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The Tentmaking Myth


Catholics, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, High and Low Church Anglicans, Jehovah's Witnesses, the Children of God, Mormons - in fact, every denomination and sect we know of - has one belief in common: they all support the tentmaking myth.

The tentmaking myth says God's plan is for everyone to work for money, because that's what St. Paul did during his entire life. And it is taught more universally than any other so-called Christian doctrine.

The world would have never known Paul made tents were it not for one verse in the Book of Acts. Though the Bible says Peter, Andrew, James, and John all forsook their fishing businesses when they followed Jesus (Matthew 4:18-22), and Matthew stopped collecting taxes (Luke 5:28), the tent-making myth says Paul never stopped making tents, and it would have been wrong if he had.

Ministers who live off the donations of their flock invoke the tentmaking argument against anyone else in their church who shows signs of trusting God to supply their needs as they attempt to preach the gospel. The professional ministers argue that they never did anything so reckless as to trust God for their support. They attended the denomination's Bible school or seminary, then thrashed out legal terms of employment which guaranteed that they would never go without. True, they don't make tents; but they leave no doubt in the minds of their congregation that they are working for the wage and not for love... which is what the tentmaking cornerstone is really about anyway.

If Paul had spent his whole life making tents (and one wonders how he managed all his missionary journeys if he was busy running a tent company), would it really prove the other disciples were wrong? And would it make Christ's teachings about taking no thought for food or clothing (Matthew 6:19-34), going into all the world preaching the gospel (Mark 16:15), forsaking all (Luke 14:33), and not working for food (John 6:27) heretical? If so, then we must assume Paul alone has the words of eternal life, and Jesus is a fraud. And that is exactly what the tentmaking myth tries to say.

In fact, it goes further than that. It even says that if Paul contradicts it, he is a fraud. See, Paul says (1 Corinthians 7:21-23) that any slave who has the opportunity to be free should use it. "Don't let God's free people become anyone's slave," he says. Referring to God's responsibility to provide for the needs of his servants, Paul says, "No one who joins an army pays his own wage." (1 Corinthians 9:7) He says it is only fair that those who feed the world spiritually be fed in return. (1 Corinthians 9:9-14)

So where did the tentmaking myth come from? It came from a short time in Paul's life when he backslid. "Backslid?!" gasp worshippers of Paul in horror. Yes, great as he was, Paul was fallible. He made mistakes like the rest of us mortals. And he never wanted us to follow him in areas where he strayed from the gospel of Christ. (Galatians 1:8)

'Backsliding' doesn't always mean a turn-around from loving Christ to hating him. It can be a momentary lapse of concentration, during which we substitute our human reasoning for the clear directions that God has given us. That is what happened to Paul.

Here is the true story of what happened: Paul arrived in Corinth on his own. (Acts 18:1) He usually travelled with at least one other Christian (as Jesus commanded--Luke 10:1), but this time he was on his own. He met some prospective converts (Acts 18:2) who offered him a job in their tent company, and he accepted. (v. 3) He still preached on weekends (v. 4), but the rest of the time he apparently witnessed 'on the job' to Aquila and Priscilla. When Silas and Timothy arrived some time later, Paul was "pricked in his conscience" and "gave his whole time to preaching the message" (TEV, v. 5) Paul later writes to the church at Corinth (with whom he had more problems than any other church he started) and says, "The only way I treated you differently from any other church was that I didn't rely on you to support me. Forgive me this wrong." (2 Corinthians 12:13)

This is the whole story of Paul's tent-making. But the myth (like all myths) adapts other facts to suit itself. So every time Paul mentions 'work', the myth inserts "for money" or "making tents" into the passage. In 1 Thessalonians 2:9 Paul says that he worked night and day preaching so that no one could charge him with failing to do his job. The tentmakers rephrase it thus: "I worked making tents during the day so I wouldn't need to charge admission to my meetings at night." Then, when Paul writes to them again (2 Thessalonians 3:7-12) saying not to let lazy people who refuse to work for God live and eat in their communes, the tentmakers change it to say, "Don't let anyone attend your meetings who isn't spending the rest of their time working for money from the system."

Note: You may need to check older translations of these passages to get one that hasn't been altered to support the tentmaking bias. This is because churches today no longer live and eat together. They cannot imagine a situation where everyone in a community is working for love, and God is feeding them; so their cultural bias has reflected itself in the rendering of these passages.

On a few other occasions Paul talks about working with your hands doing good, and these passages too have been re-written in modern translations to include phrases like "work for a living," thus bringing money into the picture and effectively pushing God, love, and faith out. But every single check of the earliest manuscripts shows that no hint of money ever appeared in any of them.

Show this article to any expert who supports the tentmaking myth and they will immediately hush up. In fact, the most incredible thing about the whole myth is that it is never publicly taught as a Christian doctrine (because it can be so easily shot to bits) and yet it is the most widely known and supported teaching in so-called Christianity. It is always taught surreptitiously and in bits and pieces, so that the teachers can feign innocence when confronted with the facts.

This flimsiest of all false cornerstones persists in every denomination and cult. The simple truths stated in this article will not make one bit of difference to the millions who preach and practice the tentmaking myth. It never grew out of a desire to know the truth in the first place, and until their greed is replaced by faith in God's provision, they'll cling to it until their death.

If you are making the same mistake of hiding behind the tentmakers, we must solemnly warn you that you'll never sneak it by God Almighty. Jesus says, "Follow me and I will make you living tents of the Holy Spirit!"

(See also Convenient Doctrines.)

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