“Care for Elders, Part 3: A Warning Against Pragmatism” – 1 Timothy 5:22-25
“Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.”
Paul continues the discussion of caring for elders and once again we see a close relationship to the previous discussion of caring for widows. The discussion on widows ended in vv. 11-16 when Paul went into detail describing the women that not only should not serve on the list, but are in need a man to act as her head. Those women have no business attempting to serve on the list nor should they continue on as widows, but should earnestly seek protection and leadership that can only be found in marriage. In a similar way, Paul concludes this section on elders by commanding Timothy how to appoint them.
It never ceases to amaze me how low the church’s view is of elders. I truly believe that the vast majority of Christians are not only ignorant as to the qualifications of those who can serve as elders, but also as to the very basic function of an elder. Look around social media for a whole 30 seconds and you’ll find professing Christians that are vehemently arguing for women to serve as elders. Clearly they have a very low view of Christ, His Word, and His church. Walk into any church and ask to speak to the elders. If they have any, ask them what it is that they do. Some might say that they handle the finances. Some may say that they try to visit the elderly. Some may claim to administrate or delegate the various responsibilities of the ministry. Yet Scripture makes no such claims, commands, or conditions on elders for those tasks. What do elders do? They preach and they pray. That is literally the whole reason for their existence. If they are not preaching and praying (from the pulpit, from the lectern, over the counseling table, over a cup of coffee) they are not doing the work of an elder. For clarification, I suggest you re-read 1 Timothy 4:6-16 and ask yourself, “What seems to be the focus of Timothy’s ministry?”
I have said, written, and preached this time and again and I feel as if some future congregant will inscribe it on my tombstone: the church is designed and must function as a family. That’s a statement that most people will easily agree with…until the implications of it become manifest. For example, God designed the family in a singular and specific manner: one man with one woman. The man leads. The woman does not lead. The man is the head. The woman is the helper. You don’t get to reorder that design. Anything outside that design is by definition, not a family. Likewise, Christ has built His church in a singular and specific manner: elders, deacons, and members. Elders are men who lead, rule, preach and pray. Deacons serve, minister, visit, and encourage. Members love, support, serve, and obey. Any breakdown, reversal, or abandonment of this design is an organism that is, by definition, not a church. We don’t create the definitions, God does.
You cannot put bbq sauce into the batter and claim that the product is grandma’s blue ribbon cookie recipe. They may look similar from the outside with some very basic shared characteristics (they’re both round and came out of the oven), but one bite will reveal that something is amiss.
I believe that it starts here. Because as soon as we redefine the role of elder from one who teaches, preaches and prays to an administrator, we stop looking for righteous, holy, knowledgeable, and gifted men and begin looking for corporate lackeys, pseudo intellectuals, and “yes” men. It seems that nobody cares who serves as an elder. But if we have a low view of the elder’s function, why would we have a high view of an elder’s character?
Unfortunately, pragmatism seems to drive most decisions in the church. No on thinks to see what God has said on the matter. We only want what make sense in the moment, what is easily achievable, what is not too costly, and what tickles our fancies. That is the definition of pragmatism. The verses before us warn against this way of thinking. Pragmatism will always kill whatever it touches.
Earlier in this letter, Paul laid out the qualifications for an elder/overseer/pastor (3:1-7), but gave no explicit command as to how to search out and find men that meet those qualifications. That’s the whole purpose of these last four verses. In these verses, Paul gives three reasons to utilize patience instead of rushing in pragmatism when seeking to ordain elders.
Pragmatism leads to common sin (v. 22)
“Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.”
I never enjoy giving unnecessary explanation. The text is so very simple and so plainly straightforward. Yet to the fringes of Christianity clings a heresy that seems to be growing every day. The wild-eyed charismatics that slay spirits, suck graves, and speak in tongues are in reality practicing paganism with a veneer of Christianity. To mention the phrase “laying on of hands” immediately brings such images to mind. But this is not at all what Paul is getting at.
To lay hands on a person is to affirm them. This is nothing more than a public affirmation to what God has already done. Within the context of elders, Paul is speaking of ordination. This is a reference to the public affirmation of certain men to serve as elders.
This brings up a very interesting point that elders/pastors/overseers are ordained not produced. We have a very interesting misconception in American Christianity that seminaries produce pastors. Nothing could be further from the truth. A good seminary will train a man and give him the knowledge that he needs. If an institution does not beat the rigors of theology, hermeneutics, and the biblical languages into a man then the institution is a giant waste of time. But even if the level of education is pristine, this is not what turns a student into a pastor. Only qualified elders can ordain qualified elders. The elders of the local church are the only men who can publicly affirm the work that God has done and thus ordain a man for the office of elder/overseer/pastor. But if men are going to affirm a work that God has already done (namely, calling and equipping these men), then we had better be very sure that God has actually done that work.
The warning here should now be obvious. By no means is Timothy to be tempted into a rushed decision. When Paul says – Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily – he means exactly that. So many churches place men into positions that they have no business being in. Just like the younger widows, they were set up for failure from the onset. Pragmatism and fear seem to drive decisions. The church always needs more men to serve, to teach, to minister. But warm bodies will never do. These elders must be qualified. Because when unqualified men fall, and they will fall, their guilt is not secluded to their own hands.
Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others
Make no mistake, when an unqualified elder is placed into office and then falls, his sin is shared by those who laid their hands upon him and affirmed him before God and the congregation. Those other sitting elders either willingly ignored (and thus condoned) this man’s shortcomings or they neglected to investigate. Yet ignorance of the law is of no excuse. Ignorance reflects neglect and complacency.
As we work our way through these verses, do not forget the overall context. Back in vv. 19-20 Paul commands the public rebuke of those elders who continue in their sin. While the command to not hastily lay hands on a man will not eliminate 100% of such actions, methinks that a truly qualified, called, and equipped man of God will not usually require the third step of church discipline.
Pragmatism always seems to be the easy choice, the needed choice, the desperate and only choice. Yet in the long run, it is always the wrong choice, the laborious choice, and the dangerous choice.
Pragmatism overrides purity (v. 23)
“No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.”
Many people have no idea what to do with this verse. The ESV actually places the whole thing in parenthesis as if it doesn’t really matter and serves no function or purpose to Paul’s progression of thought. But if we actually believe that every-single-word of Scripture has been breathed out by God (even now I can hear Dr. Mook screaming “θεόπνευστος!”) then why would we assume that this verse is of little to no value to Paul’s argument or to us? What comes immediately before it?
Keep yourself free from sin
The command is actually keep yourself pure. There’s a lot that can go into that, but we’ve seen this term twice already in this letter. The adjective ἁγνός here is from the same root as the noun ἁγνεία in 5:2 and 4:12. The idea in all three places is purity/moral cleanness/holiness. But how does one keep himself pure? Pragmatism suggests that purity/holiness/moral cleanliness is easily defined by a long list of things that thou shalt not do. But is this the case?
It seems from the context that Timothy had taken up a complete abstinence view of alcohol. He drank water exclusively. This is not uncommon among pastors even today. The vast majority of pastors I know do not partake in alcohol for fear of causing a younger brother to stumble or being accused of being a winebibber (πάροινος - 3:3). But in the first century, this could well have been a death sentence. Dysentery has killed untold millions. Even today, there are places on earth where you just do not drink the water. If it doesn’t come out of a kettle or a sealed bottle, you just don’t go there. This has been a problem as long as there has been urbanized civilization (so literally forever – Gen. 4:17). Yet without water, we die. One simple solution is to add wine to your water. The alcohol would kill harmful bacteria and the water would dilute the wine to the point were intoxication would not be possible. It’s a win/win!
Sidebar: nowhere in Scripture is alcohol forbidden (the current text is a case in point). And yet, you will find no explicit excuse for “social” drinking and you certainly will find many prohibitions against drunkenness. The idea is not to replace drinking water exclusively with drinking wine exclusively, but to use a little wine (i.e. pour wine into your water).
It seems that Timothy’s attempt to remain pure from any and all outside appearances had caused him to give up even this safe guard against disease. The pragmatic approach to purity was going to kill him.
The point and connection to the text is this: pragmatism does not dictate or define purity. What does the psalmist say? “How can a young man keep his way pure? By keeping it according to Your word” Psalm 119:9.
It is as if Paul is saying, “Timothy, keep yourself pure. Keep yourself from sinning against a holy God. But don’t kill yourself over something that is not sin. Take care of yourself and stop defining purity and holiness through man-made rules and regulations!”
Pragmatism will never uncover the truth (vv. 24-25)
“The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.”
These two verse are meant to encourage Timothy has he patiently waits and observes men to see if they are indeed eligible for the office of elder. This might seem like a daunting task. How can we know if someone is qualified or not? Paul’s response to that question is basically, it ain’t that difficult.
The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment
This is a very plain statement regarding some men who desire the office. Their sins go out before them. The imagery here is that of a herald going out before a procession to declare imminent arrival. The sins of some men act in this fashion, announcing their presence. To even consider such men would be ludicrous.
Anyone who spends just a few moments review 1 Timothy 3:1-7 should be able to immediately eliminate 75% of every congregation. Presumably half of your church is made up of women. Well that’s 50% right there who are not qualified. The point is that these qualifications are very clear, very obvious, and not many men actually meet them all. But even those men who are not obviously disqualified will reveal their true character if given time.
For others, their sins follow after
Paul keeps the imagery intact. For some men, their sins walk out ahead of them and announce their arrival. For others, their sin follows in their footsteps. Either way, their sins will be found out. So much can be learned through patient observation. Anyone is capable of putting on a good show with a limited audience and venue. Never forget the broader context.
The sins of some men points back to the sins of hastily ordained men in v. 22 which in turn points back to those who continue to sin v. 20. To hastily ordain men is never a good idea and courts sin. Pragmatism is never a good or godly way to approach ordination. As Calvin said, “Some people seek to ordain someone on the slender grounds that he has given one or two reasonable performances” (Calvin, John. 1&2 Timothy and Titus, Crossway, 1998, p. 93). And attitude of patience is the only way to approach this situation. In time an ill-suited man will reveal himself. But so too will a genuine candidate.
Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed
Not only are prevailing sins abundantly obvious and evident, but so are good works. They can be clearly seen for all who take the time to look for them. These men are just as obvious candidates for eldership as those in obvious sin are ineligible. Yet patience prevails here as well. Not all who are truly qualified are obviously qualified. “Those which are otherwise cannot be concealed” refers to deeds that are not evident or obvious. Yet even though they do not stand as gaudy flags or come before announcing an arrival, they are still there and they will not remain hidden from view. Any level of investigation will quickly reveal the merits of any man. Patience, not pragmatism, will award the church with blessed elders.
The saying goes that patience is a virtue, yet so few people possess this virtue nor do they seem to desire it. We are a people who wait for nothing. We have drive through restaurants for those who don’t want to wait in line. We have instant coffee for freaks that cannot wait to brew a proper pot of joe. We wait for no man and all men must accommodate us. This is an attitude that leads to pragmatism, which will end badly.
So many churches feel as if they are forced to grab the first man that comes along because they need a pastor. Where have their elders been? Why can’t they preach and pray? That is their sole reason for existence, is it not?
Some churches recognize their need for more elders because the harvest is full and the laborers are few. But instead of patiently observing and investigating they institute a draft and create a conscription eldership. If he’s of age and of sound mind, he’ll do! What a terribly low view of this holy office. What a low view of the church. What a low view of Christ!
Here’s something to consider. Would you let your daughter marry just anybody? Or would you patiently observe him and investigate him before giving the couple your blessing? If we truly love the church of Jesus Christ, we will use patience, not pragmatism, when ordaining elders.