Partners with Aprons and Handkerchiefs

Turning Business Opportunities into Witnessing Platforms

Do I have to join denominational service to partner fully in God’s final mission? When we come across a bright and dedicated young person our usual reaction is to encourage him or her to join the ministry, to become a pastor. You may have experienced this situation on either side. The truth is that one of the greatest missionary of the Early Church, Apostle Paul, was not one we would call a church worker today. While we revisit two facets of his life, tentmaking, and missionary work, we can learn more about partners outside denominational service.

Paul the Tentmaker
Acts 19:11,12 provides a glimpse of the miracles that happened in Ephesus. The instruments that brought the miracles were Paul’s handkerchiefs and aprons. It is interesting to note that even Jesus had never used such instruments. These were part of Paul’s regular attire. It was quite different from what the scribes, rabbis and itinerant preachers, teachers and philosophers were wearing in those days. The handkerchief, called sudaria, was used to wipe off sweat from brow or face, and the apron, called semicincta, was worn by artisans as they worked. The presence of handkerchiefs and aprons indicate that Paul was engaged regularly in some professional activities during the time that he was ministering to Ephesus.

Apostle Paul was a professional tentmaker (Acts 18:1-3). The word translated “tentmaker” usually means someone who is involved in leather work. It is different from a weaver. His hometown, Cilicia, was famous for its artisans who worked with goat-skin. The tools needed for carrying on his enterprise was a sharp knife, an awl, and a big curved needle. They were not heavy instruments; hence, he could move his trade easily from one city to another. His clients were mainly among the traveling traders and the military throughout the Roman Empire as accommodation was a challenge in those days. Paul, the one who covered thousands of Miles by land and sea to preach the gospel, the one who wrote the largest number of books in all the Bible was just a professional tentmaker; a partner with Aprons and Handkerchiefs.

The Missionary
Several passages help to appreciate Paul as a leading missionary. In Ephesus, he preached for “three months” and then for “two years” (Acts 19:8–10). He did not allow difficulties to stop him and he had a resounding success throughout the region.

How was Paul balancing his professional and preaching activities? This is the biggest challenge, even for those with the best intention to serve. In his farewell address with the elders of the Church in Ephesus, Paul elaborates about the dual components of his life. He worked diligently to provide for his personal needs and to assist others (Acts 2:33,34), and he added: “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn every one night and day with tears” (Acts 20:31). He “did not cease,” he was preaching “night” and “day.” Elsewhere, he uses the same expression “night and day” in reference to his work as a tentmaker (2 Thess. 3:8). How do we reconcile these two realities: preaching “night and day” and working “day and night”? The explanation was that while he was working in his workshop, he was simultaneously sharing the good news. And during the time of the Mediterranean siesta, with no time to change, he simply put off his handkerchiefs and aprons to engage in some lectures and more discussions. Apostle Paul was concurrently a professional tentmaker and a full-time missionary. Many professionals are sincerely seeking to engage in service and mission after working hours. It often results in frustration because of their hectic schedules and multiple obligations. Paul, the professional, adopted a creative solution; service and mission while working for his living.

Ellen White writes about the perfect balance between the missionary and the tentmaker: “As he worked with Aquila he kept in touch with the Great Teacher, losing no opportunity of witnessing for the Saviour, and of helping those who needed help … As he worked at his trade, the apostle had access to a class of people that he could not otherwise have reached” (The Acts of the Apostles, p.351). The ultimate purpose of Paul’s life, after his conversion, was to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. The execution of his professional activity was another opportunity of fulfilling his life purpose of witnessing. There was no divergence of finality between the two; to him, everything was about witnessing for Jesus.

Paul was what we would call today a self-supporting missionary. He agreed with the correctness of being rewarded for service rendered to the Church (1 Cor. 9:13,14). But for himself, he did not use “this right” (1 Cor. 9:11) or “these things” (1 Cor. 9:15), he preached “without charge” (1 Cor. 9:18).

Advantages of being self-supported
Are there real benefits of being a partner with aprons and handkerchiefs or is it only a by default option? Apostle Paul explains his choice in 1 Cor. 9:12b, “Nevertheless we have not used this right, but endure all things lest we hinder the gospel of Christ.” The verb egkopé, “to hinder,” literally means “to cut.” Paul was first concerned about the progress and advancement of the gospel of Christ. In his view, depending on external financial assistance may prevent him from moving forward and progressing faster in God’s mission. He could overcome major challenges by being a self-supporting missionary:

Prejudices. Some were accusing Paul of preaching for personal gain. In his defense, Paul declares, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel” (Acts 20:33). By working on his own, he gave no occasion for anyone to say that he preached the gospel in order to enrich himself. Ellen White comments on Paul’s position: “He might justly have claimed support from his Corinthian hearers; but this right he was willing to forgo, lest the unjust suspicion should injure his usefulness and success as a minister that he was preaching the gospel for gain” (The Acts of the Apostles, p.349).

Mission is a Costly Enterprise. From time to time Paul received assistance from the churches in Macedonia and the church in Thessalonica. Nevertheless, it would have been impossible for him to accomplish all these extended missionary trips by depending solely on the scarce resources of the Early Church. How motivated and creative are we to move forward in God’s work when external financial support is not readily available?

Ellen White commends Paul’s approach to ministry: “Paul set an example against the sentiment, then gaining influence in the church, that the gospel could be proclaimed successfully only by those who were wholly freed from the necessity of physical toil.” Being a self-supporting missionary does not mean reduced effectiveness. She highly recommends the “tentmaking” approach for the expansion of the work in the U.S. and the world mission. “Much of the work will have to be made self-supporting. There is more to do in a short time than can be done if men wait to be sent and paid for their work” (An Appeal to Seventh-day Adventists to fulfill their duty to the South, p.12). The emergence of a worldwide pool of partners with aprons and handkerchiefs can be the needed condition to bring the exponential growth that we are praying for.

Becoming a self-supported missionary
Paul allowed the mission to shape the course of his career and life. He moved whenever there was a mission opportunity not for a business opportunity. What was the driving force behind his self-sacrificing spirit?

Paul attributed the following reason to his actions: “for necessity is laid upon me” (1 Cor.9:16-18). It means “to be under compulsion, “to be pressed.” In other words, he couldn’t run away from his duty to preach though he was a professional tentmaker. Elsewhere, he talks about being “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to wise and to unwise.” The source of his compulsion was “the love of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:14). His new identity was undeserved; it was the result of God’s grace. Hence, he preached without ceasing “night and day,” while undertaking his professional activities.

To preach was to fulfill his duty, to share the gospel free of charge, denying himself any benefit, was to go beyond his obligation. Paul went beyond the call of duty. He considered this to be the greatest reward, the privilege, that he was not ready to forsake. This is a radical partnership.

Not many are called to leave their jobs and enroll in denominational employment. However, all are the products of His infinite love. In response, we support God’s final mission by returning tithe, giving systematic offerings, making donations and making ourselves available after working hours. Paul has raised partnership to even a higher level; being simultaneously a full-time professional and a full-time missionary. Is God calling you to do something more radical? Why not consider turning your business opportunities into witnessing platforms?