By Debbie Dewart
Should a ministry relationship, either in its initiation or continuation, ever be conditioned on the payment of a fee?
Should the fulfillment of a biblical responsibility to care for God’s people ever be conditioned on the payment of a fee?
In recent years, many churches and Christians have started to question modern psychotherapy and return to God’s Word as sufficient for counseling other believers. Although we rejoice at this development, a related question lurks in the background. Is it biblical to charge fees for biblical counseling? Is this question quickly answered “yes” by a simple reference to scriptures saying the “laborer is worthy of his reward”? (See Leviticus 19:13, Deuteronomy 24:15, Luke 10:7, Matthew 10:10, 1 Timothy 5:18, 1 Corinthians 9:14.)
Knowing this topic may generate heated debate and disagreement, I begin with some personal observations as a former psychologized counselee. My journey through the maze of psychotherapy ran nearly thirty years. I was much like the sick woman who came to touch the garment of Jesus after spending all she had and suffering under the care of doctors who could not heal her (Mark 5:25-34). I poured out thousands of dollars to psychiatrists and psychologists who had no answers. The church sent me away, referring me to “greener” counseling pastures. Just having a “friend” cost dearly. Is this how God intends for His undershepherds to care for His sheep? Jesus told John three times to “feed My lambs” (John 21:15-17). Did He intend for His lambs to be charged for the meal?…
1 Peter 5:2: Peter instructs his fellow elders to shepherd God’s flock eagerly and aiskrokerdos (not for “filthy lucre” or “shameful/sordid gain”). “Shameful gain” does not mean that no one may ever engage in church-related work to earn money (see 1 Timothy 5:17-18), and it is possible to eagerly engage in work for which compensation is received. Peter is warning against greedy or selfish motives. In the surrounding context, there are three sins to avoid—sloth, desire for shameful gain, and lust for power. Elders must shepherd God’s sheep, not to dominate or control them, but as godly examples; not for shameful gain, but eagerly. Humility and sacrificial service are common threads in these admonitions. Like the Old Testament prophets (e.g., Ezekiel 34:1-24, Jeremiah 6:13-15, Micah 3:5- 12), Peter condemns the false shepherds who would use the sheep to feed themselves, allowing ravenous wolves to scatter and devour them. Faithful shepherds, like Jesus the Good Shepherd, seek the lost and wandering sheep. What sense would it make for a shepherd to seek a wandering sheep and then charge him for the service—or worse yet, charge him in advance? Back in John 21:16, Jesus instructed Peter about how to show his love for the Lord: “Feed My lambs…Feed My sheep.” Notice that the sheep belong to God. They are God’s sheep, not John’s, not Peter’s, nor anyone else’s. God cares for His people through their love and care for one another.
All of these passages highlight the grave dangers of allowing money to become the driving motivation or prior condition for ministry. God’s full-time leaders may be reasonably compensated by the corporate body (the church) so that they can support their families, but that does not justify charging individual sheep as a condition to their receiving ministry.
“Come to the Waters”
Isaiah 55:1-2 is a gracious invitation to the weary and worn to come to the “waters,” to buy “without money and without price,” rather than to spend wages for that which does not satisfy. The invitation in this chapter is to seek God and His Word. No financial transaction is in view. It is quite the opposite! Our salvation has been bought and paid for by the precious blood of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:19) and is offered freely without charge. It is difficult to reconcile this passage with the idea that God’s sheep should be charged money as a condition to the ministry of His Word.
The pastor, elder, or counselor is not the “hired hand” or “employee” retained to perform services at the counselee’s bidding, but rather a servant of God, responsible to Him for the care of His sheep. An ordained servant in full-time ministry may rightfully receive support that is independent of who or how much he counsels, but his shepherding of God’s sheep must not hinge on whether those sheep pay him a fee for services rendered.
(Excerpted from “Charging Fees for Biblical Counseling?” © 2007, Christian Discernment Publications Ministry, Inc. and used with permission.)
The entire 13-page paper may be downloaded from http://www.christiandiscernment.com.
[Editor’s note: Debbie Dewart is a licensed attorney in North Carolina and California. She also holds an MA from Westminster Theological Seminary.]
(PAL V15N3 * May-June)