Published: 15 January 2024

How Ministry Was Funded in the Old Testament, Part 1

Ministry Was Funded

James is a worship leader. When he was single he wrote some of his best worship songs in the evenings while working at a bookstore to make ends meet. His heart’s passion is to serve the Church with Bible-saturated, God-centered, beautiful music that will point people to Christ. In the days of MySpace he was happy to post his songs for free for people to stream, and some of them started going viral. Eventually a Christian record label approached him and laid out a plan to turn his passion into a ‘career.’

Now James leads worship events for large conferences and usually charges an upfront fee of tens of thousands of dollars for each event. His songs are now sung in churches around the world and bring in a steady stream of income through royalties and CCLI. His recordings are no longer free to listen to, but every now and then he’ll release one at no cost to download, which makes him feel good that he has done his part to be generous.

James has been deceived by the ‘professionals’ into believing that the worship of God can be sold as a commodity. He also has bought into the lie that reaching large numbers of people means that God must automatically approve of the way one is doing ministry.” –Adapted from

Selling ministry?

Does God permit teachers and preachers to accept payment from their students in direct exchange for Bible teaching? In prior discussions, we highlighted Jesus’s expectation that those on the limited commission should not charge for their message. This was because they themselves received it without paying. The lingering question is whether this rule universally applies or was it exclusive to the limited commission (Mt 10, Lk 10)? Was the command to teach without expecting payment a new concept? To answer this question, let’s see how ministry was funded in the Old Testament.

By ministry, I am speaking about any service offered meant to spiritually edify individuals, small groups, or churches. Examples would be authoring Christian books, biblical counseling, worship music composition, Christian speakers, and so on. For more in-depth examples and case studies, check out the page “Christians Who Sell Jesus.” “Should we charge for ministry? Sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? Yet, this is exactly what takes place on a daily basis in multiple contexts throughout Christendom, from conferences to counseling.”1

How Ministry Was Funded in the Old Testament

Bible students are very familiar with the Levitical priesthood. When Israel took possession of the land of Canaan, Joshua allocated each tribe a portion of land except for the tribe of Levi (Num 18:20). The Levites were the priestly tribe and were not meant to work the land for their support. They were full time servants (ministers) of the Lord. God was their employer, so to speak, and therefore God had promised to support them. How did God intend to “pay” them?

The command to tithe was first given in Lev 27:30. Numbers 18:21-24 reveals it was the means God used to compensate the Levites for their service in the temple. We might (loosely) call this a tax paid by the citizens which supported “government” servants. The government in this case being a theocracy. “The compensation for the Levites for their service was the tithe, not the sacrifices which belonged to the priests (Deut 12:6). The distinction here is that not all Levites were priests.”2

Reciprocity or co-labor?

It is tempting to think that the people were directly compensating the Aaronic priests and the Levites for their service.

“On one hand, it appears that this transaction between the citizens at large and the priestly tribe constitutes an expression of obligation of the people of Israel to the Levites. It is repeatedly termed a “perpetual due” from the former party to the latter (Num. 18:8, 11, 19) and in practical terms, this due is given directly to the priests (Deut. 18:3). 

However, the transaction is not primarily horizontal as may be easily recognized from its designation as an offering to the Lord. In the passages cited above, the sacrifices are called “the contributions made to me [the Lord]” (Num. 18:8) and “the Lord’s food offerings” (Deut. 18:1). The Lord likewise labels the tithes “a contribution to the Lord” (Num. 18:24). While the tithes and offerings are given to the Lord, the book of Numbers also says they are given by the Lord (Num. 18:8, 12, 19, 21, 24).”3

Tithes and offerings to the LORD

Owens highlights a crucial point. In the passages cited from his quote, the Bible clearly states that believers pay tithes not to the Levites but to God Himself.

Then the LORD said to Aaron, “Behold, I have put you in charge of My offerings. As for all the sacred offerings of the Israelites, I have given them to you and your sons as a portion and a permanent statute. (Num. 18:8 BEREAN)

The Levitical priests—indeed the whole tribe of Levi—shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel. They are to eat the offerings made by fire to the LORD; that is their inheritance. (Deut. 18:1 BEREAN)

For I have given to the Levites as their inheritance the tithe that the Israelites present to the LORD as a contribution. That is why I told them that they would not receive an inheritance among the Israelites.” (Num. 18:24 BEREAN)

While it is true that the Israelites physically handed the tithes and offerings directly to the Levites, they were really giving them to the Lord. It was, as Owens calls it, a mediated obligation. Figure 1 illustrates the difference.

Figure 1.

So, the tithes ended up in the Levites hands, but they were a gift from the people to God. God, in turn, used these tithes and offerings to make provision for the Levites (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

If we carefully follow the message of Numbers 18, we cannot miss that God’s means of funding the Levites was an act of co-labor, not reciprocity.

The Triangle of Obligation in Numbers 18.4

The Levite’s ministry was funded through co-labor

The priests and Levites were not selling their services to the Israelites. They were not charging the people for the religious services they performed. Reciprocity did not fund their ministry.

“The law of Moses permits the priests to receive colabor, that which is offered to the Lord, but forbids reciprocity. Consequently, in Israel’s times of faithlessness—i.e., when they do not colabor—the Levites languish (cf. Deut. 14:27; Neh. 13:10).”5

Jesus’s commands were not a one-off 

So, we see that Jesus’s command to His disciples during the limited commission was not a new idea. God’s people funded ministry through co-labor 1500 years before the time of Jesus! This is an important indicator that Jesus’s command to teach without requiring payment wasn’t just a one-time requirement. 

In the next article, we’ll look at more Old Testament examples.


  1. Owens, Conley. The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity (p. 3). FirstLove Publications. Kindle Edition.
  2. Barry, J. D., Mangum, D., Brown, D. R., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Ritzema, E., … Bomar, D. (2012, 2016). Faithlife Study Bible (Nu 18:21–32). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
  3. Owens, Conley. The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity (pp. 37-38). FirstLove Publications. Kindle Edition.
  4. Owens, Conley. The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity (p. 38). FirstLove Publications. Kindle Edition.
  5. Owens, Conley. The Dorean Principle: A Biblical Response to the Commercialization of Christianity (p. 39). FirstLove Publications. Kindle Edition.