Reflections and resources for lifelong learning for missionaries

Accepting the help of those whom we serve

Have you ever turned down an offer of financial help? As cross-cultural workers who are expected to raise our support “by faith”, most of us cannot imagine a situation where someone would like to give toward our ministry, and we would refuse to accept the gift. But apparently this was what the great apostle Paul did – and multiple times over a period of a year and a half while living in Corinth. In his second letter to the church, he says:

Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so. As surely as the truth of Christ is in me, nobody in the regions of Achaia will stop this boasting of mine. Why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

 2 Corinthians 11:7–11

Why did Paul refuse to accept financial help from the Corinthian church? Paul says that he did not want to be a burden to the Corinthians. But there is no evidence that the Corinthian church was poverty-stricken. Apparently, they were willing to give to Paul, and complained that he did not accept their gifts. They actually accused him of not loving them because he refused to accept their help!

If Paul was so concerned about not being a burden, then why did he gratefully accept financial help multiple times from the Philippian church? The Philippians were evidently in much more difficult financial straits than the Corinthians (see 2 Cor 8:2).

David Garland in his excellent commentary on 2 Corinthians helps us understand what Paul means by the word “burden”:

Seneca uses the Latin equivalent, onus (“burden”) to refer to financial and social dependence. Peterman shows that the word “to burden” (barynein) was used for the social obligations or responsibilities which are incurred by giving and receiving. He argues that Paul’s language makes “a veiled reference to his desire to avoid social dependence.” Paul has not pressured anyone for money and steadfastly refuses to become indebted to the Corinthians (or anyone else, for that matter), who would then become his patrons. He wants to be free from any confining social constraints attached to patronage.

Accepting gifts in the ancient world placed one under a social obligation to show gratitude. A social quid pro quo dictated relationships. Anyone who received a gift or benefit was obligated to respond in kind. Gifts and favors therefore could not be taken for granted but placed serious obligations upon the recipient that could not be discharged by a brief thank-you note. Receiving a gift consequently put one under considerable social and financial pressure. When there was disparity in the giving, the one who outgave the other gained status as the superior while the other dropped in social standing.

David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, The New American Commentary, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1999), 29:480–481.

This understanding of “burden” reminds me of the concept of “utang na loob” (often translated as a “debt of gratitude” in Filipino culture.

When Paul did not accept financial help from the Corinthians, he avoided putting himself in a position of social obligation to his would-be patrons. As a poor tent-maker, Paul could not have reciprocated with gifts of equal size, and so if he had accepted these gifts, he would have been seen as inferior to those whom he was seeking to disciple to maturity in Christ. His ability to confront their errors and sins with the Gospel would have been compromised. While in this disciple-making role, Paul wanted to deal with the Corinthians as a parent would care for his children (1 Cor 4:14, 2 Cor 6:13, 12:14), nurturing them, guiding them to maturity, and protecting them from danger. He wanted their respect, love, and obedience, not their patronage or payment.

But in turning down help, Paul also made himself vulnerable to the accusation that he did not love them. True friendship between adults is demonstrated by both giving and receiving, by faithfully fulfilling mutual obligations. Friends share their needs without trying to pretend that they are self-sufficient. Paul understands this. So he is amazingly transparent about his weaknesses and struggles in the second letter to the Corinthians. He shares his feelings for the Corinthians with remarkable openness (see 2 Cor 6:3-13).

But the time came when Paul could transition from being primarily a parent to being a partner with the Corinthians. So he informed them that he was open to receiving their help in sending him to other places to preach the Gospel (1 Cor 16:6; 2 Cor 1:16). While he was with them, he steadfastly resisted allowing them to be his patrons, but when he left them to go to preach to others, he invited them to serve as partners with him in the spread of the Gospel. He also strongly encouraged them to give to his “project” – his desire to help the struggling church in Jerusalem (2 Cor. 8-9).

It is not difficult to see the parallel to our lives as missionaries. We do not accept payment for our ministry in the places we serve. But we do accept financial help from the churches that have sent us out to preach the Gospel.

But Paul recognized that in refusing help, he was actually endangering his relationship with the Corinthians. Paul has a sound, culturally-based reason for refusing financial help, but he did not want to be seen as never needing help, the self-sufficient one. Here we can also learn something.

We need to act in ways that demonstrate that we view the people among whom we live not as objects of our ministry, but as friends whom we respect and love. This means that we need to be open to receiving from them as well as giving to them. Yes, we need to avoid obligations that would compromise our ability to serve them well. But those whom we help must also be able to give to us.

I remember being puzzled by why our Ukrainian friends insisted on taking us to or picking us up at the airport every time we flew. They refused any payment for this. Didn’t they realize that taxis are readily available, not at all expensive and that my organization would cover the cost of the travel to the airport? I felt uncomfortable with the “inconvenience” we were causing these friends because we fly a lot and our departures or arrivals were often at very early or late hours. But I realized that my wife and I needed to accept their help because this was how they demonstrated their commitment to our friendship. We had been their English teachers and led them in a small group Bible study for years. Now they wanted to also be giving to us.

In his book “The Insanity of Obedience“, Nik Ripken tells a powerful story about the importance of receiving and needing those whom we serve. 51Npz8xR7xLNik was surveying local believers from a Muslim background and asking them what were the characteristics of a good cross-cultural worker from the West. Repeatedly, he was told by different groups of people that one particular missionary was the one that the local believers loved. When Nik finally convinced them to tell him why they loved this particular person, they said, “He needs us. The rest of you workers have never needed us.”

“When this man’s father died and he did not have enough money to go home to bury his father, he did not go to the other Westerners to borrow money. He came to us and we took up an offering so that he could go home and bury his father. When his family had given away so much of their money that they had trouble putting meat on the table, paying their rent, and raising the school fees necessary for their children, this brother did not go to the Westerners for money; he came to us. And we loaned him what was needed.”

“So this is why we love him. He needs us. The rest of you workers have never needed us.”

My heart was broken as they went on to explain how most Westerners treat local people as if they are objects of salvation and reports . . . and not real people. They listed the ways that Westerners seemed to treat them as passive partners in this thing called salvation ministry: “You give us Bibles. You bring the gospel. You bring materials for discipleship. You rent places for us to meet. You bring your songs from America. You bring the baptism. You bring everything, expecting us to sit passively and simply appreciate everything that you give us. It is as if we are not worthy of contributing anything of value ourselves. It is all about your giving. And we feel like we should simply sit quietly and receive.”

“He needs us. The rest of you have never needed us.”

Ripken, Nik (2013-12-09). The Insanity of Obedience: Walking with Jesus in Tough Places (pp. 249-251). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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  1. Thank you for sharing this. This rings true in our context as well. I tried to be self sufficient at the start and God used health challenges to force us to ask for help. The best thing for our ministry has been to embrace being weak.

    • Ken

      A great way of saying it, Jon. Embrace being weak. This is particularly true for those of us coming from wealthier nations to those with less economic resources.

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