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Free and Cheap is Not Necessarily Good Stewardship; Also: A warning to those in Christian apologetics

I remember a few years back discovering that I had totally misunderstood a particular Bible passage, Galatians 6:6.

It reads:  “Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches.”

Come to find out, ‘share all good things’ means, “give materially.”  In modern parlance, it might be, “donate” or “give money.”

In a sense, this came too late for me to give materially to my own teachers, although of course by paying tuition and such I indirectly did this.  I had been aware of the passages that say “A worker is worth his wages” and “Do not muzzle the ox while he is treading out the grain.”  These passages clearly state that a person has a right to earn a wage from their work, even if that work is in spiritual fields.  But the Gal. 6:6 passage is different, in that it does not speak to the right of the minister to expect a material return on their work, but rather who ought to provide that return.

I remember vividly receiving a complaint about the online apologetics academy that my ministry hosts.  The gentlemen, a fairly wealthy person, insisted that we should be hosting those courses for free.   The courses were good and solid… so good and solid that no obstacle should be placed before people who want to take them.  He said, “I know about the whole ‘the worker is worth his wages’ thing, and the instructors ought to be compensated, but…”  I then suggested that he subsidize those courses for people, if he felt that way, and he demurred, saying he already supported a number of other worthy causes.

He thought what we were doing was a worthy cause, felt that the workers (the teachers) should get their wages, did not want potential students to be put off from taking the courses because of the expense, and  yet still did not himself feel like he ought to support the academy.  It was a very strange exchange that left me scratching my head at the time, and even to some extent I remain perplexed

However, I think I have some sense of what was going on.  One may recall that there was a time when just about anything could be found online for free, and I don’t mean illegally.  People, businesses, and organizations, were handing out things for free left and right in a bid to attract traffic and hopefully have them buy other things on the site, etc.  This ‘free-onomy’ I believe created a culture that encompassed both the content providers and the content users, that led to an untenable situation.  The first-fruits of that situation was the Dot-Com Bubble.

Because, simply put, even if people wanted to, they cannot work for free.  On the short term, yes.  But not on the long term.   Unfortunately, we had a whole society oriented towards wanting things for free on the long term, and we had any number of operations out there offering valuable services for free, on the hopes of eventually turning that into a revenue stream.

Whether or not this is a good marketing approach is not really my point.  For the Christian–and the intended audience of this post is the Christian–this sort of consumer-mentality is potentially poisonous and toxic.  The rationalization is that getting something for as cheap as you can is just good stewardship… and, why, if you can get it for free, that is next to godliness!   Whether or not this is ever a healthy approach I don’t know, and is not my concern, because I know that it is not a healthy approach to handling our fellow Christians and the ministries that they carry out, whether it be as a pastor, teacher, or Christian apologist.

It is not good stewardship to find the cheapest way to give a fellow Christian their ‘due wage,’ especially when you are the direct recipient of the benefit that Christian is providing.  That Christian cannot continue providing that benefit if the ones they are serving are skimping out on them, unless, of course, someone elsewhere is subsidizing the efforts.  But there you see we have crossed over into different territory.  Galatians 6:6 doesn’t say, “Share all good things with your teacher unless someone else is paying for it.”

It seems to me that a Biblical attitude towards stewardship should incorporate and take into account the immaterial relationship that exists between the one providing the benefit and the one receiving a benefit, and it is probably not insignificant that Paul here specifically references those who teach, and teachers connected with the Scriptures, in particular.  I emphasized ‘immaterial’ to highlight my belief that there seems to be some genuine principle of the moral universe in play here.  We don’t usually think of it in these terms, but once we do some of it becomes self-evident:  it just makes sense that the person who makes use of the thing ought to reward the one who made it.  The reader should reward the author, the diner should reward the cook, and so on and so forth.  This ‘sense’ is transcendental in nature, and it is probably no surprise that where transcendental connections have been broken, so too have been the direct connection between the provider and the recipient of the provision.

The fact that in our society, the reader doesn’t reward the author directly, but rather the publisher and retailer, who in turn reward the author, is probably more significant then we realize.  The fact that the chef who cooks for you at a restaurant is not paid directly by the diner, but by the one who owns the restaurant, probably strains at unseen realities in ways we don’t understand.  There is a universal intimacy that is forsaken here, with callouses formed that are hard to put our fingers on.  We perhaps come closest to grasping its power when we consider the mother and father cooking and preparing and serving meals to their children, day after day, year after year, until, many decades later, the children will do the same for their elderly parents.

There are deep things at work, here.  Is it possible that these ‘callouses’ I refer to are subsumed within our culture’s present two-worker families, where mother and father work so hard to generate an income that there is not time enough for regular family meals, and decades later, the children find it most appropriate to invest their money in places that will take care of their parents instead of the children doing it?  I do not know;  I do know, this is a complicated affair, where one would not be wise or charitable in casting judgment.  I only suggest that these intimate associations between the provider and the one provided for are not something to be indifferent about–certainly not in the name of ‘stewardship.’

There is, then, a need to re-awaken the Christian’s sense that they have an actual obligation to materially provide for the one that provides them a service.  This obligation is probably moral; it is probably deeper than that, on the order of the transcendental.   If you receive a spiritual benefit, especially from a teacher of the word, of spiritual things, of people involved in spiritual work, you should make an extra effort to see to it that they receive a direct reward, even–and perhaps especially–when they would do it for free, if they could.

But there is another side of the coin.

I know of few involved in Christian ministry who would not do what they do for free, if only they could.  Perhaps it is just that I am fortunate enough to rub shoulders with so many good men and women, but it seems to me that nearly all of them wish that finances were never a consideration.  I know this is true of others, too, such as authors, who must write, or else they would die.   Whether or not they get paid or not, they must write!  Being involved in apologetics, I am also especially sensitive to the mindset of my fellow apologists and their situation.  While every Christian is called to be an ‘apologist,’ anyone who has put their hands to the task know that it is far more work than one things before one begins.  It is so tempting for those involved in ministry (or other immaterial ‘products’, such as books and films) to offer their work for free, but I would caution them against doing so.

Our culture has perhaps brought us to that point where it seems practically necessary in order to ‘compete’ but, as I have tried to argue, there are deeper things afoot; and besides there are clear passages that insist that the worker is to receive his wages–from the one receiving the benefit.  Maybe we can’t change the whole culture, but then, that is not our ultimate concern, anyway.  See Galatians 6:10, 1 Peter 4:17, and 1 Cor  5:12-13.

We would not be wise to uncritically contribute to a culture of materialism, and from the above I hope you see that I mean ‘materialism’ in multiple senses.

There is also the matter of that intimate connection between the one providing and the one receiving, which by offering your products, services, and ministries for free, or well below its actual value, you risk severing.  Moreover, you should understand that in setting the ‘right’ value on what you are doing, you are not just inculcating that intimate relation I’ve been speaking about, you are giving those people the opportunity to support you in your work.  That is, those people may not be in a position to devote hours to reading, writing, and discoursing, but by supporting you materially, they are able, through you, to participate in your mission.  You deprive them of this opportunity if, out of your great love for what you are doing, you put into practice your willingness to work for free.

And besides, we recall that you cannot do that work in the long term if you are dead, and if you cannot eat, that’s precisely what you’ll be.

Let us also give weight to the fact that if others are asking, say, $10 for a product and service which you are simply giving away, you undermine everyone’s ability to be a ‘worker worth his wage.’

This is a subject that I cannot say that I’ve heard very much about.  Not from the pulpit and not in books.   These principles nonetheless seem to be threaded throughout the old and new testaments, and Christians, whether in the act of providing or in the act of being provided for, should seek them out and act on them to the best of their ability.



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