A biblical principle: Thou shalt not pay teachers well

February 2, 2012

One part of the newspaper business I never got the hang of is writing headlines. The trick is to get the reader’s attention. Did it work?

A little story out of the Fort Payne, Alabama newspaper has caused a national stir. One state lawmaker was asked about his support for raising legislators pay despite having expressed some different opinions before the election. Now, he seemingly wants to tie lawmaker’s pay to teacher’s compensation. Mind you, teachers in Alabama are among the nation’s highest paid. Shadrack McGill is the state rep in the middle of this firestorm. You just make stuff up this good.

“He needs to make enough that he can say no, in regards to temptation. … Teachers need to make the money that they need to make. There needs to be a balance there. If you double what you’re paying education, you know what’s going to happen? I’ve heard the comment many times, ‘Well, the quality of education’s going to go up.’ That’s never proven to happen, guys.

“It’s a Biblical principle. If you double a teacher’s pay scale, you’ll attract people who aren’t called to teach.

“To go in and raise someone’s child for eight hours a day, or many people’s children for eight hours a day, requires a calling. It better be a calling in your life. I know I wouldn’t want to do it, OK?

“And these teachers that are called to teach, regardless of the pay scale, they would teach. It’s just in them to do. It’s the ability that God give ’em. And there are also some teachers, it wouldn’t matter how much you would pay them, they would still perform to the same capacity.

This is a theologian’s banquet, and invite commentary for all avid readers of Holy Writ. Is it God’s will to stick it to teachers? I will give this my best shot, but one man can only do so much with such choice material.

That mean Old Testament God has a few things to say about working folks.”“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired worker shall not remain with you all night until the morning.” It’s a darned good thing those teachers work because God “called” them, otherwise deliberately holding back their money might be considered oppression. Of course, nobody gets paid every day like this little passage suggests, so it looks like we are safe, so far.

You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the LORD, and you be guilty of sin. (Deuteronomy 24:14-15 ESV)

Sure hope those illegal immigrants don’t hear about this one. It almost sounds like we should be fair to those undocumented workers. It makes you wonder, what part of “illegal” does the Almighty not understand? Teachers are not poor and we don’t pay anybody for work they do on a daily pay schedule. We are still in the clear on low teacher pay.

Now, when Jesus sent the disciples out to preach and teach (and that does sound somewhat like a “calling”) he covered this general topic, telling the disciples, “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages. Do not go from house to house. (Luke 10:7) So the laborer deserves his wages and Rep. McGill says to pay them something, so it looks like teachers might just be out of luck.

Paul drove everybody just about crazy in 1Tim 5:18 with that talk about why we should not muzzle the ox because the worker deserves his wages. He is talking about church leaders and quoting Deuteronomy 25:4, which, up until that time, everybody thought was talking about being good to the critters. You might expand that idea to include others. But who knows what to think?

If we were to adopt the above analysis as an absolute reading of God’s intentions for working people, something I never intended, the outcome would be some very serious injustice. I was probably having a bit too much fun, but my point is that it is a bit difficult to discern a clear biblical standard for teacher pay. In fact, when some people claim to be invoking a biblical standard, what they are actually saying is often a pious justification for their own wicked prejudices.

Let’s quickly look at some larger issues. God created  humans and placed them in a beautiful garden with perfect weather and luscious plants to do the priestly work of tending the land. Man rebelled against God. The land was cursed and labor became a frequent source of pain and humiliation. The employment arrangements in scripture involve individual laborers and land owners. Neither is to be seen as evil.

God worked seven days and took a day off. We are left to understand that God sanctified time for his worship. You might also argue that God blessed work and rest. The story is full of spiritual principles and readers should pay attention. Even when God cursed the ground in Gen 3. he also made provision for our salvation. He did not turn his back on mankind, despite our tendency toward the wrong. If God is so gracious and kind to human beings, should not we treat each other the same way?

Without picking a fight with Rep. McGill (it’s all in good fun, after all!) if being a teacher is a “calling,” then please explain how being a state legislator is not. Back in my childhood, when the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet had charge of my soul, we were taught that all work had dignity and every kind of employment was a divinely ordered vocation.

So, it you think that teachers should be paid less, that is possibly bad social policy. It may be rooted in some hurtful experience and the all-too-common human need for vengeance. That would be a sin. We are commanded to leave the getting even stuff to a higher and much wiser Power. If you think we should do something, especially an act that causes great harm to an entire class of persons, do not even think of justifying it on biblical grounds unless you can prove it.

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One Response to “A biblical principle: Thou shalt not pay teachers well”

  1. Basil Says:

    Thanks for the post. I thought the same; how is teaching more of a calling than being a public servant, I mean politician?


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