Friday, December 3, 2010

Elders in I Timothy 5:17-21

Here we go. This is the final post in this series looking at elders/overseers/pastors. First the text:

I Timothy 5:17-21, "Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, 'You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,' and, 'The laborer deserves his wages.' 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality."

This passage applies directly to elders so we can safely draw some conclusions.

What can we learn? The answer is quite a lot.

1. Elders are multiple.

2. Elders rule.

We must be careful with the term "rule." In the scriptures we never see elders who rule in the sense of what a king or dictator does. In fact, within the church we don't see anyone with any sort of power over anyone else. In 5:17, Paul is emphasizing the tasks of coming alongside, giving aid, caring for, helping, etc.

3. Elders who rule well should be considered worthy of double honor - especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

This one is loaded. Toward the end of this post I'm going to talk about what I believe "double honor" means. Let me now address "preaching and teaching." The original language says "word and doctrine." We must be careful not to read modern ideas back into the text. We simply see that these elders worked hard in teaching of the scriptures. We do not know the context, although church gatherings do make sense. Beyond this, we must not guess.

4. Two or three witnesses are required to admit a charge against an elder.

5. Elders who persist in sin must be rebuked in front of the church. This occurs as a warning to the others.

Let's return to the term "double honor." This is a significant phrase because it is the primary text used to support the idea that pastoral salaries are biblical. But is that what Paul is talking about? Let's see.

How can we know what "double honor" means? We must look at the specific words used in the immediate context and the broader context.

Paul says that some elders are worthy of "double honor." Interestingly, he then gives two examples of labor that is rewarded with what it deserves. A working ox deserves grain and a laborer deserves wages. Paul is showing that certain actions should lead to certain responses from others. Please notice that Paul does not say that elders are worthy of "double wages." The apostle could have used the specific word for "wages," but he chose not to. Instead, he used "double honor." This suggests that double honor is different from wages.

We can also look to how Paul used the term "honor" in two other places of close proximity within this very book. In I Timothy 5:3, Paul writes, "Honor widows who are truly widows." This is exactly the same Greek word for honor that he uses in 5:17.

What is Paul talking about? He is discussing how the church should care for widows who meet certain standards. It seems clear that Paul is talking about gifts, including financial ones. However, Paul is in no way suggesting that the church should pay regular salaries to widows.

The other occasion of the word "honor" comes in I Timothy 6:1. In this verse, Paul writes, "Let all who are under a yoke as slaves regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled." We clearly see that slaves are supposed to show honor (same word again) to their masters. What does this mean? It means respect. It certainly doesn't imply anything financial. Since when have slaves had to pay salaries to their masters?

We can learn more about the probable meaning of "double honor" by looking at the immediate context of the passage. I Timothy 5:19-22 deals with the issue of respect that should be shown to elders. If "double honor" means respect in 5:17, then the passage flows nicely in context. However, if "double honor" focuses on finances (or especially salaries), then there is a sharp and awkward change of emphasis between verses 18 and 19. Because of this, the context suggests that "double honor" refers to respect.

So what does all this mean? What can we conclude about "double honor"? I believe this phrase in 5:17 is primarily speaking about the church showing respect to the elders who labor in teaching the scriptures. Secondarily, it leaves open the idea of financial gifts from folks within the church. On the other hand, it does not suggest or imply that churches paid regular salaries to elders.

All the evidence points to these conclusions: Paul does not use the term "wages." Instead he uses "double honor." Paul writes the term "honor" two other times in close proximity. Neither of these suggest salaries. The widows passage does leave open the option of giving financial gifts. Finally, the context of the passage itself speaks of respect.

Therefore, let us show respect to elders within the body. Let us especially show respect to those who labor in teaching the scriptures.

Interestingly, the scriptures as a whole indicate that we should show respect to all people, both inside and outside the church. Also, all Christians ought to labor in studying the scriptures. Let us strive to teach the bible to others, both in what we say and in how we live.


Aussie John said...


Thank you for an excellent article.

Eric said...


You are welcome.

When I was in seminary these verses were frequently used as concrete proof that churches should pay salaries to pastors who would spend their time laboring to prepare sermons. Wow. What poor exegesis - and at a seminary of all places!

By the way, I think I originally got some of this info. from Alan Knox. It's been a while, but I'm pretty sure he said some of these same things on his blog. Just want to give credit where it is due.

Jonathan said...


In terms of ruling, I've recently realized that we all have a realm of influence in which we rule. God has created us this way.

So, at times I rule in my home. At other times my kids rule. :)

It is not surprising that elders would at times rule. It is good to allow the older wiser men to be an influence in any community/family.

The whole idea of the good news of the kingdom of God has everything to do with entering into God's rule or reign. Seeking God's kingdom is about not being ruled by sin and death, but being ruled and guided by God and life.

Just thought I'd share that as it sort of links with how elders should rule well.

God bless!

Eric said...


I like the idea of ruling in the sense of positively influencing others in the walk of sanctification. The obvious trouble comes when some people try to exert power over others as their definition of ruling.