Tentmaking – A Biblical Foundation for Seventh-day Adventists
by Conrad Vine
Adventist Frontier Missions Director
The Imperative of Cross-Cultural SDA Mission
The imperative of intentional, loving and gracious cross-cultural mission is reflected in the mission statement of the SDA Church, which states that, “The mission of the Seventh-day Adventist (SDA) Church is to make disciples of all people, communicating the Everlasting Gospel in the context of the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14.6-12, leading them to accept Jesus as personal Savior and unit with His remnant Church, discipling them to serve Him as Lord, and preparing them for His soon return.”
Thus, raised by God with a prophetic self-identity as God’s end-time movement to proclaim the Everlasting Gospel to every nation, tribe, language and people (Rev. 14.6), the SDA Church is structured for worldwide mission (Matt. 28.19-20), seeking to proclaim the Everlasting Gospel, “….Throughout the world, as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24.14, NRSV).
Why are SDA Tentmakers Needed?
The following factors indicated the huge potential that tentmaking missionaries represent towards fulfilling the Loud Cry:
1) Rapid urbanization. According to the United Nations Population Fund, since 2008 more than 50% of the world’s total population is living in urban areas, and the urbanization trend is increasing. Whereas in the 19th century the major cities of the world had a cultural outlook based on a Judaeo-Christian worldview, the new mega-cities are increasingly either neutral or actively hostile to Christianity in their cultural outlooks.
2) Rural depopulation. As significant population shifts occur in the developing world from rural to urban areas, there has not been a corresponding shift in focus for active Protestant missionaries. This will lead inevitably to a deepening strategic mismatch between where the greater number of unreached people live and where active missionaries actually serve.
3) Socio-religious polarization. An increasing number of countries are hostile to the presence of Christian missionaries. More and more countries are becoming “closed access” or “restricted access” for open missionary work, necessitating a re-evaluation of the most effective methods for ensuring a living Christian witness within these countries. However, many of these countries welcome skilled professionals to work within their borders.
4) Reduced mission giving. Within the SDA Church as a whole, per capita mission giving has been steadily declining for decades. Tentmaking leverages the financial resources of private and public sector employers worldwide to support SDA tentmakers in cross-cultural ministry.
What is an SDA Tentmaker?
An SDA tentmaker is a born-again SDA disciple of Jesus Christ who: has a deep sense of calling from God; intentionally and prayerfully seeks to plant churches cross-culturally; is spiritually equipped and gifted for cross-cultural ministry; may live in a restricted access country with a resident or work visa; has a secular identity within their host culture; and is financed primarily through their professional labor. SDA tentmakers cooperate wherever possible with the visible leadership of the SDA Church for prayerful counsel, mutual encouragement and personal equipping.
For centuries, Christians have promoted the model of the 12 disciples who gave up their professions to follow Jesus in active ministry. Many enter Christian ministry today with the expectation that they are to abandon their trade to better focus on ministry. One’s trade is often perceived to be a hindrance to the Gospel, not a facilitator. However, the Apostle Paul viewed his trade as an opportunity that enabled him to preach the Gospel in unreached cities free of any financial dependence on any supporting church or administrative structures. Furthermore, Paul’s trade as a tentmaker took him into the ancient marketplace – which was where not only goods and services were bought and sold, but where new ideas were shared, evaluated, and disseminated. Like the Apostle Paul, modern-day tentmakers use their professional skills to find employment in the modern marketplace, where once again the Everlasting Gospel can be shared and disseminated.
Tentmaking in the OT
The word tentmaking cannot be found anywhere in the Bible. However, the concept of a follower of God working with a secular identity in a foreign land and thereby attracting or leading people to worship God is biblical. In fact, there are numerous examples of it in the Old Testament. Abraham, in obedience to God’s expressed command, left Chaldea to live and work in Canaan as a shepherd (Genesis 12:8). Others were forced by circumstances to go to a foreign land: Joseph as governor in Egypt (Genesis 41); Naaman’s maidservant (2 Kings 5); and Daniel as prime minister (Daniel 2). Other Old Testament personalities include Lot, Jacob, Naomi, Nehemiah, Mordecai and Esther. They all held secular jobs in a foreign country and were used by God to reveal God’s character and purposes among the heathen.
Tentmaking in the NT
In the New Testament we can also find examples of individual followers of God who had a secular job but were used by God for effective ministry. These include Joseph the carpenter, Zaccheus the tax collector, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea on the Jewish Supreme Court (the Sanhedrin), Cornelius the army officer, Luke the physician, Lydia the purple-dye seller, Zenas the lawyer, and Erastus the city treasurer. Even Jesus Himself worked as a carpenter. But the best biblical models and the source of the term tentmaker are Aquila, Priscilla and Paul.
The first and only instance in the Bible in which we encounter the word “tentmaker” is in Acts 18:3. Luke tells us that “because he [Paul] was of the same trade [tentmaking] he stayed with them [Aquila and Priscilla] and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade” (ESV). The location was Corinth. The occasion was Paul’s 2nd missionary journey. Paul had just come from Athens, some 80 kilometers away from Corinth, where his preaching had met with comparatively little success.
Paul arrived in Corinth c. 51-52 A.D., where he met a Jewish couple named Aquila and Priscilla who were tentmakers
(Acts 18:1-2). Aquila and Priscilla were natives of Pontus and former residents of Rome. They left Rome after Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews and Christians from that city (Acts 18.2). It is unclear whether Aquila and Priscilla were already Christians when Paul met and lodged with them or even whether they were converts of Paul. At any rate, we can deduce that Aquila and Priscilla bonded with Paul, since the tentmaker couple decided to later relocate to Ephesus with Paul (18:18). Once there, Luke tells us that this tentmaker couple was instrumental in discipling an Egyptian Jew, “an eloquent man, competent in the Scriptures” named Apollos (18:26). We find later references to Priscilla and Aquila as being zealous advocates of the Christian cause (Rom. 16:3-5; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19).
Since Paul was of the same trade as Aquila and Priscilla, it was only natural that he would work with this couple in a tentmaking business. Paul most likely learned and practiced the tentmaking trade in his home city of Tarsus. Tarsus was well-known for cilicium or “rough goat’s hair fabrics” which were used for ship sails and tents.[i] In Paul’s time, regardless of how high one’s education was, a Jewish boy was required to learn a trade. A commonly known rabbinical proverb stated that “he who does not teach his son a trade teaches him to be a thief.” As a result, vocational or trade training was widely practiced among Jewish families.
Paul’s tentmaking strategy
In Acts 18:4-23 we find a passage that gives us a description of Paul’s tentmaking mission strategy. The core components of his tentmaking strategy are listed below.
i. Big cities.
Paul sought out the large cosmopolitan cities that were strategically placed along Near Eastern merchant trade routes such as Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Phillipi, and Thessalonica. This is not to say that he did not minister in smaller ones. He did. For instance, Athens only had approx. 10,000 people as opposed to Corinth which had as many as 250,000 free people and about 400,000 slaves in the first century A.D. However, once Paul entered these cities he headed to the marketplace. The synagogues were a definite priority, but he also went into the marketplaces in large heterogeneous urban centers.
Corinth, the first place where we know that Paul worked as a tentmaker, was a center for travelers, traders and pleasure-seekers. In fact, it was one of the most important trade cities in ancient Greece, a vital transit point between Rome and her eastern provinces. Ellen White says that since it was “a great commercial center, situated within easy access of all parts of the Roman Empire, it was an important place in which to establish memorials for God and His truth.”[ii]
Many of Paul’s audience in these large cities would have been transient, and without the same cultural baggage as the Jews in Jerusalem. These cities could expand and contract quickly as festivals, merchants’ seasons, and movements of military and athletic events would occur. These large cities were centers of administration for the Roman empire, of Greek philosophy and civilization, and were of great commercial importance due to their strategic locations and population size. It is interesting to note that most of Paul’s epistles were to churches in large urban centers. The marketplaces were where the ancient world came together - where the rural and urban, settled and transient all intersected.
The marketplace provided the economic focus and social character of the city. It was where goods and services were bought and sold and where individuals pursued their goals, needs, and desires. Although Paul did enter the synagogue on the Sabbath, he was in the marketplace the rest of the week. Paul understood that by inserting the Gospel into the marketplace he could impact the whole city and region. For a city and the surrounding rural districts to be transformed, there had to be a Christian witness within the marketplace, and this necessitated a viable trade to provide Paul with a socially legitimate role in the marketplace. Tentmaking was that viable and socially legitimate trade.
ii. Financial strategy
When he arrived in Corinth, Paul looked for a source of support and a place of residence (Acts 18.2-3). Paul’s practice of manual labor and self-support is instructive for modern tentmakers. Paul’s ministry was not dependent on outside financial help - he had a vocational skill that was in demand in those days. Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles, had learned the trade of tentmaking. There were higher and lower branches of tentmaking. Paul had learned the higher branches, and he could also work at the common branches when circumstances required.[iii] Thus Paul was able to provide for his financial need as well as for the needs of his ministry. This is not to say that Paul never lacked anything. To the contrary, he wrote about his financial needs and the needs of newly planted churches that were in distress (e.g. 1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Philippians 4).
There were times when Paul had enough and there were times when he did not have enough (Philippians 4:12). Yet, for the most part he was able to provide for his own and his team’s needs (Acts 20:34-35; Phil. 4:16; 1 Thess. 2:9). This is where learning a vocational skill is very useful for sustaining cross-cultural mission work. Ellen White observes that Paul was highly educated, and was admired for his genius and eloquence. He was chosen by his countrymen as a member of the Sanhedrin, and was a rabbi of distinguished ability, yet his education had not been considered complete until he had served an apprenticeship at some useful trade. He rejoiced that he was able to support himself by manual labor, and frequently declared that his own hands had ministered to his necessities. While in a city of strangers, he would not be chargeable to anyone. When his means had been expended to advance the cause of Christ, he resorted to his trade in order to gain a livelihood.[iv] Thus, finances or the lack thereof did not become a hindrance to the carrying out of his mission.
Although he worked as a tentmaker, Paul’s writing indicate that he was not opposed in principle or at times in practice to receiving financial support from churches he had planted. Apostles did have the right to be financially supported by the churches (1 Cor. 9.1-15), he himself received occasional support from churches he had planted (2 Cor. 11.7-12), and he praised the believers in Philippi for supporting front-line ministry (Phil. 4.9-20). However, in his own case Paul preferred to gain his primary financial support as a tentmaker. Paul did not insist on his rights as an ordained apostle to receive church financial support (1 Cor. 9.9.1-21), he wanted to proclaim the Gospel free of charge (2 Cor. 11.7-12), he did not want to be a burden on anyone (2 Cor. 12.12-16, 1 Thess. 2.7-12), and his practice of self-support through tentmaking was needed to set an example of a strong work ethic among new Christians (2 Thess. 3.6-12). Paul preferred to exist as a tentmaker rather than as a fully paid cross-cultural missionary because he did not want to be a burden to anyone (1 Cor. 9.12, 15-16; 2 Thess. 3.8; Acts 20.33-35), he wanted to identify with the working poor (1 Cor. 9.19-21; Romans 1.14-16; 2 Cor. 8.9), he did not want people to think he was preaching only because he was paid to preach (2 Cor. 2.17; 1 Cor. 9.12, 17-18; 2 Thess. 3.8), and he wanted to give a practical model of integrity to new converts (1 Cor. 3.10-15; 6.10-11; 7.7-28;11.1; 1 Thess. 1.5-8; 3.8; 4.1; 2 Thess. 3.16-18; Eph. 4.28; 1 Tim. 5.8)
iii. Witnessing opportunities
Once he settled in a city, Paul intentionally looked for opportunities to witness to people. Here we notice that even though Paul’s commission was to preach to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7), he usually visited the synagogues on the Sabbaths, whenever he could, in addition to his work in the marketplace as a tentmaker. There are six verses in Acts that show Paul going to where the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles met every Sabbath (Acts 13:14, 42, 44; 16:13; 17:2; 18:4). This habit of visiting synagogues was not just about his Sabbath-keeping custom or going to church. It was a strategic decision of his to regularly go to the synagogue. We might consider three possible reasons why he chose to do so:
1) His custom. It was his custom to go to a place of prayer during Sabbaths (Acts 16:13; 17:2). He was modeling his own advice to other Jewish believers of to not give up “the habit of meeting together” as a means of encouraging one another (Hebrews 10:25). No other ethnic groups in the Roman Empire had weekly worship and prayer meetings like the Jews. In the absence of a Christian congregation, Paul continued fellowshipping wherever possible with Jews in the local synagogues.
2) His burden. He wanted his fellow Jews to have the opportunity to respond to the gospel before it
became too late for them. In spite of the constant danger preaching to the Jews posed to him, Paul’s yearning for his own people is clearly expressed in Romans 9-11. He had a great burden for his fellow Jews who “are deeply devoted to God but…not based on knowledge” (Romans 10:1, 2, GNB). Realizing from Matthew 24 that time was short, and doom was coming to the nation of Israel if there was a not speedy repentance and turning in faith to Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of Scripture, he adopted the strategy of preaching to the Jews first, and then to the Greeks (Romans 1:16; 2:10).
3) His fishing ground. The synagogues were great places for finding God-fearing Gentiles (Acts 18:4). It is significant that other than in Athens, Paul seldom preached in public places among the totally pagan Greeks. God-fearing Gentiles who attended the synagogues were bound to be bi-cultural, especially if they were proselytes of Judaism. It would be easier to relate the gospel to them because they already knew more Scripture than ordinary pagan Gentiles. Thus we read in Acts 14:1 of a great number of Jews and Gentiles who believed Paul and Barnabas’ preaching in the synagogue. Even in Corinth, when the Jews rejected his message, Paul went to a God-fearing Gentile whose house was adjacent to the synagogue (Acts 18:7).
iv. Seeking seekers.
Paul had a selective approach, partly driven by the relatively short period of time he spent in each city where he ministered. He focused wherever possible on those who were receptive individuals, on those who were open to hearing and accepting the Gospel. Acts 18:6-7 gives us insight on Paul’s evangelistic approach. When the Jews in the synagogue “opposed him and said evil things about him, he protested by shaking the dust from his clothes” (18:6, GNB), Paul declared, “If you are lost, you yourselves must take the blame for it! I am not responsible; from now on I will go to the Gentiles” (18:6, GNB). This is reminiscent of Jesus’ command to the disciples to “shake the dust off” one’s feet and leave a home or town that will not welcome them or listen to them (Mt. 10:14). When people showed that they were not receptive to the message, Paul moved to those who were more open. Thus, when the Jews rejected the Gospel, Paul “moved from the synagogue to the neighboring house of Titus Justus, a God-fearing Gentile” (Acts 18.7). Paul’s evangelistic approach was not a random, mass or indiscriminate personal witnessing that forced people to listen whether they wanted to or not.
Modern-day tentmakers tend to have short to medium-term professional contracts and often operate within a fast-paced professional environment, and as such have neither the time, cultural insights or means for mass or indiscriminate sharing of the Gospel. To be as effective as possible in the short time period available to many tentmakers, they are counseled by Jesus to pray for a “man of peace” (Matt. 10.12-13), someone upon whose heart the Holy Spirit has already been moving, and is ready to receive and accept the Gospel. Like Paul, modern-day tentmakers are to prayerfully seek the guidance and leadership of the Holy Spirit to find those who are already seeking for truth.
Some may wonder about the concept of selectivity in contacts. It is true that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34, KJV). He loves everyone in the world (John 3:16) and wants “everyone to be saved and to come to know the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4, GNB). However, no Christian can personally reach all people in all places all of the time. A measure of selectivity is necessary. For purposes of cross-cultural mission strategy it is a good practice to look for those who are receptive to God’s message, to pray for God to guide the missionary to a ‘Person of Peace.’ After all, the seed of God’s word grows much better in good soil than in rocky soil, thorny soil or soil by the wayside (Matthew 13:19-23). These counsels emphasize the need for cross-cultural missionaries to be praying about finding the seekers after heavenly truth.
v. House churches.
The opposition of the Jews towards his public teaching led Paul to use a house church approach. Paul left the synagogue and “went to the house of a man named Titius Justus, a worshiper of God” (Acts 18:7, ESV). Titius was a God-fearing Gentile whose house was just “next door to the synagogue” (v.7). Since Paul already was staying in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, it was probable that he did not go to the home of Titius to live, but to find a place for the proclamation of the Gospel.
Whereas in the Old Testament people came to the tabernacle and later the temple for worship, in the New Testament the practice of believers meeting in homes, possibly under the leadership of a well-known patron, developed. These house churches were the possible delineation of the divisions within the congregations of Corinth. This approach was not only necessary because of physical persecution by the Jews or Roman authorities, or the complete lack of bricks-and-mortar worship facilities for the new congregations, but because of believers’ understanding regarding the locus of worship. Jesus taught that place is not the most important factor in worship but that God is concerned primarily with the attitude of the worshippers (John 4:23, 24). He had also promised that “where two or three are gathered in [His] name,” He would be among them (Matthew 18:20, ESV). The new locus of worship was Jesus, and no longer Herod’s temple, the local synagogue or a civic pagan temple. Thus from the very start and throughout the history of the early church, house gatherings were the common feature of Christian corporate life.
The obvious advantage of a house meeting was that the groups could be kept small and there was a lot of personal interaction among the participants. Friendship, fellowship, trust and love could most easily flourish within such an environment. It was also easier to invite neighbors and to assimilate them into the small group in a house meeting. Evidently, this approach resulted in a lot of people accepting the Lord, including Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, the next door neighbor of the small group in Titius’ home, together with his whole family and many others in Corinth (Acts 18:8). House groups provided a convenient, affordable, private and community-based locus for worship led by tentmakers such as Paul.
vi. Multiplying tentmakers.
A final feature of Paul’s tentmaking strategy in Acts 18 was his practice of multiplying tentmaking missionaries. Two verses describe Paul’s practice of making self-supported disciple-making disciples. First, Acts 18:11 says that Paul stayed in Corinth for a year-and-a-half “teaching the word of God among them” (18:11). Who is it that Paul continued teaching the word of God to for “a year and six months?” Possibly “them” refers to the “many” in Corinth who were God’s people (v. 10). But “them” could also refer to “Crispus…his entire household” and the many Corinthians who “hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (v. 8). If 18:11 refers to the Corinthians in general and not the converts, then it simply means that Paul actively pursued evangelism.
However, a lexical study of the verb used in verse 11 (comparing it with verse 4) suggests that this verse refers to
Crispus, his household and the other converts in Corinth. Paul discipled his converts in obedience to the Great
Commission to “teach them to obey everything” (Matthew 28:20, GNB). Furthermore, in Acts 18:18 we are told that when Paul left for Syria, another pioneering mission field, Aquila and Priscilla were with him. The city of Ephesus, where they evidently stayed for a short time, was one of the most significant cities in the Roman province of Asia. The business potential was great. The marketplace of ancient Ephesus remains to this day as a vast public space adjacent to the ancient harbor. However, we find in the next verses that Aquila and Priscilla were actively involved in instructing Apollos “in the way of the Lord” (18:25). Obviously, Aquila and Priscilla learned so much from Paul that they were able to explain to Apollos, an eloquent Jewish scholar and convert, “the way of God more accurately” (18:25, GNB). In Romans 16:3 Paul called them his “fellow workers” (ESV). We also read that while in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla (or ‘Prisca’) had a house church (1 Corinthians 16:19). Later we read that Apollos went to Achaia, the region around Corinth, and actively engaged in nurture and evangelism (Acts 18:27-28). Apollos obviously in turn became a multiplying tentmaker too.
Thus Paul modeled disciple-making multipliers among the converts in the churches he helped to plant - missionaries who could produce additional missionaries. Leaders who could develop new leaders. Tentmakers who could train other tentmakers. Paul not only taught his converts the message, he also showed them how to teach others. The principle of multiplication can be seen in Paul’s advice to his younger co-worker: “And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2, ESV).
JESUS’ COUNSEL TO TENTMAKERS
Compared to Athens, Paul had a measure of success in Corinth, a city of infamous immorality and depravity. Whereas Athens was known for its pederasty, Corinth was known for its prostitutes. While serving as a tentmaking missionary, Jesus appeared to Paul in a vision to encourage him in his tentmaking mission (Acts 18.9-10). He gave Paul a three-fold command (v. 9), followed by a three-fold promise (v. 10), commands and promises that are relevant for all tentmaking missionaries today:
1) Command 1 - “Do not be afraid.” The word “afraid” here is translated from phobeo, or phobia, fear. It means “frightened,” “alarmed.” Paul anticipated violent opposition from the Jews. He was told not to be afraid. As long as there are no converts and no one is baptized, the Christian witness can get along well enough with the community. But once someone makes that crucial, life-changing decision and is baptized, then persecution begins. In the midst of such persecution, Jesus commands His tentmakers, “Do not be afraid.”
2) Command 2 - “Go on speaking.” The tendency during times of discouragement may be to retreat to the safety of silence. Paul was told not to “be quiet,” but to keep on speaking. Tentmakers must not stop speaking on the topic of the Kingdom, whether publicly or privately.
3) Command 3 - “Do not be silent.” Literally this means “do not hold your peace” or “do not begin to keep silent.” Paul was told that nothing was to stop his testimony. Elijah and Jeremiah also went through similar crises of discouragement and were encouraged by God to continue in their ministry (1 Kings 19:4-14; Jer. 1:6-8; 15:15-21). Tentmakers are bound to experience frustration and discouragement, but they must not let discouragement silence them.
4) Promise 1 - “I am with you.” This is the same promise as in Matthew 28:20 “I am with you always.” This is the assurance that as tentmakers engage in ministry, Jesus will constantly be with them. In fact, the promise is not that He will be with them in the future, but that He is with them in the present.
5) Promise 2 - “No one will…harm you.” This is not a promise that Paul would be exempted from persecution, threat or attack. It was a promise that Satan and his host would not be permitted to do violence to Paul. This reminds us of the truth proclaimed by Elisha centuries before, “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16, ESV). God stands ready to protect His tentmakers no matter how hostile the local community.
6) Promise 3 - “I have many” people here. Paul was discouraged with the response of the people in Corinth. Here Paul is reminded of the words spoken to Elijah during his time of discouragement: “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel…which have not bowed down to Baal” (1 Kings 19:18, KJV). This is an encouragement for tentmakers to believe that God has many honest seekers for truth where they are serving.
[i] 6 SDABC, 1957, p. 360.
[ii] White, Acts of the Apostles, p. 243.
[iii] 6 SDABC, 1957, p. 1063.
[iv] 6 SDABC, 1957, p. 1063.