The Church and Its Elders

The instruction to Timothy about paying, disciplining and appointing elders has surprising application to our lives today.

Anson Kroeker on January 5, 2020
The Church and Its Elders
January 5, 2020

The Church and Its Elders

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Passage: 1 Timothy 5:17-25
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We’ve just come out of the Christmas season, and among the gifts that some of you received was probably an owners manual. Yes, the owners manual, that very important document that tells us how and how not to use that gadget.

I’ve observed that there’s two basic types of people in this world. Those who don’t read the owner’s manual, and those who don’t even notice that the owner’s manual exists.

Maybe there’s a small group of people who actually flip through the “quick start” guide. But how many people actually read all the way through?

And yet, I don’t know about you, but I’ve certainly had the experience when I’ve been using the product for a few months and then something goes wrong, and I go hunting for the owner’s manual, and I realize I threw it out, and I regret that decision. Because it actually was important and I actually did need it, even though I may not have thought so when I first took it out of the box.

As we’ve worked through Paul’s first letter to Timothy, we’ve been hearing a lot about elders. Back in October and November, we learned that Jesus designed His church to be led by a team of spiritual leaders who are called elders or pastors or shepherds or overseers.

And at our congregational meeting in November we had a really good discussion about this topic and what it might look like for us as a church to move in the direction of more closely aligning our leadership structure with this pattern that we see in Scripture.

And all of this is what makes our passage today so very important. Because our passage is kind of like excerpt from an owner’s manual for elders. In it, we hear instructions on how elders are to be paid, disciplined, and appointed.

And let’s be honest: this might not feel very relevant to you this morning. Left on your own, you might just skim through this passage just like you’d skim through any other owner’s manual. Maybe someday, if it felt like it mattered, you’d study this more carefully, but not today.

And if you’re inclined to feel that way today, I want to remind us all that this matter of elders and the church is far more important than any gadget you unboxed this Christmas. Elders or pastors or overseers are the ones responsible for keeping watch over your soul, as Hebrews 13:17 says.

So our discussion this morning is about you and your soul. Even more than this, it’s about the church. How many churches have split or been completely destroyed because they have not followed the directions in this passage?

And as we go through this passage we’ll discover that it has a lot to say to us about our money and words and attitudes. And so for these reasons and more, I invite you to lean in as we hear what God is saying to us in His word today.

1. Paying Elders

The first section in our passage, verses 17-18, speak about paying elders, or at least some of them. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Timothy 5:17).

And on the surface of it, this passage is making a very simple statement: some of the elders, especially those who work hard in preaching and teaching, should be paid by the church.

The word “honour” was used in the sense of finances back in verse 3: “Honor widows who are truly widows” (1 Timothy 5:3). We saw last week that this implied financial support.

“Double honour” could be referring to a generous payment being given to these hard-working elders, or it could be referring the two different kinds of honour: first, they should be honoured in terms of being respected, and second, they should be honoured in the sense of being paid a fair wage.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, I want us to stop and notice three other important truths that are taught in verse 17. And then we’ll return to this main idea of elders being paid.

Elders Rule

First, we should notice that this passage speaks about elders “ruling.” “Let the elders who rule well…” This word for “rule” is translated as “direct the affairs of the church” by the NIV, and that might be a helpful way of thinking about it. It actually comes from the exact same word for “manage,” back in chapter 3: “He must manage his own household well” (1 Timothy 3:4).

That word, being used again here in this context, reminds us that the role of elders in the church is comparable to that of fathers in the home. And we should know that in the first century, fathers had much more authority in their homes than they often have today.

So this once again reminds us that elders and pastors are not dictators, but they are certainly more than just chaplains. They are supposed to lead. And so, even though this might make modern people uncomfortable, there is a good reason why the major literal translations rendered this word as “rule.” That’s what elders do.

Elders Rule by Preaching and Teaching

The second truth we should recognize is that a main way the elders rule is by preaching and teaching. “Let the elders who rule well… especially those who labour in preaching and teaching.” One major way that the elders lead or oversee the church is by preaching and teaching.

This is important for us to recognize because in many churches in North America, preaching and teaching has been totally divorced from the actual leadership of the church. A pastor might get up and give a nice devotional, but the actual leadership is happening in other places and in other ways, if it’s happening at all.

What this verse points us to is the idea that the elders lead through preaching and teaching. That means that it’s the word of God that is leading the church. And it means that the elders should preach and teach it in a deliberate, careful way, seeking God’s wisdom on what parts of His word He would have them teach on in order to lead the church where God wants them to go.

So, that’s the second truth we see in this verse. The elders lead through preaching and teaching.

Preaching and Teaching is Hard Work

The third truth we see is that preaching and teaching is hard work. Notice what it says: “especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.”

That word “labour” just means good old fashioned hard work. “Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands…” (Ephesians 4:28).

There’s that old joke about pastors only working one hour a week, and it’s not really funny to me anymore. Preaching and teaching is hard work. As I talk with guys who are just beginning to preach, that’s often one of the biggest surprises they describe. “I didn’t think it was going to be this much work.”

Now please hear me today: I’m not saying this so that you’ll pat me on the back. This church is full of people who work really hard every week, who are going to get up tomorrow and go work hard. This verse is simply saying that elders, and especially preachers, are in the same boat. We’re working hard, like the rest of you.

A Fair Wage

And that brings us back to the main point of this verse: elders who rule well, especially those who labour in preaching and teaching, deserve to be compensated fairly. They deserve to be paid for their work.

Paul gives this instruction and then he backs it up with two quotations from other Scriptures. Look at verse 18: “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18).

That first quotation comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. As an ox did its work of treading the grain, it would naturally get hungry and want to eat some of that grain. And this verse was most likely directed to the guy who is borrowing his neighbour’s ox.1 If he was stingy, he’d put a muzzle on that ox so that he got to keep all of the grain to himself. His neighbour would have to feed his hungry ox later.

But God commanded his people to not do that. An ox, and the ox’s owner, deserved to enjoy the fruits of its labour as it worked.

This same principle is laid down in a second quotation from Scripture, “The laborer deserves his wages.” What’s really interesting is that this quote comes from Jesus in Luke 10:7, when he was sending out the 72, and he was encouraging them to accept provisions from those they ministered to.

This is so important because it shows us that Luke’s Gospel had already been written and was already regarded as authoritative Scripture by the time Paul wrote this letter to Timothy. And Paul appeals to these words of Jesus to back up his point: those who work in the service of the church, especially in preaching and teaching, deserve to be paid by the church. Luke he said in 1 Corinthians 9, “…the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14).

And so this all really lays the foundation for a church to have paid pastoral staff. It tells us that it’s a really good idea for a church to pay some of their elders, or at least just one of them, so that he can give himself more fully to the work of leading the church, especially through preaching and teaching.

And that’s what we do here at EBC. I’m just an elder, and yet I am graciously compensated by the church so that I can give myself fully to the work of shepherding and do most of the preaching.

I want to say at this point that I am so grateful for the way that this church has taken care of me and my family since we came here. I’ve heard horror stories where pastors are expected to raise their family on next to nothing, and in that kind of a church, this would be a very awkward passage to preach on. And I so I praise God that this is not the case this morning. You understand this passage and you are obeying this passage.

And yet, I do want to go a little but further before we move on to verse 19. I want us to think a bit deeper about how this verse applies to each one of us.

And here’s where I’m going: in the eight years that I’ve been a pastor, I’ve met people who think of the church as kind of like a public library. Maybe my perspective is coloured by my experience with university students in Regina, many of whom didn’t think this issue though very carefully. They just assumed that the money came from somewhere and they could just go whenever they wanted to and benefit from the ministry and then move on.

But that’s not the way the church works. We’re not funded by the government. Everything we have comes from our people. The lights are on in here right now because someone gave money so that we could pay our power bill.

So I don’t know about you. I have no access to the financial records here and so I have no idea who gives and who gives how much. All I know is that it’s important for us to really understand this passage before we move past it.

And verse 18 says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” That means that if you are benefitting from the ministry of this church, it is right for you to contribute to the ministry of this church.

So the question this passage asks of you this morning is not just, “Is my pastor getting paid?” The question is, “If I am benefitting from the ministry of this church, and if I am able to contribute financially, than am I obeying the Lord by doing my part?”

Because none of us want to be like that person borrowing their neighbour’s ox, and using its strength, but putting a muzzle on to make sure that we don’t lose any of our precious grain.

Now as I say this, I know that some of you are not able to give very much at all. It’s not like you’re muzzling the ox, it’s just that there’s not much grain for him to eat. And you should never feel guilty about that. You should never feel like you can’t come here if you’re not able to give. That’s not the case at all.

All this means is that we should each do what we can. And I know that so many of you do that. You give as the Lord enables you. I praise God for you, and I hope you’re encouraged by this passage this morning. You are a crucial part of our ministry as a church. The Lord loves a cheerful giver, and He is pleased with you.

2. Disciplining Elders

Now believe it or not, all of that is just our first point out of three this morning. But we intentionally spent some more time with it. We’re over half-way through the message and we’ll move somewhat quicker through these last two points.

The second matter our passage speaks about is the discipline of elders. This is a question that came up back in November at our congregational meeting. 1 Timothy 3 tells us about the character requirements of elders. But what if an elder stops fulfilling those qualifications? What are the checks and balances in place to make sure that the elders continue to be men of character?

And on the other hand, what are the checks and balances in place to protect the elders from gossip and accusation and slander and rumours and grumbling? Because that’s a huge problem, too.

Many churches experience turmoil because a pastor or elder sinned and it wasn’t dealt with properly. And many churches experience turmoil because its members sinned through grumbling and gossip and that was never dealt with.

And the solution to both of these dangers is found in verses 19-21, which began by saying, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19).

Timothy was not to admit, accept, receive, or entertain an accusation or charge against an elder unless it comes on the evidence of two or three witnesses. And what Paul is picking up on here is a substantial biblical pattern that God’s people should never entertain an accusation against anybody unless it comes from two or three witnesses. Jesus taught this in Matthew chapter 18:

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15–17).

That’s the process. And we often think this process is so harsh and confrontational, but in reality this is so generous and kind. It protects people from unfair accusation. And when someone has legitimately done something wrong, it gives them opportunity to repent before before anything goes public.

And in 1 Timothy 5, Paul is simply saying that elders should not be treated any less than this. No charge should be admitted against them unless it comes from multiple witnesses.

And even though this passage was addressed to Timothy, it’s one which many of us may get the chance to apply sometime. Because it’s not far-fetched to imagine that someday someone could come to you and say, “Did you hear what the pastor or one of the elders did or said? Isn’t that terrible?”

That is a “charge.” It’s an accusation. Saying that someone is wrong as if you’re the judge, jury and executioner. And if you ever hear that kind of thing from someone else, verse 18 tells you what to do with it. Don’t even receive it.

If Timothy or the other leaders were not to admit a charge against an elder without witnesses, you certainly aren’t either. Your complaints desk is closed for business.

Instead, you say, “You need to go talk directly to that person about this. And if they don’t listen to you, then you can come ask me to be one of your two or three witnesses as we go talk to them again. But otherwise, this conversation should not be happening right now.”

It can be scary actually going and talking to our brother when they’ve sinned against us, or to one of our leaders when we think they’ve done or said something wrong, but this is always the best way. Either they are wrong or you are mistaken, but either way a conversation between the two of you is the place to start.

But What About…?

But what about the cases where people do follow these steps, and the elder has clearly sinned, and he refuses to listen and repent even after being spoken two by the person and by the two or three witnesses?

That’s what verse 20 tells us. “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20).

If an elder is sinning and refuses to repent even after repeated confrontation, then he needs to be rebuked publicly in front of the church, just like Jesus said. And why? So that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Timothy 5:20b).

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? Isn’t fear a bad thing? Not always. A healthy fear of sinning against God is a very good thing. We should have a healthy gear of ever dishonouring God’s name.

And so when a sinning elder is publicly rebuked, that should cause everyone else to say “Yikes, I never want to do that. I never want that to happen to me. Please help me to follow you faithfully, Lord.” Paul knew that this kind of fear is very healthy for the other elders and for the others in the church.

Paul also knew that following these guidelines that he’s giving Timothy will be hard. He knew that Timothy would be tempted to soften these rules with certain individuals. Maybe he’d make good friends with one of the elders and ignore the fact that they have a sinful habit.

Or maybe a powerful person in the congregation could bring complaints against an elder and Timothy would be tempted to admit the charge even without witnesses because it’s coming from that person and they wouldn’t lie.

And so verse 21 concludes this second section with these words: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Timothy 5:21).

In the strongest possible terms—standing in the presence of the Father and son and holy angels—Timothy is charged to show no partiality or favouritism. No not pre-judge, deciding beforehand who is right and who is wrong. But rather, to follow these instructions without wavering.

3. Appointing Elders

Finally, verses 22-25 bring up the final section of this passage, and they speak to Timothy about practical wisdom on the matter of selecting and appointing elders.

And it’s not hard to see how this is connected with the previous section. An elder sinning is a big deal. It impacts the whole church in a way that other sin doesn’t. You don’t want to have to rebuke an elder in front of everybody else. And so, Timothy is encouraged to be careful in who he appoints to be elders. That’s what verse 22 is telling us.

“Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (1 Timothy 5:22). Laying on of hands is what you’d do when you ordained or appointed an elder to his office. And Timothy is encouraged to be really careful about whom he appoints. He’s told to be slow and patient. Don’t rush into this.

And verses 24 and 25 are saying the same thing. Time and truth march hand in hand. Sin in someone’s life will reveal itself eventually. So will their good works, like verse 25 says. So go slow. Really get to know people. Give them time for their reputations to develop. Let them prove themselves.

Because if Timothy doesn’t do this, if he rushes in and appoints an elder who has a big sin problem in his life, he’ll have some responsibility there. He’ll basically be tasking part in their sin, like verse 22 says. And so Paul reminds Timothy to keep himself pure by being very careful about who he appoints as elders in the church.

And that’s where verse 23 comes in. It tells us that Timothy was being very careful about his own purity. He knew that, for example, an elder had to avoid drunkenness (1 Timothy 3:3). And he had taken that so seriously that he had avoided drinking alcohol altogether. And in that culture, this would have been even stranger than in ours. But that’s how committed he was to being pure above reproach.

And so verse 23 is like Paul saying, “By the way, Timothy, as you work so hard to keep yourself pure, don’t overdo it. It’s ok to have a bit of wine to help with your stomach problems.”

By the way, do you notice that Timothy was having frequent ailments? And Paul did not heal him? This little verse shows us that God doesn’t heal everybody, and that it’s right and proper for us to use human medicine when we’re having health problems.

But the main idea is that Timothy was working so hard to keep himself pure, and he would be so foolish if he didn’t apply the same carefulness as he appointed others to the office of elder.


And so, that is our passage this morning. It tells us that we should be generous in paying elders, fair in how we discipline elders, and careful in how we appoint elders.

And as we’ve moved through this passage, we’ve seen how it applies to our lives in surprising ways. Because we are the church, each of us has a role in generous giving. Each of us has a role in helping to protect our leaders from grumbling and slander, and even their own sin. And each of us can learn from Timothy’s example of careful purity.

As we end, let’s remember what this is all about. It’s not just about your soul being protected as godly elders keep watch over it. It’s not just about our church being healthy into the years ahead, and avoiding turmoil and splits.

It’s ultimately about Jesus. Like we celebrated earlier around the table, He died for His church. We were bought at the price of blood. And we are His representatives here on earth. So our passage today really matters. Obeying this really matters. And we’re going to end by praying, in a song, for God’s help to follow Him faithfully together.

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