Dealing with Elders in the Church
1 Timothy 5:17-25
INTRODUCTION: Please turn in your Bible with me to the book of 1 Timothy 5:17-25. Our message series is called “Doing Church Together.” We have been working our way through 1 Timothy and learning some of the key things that we should be doing together as a church. Today’s passage deals with elders in the church. Elders are those men who have been given the responsibility of leading and teaching the church. Back in chapter 3 we looked at choosing qualified elders. Today’s verses consider how we should deal with elders in the church.
1 Timothy 5:17-25 – 17 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” 19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.
21 I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.
22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.
23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.
24 The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. 25 In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden. (NIV)
Church elders come in all shapes and sizes. They have different backgrounds and personalities. Some are very animated and outgoing in their manner. Others are more quiet and reserved. In a typical church you will find that you relate better to some elders than others. And that’s okay. It is good to have a variety of elders in the church, not only to bring different perspectives to leadership issues, but also so that different people will feel comfortable approaching different elders with their own issues or questions.
However, no matter what a particular elder’s personality or style, the Bible gives us some clear instructions on how we are to deal with elders in the church. These instructions from Paul to Timothy in chapter 5 apply to all elders in all churches at all times.
I. Honor your elders who lead the church well (verses 17-18)
So, how do you deal with elders in the church? First of all, Paul says to honor your elders who lead the church well. Look at verse 17 with me: “The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.”
When we looked at the qualifications of elders back in chapter three, we saw that an elder’s two main functions are to lead and teach the church. This is what distinguishes elders from deacons. Elders serve the church through leading and teaching. Deacons come alongside the elders to serve the church in more physical ways.
The leadership that elders exercise over the church is similar to the leadership that fathers should exercise over the home. Back in chapter 3 Paul described one of the qualifications of a church elder as this: “He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.” (1 Timothy 3:4) The word translated “manage” in 3:4 is the exact same word translated “direct the affairs” here in 5:17. Just as the father leads or manages the home, so elders lead and manage the affairs of the church. That is their function and responsibility.
An elder’s work is hard work. The word Paul uses for work in verse 17 means “exhausting, tiresome labor.” Preaching and teaching God’s word is hard work. If you don’t believe me, try it some time. It requires long hours of study and prayer and reading and discipline. You have to keep yourself spiritually, emotionally and physically fit. And that’s just the preparation for preaching. Then there is the act of preaching itself.
I once heard a pastor say that a preacher expends more energy in one hour of preaching than a regular worker does in eight hours of labor. He then added with a mischievous grin, “I don’t know if that is true or not, but it seems be a rumor worth spreading!” Well, I don’t know if it is true or not either. But I do know that preaching and teaching is hard work.
The position of elder is worthy of respect in and of itself, but in verse 17 Paul says that those elders who lead the church well are worthy of double honor, perhaps implying honor for both their position and their hard work on behalf of the church. So how do you honor your elders who lead the church well? Here are a number of suggestions.
1) Pray for them. It is a huge responsibility to lead a church, and your elders need your prayers. Pray for their spiritual walk, pray for their families, pray that God would give them wisdom in making decisions, pray that God would grant them sensitivity in dealing with difficult issues, pray that they would work together well as a team. Have you prayed for your elders lately?
2) Listen to them. Hebrews 13:17 says this: “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Nothing saps a leader’s energy and motivation more quickly than when the people they lead refuse to follow. God has called your elders to lead the church. So listen to them. Obey them, and submit to their authority. The burden of leadership is heavy enough without adding the extra burden of a flock that will not follow.
Now obviously, I am not talking about following a leader who is abusing his authority. God does not call us to blindly follow our leaders no matter what they do or say. In fact, in just a few moments we will see that the church must hold elders who sin accountable for their actions. But when our leaders are genuinely seeking God’s best for his church, we should listen to them and follow their lead.
3) Thank them. Eldering a church requires long hours of prayer, study, planning and counsel. It can be a difficult and draining job. But like any other demanding task, when someone takes the time to thank you for what you do, somehow it makes it all worth it. Have you thanked your elders lately? Be sure to thank your elders from time to time.
4) And finally, repay them. Galatians 6:6 says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.” One of the best ways you can repay your elders is simply by sharing what you have learned from them and how they have helped you in your spiritual growth. That is why elders do what they do in the first place, so as you share those things with them, you will be a great encouragement to them.
But this phrase “share all good things” speaks of something beyond just sharing what you have learned. It also means financial remuneration or support. Going back to 1 Timothy, we saw last week that financial aid was part of the meaning of this word “honor.” The word “honor” in verse 17 is the same word that is translated “give proper recognition to” back in 5:3 – “Honor or give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need.” And we saw in 5:3 that this honor included financial support for those who were in need.
Paul picks up on this additional meaning of financial support in verse 18: “For the Scripture says, ‘Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,’ and ‘The worker deserves his wages.’”
Paul quotes from both an Old Testament and a New Testament scripture here to make his point. The first scripture about the ox comes from Deuteronomy 25:4 – “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” The idea in Deuteronomy is that the ox was working and you were gaining benefit from his work. Therefore, you should not deny him a share in the grain.
Paul quotes the exact same scripture in 1 Corinthians 9 and then goes on to say, “Is it about oxen that God is concerned? Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he?” (1 Corinthians 9:9-10) He then goes on to say, “Don’t you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:13-14)
This same concept of “those who preach the gospel should make their living from the gospel” is reinforced by the second scripture Paul quotes in 1 Timothy 5:18. This scripture comes from the New Testament gospel of Luke, where Luke records these words of Jesus concerning those whom he sent forth to preach the gospel – “The worker deserves his wages.” (Luke 10:7)
You will notice that Paul distinguishes a particular type of elder in verse 17 when he writes: “especially those whose work is preaching and teaching.” All elders must be able to teach – that is one of the qualifications to be an elder – but for some elders their whole work centers on preaching and teaching. I believe Paul is distinguishing here between those elders who serve voluntarily in the church, and those who give their full time work to preaching and teaching in the church. And Paul says the church should provide financially for those who serve the church on a full-time basis.
Part of honoring those elders who pastor the church on a full-time basis is paying them well. Now that is awkward for me to say as your pastor, but I am just trying to teach what the Scriptures says here. Verse 17 says the elder who does his job well is worthy of double honor, and the context here includes financial pay.
Some churches have the idea that they need to keep the pastor poor, or that pastors do not need the same amount of money to live on as the rest of the congregation. But that wasn’t Jesus’ attitude. Jesus said, “The worker is worth his wages.” (Luke 10:7)
I know of one pastor who was applying for a position at a church, and when the church sent him some information about the congregation, they accidentally included the minutes of a meeting where they were talking about what they should pay the new pastor. One person in the church voiced his opinion that they should pay the pastor as little as possible so that they could keep him in his place.
Keep him in his place? This is the exact opposite of the attitude Paul commends here in 1 Timothy of honoring your elders who lead the church well. Being stingy with your pastor is not honoring him. Churches who take good care of their pastors reap great benefits that churches who never learn to take care of their pastors never experience.
II. Deal appropriately with accusations and sin (verses 19-21)
How do you deal with elders in the church? First of all, Paul says to honor your elders who lead the church well. Secondly, deal appropriately with accusations and sin. Look at verses 19-20: “Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.”
A. Elders should be protected from unfounded accusations.
Notice first of all that church elders should be protected from unfounded accusations. A leader is a natural target. Someone once said that when you become a leader, it’s as if you have just painted a big red and white bull’s-eye on yourself. False accusations against an elder or pastor are especially serious. Just one serious accusation against an elder or pastor can potentially bring the whole church down.
Most accusations in the ministry will either have to do with finances or members of the opposite sex. Wise pastors take precautionary steps to guard against false accusations in both of these areas. Some good suggestions for pastors in the area of finances are to avoid handling the money in the church, to keep detailed records, to set up a good system of check and balances, and to provide receipts whenever possible for financial transactions. Some good suggestions regarding male-female relations are to have a policy against visiting members of the opposite sex alone in their homes and against counseling members of the opposite sex alone in the church building.
An accusation against a pastor or elder should not even be entertained unless there is some basis for their accusation. Here Paul invokes the “two or three witness” principle from the Old Testament. We read in Deuteronomy 19:15: “One witness is not enough to convict a man accused of any crime or offense he may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
Jesus affirmed the same principle in matters of personal conflict. “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” (Matthew 28:15-16) You did not bring a matter of personal conflict to the church unless it could first be established by witnesses.
B. Elders should be held publicly accountable when they sin.
So elders must be protected from unfounded accusations that could damage their ministry. However, what about when an accusation can be verified by two or more witnesses? Then the accusation must be investigated carefully, and, if it proves to be true, the elder must be held publicly accountable for their sin. Verse 20 – “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” The “others” here could refer to the other people in the congregation, but I think it makes more sense that Paul is talking specifically about the other elders here. There is nothing pleasant about a public rebuke, and the other elders would especially take it to heart as a warning when a fellow elder was rebuked publicly for sin.
Obviously not all sin warrants a public rebuke. Everyone sins every day. Elders are no different. If you had to publicly rebuke me for every time I sinned, I can tell you right now we would use up a lot of service time every Sunday morning.
So where do you draw the line? For what kind of sin do you publicly rebuke an elder? It must be serious sin – serious, willful, continued sin – sin that breaches the trust of the congregation that the elder has been called to lead. Private conflicts should be handled privately; personal offenses should be dealt with on an individual level; but when an elder or pastor sins in such a way that betrays his calling to the congregation, that sin warrants a public rebuke, and sometimes, if serious enough, actual removal from office. Elders are accountable to the churches they serve. They hold a public office in trust for the church, and so they must be rebuked publicly when they sin.
C. The church should neither prejudge the elder nor allow favoritism.
When investigating a charge against an elder or pastor, the church should neither prejudge the elder nor allow favoritism. Look at verse 21: “I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism.” The word translated “partiality” in verse 21 is a word that means “to pre-judge” or “to form an opinion before the facts are known.” The word translated “favoritism” is a word that means to lean in one direction rather than another. When investigating a charge against an elder, the church should not pre-judge the elder’s guilt or innocence, nor should the church be swayed by favoritism to lean towards one party rather than another. The church must investigate carefully, fairly, and thoroughly.
Paul issues the church a solemn charge in this matter. “I charge you in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels.” The elect angels are those angels that did not join Satan in his rebellion against God. God is the ultimate judge, and the final judgment will take place when Jesus returns to earth along with the elect angels. All will be made clear then. In the meantime, the church should carefully investigate reasonable accusations against elders, seeking to discover the truth that God will eventually reveal at the end of time.
III. Do not be hasty in ordaining someone as an elder (verses 22-25)
How do you deal with elders in the church? First, honor your elders who lead the church well. Secondly, deal appropriately with accusations and sin. And finally, do no be hasty in ordaining someone as an elder to begin with. Look at verse 22: “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.”
The laying on of hands refers to the ordination of an elder to office. Paul says do not be hasty in this. We already saw back in chapter three on the qualifications for elders that an elder “must not be a recent convert.” (1 Timothy 3:6) So you wouldn’t be ordaining a new Christian as an elder anyways. But let’s say that a person has known Christ for some time now and has been growing in their faith. The church should still be cautious in ordaining a person as an elder in the church. They should look at the whole list of qualifications back in chapter three very carefully before ordaining a new elder.
An elder has a position of high responsibility, and, as we have seen, a position of public accountability in the church. When elders lay their hands on a new elder in ordination they are identifying with that elder as leaders of the church. If they do this hastily and, as a result, that elder brings shame or disrepute on the church, in a sense they have shared in that person’s sin. Paul says do not share in the sins of others, but rather keep yourself pure.
He goes on to give Timothy a personal instruction in verse 23: “Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses.” This is one of those verses in the Bible that remind us that God chose to give us a large portion of the New Testament through letters to churches and individuals. Here Paul is aware that Timothy has stomach problems and was prone to illness. So he urges him to use a little wine with his water. It seems Timothy was abstaining from wine completely, perhaps in an effort to keep himself pure and to fulfill the earlier qualification of “not being given to much wine.” Paul tells Timothy to keep things in balance here and to take a little wine for medicinal purposes.
Finally, Paul ends with a reminder that it often takes some time to see a person’s true colors. Look at verses 24-25: “The sins of some men are obvious, reaching the place of judgment ahead of them; the sins of others trail behind them. In the same way, good deeds are obvious, and even those that are not cannot be hidden.” With some people, their sin is obvious. It is very clear that they are not yet ready to be elders. But with other people, their sin is not as evident. It trails behind them but will eventually be brought into the open. This is yet another reason why the church should not be hasty in ordaining someone as elder.
Verse 25 gives us the flipside of verse 24. A person’s good deeds are often obvious, but even those that are not will eventually be brought into the light. Paul is saying give a person time. Allow sufficient time for their character and deeds to be known before you ordain them as an elder in the church.
CONCLUSION: I would like to close today’s message by just saying a few words about the elders in our own church. I remember when the church first called me as pastor, one of the questions they asked me was how did I feel about serving with a team of elders? I still remember my answer. I said I would look forward to and be extremely grateful to have a team of godly men who would stand together in sharing the leadership of the church. I can testify today that I have found that to be true of our elders here at ACB.
I may carry the title of pastor, but your elder team pastors this church together. The Bible says to honor your elders who serve well, and so this morning I would like to publicly thank our church elders for their service to this church. They have been faithful in leading this congregation, and I encourage you to honor and respect their leadership at all times.
© Ray Fowler
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