Treatment of Elders (1 Timothy 5:17-21)

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 Scripture says, “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain,” e and “The worker deserves his wages.” f 19 Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, 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.

 

Don't have to watch the news or listen to the radio for long nowadays to hear of new reports of abuse by clergy in various denominations. And don't have to search hard on the web to find details of protocols for dealing with accusations of abuse by people within the church, and leaders in particular. Our modern situation is one of increasing hostility by society in general toward the leaders of any church.

Within the church, attitudes toward leadership also seem to be changing for the worse. Paul spoke back in chapter 3 of a man desiring to serve as an elder, but many churches struggle today to find men who do desire to serve, let alone meeting the qualifications listed there. And the men who do serve are, it seems to me, not necessarily thought of highly for the work they seek to do.

As we continue to consider Paul's first letter to Timothy, we've reach a second part of the letter in which Paul addresses the eldership. Paul's overall focus in the letter is one of encouraging Timothy to continue to be a faithful servant of God as he leads the congregation in Ephesus. Paul therefore advises him on a wide ranging assortment of matters relating to both doctrine and practice.

Instead of focusing on the requirements for elders, as he did in chapter 3, Paul here addresses the treatment of elders, and he does so in three main areas.

First, there is the issue of the honour accorded to those who serve well in verses 17 and 18.

Then, in verses 19-20, there is how we deal with accusations of misconduct.

Finally, in verses 21 and 22, there is the issue of how Timothy conducts himself in such matters.

All of these sections are vitally relevant to us today, particularly in the context of so many reports of misconduct by people who have called themselves servants of God and either really abused their position or been falsely accused of doing so.

Notice firstly that a godly approach to eldership is one of treating the men who serve with esteem. Paul even compares this honour to wages – and quotes Old Testament commands that emphasise the necessity of a labourer – whether animal or human - receiving benefit from their work. His overall point, then, is that honouring those who lead us is not an optional extra. We owe it to them.

Serving as an elder or a minister should never be opening yourself up to abuse or ridicule. Paul speaks of honour. Not indifference. Not scepticism. Not begrudging submission. But honour.

Do you honour your elders, your minister?

If you do, how does that honour show itself? Is it consistent?

Do you say nice things while your elder is around, but backstab him in the presence of others? Do you give your minister little presents to say “Thank you”, but then speak negatively, unnecessarily, about every new initiative he seeks to implement? Are your comments on the preaching or the visitation only ever negative?

Honouring the office bearers in the church doesn't mean we can't ever say anything negative. It doesn't mean we shouldn't think carefully through the logic of new initiatives. But it does mean we seek to support and encourage them in their labours, and it means when we do have something negative to say, we say it in as godly and constructive a manner as possible. Is this you? Is it me?

 

Paul says “the elders who lead well”. The NIV expands this to “direct the affairs of the church”, but “the affairs of the church” is an addition. The basic word here is the same one from 1 Timothy 3:4 and 5, where Paul talked about an elder “managing his own family” and verse 12 of that chapter where he spoke of managing “his children and his household”. Given what is said back in chapter 3, it seems more fitting to leave the object of “rule” open. Those who manage well every aspect of their life – and not only the affairs of the church – are worthy of double honour.

Why are those whose work is preaching and teaching singled out here? It must surely be precisely because of the importance of these tasks. The work of preaching and teaching is the work of seeking to ensure, by God's grace, that every aspect of the gospel truth is faithfully proclaimed as possible, as faithfully understood as possible, and as faithfully passed on to future generations as possible. It's the task of seeking to ensure – so far as it depends on us - that people put their trust in Christ like they should. Elders can and should seek to ensure that the members of our congregations are involved in providing love and care to one another, that we faithfully portray the gospel in whatever care we provide to non-Christians, and in any number of other ways. But the first priority must be faithfulness to the gospel God has revealed. Without that, we have no basis for anything else we do. Without the gospel, the church is just a club, or a social welfare organisation, or a source of entertainment. Without the gospel, we are still in our sin and have no hope of glory. Most importantly, without us holding fast to the gospel, God does not get the glory He ought to get for all of His grace and mercy to us. This is why Paul says “especially those whose work in the word and in teaching.

Paul talks about those who serve well. This of course implies that it's possible to be an elder who isn't worthy of double honour. It's possible for us to do a poor job or at least not as good a job as we could. Those of us who are serving or have served ought therefore to check our track record. Are we doing as well as we could? Are there areas in which we could pull our socks up? Are we perhaps letting less important things take a higher priority than they ought?

Notice though that Paul doesn't say an elder doesn't get any honour if he doesn't do the job as well as he might. This verse gives us no excuse for disrespecting – dishonouring – those God has chosen as undershepherds if we don't feel they're doing their job well. Instead, we should encourage them in their labours. Do what you can to help. Pray for them – and do this even if you think your elder is doing a great job!

 

But what if an elder is accused of doing something seriously wrong?

If we're holding our elders in high esteem, does that mean we should just overlook their offences and brush them under the carpet?

No, it doesn't.

We always need to remember that God is passionate about what is good and right as well as about showing mercy and grace. That's why Christ had to die. We are, by nature, the objects of God's holy and perfectly righteous anger. We have committed high treason against the King of Kings, seeking to push Him off the throne of our lives and reign in His place. Justice needed to be done. Someone had to pay the price, and that someone was Christ.

So when an elder does wrong, or is accused of doing wrong, we cannot just sweep it under the carpet. We too must seek to ensure just is done. The wrongdoer – whether they're the elder or the person who is accusing the elder – must be found out, so far as it depends on our ability to see that happen, if for no other reason than that we desire to see the reputation of our glorious God upheld and enhanced, not undermined.

But hang on, you might say – Paul says here not to even receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Yes, he does.

Let's think this through. What is Paul's aim – what is the Spirit's aim – in saying this? Is it to pervert the course of justice? Of course not. The aim is to prevent spurious attacks against elders. The aim is to make sure that if an accusation is brought, it is properly attested – by two or three witnesses, just as any accusation in legal courts ought to be attested by more than one person. The aim is to protect the innocent from malicous accusation, not to protect the guilty.

So then, in some circumstances, it might is still valid to receive an accusation on the basis of just one person's word. A claim of sexual abuse would be such an instance. But even then, the principles still apply, even if the exact command given here is not obeyed. The claim needs to substantiated as much as possible. Both the elder and the accuser need to have a fair trial. And, of course, in modern circumstances, this needs to be done in submission to the laws of the land that God has established.

We need to labour for the innocent to be protected, the guilty to be brought to justice, grace and mercy to be shown and through it all the honour and glory of God to be upheld and even enhanced. Is this, brothers and sisters, what is at the forefront of our minds in every situation? Do we seek first the Kingdom of God, and His glory, honour and praise?

In verse 20, Paul shifts his focus from those who are accused to those who are proven guilty. He says “those elders who are sinning, you are to rebuke before everyone, so that the rest my also take warning”.

Notice firstly that we're not told here that any particular type of sin is in mind. We should nevertheless keep in mind passages such as Matthew 18, and infer that Paul is thinking about a kind of sin that is public, or becomes public knowledge. Once again, we need to focus first and foremost on the honour and glory of God. We want above all else for people to honour and praise God, and we achieve that in part by being open and honest about our failings, by matching a public wrongdoing with public apology and restitution. We do it by faithfully reflecting the character and actions of God in our character and actions.

Now I have said that our ultimate goal should be the glory and honour of God, but notice that this is not the reason Paul gives here. He focuses on a more immediate goal. Other elders need to take warning from what has happened to this erring elder. Why?

Because we're all still human. We're all still fallen creatures and we can succumb to the same temptations. Sometimes what we need is something more immediate and more forceful in effect that the great and lofty aim of God's glory. Sometimes we simply need to have the fear of the same fate happening to us.

 

In verses 21 and 22, Paul turns his focus back to Timothy. How should Timothy, as the pastor of this congregation, interact with the elders, especially in overseeing the things we've just considered?

First, Paul makes sure that Timothy understands the solemnity of what he is about to say: “I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels...” Not one. Not two, but three witnesses are called. And they are perhaps the highest, the greatest witnesses you could call on. Personally, I'm quite surprised not to be reading here “in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit”, but that shouldn't throw us too badly. We shouldn't take this statement as undermining the doctrine of the trinity that is elsewhere so clearly stated or supported by good and necessary consequence. The important thing is the charge.

And the charge is to keep these instructions without partiality. Timothy, you might be tempted, because of your close friendship with this particular brother, to overlook that sin, to sweep it under the carpet. You might be tempted, because you don't get on so well with this other brother, to make more of some sin he has committed than you should. Don't do that! Keep these instructions without partiality. Be, as a faithful servant of God, as fair and even handed as you can possibly be. Do nothing out of favouritism.

Doesn't sound like something that should be the object of such a serious charge, does it? But think about what is at stake. What could be the consequences of showing favouritism? What could be the consequences of applying the instructions Paul has just given to some and not others? Well, there are all sorts of possibilities, and none of them good. But the heart of the problem would be this: if Timothy showed partiality or favouritism, he would be stopping things that ought to happen from happening, and/or making things happen that ought not to happen. In other words, Timothy would be sinning.

As a minister of God, as a leader in the church, he ought not – must not – do that. He, like the elders being spoken of here, ought to be seeking only to act in godly ways, only to do what is best for the people of God and best for the honour and glory of God.

That is why Paul makes this such a solemn charge.

Do you, brothers and sisters, show favouritism? This charge is applied directly to Timothy, and not to you, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't act in the same way. None of God's people have an excuse for acting in ungodly ways. Every one of us should act and seek to act in the best possible way, the most godly way, out of gratitude for God's grace, out of concern for the impact on others and above all else out of concern for the honour and glory of our gracious God.

This brings us to verse 22, and it's brief chain of injunctions. In many ways, we've already covered their content in what we've already said, but I do want to focus briefly on the command not to be hasty in the laying on of hands.

Given the context, I'm assuming here that Paul is speaking of ordaining new elders, not praying for the healing of people. The thought then would be that Timothy – and the whole church by extension – should not be too quick to ordain new elders. This is perhaps particularly important in an age where busyness and other issues are making it hard for churches to find suitably qualified men who are willing to serve. We should not let any sense of urgency cause us to bypass good and godly examination of the doctrine and life of a men. If we do so, the end result may not be immediate disaster, but sooner or later it will come back to bite us. Listen to God's command, given through His servant. Don't be hasty in the laying on of hands. Trust the Lord of the church to take care of His church while you do due diligence.

In doing this, perhaps you'll help be the means by which this congregation avoids in future years being one of those that's mentioned on the news or heard about on the radio for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps you'll avoid hurt and pain that would otherwise have detracted from the glory of God, scared His people or even caused God's name to be blasphemed.

So then, brothers and sisters, what is your attitude toward your elders? How do you treat them?

And elders, do you treat one another and the congregation as you ought?

It's well worth finishing this morning by reminding ourselves again that Paul isn't calling us to be legalists. We're called to do these things because they're good and right to be doing. We're called to do them because in doing so, we reflect the character and will of God, as His people ought to do. We're called to do them because they are the means by which our own souls benefit, the means by which our brothers and sisters in Christ benefit, the means by which others who don't yet know the Lord will be attracted or at least helped to be more open to the gospel of grace they so desperately need to hear. We're called to treat our elders in these ways and act in these ways out of thankfulness to God for His grace, for if an elder does his job well, he is a faithful servant and representative of Christ to you and I, ministering God's grace to us day by day.