Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:22-24 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/30/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 5:22-24
“Do Not Lay Hands Hastily”
This is our third week covering this section of 1 Timothy dealing with elders. The first week we talked about the honor the church should show to elders who rule well. The second week we talked about what to do when those elders don’t serve well. We talked about the church discipline and censure that would be needed for those elders who are persisting in some sin. So, this week then we look one more time on these verses. And as we focus on verses 22-24 we get to think of how to be proactive in terms of these elders matters. With proper patience and discernment before making someone an elder, we can hopefully end up with elders that rule well and not ones that would ever need to undergo church discipline. So, that is today’s topic. We’ll think about this call here to not ordain anyone hastily. We’ll see that we instead need to spend the proper time observing and testing a brother first to make sure they are well suited for the office.
Let’s begin then in the first part of verse 22 when it talks of the laying on of hands. This is talking about the process of ordaining someone as an elder. It’s the ritual where the existing church elders lay their hands on the person to become an elder and with prayer set apart the person to serve in that office of elder. It’s the laying on of hands by the other elders that effectively commissions that brother with the authority and duties of this office that they are assuming. I didn’t want to just assume we all knew that this was what was being referred to. I wanted to make sure we all know we are talking about the ordination of elders. Clearly, that’s in the context. This section is talking about elders.
Furthermore, this is what we see elsewhere too; that ordination to office is done via the laying on of hands. We see this, for example, in Acts 6:6. That’s when some of the widows in the church were being neglected in the daily bread distribution. There were seven selected to become officers to oversee this diaconal ministry. And so, in Acts 6:6 the apostles pray and lay hands on these seven men, setting them apart for that ministry. Again, we see this in Acts 13:3 with Paul and Barnabas. Before they are sent out as missionaries the church receives a message from the Holy Spirit to set them apart for their mission work. They immediately respond first by fasting, then by laying on their hands upon them with prayer. There we see the Biblical notion that the laying on of hands is a setting apart. Think consecration. They are being set apart or consecrated for some holy work on behalf of the Lord.
There are also two other references in the pastoral epistles to the practice of laying on hands (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). These other references give us a further idea of the significance of this ceremony of the laying on of hands. In both verses, Paul speaks of Timothy’s ordination by the laying on of hands and he connects that with how God had gifted Timothy for ministry. God’s gifting is being symbolized by the laying on of hands. So, the laying on of hands not only shows that the person is being set apart for some holy ministry. It also symbolizes a great truth. The gifts required to be an officer in the church come from God. God imparts the gifts for ministry. And so that’s where the source of their strength and ability must come from. Elders, pastors, deacons, must not look to themselves for their ability to succeed. They must remember what was shown in their ordination. God must gift them to serve.
So then, that’s a little about the idea of ordination via the laying on of hands. Let’s turn now to the main point of today’s verses. We should not ordain people hastily, verse 22. The word for hastily is basically the general word typically translated as “quickly.” The idea is that when it comes to ordaining someone to the ministry, speed is not a virtue. We should be slow in the process for ordaining someone to the ministry. As a pastor, I can confirm that the OPC at least procedurally has this down! There is nothing, at least procedurally, quick about the OPC’s process for ordaining pastors. First a pastoral candidate has to come under the care of presbytery after recommendation by their elders. Then they go to seminary to learn and also undergo some internship for experience. Eventually, they’ll need to be tested and then licensed by the presbytery. After that, they can then pursue trying to find a congregation that would call them to be their pastor. Then they have to go back to presbytery and undergo ordination exams. Finally, if after all that is successful, they’ll finally be ordained via the laying on of hands. Nothing quick about the process.
The process for ordaining ruling elders and deacons is not quite as long in the OPC, but it is still an intentionally drawn out process. First, they need to receive a nomination from someone in the congregation. If the session concurs, then they’d begin an in-depth time of training for that brother for that office. Eventually, after the training, the session would examine that brother in detail. If at that point, the session believes he is qualified, then they’ll put him before the congregation for their vote to consider calling him to serve in that office. Only after all that, would the session ordain him with the laying on of hands.
These procedures in the OPC are informed by passages such as this one that speak to how we need to be very slow and deliberate when ordaining men to office. And yet even though the OPC may have in its constitution these slow processes, even then we still have to be careful. It’s not enough to just work through the procedures. We need to at every step be prudent and discerning so that we don’t just go through the motions. Our slowness is so that only qualified men end up being ordained.
Of course, if we stop and think about it, we can see why we might be tempted to not have the patience described here. There are all kinds of reasons why we might be tempted to speed up the process as quickly as possible to get someone ordained in the church. It may be for pragmatic reasons, that there is great or urgent need for the type of role that the brother would be serving, so we push through the procedures as quickly as possible to get someone ordained; because there was a need. But the fact that there is a need doesn’t mean we can loosen the standards for office. Another temptation to hastily ordain might be if someone is clearly gifted and qualified in some of the areas needed, but clearly not qualified in another area. The temptation is to overlook that area which would disqualify him because he shines so much in the other areas. But we must not be wiser than God. Another temptation to hastily ordain someone who is not yet ready for office is because the person is popular or likeable in the congregation. But we have to be more discerning than that. Another temptation to hastily ordain someone is if the elders are being pressured by people from the congregation to ordain someone whom the elders do not believe are qualified, but many of the people in the congregation nonetheless want that person to serve. But the problem there is when members aren’t judging someone by the qualifications given in the Bible; the elders must judge the candidate by the Word’s requirements and not simply by the desires of the church members. So, these are just a few of the example temptations that could tempt the church and/or the elders to try to hastily ordain someone who is just not qualified or not yet ready for such office in terms of their maturity.
Verse 22 goes on to give a reason why we should not be hasty in this regard. It says so that we don’t share in other people’s sins. This clearly seems connected with the ordination point. The idea is that if we are hasty in ordaining someone, and then that newly ordained elder in the church is later shown to be unfit, we who ordained him have a culpability in the matter. And this verse suggests that if that elder then goes and commits some sin in his office, we have a share then in that sin. Think about this. There are many ways that an unfit elder can sin in his role as an elder. For example, an unfit elder could misapply justice in judicial decisions for the church. Or they might teach heresy. Or, they might commit some notorious sin and say that it is okay; that it’s not a sin, which would bring shame to the body of Christ when one of its leaders did that. The examples could go on and on. Paul’s warning Timothy that you don’t want to be a sort of party to that sin by making such an unfit man an elder. You don’t want to share in the liability and guilt for such sin.
This reminds us of a truth in general that we are connected as a body. What one of us does in some way reflects on us all. That’s why for the purity of the church, we need to exercise church discipline in general when people are flagrantly living in ways opposed to our Christian faith. And in the case of elders, it’s why Timothy would need to publicly rebuke a wayward elder as we talked about last week. And Paul reminds Timothy and us that much of that can be averted by simply taking our time and not rushing to ordain someone who is not qualified.
Paul further drives home this whole point at the end of verse 22. He tells Timothy, “keep yourself pure.” Of course, if Paul said that outside of this context, we might assume it’s just a general admonition. Pastors and elders need to watch over themselves and keep themselves pure. Surely, that’s an important lesson to remind Timothy when we are talking about other elders are not keeping themselves pure. But given the rest of verse 22, we see Paul is further reminding Timothy that one of the ways he keeps himself pure is by not hastily ordaining someone and then by doing so end up sharing in their sin.
What then comes in verse 23 might be a bit of an aside. Paul takes a moment in verse 23 to tell Timothy to drink a little wine for medicinal purposes instead of only water. This verse can seem a bit out of place in the midst of talking about elders. Maybe it is an aside that since Paul just told Timothy he needed to watch over his spiritual health and purity, he then wanted to remind Timothy to not forget his physical health in all of this too. It’s possible that there may be more to this too. Remember back in 4:3 Paul talked about how some would come into the church and try to require Christians to abstain from marriage and certain foods. Maybe some of the false teachers that were at Ephesus had started doing some of that. They might have been advocating abstinence from wine. Some of them might have even been elders at the church until they were publicly removed for their false teaching. So, that might be why Paul is reminded of this issue of wine at this point. Maybe Timothy had stopped drinking wine for a time while combatting these former elders who were speaking against wine? Yes, I know I’m into speculation here. My point is simply that the reference to wine here might not be an aside, but might have had some connection to the whole elder situation.
At any rate, let’s turn now to the final reason given here why Paul says we shouldn’t be hasty in our ordinations. Looks at verses 24-25. “Some men’s sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment, but those of some men follow later. Likewise, the good works of some are clearly evident, and those that are otherwise cannot be hidden.” This sounds like a proverb. It very well may have been a common proverb of the day. But the point of this proverbial statement is clear. It speaks to how we evaluate and discern someone. When evaluating someone’s fruit and works, sometimes we can see right away where they are at. Other times, we’ll need more time, and eventually after patient observance can determine where they are at spiritually. This proverb basically tells us this from both the perspective of sin and good works and explains a similar dynamic. Some sins or good works are seen right away. Others will only come to light later through ongoing observation.
What’s assumed behind all this is that we will have to evaluate people by their fruit. This is clearly relevant to our discussion about elders. Surely, Paul still has in mind the point from verse 22 about not ordaining hastily. We should not ordain hastily because of the very proverbial truths expressed in verses 24-25, that though some sins or good works are immediately recognizable, others will take time to come to light. So, we need patience in the process. Give things time and be on the watch. But again, the assumption here is that we have to evaluate people by their fruit. This is what Jesus taught in Matthew 7:15-20. There Jesus warned about the false prophets who would come to us. Isn’t that a danger of making elders, that we could make someone an elder who actually turns out to be a false prophet? Jesus says there the problem with such false prophets is they come to you in sheep’s clothing. This is exactly the kind of thing they do; they infiltrate the church and even find a way to become elders or pastors. But Jesus tells us that we can recognize them by their fruits. He says that twice in that passage. Recognize them by their fruits.
You see, in an ideal world, we could look at a candidate for elder’s heart and mind and see exactly where they are at. But we can’t know their hearts, only God can. And yet Jesus is saying that their fruit can help us to discern their heart. Jesus says in that passage that a healthy tree bears good fruit and that a diseased tree bears good fruit. So, Jesus says we look to their fruit in order to try to discern the state of their heart.
And that’s what this proverbial statement of verses 24-25 is getting at. We need to evaluate the fruit of a potential elder candidate. But these verses add an extra dynamic here that speaks to the idea of patience. Sometimes we can discern the fruit right away. Other times it takes more time. See this first in verse 24. There it talks in terms of sin. Some sins are clearly evident, preceding them to judgment. In other words, sometimes a person’s sins are obvious and well known and they are clearly condemned. Obviously, such a person won’t make a good elder. They are clearly not above reproach in that area of sin. Those are the easy cases to discern. But as verse 24 goes on to say, is that sometimes their sin follows later. In other words, sometimes their sins are not brought to light until later. Let’s face it, most people are pretty good at hiding their sins. It always amazes me as a pastor who is called to shepherd that sometimes you meet people that are really bad at hiding their sin; it’s almost like they are just wanting to be found out and confronted. But why that amazes me because it isn’t the norm. Normally, people are pretty good at hiding their sin, particularly in the church. Someone who might at first seem like a great mature candidate for being an elder might actually just be someone who’s become very good at hiding their sin. This proverb says that only time will tell. Thus, we must not be hasty in ordaining people.
But then look at verse 25 from the opposite perspective. The perspective of good works. The reverse is true here regarding good works. Some good works are clearly evident. In other words, sometimes you can see right away positive fruit in someone. In elder candidates, you might see right away clear and obvious evidence that they possess elder qualifications. That doesn’t mean of course that you can hastily ordain them, because of what we said a moment ago: sometimes certain sins are only seen through longer observation. But the other half of verse 25 is interesting. It acknowledges that though in general good deeds are obvious, it acknowledges that some are not so immediately obvious. Yet, in those cases it proverbially states that even those ones can’t be hidden. In other words, they will eventually come to light. I think this is good to think about, because there’s two principles in Scripture about our good works that might rub up against each other here. On the one hand, Christians are to be the light of the world and live in such a way that others can see their good deeds and praise God (Matthew 5:14-16). On the other hand, Christians are not to do their good deeds in order to be seen and praised by men (Matthew 6:1). That might mean someone might do a lot of their good deeds in secret for only God to see. And so, in all this, again patience is needed. The candidate who might be best for elder may be one whose good deeds are most seen over time, as their many godly things done in secret spill over into positive effects in their lives and in the lives of those around them.
And so, to sum this all up in terms of verses 24-25: Be careful not to be rash with our judgments, whether it’s a positive or negative judgment. Take the time and have patience to really examine their fruit and make a determination about whether they are suitable for an ordained office or not.
Well, Trinity Presbyterian Church, I hope we’ve had some helpful reflection today on thinking about candidates for the ordained offices. As we practice such discernment, we know we won’t be perfect in it. But let us strive for such both in wisdom and obedience to this passage. It is because we should have great zeal for these important ordained offices for the good of Christ’s church.
In closing them, I’d like to give us two final applications. The first one is a gospel application. In this last point, we had a chance to think about this proverbial statement about how some sins and some deeds are not uncovered until later. I called that proverbial because it is generally true. And yet the reality is that there are some things that don’t end up getting uncovered in this life. Think about that for yourself. We all have committed sins that only you and God know about. But there will come a day that it will be uncovered. On the day of final judgment there will come a reckoning for all sin. This is a reminder today to go to the Lord with those sins before that final day. Confess your sins to him, seek forgiveness and grace. And the gospel tells you that you while find such grace for all who put their hope in Christ and the cross.
The second application is to seek and pray for patient growth. We’ve been reminded today that in the case of seeking elders we need patience. That’s in part because fruit comes in it season. By extension, see that true in your life as well. So then, ask our Lord to be growing you. Ask him to work good within you that good fruit would come forth in due time. Be patient as you seek this growth. This passage has reminded us of the need for such patience. But Christ is patient in his plan for your growth. And it will be his patience at work in you as you seek such fruit over time. Praise God for the wisdom of how he grows us. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.