Today’s Christian missionaries are either self-supporting “tentmakers” or supported by donors in what is often called a “faith ministry” meaning that they are trusting God to supply their financial needs. Most of these spend time in “deputation” which involves traveling to local churches to explain their ministry and raise prayer and financial support.
Paul may not have been the first missionary yet he is biblically prominent in this role. He supported himself by the literal trade of tentmaking, where the above term comes from. This is first mentioned in Acts:
After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. (Acts 18:1–3)
Paul explains why he did this. He was not being independent but wanted to fit in with something Jesus said, recorded only here in the Bible . . .
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. In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ (Acts 20:33–35)
Several times Paul mentioned that he worked with his hands. Each time, he reveals something about his character and determination not to burden others with raising support for him . . .
To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure . . . (1 Corinthians 4:11–12)
In this passage, he did not want anyone to feel sorry for him but to realize that he was willing to do anything to take the Gospel to sinners. While others sought personal gain in this world, Paul’s life was not focused on getting rich or being popular or any of those temporal glories; he wanted only to glorify God.
For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. (1 Thessalonians 2:9)
Again, Paul tells another church to take note of the work he was doing. He was making tents so he would not be a financial burden to them. This meant spending long hours sewing leather skins to earn a living so he could spend long hours proclaiming the Gospel.
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 that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we would give you this command: If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat. For we hear that some among you walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies. Now such persons we command and encourage in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. (2 Thessalonians 3:8–12)
Paul was not one to accept free meals either. He realized this was not wrong — as a worker in the kingdom he had the right to be supported, but he instead wanted to be an example to others. If they were going to work as hard as he did in sharing the good news, that was one thing but if they wanted to be supported so they could have an easy time of it was not an option. Instead of wanting an easy life or spending their days merely meddling in the affairs of others, they should be like he was — earning their own living quietly and without fanfare.
I suppose each person signing up with a mission organization needs to consider the best way to ensure they have enough money to live. Tentmakers are not as common, likely because going to a foreign country and getting a job there would be even more difficult than months of deputation at home. I don’t know these things. However, when Paul says he set an example, it was probably in attitude as well as in how he took care of his own needs. He did not want to be a burden to people who didn’t have enough to support themselves. He also wanted to avoid being unwilling to work. We all know the appeal of Idleness.
He also could have been tempted to use his spare time in chatter rather than outreach. He loved people, but idle talk can result in learning things about others that could easily become a temptation to meddle in their lives. Paul was far more interested in seeing lives transformed by the power of God through faith in Jesus Christ.
Lord Jesus, from all this, I see a lesson in understanding my own motivations, weaknesses, and the wisdom in always keeping my focus where You want it to be. I’m not a tentmaker but a quilt-maker, and I’ve been scolded for not entering in shows. Entering competitions is not the reason I do this trade. You have given me a purpose for it. You know how my heart can be tempted to stray off into personal gain rather than showing Your love to others in need. Paul reminds me today to keep that focus, work quietly to pay my own way, and not get tangled up in any kind of fanfare. Thank You. This applies to everything else I do too.