, it is a set compensation which will not go above the agreed upon amount, nor will it (I presume) go below the agreed upon amount. Profit, on the other hand, is potentially limitless. (It might also conceivably be negative, in the case of a loss.) To put onself in the place of a potentially limitless personal/ private gain through selling Scripture is problematic in a way that compensating someone an agreed amount is not.

But I am willing to (hypothetically) bite the bullet. You brought up paying pastors as a reason that selling Bibles for profit is acceptable; I am willing, for the sake of argument, to bite the bullet and allow that paying pastors might actually be problematic. Paul, at certain points, makes a something of a similar point, stressing that he was supported by the work of his hands and (apparently) other congregations, in doing his missionary work. (Again, I suspect this is relevantly different than modern-day priests and pastors, but let's give it a broad reading.)

I should stress that this is only hypothetical, and that in fact almost all pastors I know work quite hard and would do so for far less than they make -- and would also do it for free if that was the only option. Some clergy I know (me, for example) use the following rationale for their compensation: I would do this for free, since it's my vocation and what I naturally do. Moreover, the sacraments, the ministry, the Word of God, teaching, etc., are not to be 'sold', not to be profited from, so I can't 'charge' people for this work in the first place. But if I did it for free, I would need to go out and find another job to feed, cloth and house myself and my family. And if I did go out and find another job -- an entirely fair expectation -- then I would be taken away from and distracted from the work of service (ministry). This can be gotten around if a congregation is willing to 'buy my time', that is, offer me a stipend so that I can focus on this work rather than earning my living another way. And so, some package is offered (typically quite generous on the congregation's part, but not something one would become wealthy off of), so that the person can concentrate on serving God, the church, and the world.** (As I understand it, this is the same rationale -- mutatis mutandis -- that rabbis use for receiving their salaries: study and teaching of the Law are to be free, for all.)

But to return to my 'biting the bullet': perhaps paying pastors is problematic, since it is (in some sense) 'peddling the Word of God for profit'.*** This forces me back onto my larger theological point, which I can restate in broader terms here: if the word of God (broadly construed) is what we think it is, then it will have Godly, world-changing effects and not merely give rise to the private, personal benefit of an individual. Or to push it in a slightly different direction: if a constituent part of the Christian life is to grow in the grace of God through the Holy Spirit, then the major effects of this will be the Christian growing in love and holiness (that is, reflecting and participating in the 'character'**** of God), and these are not things which can be 'hidden under a bushel basket' or will have no effect in the world, and hence they are not things which will exist for the private benefit of an individual.*****

You see, of course, that this has gone well beyond the question of paying pastors, to ask the larger -- and more deeply existential -- question of what good is the church in the world? Do we (as Bible publishers, pastors, laypeople, whatever) live only for ourselves? And isn't that idolatry (in the sense that God then exists as our personal benefactor rather than as he is)? This might end up being a disconfirmation of the work of the Holy Spirit in our midst, which if true would be devastating. Or it might be, and this is my hope, a wake up call to reassess our priorities across the board, to make personal and systemic changes, so that we might better reflect the reality of the God who 'wonderfully made us and yet more wonderfully redeemed us' through Jesus Christ, and who is present and active in the church and the world.

* It didn't seem important to the point to reprint Pastor Matthews' salary here. It is, of course, publicly accessible if such information is important to you, the reader.

** It is just this, actually, which causes me to have misgivings about churches increasingly feeling that they have to put together compensation packages that take their major cues from industry and business. Some of the current trends in clergy salary -- at least in the denomination I'm most familiar with -- are pricing priests out of the market. And, although I'm not in favor of starvation wages either, I'm not sure that the present trends encourage the idea that this vocation is (as all Christian life is) one of service, rather than a 'profession' in the contemporary sense, requiring primarily executive and managerial skills.

*** It was an ambiguity in my first post, through using that title: the 'Word of God' mentioned by Paul, was not Scripture per se, but the word of good news of salvation and new life through Jesus Christ. It was a word accompanied by what we call the Old Testament, certainly, but it was primarily a spoken word. Paul was not speaking about selling Bible door-to-door. This doesn't affect my first post, or the points made therein, but simply clarifies the ambiguity in the title for those who might not have known the background.

**** I'm not usually comfortable with talking about God's 'character' for a number of reasons, but the term seems to fit here.

***** Implicit in my making these points parallel (about the word of God and the church) is the notion that the church is more than a sociological reality, but as the body of Christ is meant to continue (in certain ways) the mission and service of the Son of God in and for the world. This is, of course, not done apart from God.

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