Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:17-18 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/9/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 5:17-18
This is one of those passages that as a pastor you think would be nice to have a guest preacher handle instead of yourself. The last few weeks we’ve been talking about honoring widows. Given that I’m not a widow nor will I ever be, there’s certainly no conflict of interest there. But today’s passage is about the honor the church is to show elders and especially pastors. And not only that, it even talks about pastoral compensation. So, certainly there is a very personal interest that I as a pastor have in this topic. That being said, it is my duty to preach to you the whole word of God, which includes this passage. God’s people need to know how God would have us to treat our elders and pastors. So, then, I will in humility walk us through these verses today as we consider the double honor that we are called to give elders and pastors.
So, let’s begin todays sermon by thinking briefly about the office of elder. This is a subject we covered a lot back in chapter 3 when we saw the qualifications for bishops or overseers. I explained there how the office of bishop or overseer is, according to the Bible, the same office as the office of elder. They are two different labels to describe the same thing. Well, chapter 3 focused on the qualifications of that office. Today’s passage speaks a little bit about what work that office entails, and also the way church members ought to relate to those who hold such office.
And so, the first thing we see about this office of elder is that is a position of authority and governance. Verse 17 speaks of elders as those who “rule”. The word for “rule” is about being set as a head or authority over others. Elders are the ones in the church endowed with that authority to govern and make decisions in the church. Scripture shows us that this includes decisions of various sorts, though it often includes judicial matters within the church. What we also see in the Bible is that the authority is collective. In the Bible, time and again you see people going to the elders (plural), not to an elder (singular). Elders are not kings. They are not individually governors. They operate collectively. Like in Acts 15 when they gather to decide a big doctrinal issue, even the apostles there join with the elders to make a decision as a group and then collectively submit to that decision. This is somewhat similar to how many organizations today work who have boards of directors. For example, I serve on the board for our kid’s Christian school. Individually as a member of that board I have no authority. It is only as the board comes together and make decisions as a group that it provides governance to the school. That is similar to how our authority as elders work; we rule collectively. I think there is a great wisdom there to not have popes or human kings in the church. There is one head and king of the church with complete authority and power; that’s Jesus, and that’s the way it should be!
So that is one thing we learn about the office of elder in this passage. The other main thing we learn about the nature of this office is that there are some elders who particularly labor in the word and doctrine. That’s the last part of verse 17.
Presbyterians have had some variation in the terminology that we use to describe what we see here in verse 17. Some like to use the language of a teaching elder versus a ruling elder. The problem with that language is that teaching elders still rule, and ruling elders also still teach. But, the labels aren’t that bad as they do help to describe what those different kinds of elders focus on. Some focus more on the ruling, some focus more on the teaching. Other Presbyterians like to use the labels of elder versus pastor or minister. That’s the more common language that is used in the OPC. I am a pastor or minister, as it is my main labor to preach and teach the Word. That would fit me in the role described there at the end of verse 17. In contrast, Jeff and Marlin in our church would be called elders whose role in the church is especially that of rule, as the first part of verse 17 describes. Of course, the issue with this terminology might make it sound like a pastor or minister is not also an elder, which clearly verse 17 would say that he is. What’s the point? The point is that whatever terminology is used, that you understand that concept. Among the elders, there are some who particularly labor in preaching and teaching.
Let me further note on this idea, that the word “labor” is helpful. This is their job, at least to some degree. Remember last week we talked about the sin of idleness. We saw Paul’s concern that younger widows not fall into idleness but need to be about a daily calling or vocation. They needed to be working and productive. Well, verse 17 is talking about certain elders whose job, their calling or vocation, is to be proclaiming God’s word and teaching sound doctrine. They are gospel workers, laboring for the church in this capacity. This of course is what we see in churches today. Jeff and Marlin serve as elders and do many things, but their role as elder is not their primary vocation. Whereas, for myself and other pastors, such labor is typically our primary vocation or calling. So, we see this is a biblical concept how we have elders of these two different sorts.
So then, let’s turn now to our second point and consider how these elders are to be counted worthy of double honor. This notion here of counting them worthy has to do with how we think of these elders. It’s saying that we should think it fitting to honor them in this way. It should be our frame of mind toward them. We should think of such elders in such an honorable way. It should seem quite appropriate to us to do so, and inappropriate to not.
Specifically, then, it says that we are to give them double honor. The question that immediately comes up is what is meant by “double”. That is a bit of an interpretive challenge. There are many views, and I’ll mention some of the major views and then I’ll mention which I think is the best interpretation. One interpretation is that the double honor refers to both showing elders submission and remuneration. A second view is that “double honor” refers to paying them generously. A third view is that we are to honor them both as brothers and as elders. A fourth view is that we are given them twice the honor that we give the widows, usually in the sense of financial support. A fifth view is that we show them honor for both their age and their office. Each of those views has some merit, but the view I think is best is a sixth view. Notice that it says these we are to doubly honor those who “rule well”. I think that clues us in based on context to what it has in mind. Elders should be honored in general because of their office; because they are elders. But those who particularly do a commendable noteworthy job are to be honored as well for that regard. And so, all elders are to be honored, but those who “rule well” are to be doubly honored. Think about it this way. We know we are to honor our father and mother. But sometimes we might have a parent that has just done an awful job as a parent. Maybe they were verbally of physically abusive growing up. Maybe they were harsh in their discipline. Maybe there is little or nothing good you could say about their parenting. In that case, I would say that the fifth commandment still has to apply. There has to be a way where you still honor that bad parent simply because they are your parent. You aren’t honoring them for the bad they have done. You don’t pretend they did a good job parenting if they didn’t. But you are honoring them for the fact that they are you parent. In other words, you honor them for their office, not for their performance in that office. Likewise, we can think about how an elder can be honored both for their office and also separately for their performance in that office. And so, it’s hard to be dogmatic that this is what the reference to double honor has in mind here, but certainly that is a point that is made in this passage. This passage isn’t talking about honoring elders in general. It is talking about double honoring elders who have done their job well.
To clarify, unlike with parents, there is a way in which an elder who is not doing his job properly could be disciplined and maybe even removed from office. We’ll go into more in a future sermon, but I point to verses 19-20 that would address what to do with an elder who is not ruling well but is actually engaging in some pattern of sin. Yes, they must be given due process and justice, but if they are ultimately found guilty they must be censured and possibly removed from that office.
That being said, today’s verses don’t deal with the elder who is doing a bad job. They don’t even deal with elders who is just doing an “okay” job. They deal with an elder who is doing his job well. It says we should show him double honor. Let us doubly honor such elders who have done their job well! What then should that look like? What does it mean to give such abundance of honor? Let me begin by saying that some have wanted to focus the honor here in terms of financial support. Clearly the next verse, verse 18, will address compensating elders. I’ll deal with that in the third point. I do think that is one aspect of honor when the situation warrants such compensation. But I don’t think we should make the “double honor” of verse 17 to only be about financial compensation. I think that would be inappropriately limiting a concept of honor which instead here seems to be giving us a bigger picture of honor when it calls us to show double honor.
So then, let’s think about how to honor an elder like this. Let’s use the two kinds of honor I suggested as a way to outline how we might show someone honor. We can honor such an elder both for their office and their good performance in that office. So, let’s think first of the way we show honor to him for the fact of their office. What are some ways we honor him for his office? Well, for starters, we owe submission in the Lord to the elders, 1 Peter 5:5. Similarly, in Hebrews 13:17, we see that the way we should follow and support their leadership should be done in such a way as to give the elders joy not grief in their service. And so, we look to show respect and reverence and deference to them. We shouldn’t go around bad mouthing their leadership. We shouldn’t be harsh or arrogant toward them. If we find ourselves disagreeing with them on something, we should make our case in a form of humble appeal to them. We ultimately will need to be willing to accept their decision even when their decisions are not what we would have chosen. As another example, we can think of titles. Though there can be dangers associated with titles, especially if people are craving praise from men, the use of titles are a tangible way we try to put such honor into practice. So then, let us look to honor such elders for the office of authority that they hold.
A second way we can honor such elders is in light of their job well done. There are many ways we can show such honor. We could encourage them by telling them the fruit that has come from their ministry. We could express thanksgiving and gratitude to them for their labors. We could find some token of appreciation to give them, even a card or email could go a long ways to honor them.
So, these are some different aspects of how we can doubly honor our elders and pastors. Let’s turn now to consider that compensation aspect of honor that I mentioned before. Clearly in verse 18 that’s where the focus of this honor comes to. It basically says we need to pay such elders appropriately and makes a biblical argument for doing so. Now before I get into the details, let me offer a clarification. I don’t believe this means that we have an obligation to financially compensate every single elder in any and every circumstance. As we mentioned before, many elders have regular full time jobs or are comfortably retired and their work as elder is not their regular vocation. Such elders use their gifts in a capacity similar to every member in the church. In other words, every Christian has spiritual gifts and they should use them in the context of their fellowship and the church’s ministry. Understandably, we don’t put every Christian on the payroll. But for those elders or pastors who we’ve called, hired, to labor and serve here as their job, then of course we need to pay them. That’s what verse 17 and 18 seems to highlight. It says we doubly honor all elders who rule well, but we especially do so for those who are laboring in the word and doctrine; in other words, our pastors who make their living via their gospel labors.
Hopefully this should be an obvious and practical point. Another point of clarification here is that greed should not be the motivation for such elders in their being compensated. That was a point that Paul already made in chapter 3, verse 3, when talking about elder qualifications. Elders must not serve out of greed or love of money. And so, this passage isn’t given for elders and pastors to foster greed. Yet, this passage does come to the members of the church to remind them that they do have a biblical obligation to compensate their pastors properly.
Paul goes on to make the case by two references to Scripture. First, he quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain.” Here you have an Old Testament civil law that provided a protection to a beast while it was working. You shouldn’t keep the ox from being able to eat some of the fruit of its labors while it is working. Paul uses this same quote in 1 Corinthian 9 to make the same point. But there he expands to say that God was surely concerned with more than just oxen. Paul’s interpretation is to see that there is a principle being illustrated with the oxen that would apply to humans, even pastors. He says that if you have a pastor laboring for the church, he should be paid by the church. There he uses similar examples to say that when someone goes to war, he doesn’t go on his own expense. Or when someone plants a vineyard, he gets to eat of its fruit. And so, this quote from Deuteronomy is one biblical argument that he makes.
The second quote is actually found in the gospel of Luke, Luke 10:7. It’s Jesus’ own words when he sends out the seventy on a missions trip to proclaim the coming of the kingdom. There Jesus tells the seventy to basically receive the support and hospitality of the people where you are ministering, because the laborer is worthy of his wages. This is an interesting quote, because it suggests the gospel of Luke was already written down at this time. Given that Luke accompanied Paul on many of his journeys, Paul might have been one of the first to receive the Gospel of Luke. At any rate, the quote of Jesus drives home the point that we are talking about compensation for work performed. It uses the word “wage”. As Romans 4:4 says, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.” In other words, when we compensate pastors it is not a gift that we are giving them. It is their wage; their compensation. It is what is owed to them for their work, just as much as any of us in our earthly professions expect our bosses to pay us what was agreed upon as our wage. That’s how Paul says we need to be thinking about this. To doubly honor such pastors is to rightly compensate them for their labors.
Well, in summing all of this up, I’d like to point again to the gospel. I’d like to do that by cross referencing again that passage in Luke when Jesus sends out the seventy. Jesus sent out those seventy and said they were gospel laborers and therefore should receive compensation for their labors. Think about the result of those seventy laborers. They come back after their mission trip really excited. They were really excited about all the great ministry they accomplished. Think about that. Those seventy were able to do great exciting things because God’s people honored them and their labors by giving them wages for their work. The people’s partnership with these preachers bore great fruit.
And what was that fruit? Well, when the seventy came back their excitement was how God used them in spiritual warfare against Satan. Even the demons were subject to them in Christ’s name! Though Jesus rejoiced with them in that, he then pointed the seventy to something more wonderful. Jesus said to them in Luke 10:20, “Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rather rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”
Isn’t that what this is all about? It’s about the joy of our names being written in the book of life. It’s about the gospel of salvation connected with that. That’s true for these seventy, and it’s true for the people that they brought to a saving faith in Christ and the gospel. Think about it. The double honor we show elders is all connected with the bigger picture. God is using such elders and pastors to bring the gospel of salvation to the world around us. This is so that people whose names were already written in the book of life would in due time come to a saving faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ and become saved!
May you then personally be refreshed again today in that gospel. If you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior, then know that your name is written in the Book of Life. In that even, be delighted to doubly honor the elders and the noble calling to which they’ve been called. Be delighted to do so, because you know that such elders are especially involved in bringing the gospel to the elect to save sinners with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As we’ve benefited from such ministry, may we be about the support of that continued ministry. And realize how as God’s people God continues to use such elders and pastors for our spiritual good in the life of his church. Let us delight to doubly honor such, all to the glory of God and the praise of his grace. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.