Have you seen the relatively new book of this title? The author is very much in favor of tentmaking, in spite of his title, but he is concerned about the Christians who go abroad ill-prepared for spiritual ministry, or who become so involved in their careers that they have little spiritual ministry. We share these concerns.
But there is considerable confusion about tentmaking in mission circles, because there is no accepted definition, but a variety of them in circulation, which makes it difficult to communicate on the subject. This author tries to bring order out of chaos by dividing them into two categories.
Those Christians who put spiritual ministry first, with a minimum of secular work, he calls Paul-type tentmakers. Those who put their jobs and career advancement first, doing what ministry they can along the way, he calls Priscilla tentmakers. (Why not Aquila?) This category seems unfair to many genuine tentmakers and even more unfair to Priscilla!
Paul had just arrived in Corinth and set out to do both house hunting and job hunting. Paul’s manual trade was the making and repair of animal skin tents, so it was significant when he met Aquila, because he and his wife were of the same trade. Paul probably meets Aquila in the synagogue or on the tentmaker guild section of the old Jewish quarter in Corinth. Aquila invites him home to meet his wife Priscilla. Both her name and the way she is often mentioned before her husband’s suggest she was of a higher social class than her husband, who had been born in Pontus, on the Black Sea. Paul agrees to live and work with them.
He learns that the couple are recent arrivals–refugees from Rome. Nero had ordered the expulsion of all Jews from the capital of the empire. At least twice (??) their “household” is mentioned, suggesting they were people of means, with a family and slaves and that they owned their own business.
But the couple clearly were not Christians. If they had been, Luke would have made much of such a remarkable coincidence, and the fact that they were Jews would have been insignificant. They were not Christians, but they were sympathetic Jews. Paul wins them to faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe they are among the early converts of his synagogue preaching. Maybe he won them as they did their manual labor together.
But they become loyal and dedicated partners of Paul. They host and probably lead a congregation in Corinth. Then when Paul prepares to begin his pioneering in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila uproot their whole household and business and move to that city. Paul preaches a few times in the synagogue and promises to return after his visit to Jerusalem for Passover. The couple remain and get started in the ministry. Again, they host a church. Near the end of Paul’s remarkable three years in this city, when this whole province of Asia had been reached, Demetrius the silversmith incites a riot against Paul, and he barely escapes with his life. He says Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives for his sake. They, too, have to leave in haste.
Paul briefly visits Troas and Philippi and then makes his promised third visit to Corinth. But he planned to visit Jerusalem, to take the money the Gentile churches have collected for the poor in that famine-struck city. Then he plans to go to Rome, to strengthen the few Christians already in that capital, and to engage their help to pioneer the church in Spain. In Corinth, he writes his monumental letter to the Romans. In his greetings in the last chapter we learn that Priscilla and Aquila have already preceded Paul to Rome, and already have a house church functioning in their home.
Luke records significant happenings, but he usually also intends them to be typical of what was usually going on. So it is important that this dedicated couple were not just offering hospitality. They were serious teachers and trainers. We find them teaching no mere novice, but a famous orator, Apollos, of Alexandria, who believed in Jesus as Messiah, but had never understood salvation by grace, and therefore had not received the Holy Spirit. (Paul meets a dozen others like him near Ephesus–disciples of John the Baptist. They were in transition from being O.T. believers to become N.T. Christians. Jerusalem was filled with people like them.) Note that this couple provide such good training for Apollos that even Paul approves him for an itinerant teaching ministry in his churches. As partners to Paul, Priscilla and Aquila were heavyweights. To say they cared more about their business is unfair.
In 20th century tentmaking we are still feeling our way. Almost every point of questionable teaching is due to the same problem. We begin with the reality we see and try to find biblical justification for it. It is always dangerous and rarely helpful. It is what cults do. We must always begin with Scripture and allow it to judge our activities and bring them into line.
This is the major problem in tentmaking. The mission community has finally accepted the Paul’s concept of tentmaking, because 80% of the world’s population is now off-limits to missionaries. But almost no attention has been paid to what Paul modeled and taught about his carefully designed strategy for pioneer missions. A proper biblical basis would bring the whole effort into line.
But what of the two categories the author is trying to describe? What he calls the Priscilla type, almost certainly contains two kinds, unfairly lumped together. The bulk of the people called tentmakers have no right to the term at all. They are Christian expatriates, who had little or no ministry in their home country, and crossing an ocean did not change that. Some may become active in an English language church, but make little or no effort to win local people.
But many others are the most genuine kind of tentmaker, those who have significant employment, who genuinely support themselves through this employment. There is no pretense. They are missions-motivated and have training and experience for spiritual ministry. But they rightly put a great deal of effort into their jobs, according to Paul’s instructions. But they are looked down upon by the mission community, who consider secular work unspiritual and a waste of time.
They do not understand that these tentmakers have a full-time ministry even in the context of full-time jobs, because they integrate work and witness, as Paul did, and as he taught his converts to do. The job is not a necessary evil that distracts from evangelism. Rather, it is the necessary context for good evangelism. It is where Christians develop personal relationships, where they live out the gospel with personal integrity and quality work. Paul said they were to give their employers wholehearted, conscious service, as though these men were Jesus Christ himself! The secular work itself becomes worship when it is done for Jesus Christ. It is part of our fulfillment of our cultural mandate, which is closely related to our missionary mandate. But the witness of their work and lives cannot take the place of the witness of their words. But their lifestyle and occasional fitting words about the Lord are bait, fishing out the seekers, and getting them to ask questions about God. The tentmakers are to be ready to give answers to all who ask. Both Paul and Peter teach this fishing approach to evangelism, in contrast to the hunting variety more in vogue today. But fishing depends on having sustained contact with the same non-believers.
The on-the-job evangelism of true tentmakers spills over into their home life, often in the form of evangelistic Bible studies, which then develop into little house fellowships. But in their free time, many tentmakers also engage in a variety of other ministries. God led me to pioneer university campus ministries. He led a linguistics professor to do a translation of the Bible into the language of 5 million Muslims! Most of these tentmakers serve in hostile countries and take great risks for the gospel. But they often have much more freedom for ministry that the group in the next category–because they are who they say they are. There is no pretense.
But the author describes Paul tentmakers as Christians whose rightful concern is spiritual ministry, for whom the jobs are incidental. But many of them present another kind of problem. Most of them have full donor support from Christians at home, so they seek minimal jobs–just enough to allow them to remain legally in a country. They try to do regular missionary work under the pretense of earning their own living. When the Judaizers accused Paul of dishonesty–that he was only pretending to earn his own living and was actually getting donations on the side, Paul denies that he gets any gifts. He pays for his food and lodging. Paul is very insistent on doing quality work for the employer–even though many of them were slave owners. He insists on low-key lifestyle evangelism. Paul would have been appalled by the dishonesty, the pretense, using a job as a front or cover for regular missionary work, the poor quality labor for the employer, the hunting evangelism. Most of the benefits of Paul’s kind of tentmaking are lost by this category of workers, who are not even genuine tentmakers, much less the Paul variety. How can they be Paul tentmakers when they ignore his model and his teaching?
The author of this book should be commended for trying to bring order to the confusion that exists, but we believe his categories are neither helpful nor biblically sustainable. We will never solve the confusion by seeking Scripture to justify our actions. We must begin with a comprehensive biblical basis for Paul’s whole tentmaking strategy, and then judge our practices according to its light. Paul had extremely important reasons for insisting on this self-supporting, tentmaking strategy–reasons that are just as valid today.
You may want to read the following GO Papers:
- Why Did Paul Make Tents: Rationale and Biblical Basis for Tentmaking
- Workplace Evangelism: How to Fish Out Seekers