The Free Lances of Christ’s Army: Spurgeon on Bivocational Ministry

By Geoff Chang

Speaking to his students on the call to ministry, Spurgeon said ministry “requires the dedication of a man’s entire life to spiritual work.” Such full dedication to the work meant “separation from every secular calling … and entitles the man to cast himself for temporal supplies upon the church of God, since he gives up all his time, energies and endeavors, for the good of those over whom he presides.”

But Spurgeon did not have in mind a general call to preach. No, this was specifically “the office of the bishopric.” This was a divine and congregational call for a man to devote himself to the office of pastor, to preaching and leading in a local church. But while Spurgeon recognized the high calling of pastoral ministry, this was not the only form of ministry he envisioned.

In his day, many churches were struggling financially. As London continued to grow, the historic churches were not enough to accommodate the growing districts. New churches were needed. But often the districts that needed the most help were comprised of the poorer population, who could hardly afford to pay for a pastor. As the middle and upper-class moved out to the suburbs or more rural areas, those places also needed new churches. But wealthy Londoners were not any better about their giving. Many were hesitant to give generously toward a new plant.

Amid these challenges, Spurgeon saw a biblical solution: bivocational ministers. Writing in The Sword and the Trowel in 1883, in an article entitled “Leaving Secular Business,” Spurgeon makes a case for the importance and dignity of bivocational ministry:

The most practicable remedy is to find volunteer laborers who will not need maintenance from the people. This admirable remedy is already largely used, but not so largely as it might be. We have among us numbers of brethren engaged in handicrafts and professions who are endowed with gifts at least sufficient for the gathering of moderate congregations; and some of them display ability equal if not superior to the average of stipendiary pastors. It is an exceedingly great gain to the community when these brethren addict themselves to the ministry of the saints.

What is bivocational ministry?
While Spurgeon believed in the office of pastor, he also understood this was not the only form of ministry in the church. While some congregations were able to call and support a man to devote himself fully to preaching and pastoring, many could not. Spurgeon encouraged these churches not to overlook those who labored bivocationally in their midst. These would be men who could support themselves in part through their own secular vocation and devote their evenings and weekends to the ministry of the church.

Spurgeon himself was bivocational at Waterbeach, his very first pastorate. His church paid him just enough to cover his rent in Cambridge, along with “potatoes, turnips, cabbages, apples and sometimes a bit of meat.” This, along with his tutoring during the week, allowed him to support himself while he pastored the church. And through that bivocational ministry, he grew in his preaching and the church experienced a revival.

Spurgeon went on to be called by the New Park Street chapel to be a full-time, paid pastor. There in London, he trained many young men for pastoral ministry and equipped them to follow in his footsteps. But he never forgot about the important work he did as a bivocational pastor. And as he saw churches in pioneering contexts needing more help, he was convinced of the importance of bivocational ministry.

So, what did bivocational ministry look like? As far as the secular work, Spurgeon saw these ministers as coming from all kinds of professions: “Attending to a store, or an office; driving a plane or forging a bar; visiting patients or building houses.” Far from hindering ministry, this kind of honest work created a platform for the man’s ministry. And that ministry could look like many things. It might mean being called as a pastor of a church, like Spurgeon was at Waterbeach. But it might also mean being a city missionary, an itinerant village preacher, an evangelist or more. In all these ministries, Spurgeon saw how thankful the church should be for these tireless servants who poured themselves out freely in the work of the gospel. In many ways, they followed in the footsteps of the apostle Paul, who also ministered bivocationally on his missionary journeys.

He wrote:

Theirs is an exceedingly high style and order of Christian ministry: we know of none superior to it. Paul the apostle accounted it his glory that he earned his own bread, and was chargeable to no man. He would by no means come down from his elevation to the lower level of being supported by the gifts of his fellow-Christians.

He did not teach that all preachers should belong to this honorable order. On the contrary, he claimed for the giver of spirituals that he should be a receiver of temporals; but he himself personally resolved to belong to the Great Unpaid. He rejoiced that he could say, “Mine own hands have ministered unto my necessities.”

The temptation to leave bivocational ministry
But one of the greatest challenges of bivocational ministry is the temptation to be dissatisfied with it. It is so easy to envy the additional time and energy full-time ministers have for their work. It is so easy to desire the responsibility and honor given to full-time ministers. It is so easy to think of how much easier life would be if you only had one job.

Spurgeon himself watched many men transition out of fruitful bivocational ministries into unwise ministry situations. It’s not that such a move is always wrong. But rather than appropriately discerning a divine call, many bivocational ministers grow dissatisfied and quickly jump into a pastoral call they never received, bringing harm to them and to churches.

In our day, the church continues to be blessed by the ministry of countless men who serve in bivocational ministry as pastors, evangelists, missionaries and more. And yet many of them also face the temptation of dissatisfaction and are contemplating a transition to full-time vocational ministry.

Seven things to consider before you leave bivocational ministry
What would Spurgeon say today for those in bivocational ministry, especially those thinking about a transition? He would probably say, “Think carefully before you make the change!” More specifically, he would offer these seven considerations:

1. Recognize the honor due to bivocational ministry
With devout thankfulness we remember many brethren who have taken and still hold high rank among the free lances of Christ’s army: all honor to them; may their shadows never grow less! Instead of being in the least looked down upon because they do not belong to “the regular clergy,” but are miscalled “laymen,” they are deserving of double honor, for to them the church is under special obligation.

2. Relationships change when you are supported by the church
Spurgeon tells of a man who was fruitfully serving bivocationally in a city district as a missionary. The pastor and the church esteemed him in his ministry. But before long “he, too, is bitten with the clerical disease, he looks upon shop-keeping as degradation, he loathes the white apron and longs for the white cravat.” So, without any counsel or careful consideration, he casts himself upon the churches.

And now, instead of a boon he is a burden, and the godsend is a hindrance. When it turns out that the brother has not sufficient ability or grace to be the leader of a people who have to support him, the support itself scarcely reaches starvation point, and the man becomes disheartened, and useless. It is wonderful what a difference it makes in the estimate of service whether it is remunerated or not; but another thing is by no means astonishing, namely, the different feeling of a man who is giving his work, and to another who is dependent upon the people.

3. Frequent ministry changes will stunt your ministry
By frequent changes a man becomes Jack-of all-trades and master of none. Transplanted trees never make much growth. Before their roots have well searched the soil of one spot, they have to begin upon another, and when they are getting pretty nearly at home in the second garden, they have to migrate again. The tree is usually stunted, and the fruit is scanty. A man may be everything and yet be nothing. If among his changes he includes the ministry, it is most likely that this is the feeblest part he has played, and the church may be felicitated when he quits the stage and appears in another character.

4. Don’t presume on future fruitfulness
A man may glorify God in his calling, and have money to give and time to spare for the cause of truth; but if he enters the paid ministry, he may not glorify God, he may have no money to give, and his time may not be worth a brass farthing to anybody.

5. Consider your ability to fulfill other biblical duties
A man who is established in life, with a family about him, usually has many duties incumbent upon him. There are aged relatives to support and, at any rate, the wife of his bosom and the olive-branches round about his table need looking after. May he make any remove which would unfit him for the fulfillment of these evident claims? We think not. It is always an evil thing to offer to God one duty stained with the blood of another. It is always a pity to leave a certain obligation for an uncertain one.

6. Examine your motives
It is always suspicious when the pursuit to which we aspire appears to be more honorable than that which we would relinquish. There is such a thing as giving one’s self up to the service of God and our own benefit; and when the two things rather evidently come together, a few questions may always be suggested to the thoughtful man by the singular fact. We feel a little jealous of a man’s proposal to glorify God by that which falls in with his own inclination and conduces to his own comfort. We all too readily insinuate self into our desire for the divine honor, and yet we may not be conscious of it.

7. Rightly understand the pressures of pastoral ministry
Do all our eager brethren really know the pressure of mind, and the strain of soul which are involved in preaching to one set of people year after year? Have they any notion of the heart-pangs, and the soul-travail, and the bitterness of disappointment involved in the care of souls? Do they judge it to be so mean an employment that slender gifts and graces will suffice for it? Or do they think that a minister means simply a black coat and a white choker? … The ministry is a high and honorable calling when a man is really fitted for it; but without the necessary qualifications, it must be little better than sheer slavery with a fine name to it.

Spurgeon’s point was not to discourage bivocational ministers. In dissuading some from pursuing paid ministry, he was not commenting on any deficiency in their existing ministry. Nor was Spurgeon minimizing the responsibility of churches to support their pastors financially (an issue he was passionate about!). Rather, what he sought to fight against was the lie that “lay ministry” was somehow inferior to “professional ministry,” that bivocational work was somehow less honorable than paid ministry. In raising these warnings, he wanted to encourage these bivocational ministers to see the fruitfulness and importance of their labors.

Instead of being distracted by worldly thinking about titles and positions, Spurgeon wanted bivocational ministers to see the crucial role they played in the church. Especially in pioneering contexts, there often was no other way forward except by the sacrificial labors of Christians willing to serve the church freely – and that remains true down to our day. Spurgeon’s prayer was that God would raise up many bivocational ministers for the church.

While we would thus for the present distress urge our pastors to shake off all notion of being degraded by secular work, we still look for much aid from what are called our “lay brethren.” Instead of fewer of these, we need 10 times as many of them: the more the merrier. Success to the guild! May its worthy members become more and more efficient, and supply for our poorer churches that lack of service from which they are greatly suffering.

This post originally appeared on The Spurgeon Center’s blog.

Published March 9, 2023

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Geoff Chang

Geoff Chang serves as Assistant Professor of Church History and Historical Theology and the Curator of the Spurgeon Library. He is a graduate of The University of Texas at Austin, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he wrote his dissertation on Charles H. Spurgeon’s ecclesiology. Prior to studying at Midwestern, Geoff worked as a database consultant until he discerned a call to ministry. He is married to Stephanie and they have three children. They enjoy music, good books, working around the house, exploring the outdoors and serving their local church. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.