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What’s wrong with Christian Ministry’s “Employee/Employer” relationships. Have you every wondered why it is okay for Christian ministries to “employ” people without paying those people? This question should raise some eyebrows and maybe even more objections so some clarifying comments need laid out. First, the question above does not impugn genuine volunteer work. Any organization, church, institution, business, or government can ask for volunteers—no objection to that. But asking for volunteers for iterative or non-regular activities is quite different from structuring an entire institution around free labor as regular practice (volunteer work). Essential to recognize is that hoping for volunteers is very different than expecting volunteers by the framework of the organization.

For instance, imagine a ministry, Christians for God: This ministry runs its day-in, day-out activities by paid employees but also by non-paid occasional volunteers. Sometimes this ministry needs more work done after hours and so opens up extra work to the paid employees by offering both paid hours and accepting volunteer hours for the work. In this way, whether the workers get paid or volunteer is decided upon by the one who works, not by the one asking for the work. This is all well and good and might be the best situation. However, if the ministry cannot afford to pay these after hours of work, it could still ask for volunteers to get the work done so long as it is occasional, not obligatory, and not presented through manipulative “guilt-tripping.” Most people readily understand “volunteer work” as supererogatory—i.e., beyond the call of duty—but why is it that many Christian organizations turn what should be supererogatory (working without pay) into what is obligatory?

When a Christian institute makes working for free obligatory to work for them at all, the question all Christians must ask is, “How are you Christians, who run that institute, submitting to Christ by establishing a work setting that requires free labor you leading Christians?” No one is calling into question the nature of volunteer work or the hearts of the ones who volunteer. We are asking, “Is there something immoral and indicating non-submission to Christ for Christian leaders to expect free labor for themselves?” In most of these cases, how these Christians who work for such an institute get paid is by raising support. So others, not the leaders of the institute, fund these Christians. What is obvious is that those funding and those being funded are submitting to Christ; what is not obvious is how the leaders are submitting to Christ. These leaders get free labor for themselves, have authority over those working for free for them, and establish a non-prosperous business/institute that is not self-sustaining.

These leaders do not have the right to say that they pay their employees because using the language of “pay” implies producing a product or service from which income is collected in excess to the cost of running the institute/business. Further, really it is those are voluntarily funding the employees that could claim to “pay” these employees. It is better to say that these volunteer funders are simply funding these employees since they are not “paying” them as compensation for some service or product they’ve consumed.

Let’s pull this all together:

1) The volunteers (volunteer employees) for the institute are clearly submitting to Christ because they are freely willing to take on the hardship by raising support.

2) Those funding these volunteer employees are submitting to Christ because they are freely funding and not receiving a product or service in return.

3) Those leaders of the institute’s receive free labor because they are not paying the volunteer employees; these leaders receive free income from the produce of the volunteer workers (and amazingly, these leaders sometimes take salaries); these leaders get to have authority over the volunteer workers although not compensating these workers; and these leaders use their authority to continue to propagate an unsustainable and non-prosperous ministry model built on the back of “free labor” of willing devote Christians.

The Christian leaders get to tell the volunteer employees what to do, expect them to work for free for them, get to benefit from the produce (fruit) and money the volunteer employees produce meanwhile the volunteer employees do not share in those benefits, and perpetually uphold and so perpetually benefit from this non-prosperous and unsustainable model.

I might be confused but didn’t Jesus say, “The kings of the Gentiles domineer over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves (Luke 22:25 – 26) . . . and I am among you as One who serves (Lk. 22:27).

Next time I’ll unpack this in view of what I’ve said above.

B. T. Scalise