The Scriptures tell us, “Don’t muzzle the ox while he treads out the grain.” In the New Testament, Paul takes up this principle and applies it to the pay of Christian workers. He says that ministers of the gospel ought to be provided for by their people in such a way that they are not hindered from being able to do what they are called to do because they have to worry about how to feed and clothe and shelter their family month by month. In another text, the Scripture says, “Let him who enjoys the Word share in all good things with him who teaches” (E
It is an interesting picture. You have this ox whose strength is leveraged by its owner to grind tons of grain to his profit and the profit of his family. Here’s a description of how grain is threshed on a threshing floor:
Threshing floor: the site where harvested grain (barley or wheat) is spread out to dry so the seed kernels can be separated from the chaff. This separation can be accomplished by beating the stalks of grain with a flail, but it most typically involves the use of a threshing sledge. This sledge, made of a heavy board or boards into which stones have been embedded, is dragged repeatedly by an ox or donkey across the grain, separating husk from seed.
In other words, this ox walks around with a big heavy sled-type thing tied to his shoulders, pulling it back and forth across grain to separate the wheat from the chaff. Now, if the ox is threshing out grain for you, then it would not be fair to place a muzzle on his mouth, so that he can’t even eat from all the grain being produced. Don’t be chincy; it’s OK—let him take some gulps of grain. In this way, he will have the nourishment and strength to be a useful instrument for you! The idea is that if you just keep the ox fed well, and he is an ox, he will keep on threshing and be far more productive than if you starve him out. The ox is an asset for your well being, so don’t make it hard on him. This word picture illustrates a basic life principle. The principle is that we should not begrudge the pay of those from whose work we receive benefit. All of us as employers should see to it that those who work for us are provided for and can testify to the fairness and generosity of their employers. It is the opposite of forcing people to “make bricks without straw.”
Enock (one of our employees—and yes, that’s how he spells his name) expressed recently his appreciation for us providing him a bicycle to get to work, and for a good salary. I have to confess that there was more than one motive involved: on the one hand, I wanted to deal justly with him before God, and keep the command of this text. But also, I know how we all are by our nature. When we are well taken care of by someone, we are happy to work for them, and we seek to do a good job. Our welfare is connected with how we pay others to some degree. I told my wife recently that the last person you want to slight is the guy guarding your house at night! It is in my best interest to see that he is provided for, and that he knows we care about him and his family (which we do indeed).
While this is a general principle, the Apostle Paul takes it up to apply it to pastors’ pay. A pastor ought to be paid in such a way that he is freed up to do his labor effectively. He is the main laborer for the well being of the congregation, and he ought to be materially compensated for that. Many times, people think of pastors as being on some spiritual plane where there are no earthly needs or demands tugging at them. But this is far from the case. Pastors still have bills to pay, shoes to buy for their kids, appliances that break and need repairing, etc. It has been interesting to see here in Zambia that this same failure to connect labor and recompense for ministry work exists. There are churches here who, out of neglect and not lack, fail to pay pastors at the end of the month. Or, they squeeze the pastor’s salary to set aside money for a building fund. So, I can now declare the criminal neglect of the pastor’s material well being an international offense on the part of churches. I’ve often felt sorry for such men, but haven’t had any real recourse to do anything for their good. Perhaps this blog gives me that opportunity: If you are in a church with a pastor who does “thresh” faithfully, and cares for the people, and preaches the Word, please make sure you know he’s compensated well for the task. You will be the main recipient of the benefit as he is freed to study the word rather than scrounge around for a way to keep his lights on!
But this is all fairly one sided. It’s all about the owner’s responsibility. What about the ox? If the ox has been freed up and well fed, what is his responsibility? Is he not obligated to thresh and thresh and thresh some more?! That idea has been percolating on my mind the last couple of months. We have been well supported by the sending churches whose financial contributions paved the way so that our desires to work in Zambia became a reality. We have what we need, and are not feeling the pressure to go and find extra income to make ends meet here. We have a good, decent house, a tough and dependable vehicle, and beds and furniture and such as well. Also, I’m typing this note on a computer purchased by my church a couple of months before we left home, and using the Logos Bible Software that another church in Maine purchased. (In fact, that’s where I got the article about a threshing floor.) In a word, we have felt “unmuzzled” to do what we need to do to get settled into life here. And we are exceedingly thankful for that provision of God to us.
I think that many times the idea behind not providing well for a pastor is the fear that he will get fat and happy and lazy. That is certainly a danger for a man who was never qualified in the first place to take up the gospel ministry. But, for the person who does have a heart for the lost and for the Lord’s work, it only compels him to be more zealous in his labor and more generous with the “grain” that he’s given by his employer, so to speak. For myself, a sense of thankfulness for the kindness, and of accountability for the trust which God’s people have shown, compels me to see that their investment reaps “forty, sixty, and a hundred fold.” That is, that there would be no doubt but that you got your money’s worth out of us—that we labored diligently and faithfully, not for you first, but for the Lord.
Some of you who know me best and with whom I’ve corresponded individually sensed an anxiousness about getting to the work in the first couple of months we were here. Honestly, that was there long before coming. When you see that God’s people are giving so that you can occupy a home and minister in a certain area, it stirs up even more the sense of responsibility to be an effective worker for the kingdom. At the same time, many other responsibilities—especially to my family—took rightful priority and I don’t regret any of the time away from ministerial duties that was spent settling in. The Lord has blessed it to the good of our family and given us a sense that we have our feet underneath us now, and can do the work.
But what a blessing it has been the past two weeks to be trudging up and down the threshing floor! It has been a joy to be studying, meeting with people, working out plans for future ministry, and such things. Certainly, a deep sense of obligation and accountability to God compels me on, and a sense of responsibility to the brothers and sisters who support this work spurs me. But also, there is the sheer blessedness of the Christian ministry. I miss the work, and have thoroughly enjoyed digging into it again. It still has all the challenges and obstacles, but it also has the wonderful rewards of fresh discovery in the Scripture, of seeing someone helped or encouraged by His Word as the Spirit applies it, and especially of the fellowship of God which comes in the midst of the work. Eric Liddel in Chariots of Fire says about his sense of God’s presence, “When I run, I feel His pleasure.” I think there is something to Christian vocation, of whatever it may be, wherein we feel that we are doing what God designed us to do—where we “feel His pleasure.” This feeling is not exclusive to the ministry. See, for example, the craftsmen in Exodus 31:1-11 who were “filled with the Spirit” to do this particular work. May it be that whatever threshing floor the Lord has you on will become for you a “Bethel”—a house of God, a place where you feel His pleasure.
 Freedman, D. N., Myers, A. C., & Beck, A. B. (2000). Eerdmans dictionary of the Bible (1305). Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans.