“Care for Elders, Part 1: Honor Them” 1 Timothy 5:17-18
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’”
I praise God for His Word. Like the psalmist I sing “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97). The duty of the preacher is to simply unfold the beautiful, inerrant, effectual, and sufficient Word of Almighty God for the people of God to clearly see and understand. The most natural way to accomplish this task is sequential exposition. I’ve been preaching through 1 Timothy for over 5 months, one verse at a time. It is through this dedication to preach and teach that we come to the verses before us.
I will confess that this is a difficult passage for any pastor to come to without fear of being misunderstood. I thoroughly enjoyed preaching through chapter 4, where Paul takes Timothy by the proverbial lapels and calls him to faithfulness. I did not feel uneasy preaching through chapter 3 and the high standard that God places upon the overseers of His church. These texts were excellent times of reflection, repentance, and realignment. But the text before us is different in the sense that the elders are not being called to a standard for the benefit of the people so much as the people are being called to a standard for the benefit of the elders. As an elder, this is a difficult text to teach without seeming self-serving. And yet it is part of this letter written to Timothy under the hand of Paul and the inspiration of God. Therefore, we will teach it. In understanding these words and obeying them there is blessing for us and glory for God.
If we back up and take a look at chapter 5 as a whole, we should notice some similarities to the section before us (vv. 17-25) and the section that we only just finished (vv. 3-16). In v. 3 Paul calls the church to honor widows who are widows indeed. The command to honor basically means to value/to consider as valuable. A widow indeed is defined for us in v. 5, one who has been left alone in this world and who is faithful to her savior. This woman is to be honored by the church, for now one else will. This woman has a distinct purpose (vv. 9-10) and built in protection (vv. 11-16). The widow is the obvious example of the most vulnerable member of any local church. Here Paul shifts from the most vulnerable member to the most valuable member, namely, the elders.
Now, that statement may grate against some people’s sensitivities. How can we say that elders are the most valuable members of the local church? The answer is very simple: without elders, there is no church. Again, this is a bold statement that may need some explanation. In fact, there are several questions that seem to pop out of this text. Asking questions of the text guided our study of the widow, so perhaps that should guide our study here.
What is an Elder?
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching”
We should notice that a different term is used here from the list of qualifications in 3:1-7. It was there that Paul used the term overseer or bishop. The term there suggests a position or office of charge and responsibility. An overseer is one who has been placed in authority to take charge of a situation, organization, or institution on behalf of someone else. The idea of stewardship is implicit within the word. An overseer is one who has extensive authority, but that authority is not inherently his. The overseers of Christ’s church have full authority to rule over the church as a father would his own family, but only within the limits set down by the one to whom the church belongs: Jesus Christ Himself.
The term elder also suggests authority. There are some who wrongfully assume that Scripture speaks of two different offices within the church. Yet God’s Word uses these terms interchangeably. In fact, Paul writes to Titus very similar instructions regarding the qualifications for leaders, yet Paul calls those leaders elders rather than overseers (Titus 1:5). To this list we could also add pastors or shepherds. All three of these terms are interchangeable and are used to bring different emphasis upon the same men who rule Christ’s church as a father would his own family. A shepherd (pastor) cares for the sheep and ensures their sustenance and safety. An overseer takes charge and gives direction. And an elder brings wisdom from maturity and experience. All three terms describe a single office. To make a distinction between pastors and elders, or elders and overseers, or overseers and pastors is to misunderstand God’s clear-cut design for His church. The qualifications and duties of one are assumed by the others as well because they are one and the same.
Let the elders who rule well
Hopefully after this explanation we understand what is meant by an elder who rules. If an elder is the same as an overseer, then ruling is part and parcel of his office (3:4-5). An elder who does not rule is not an elder. But what does it mean for him to rule well?
Please understand that we are not contrasting faithful elders from unfaithful elders. Unfaithful elders are disqualified elders and thus are no longer elders. Paul is bringing attention to elders who conduct their duties in a way that is exceptional. “Well” translates the Greek καλῶς or good. This same root describes the works of the widow that others witness (5:10) as well as the kind of servant Paul has called Timothy to be (4:6). We are not contrasting good elders from bad. We are receiving instruction how the church is to care for exceptional elders.
How should we care for them?
“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor”
Here we see the connection from the previous section of widows and the command to honor them and the elders. Interestingly enough, the imperative here is not the word honor or double honor but what comes immediately before it. The command is to consider the elders worthy. The term (ἀξιόω) assumes an evaluation of some sort. To be considered worthy is to deserve something. Notice that it is not the elders who are being commanded, but the congregation. The verb is passive. It is the elders who serve well that are to be considered worthy. They deserve double honor.
What does double honor mean? Is it a simple mathematical calculation? Since this is within the context of caring for the church at large, and we’ve just been commanded to honor widows, should the honor given to widows be our starting point? As we’ve already discussed, the idea of honoring widows is largely in the context of supporting them. There’s an obvious financial obligation to provide for their physical well-being. Should the church calculate the money given to the widows and simply double it for the elders who rule well? I don’t think this is what Paul is getting at. If a simple multiplication were in view, there are several less ambiguous ways of stating it. There are two better alternative explanations.
The term double honor could refer to two kinds of honor. To honor someone does not necessitate a financial gift. We can honor people by showing respect, obeying their commands, and submitting to their rule. This is the respect that each and every elder deserves. Yet there is a second kind of honor that does involve a financial gift. We even have an English word for it, honorarium. An honorarium is a financial gift reserved for speakers, lecturers, and preachers. It is a tangible way to show that the work and effort the speaker poured into his teaching is appreciated. To show the elder who rules well double honor could mean that they are given financial support for their efforts in addition to the honor they receive in connection to the office they hold, thus double honor.
But I think there is an even simpler explanation. It is possible to understand the word double as simply meaning abundant. There shouldn’t be a formula or mathematical calculation to reveal the amount of honor due this elder. There is no need to make a division between the honor that comes with his office and the honor that should accompany his teaching. The command is much more straightforward: honor him abundantly and to overflowing.
Which elders do we care for?
“Especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching”
There are some who see here an implication of two classes of elders. One class of elders rule the church much like a board of trustees while the other class of elders preach and teach. Yet Scripture makes no such distinction.
We’ve already made the case that overseers/elders/pastors are different names for the same office. The qualifications for this office are very specific and are perfectly tailored to the role and function of that office. One of the first items on the list is the ability to teach (3:2). There is no point in making the ability to teach a non-negotiable requirement for the overseer/elder/pastor if the elder in question is not going to use that ability. All elders teach. The basic job description for the elder is given in Acts 6 – “Therefore, brethren, select from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may put in charge of this task. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:3-4). The task before every elder is to preach and pray.
In addition to this, it would be a misunderstanding of Paul’s point here to even hint at a distinction. The word here especially does not make a distinction between one group and another group. He is not suggesting that there are elders, then there are elders who rule well, and then there are elders who work hard at preaching and teaching. This phrase identifies what it means to rule well. A better translation of especially might be to replace it with the phrase that is or namely – The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, that is/namely those who work hard at preaching and teaching.
The emphasis is upon that phrase those who work hard. What follows identifies what they work hard at – namely, teaching and preaching. The word work hard (κοπιάω) is a favorite of Paul’s. He uses it frequently to describe the labor and toil of gospel ministry. The verbal form was used in 4:10 and in 1 Thessalonians 5:12, both passages describe the labor and toil of a minister. The noun form is used throughout 1 Thessalonians (1:3; 2:9; 3:5) and always within the context of the hard work required and involved in gospel ministry. The word itself indicates the work that leads to exhaustion. To rule well is to work to the point of exhaustion in the preaching and teaching of the Bible.
This is no subjective standard. The congregation is not to carry around an evaluation sheet in order to determine if their elders are ruling the church well. Paul defines the terms for us. The phrase “rule well” means to labor/toil/strive/work to the point of exhaustion in the proclamation of God’s Word. If elder does this, he deserves double honor, honor that is ample and overflowing. The reasons are twofold.
First, the one who works so tirelessly will literally kill himself if he is to put this much effort into his teaching and preaching while at the same time holding down another occupation. This double honor frees the elder to devote himself entirely to the ministry. Like the widows on the list, he is dedicated to ministry alone.
Second, without such elders there is no church. Without an elder to lead the body in worship through the careful proclamation, explanation, and application of Scripture, the body is aimless, headless, and directionless.
Please do not misunderstand me. Jesus Christ is the head of His church and no man (in a funny hat or otherwise) has taken His place. But the role of the overseer is to communicate and execute the will of the head. Just as Adam was to rule and subdue the earth as God’s vassal king, the overseers/elders rule Christ’s church as His vassals. To take care of the head is to take care of the whole body.
Why should we care for them?
“For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.”
Paul’s point is very simple: honor your elders because Scripture says so. But where do these references come from? What does a threshing ox have to do with pastoral ministry? What we have here are two quotations. Let’s take a look at both of them.
The first quotation about the threshing ox comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. The immediate point is that it is sinful to keep an ox from eating the very same food that he is helping to produce. The work of threshing, or separating grain from its protective husk (chaff), was conducted in ancient times by dragging an ox drawn sledge over the cut grain. The weight of the sledge would break the husk loose from the grain. Occasionally the ox would bend down and sample some of the grain for himself. A farmer that didn’t want his produce being reduced by this tiny fraction would place a muzzle over the ox to prevent him eating the grain. Moses forbade this action.
The second quotation is not found in the Old Testament, but in the New Testament. This is actually a quotation from Jesus. In Luke 10 Jesus is about to send His disciples out to preach that Messiah had come in the flesh (10:9). But back in v. 4, Jesus instructed them not to carry a money belt. They were instructed to rely on the hospitality of those who would receive their message. Jesus’ reasoning was simple, “the laborer is worthy of his wages” (10:7). Jesus, and now Paul, use the same word worthy to describe the state of the laborer. He deserves what he is owed. Yet this is not a new concept. Jesus is expounding on a concept written within the very same chapter of Deuteronomy as the prohibition of the muzzled ox.
If one is going to be a student of Scripture, please, please, please begin with Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The entire Bible stands upon the skeletal outline of these books. The book of Deuteronomy is fascinating. Beginning in Deuteronomy 12:1 all the way through 26:11, Moses expounds upon the 10 Commandments. Most of Deuteronomy is literally the practical application of the 10 Commandments in order. Deuteronomy 24:8-25:4 covers the practical application of the 9th Commandment – thou shall not bear false witness.
To bear false witness is more than lying, though that is certainly included. To bear false witness is to give a less than accurate report. To slander, to misguide, to lie, or to speak less than completely true is to bear false witness. What is so amazing to me is that the principal of paying the laborer what he is owed does not originate with Jesus’ words to His disciples, but this very section.
“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your countrymen or one of your aliens who is in your land in your towns. You shall give him his wages on his day before the sun sets, for he is poor and sets his heart on it; so that he will not cry against you to the Lord and it become sin in you” (Deut. 24:14-15).
To cut to the chase: to withhold wages from a man who has earned them is to bear false witness. It suggests that he has not finished his work or that he is somehow undeserving what was promised him. Likewise, to muzzle an ox while he is working is to suggest that the ox does not deserve to eat the same grain that he is helping to produce. It is an act of bearing false witness. Paul uses the Law of Moses, enforced by King Jesus to carry the principal to the elder who labors hard. To withhold this kind of care, generous and abundant care, is to bear false witness against him. It suggests that he has not earned his keep. If he has ruled well, labored to the point of exhaustion in gospel ministry, then he deserves to be cared for. He has earned it. Any church that withholds this support is actively declaring that his work is somehow deficient. They testify wrongly against him.
Why should we care for our hard working elders? Because Paul commands it here, Jesus commanded it in Luke 10 (also Matthew 10), and Moses commanded it 1500 years before that. God has spoken through the mouth of three witnesses to this fact. To do otherwise is nothing short of sin and a direct violation of the 9th Commandment – Thou shall not bear false witness. Woe to the church who so readily testifies wrongly against their elders!
Personal Note: Speaking only for myself, the church I serve has bent over backwards to lovingly, generously, graciously, and abundantly care for my family and me. This must not be read as a vindictive diatribe against the body I serve. My intention is only to make clear the Word of God. Any and every elder who dedicates their lives to gospel ministry and works to the point of exhaustion to feed the sheep deserves honor upon honor.
Earlier I said that the elders are the most valuable members in the body. That is not because other members are not important. Every member is extremely important. The body cannot function to its fullest potential giving Christ the most glory unless every singing member is functioning. But even if you have a rebellious and sinful big toe, the body can still limp along. Not so with dysfunctional elders. That is why Paul gave a list of non-negotiable qualifications in chapter three and that is why he commands the Ephesian church to take care of them here. But notice the overarching implications.
If the church is commanded to take care of the most vulnerable members (widows) and the most valuable members (elders) what does that imply for the majority of the members in between? The answer is obvious. The church is to care for each and every member. By emphasizing the extreme ends of the spectrum, Paul implies the care for the whole church.