Studies in 1 Timothy – part 12

Elders Who Do Well 1 Timothy 5:17-18

In this passage Paul addresses the quality of an elder’s work. He speaks first of those elders who “rule well” and then those who “work hard at preaching and teaching.” He says they are “worthy of double honor.” According to Lidell & Scott’s Abridged Greek-English Lexicon, the word “honor” refers to that which is given; it could mean esteem or dignity or it could mean a valuation, compensation or price. The allusions in verse 18 indicate that some sort of compensation or financial remuneration is in view: “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages” (NASB). Honor in this context means, “that which is paid in token of worthor value.”

It might seem odd to emphasize this perspective in a publication like ESN which so emphasizes the plurality of elders and their real work in shepherding the flock of God. Yet the Bible is replete with examples of those are financially supported by the Lord’s people while serving the Lord. Paul himself was an example of this. He wrote, “Or do only Barnabas and I not have a right to refrain from working? Who at any time serves as a soldier at his own expense? … If we sowed spiritual things in you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? (1 Cor 6:6-7a, 11). It is true that he accepted no gifts from the Corinthians, but he did accept financial gifts from others, like the Philippians.

In Galatians 6:6, Paul instructs that, “The one who is taught the word is to share all good things with the one who teaches him.” So, the principle of financial support for those who forego secular employment and give their lives to serving the Lord is well established in Scripture.

Paul’s point here, under the inspiration of the Spirit, is that there may be some in the local church who are worthy of financial remuneration. Who are these? He is referring to elders, so they must be men qualified according to 1 Tim 3. They are men who rule well. This implies that there are varying levels of elder care that is exercised, and some do better at it than others. This may be due to giftedness, life situations or a variety of other issues. It is obvious to all who are committed to the local church that some elders function more effectively than others.

The obvious subjective nature of evaluating the elders’ work should not cause us to shy away from making this judgment. Rather, we should be very careful that our judgment of these matters is not clouded by personal agenda or sinful pride. Such attitudes would be included in Paul’s warnings a few verses later when he speaks of those elders who sin (vs. 20).

Now, the phrase “especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching” in verse 17 suggests the vital importance of those ministries, which we see are crucial to the equipping of believers for the effective work of the ministry (Eph 4:11-12).

This is one of the passages in Scripture where I wish more were written, but we are left to draw a few conclusions.

Remuneration Replacement

Notice, there is nothing here about hiring a job-seeker who then goes and fulfills a job description. This is not just a matter of the church providing a career choice for someone who needs to make money. In fact, the direct implication is that an elder is already doing a good job, and financial consideration is given, not as an incentive forhis work, but as aresult ofhis work. In other words, the default is that an elder is to serve in a “volunteer” role. Those who excel in their work as elders, particularly those who preach and teach well, may then be financially compensated. This is not an entitlement, for an elder is to serve “voluntarily, according to the will of  God; and not for sordid gain…” (1 Peter 5:2). There is no contractual arrangement in view. Of course, there are the realities of a man supporting his family, which the church should take into consideration when asking a man to leave his secular work. However, wise elders and deacons can work through these things under the Spirit’s guidance.

The idea is that an elder can be freed from the demands of secular employment on his energy and time so that the he can become more involved in shepherding the church.

Preserving Plurality

A financially supported elders is not in a position overthe other elders, for as Peter cautions,  “ … nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge” (1 Peter 5:3). Such an elder in view is simply one of the group of elders, equal in authority by virtue of being an elder, one who happens to be recognized as doing especially well and is honored with financial compensation. The congregation must be taught to notlook to the financially supported elder as “The Pastor” and thereby denigrate all those who have and exercise the biblical gift of pastor (see ESN 4:5 “What, Your Church Has No Pastor?”). The gift of pastoring is not limited to one man or even to the elders.

Humble Hearts

There are dangers which Paul addresses elsewhere and which we can readily recognize, but which humble hearts will guard against. The other elders can become jealous, feeling that they themselves are “just as gifted” or “work just as hard.” Verse 21 guards against partiality in viewing these things.

Spiritual Support

The other elders can abdicate their responsibility to the “paid staff.” Paul is not teaching that the supported elder should take over the teaching or pastoral ministries from other gifted men. In fact, elders will often have more to do, because they can be freed up to give more time to their areas of giftedness. To be sure, those gifted at teaching and preaching should continue to do so. One elder said, “Since we have had a fulltime elder, our work as elders has increased—and we are loving it!”

Engaged Elders

Clearly, this teaching can be and has been abused. Leadership in many churches has been abdicated to the “hired hand.” However, the danger of abuse should never lead to a blanket rejection of what is taught in Scripture. A strong, spiritually engaged elder team will be aware of these dangers and deal with them if and when they arise. They will guard against one elder taking too much responsibility.

Practical Perspectives

A godly elder who has a family and responsible job is a very busy man. Add to this extended family responsibilities, personal evangelism and use of his spiritual gift. Then on top of all this is his time-consuming task of being an elder. Often, the more he puts into the work of the local church, the more something else suffers, either his secular employment or his family or personal evangelism and ministry. Or the work of being an elder suffers because of his inability to keep up with all the needs of the believers and the ministry. No amount of spiritualizing can ignore this fact that so many elders experience. I know of two elders where each has a responsible secular job, and young family. They are both gifted speakers and their teaching ministry, from the pulpit, in small group ministry as well as individual one-on-teaching, not to mention personal evangelism—leaves not much time for shepherding the flock, decision making, planning ministry and administration. It is great when there is a large number of older men to draw on, with fewer family responsibilities or who are retired from secular work. But many churches do not have that luxury. Certainly training more elders and the congregation stepping up to take responsibility will help. Nevertheless, the reality is that many otherwise qualified men are not willing to sacrifice their families for the long hours that are required by a completely volunteer group of elders. Finding one elder who is doing well in their midst, and financially supporting him, will free up his energies and time from secular employment to serve in the local church in a greater capacity.

To some, this discussion may seem trivial. However, important truths are at stake. It is all too easy for a church to become like a secular organization with a CEO, rather than like a spiritual family where everyone exercises his or her spiritual gifts. Too many churches still have the clergy/laity division like a two-class system. That is not what this passage is teaching.

What we have in 1 Timothy 5:17-18 is simply the admonition to free up those who are gifted and working hard at shepherding the flock of God, so that they can give more of their time and energy to the work of the Lord. This is not in any way meant to limit the ministry of others, rather it should enhance the overall ministry of the body of Christ in its service to the Master and His people.