The Care and Feeding of Elders (1 Timothy 5:17-25)


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The Care and Feeding of Elders

Elder issues in the local church–1 Timothy 5:17-25

How should you treat an elder? Should you treat them like a cop, about to give you a ticket if you violate God’s Law? Like a fireman you call when the fire of sin burns your marriage? Or the CEO of the board of directors of the church company? Like a cowboy who will drive this church herd to market? Or maybe a shepherd who feeds and cares for the sheep? Or a father who loves his spiritual family and would do anything for their spiritual good?

How do you treat an elder? Do elders need unique care or special treatment? Do you know how Paul answers in 1 Timothy 5:17 to 25? Yes, they do need special care. Elders are unique men of character, who honor their individual spiritual gifts, serve together as a team in unanimity, function as shepherds to the entire flock, are able to teach and serve as spiritual fathers to a church family. But how do we treat them?

Chapter 3 taught us the entire letter is about how believers are to conduct themselves in the local church–the HOUSE RULES.

Chapter 1 was about REJECTING false doctrine, then EMBRACING true doctrine

Chapter 2 taught the correct behavior for men, then women in the Church

Chapter 3 taught the correct qualifications for elders, then deacons

Chapter 4 taught the Church how to remain spiritually HEALTHY against apostasy

Chapter 5 taught various groups in the Church, like widows, their specific house rules

Now in chapter 5 verses 17 to 25, Paul gives the Church desperately needed instruction for the care and feeding of elders. This passage can function as water to dehydrated elderships. For Christians, it will defibrillate your heart for Christ–move you to be generous, honorable and wise. And for leaders, this passage is epinephrine–shocking you into biblical leadership.

How are you to deal with your elders? You have three primary tasks–you should be paying them, protecting them and picking them . . . meaning, honor your higher-ups, be careful with your confrontations and be slow in your selections.

So in the midst of describing the proper treatment of, verse 1) older then younger men, verse 2) older then younger women, verses 3 to 16) all widows, here in verses 17 to 25) Paul teaches the Church to treat their elders as responsible undershepherds. The first step is for churches to be . . .

#1  PAYING them  Verses 17 to 18 Honor your Higher-ups

The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’”

These two verses are about honoring all your elders and paying some of them. Christians are to honor all their leaders, like 1 Thessalonians 5:12 and 13, “…brethren… appreciate those who diligently labor among you, and have charge over you in the Lord and give you instruction, 13 and that you esteem them very highly in love because of their work.”

And here in verse 17, churches are to provide double honor to some elders. In verse 17, Paul begins with the elders who rule well, reminding you the Church, all elders rule–the word rule means leading, caring for, managing, and protecting. And the word rule is used here to describe directing the affairs of the church. The idea of rule is too strong and the idea of care for is too weak.

Rule is best seen as those who take the lead, direct and guide, keeping in mind that everything is done with a servant’s heart and humble mind. And don’t miss what Paul emphasizes–verse 17 says, “The elders who rule well.” The emphasis is upon the word well, meaning excellently, commendably, or notably.

Get this–every elder can exhort in sound doctrine and refute those who contradict. Every true elder shepherds, disciples men, gives biblical counsel. Each elder has a unique giftedness for ministry and each elder has been given sovereignly, pre-selected good works to live out in his lifetime. Each elder has godly character–and all those who are faithful elders (who do this work well) should receive honor from the church body.

But verse 17 adds additional information you need to know. Some elders are uniquely skilled at exercising leadership well in the church—rule well. And some elders are uniquely skilled at preaching and teaching God’s Word in the church. It is those men who can be and should be considered for double honor, meaning this

The kind of men you hire for a church. The two categories of men who can be considered to receive a paycheck from the church are those who . . .

#1  RULE the church with a unique excellence–RULE WELL, or

#2  FEED the flock effectively through the hard work of preaching and teaching

Do you see it in verse 17? When you consider who to hire as a pastor in the church, verse 17, “The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.” Those who rule excellently can be paid, and Paul adds an emphasis–see it? Those who labor hard at preaching and teaching are especially worthy of double honor. See the word especially those, meaning above all or particularly?

An elder who leads notably well deserves double honor, but this passage teaches those few (plural) who work hard at preaching and teaching, especially, above all, particularly deserve double honor. When the Gospel is proclaimed, when the Word is taught from the text, when sound doctrine is embraced, a few of the elders will be known for their strenuous, continuous labor, week in and week out, keeping their butt in the chair, studying God’s Word in order to feed the flock.

They are unique. It’s something most elders are unable to do. They are part of the eldership, not above the elders, not the CEO, not the main leader, not the leader among equals–but one or two or three of the elders will be uniquely set apart by God to feed the flock. These are the same men who are described in Ephesians 4:11 to 12.

The preaching and teaching of 1Timothy 5:17 is also found in Ephesians 4:11 to 12. “And He (Christ) gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ.”

And how will you know who they are? They work hard at preaching and teaching. Work hard is to do wearisome labor–working to the point of extreme fatigue. It describes difficult, toilsome, hard work–to literally wear oneself out. They seek to feed by preaching and teaching. In Spirit-empowered devotion, they give themselves to the intense labor to explain and proclaim the Scripture.

Friends, understand preaching. It’s not preaching unless it’s explaining the author’s intended meaning of the text. Preaching or teaching is not first, hot, emotional exhortation–no, that’s a rant. That’s motivational yelling. That’s a heart-stirring sugar rush, not spiritual food. Preaching is one-way proclamation, which explains the one meaning of the Scripture.

Preaching is not entertainment, ear-tickling, making people feel good, coming up with creative principles, making the Bible say what you want, stirring hearts emotionally. No. Real preaching is drawing out what the original author meant by what he said. Preaching and teaching is drawing out the single correct meaning of each verse.

What the original author meant by what he said to the original audience, at that original place, at that original time, in that original language. The author’s intended meaning. That means you need to bridge the gap between that language and this language, that culture to this culture, that history to this time–and that requires work–lots of work.

One or two of the elders will be gifted to preach and teach and they will have a heart willing to work hard to make certain it happens. And those are the elders the church considers paying, so they can feed the flock without distraction. And Paul makes this clear by quoting from the Old Testament and the New Testament to support his statement.

In Deuteronomy 25:4 and from Luke in Luke 10:7, both are stated here in verse 18, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’” and “The laborer is worthy of his wages.” To refuse to support laboring elders is as unjust as muzzling an animal while it’s working. When an ox is dragging a stone to grind grain, or pulling a harvest machine, it is hard work–so in order to keep the animal working hard, they would let it eat its fill.

If you muzzle the ox so it can’t eat, it’s cruel and heartless and long-term, counter-productive. Churches need to pay their preaching elders. Why? The laborer is worthy of his wages–they deserve to be paid. And the congregation and non-supported lay-type elders have the responsibility to make certain they are supported properly.

And here is the target, the criteria–think with me. It is not, figure out how much the average person in the church makes and pay that. It is not, discover what other churches of similar size pay, then pay that. It is not, find out what the preacher and his wife and nine children want or need. The goal is to determine what you can pay them so they are no longer constantly distracted with financial needs.

You pay them so they can focus on preaching, teaching, shepherding, training, discipling the church body and not have to worry about paying their bills–feeding their family, constantly worry about money above the feeding of the flock. That is not to say they don’t clip coupons or have a detailed budget they live by, or are not good stewards.

And hopefully they choose not to live on the high end of their income. But money should not be a continual struggle in their lives and on their mind, so they can be free to work hard to feed God’s people with preaching and teaching. Even poor Christians in poor regions need to exercise faith and practice generosity.

First Corinthians 9:14, “So also the Lord directed those who proclaim the gospel to get their living from the gospel.” Honor all elders with respect plus affirmation. And honor some elders with a generous paycheck–that’s double honor. FBC, you do and do it well. Churches are to treat their elders as responsible undershepherds. Therefore, churches should be . . .

#1  Paying them, and . . .

#2  PROTECTING them  Verses 19 to 21  Be Careful with your confrontations

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. 21 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”

One sad truth about the church is this–the light always draws flies. A true church will have born again saints who follow Christ. But along with the wheat grows what? Tares. The church will also contain a few who are sown in the body to cause sickness and disease. And like their master, some will falsely accuse a leader. They will resent his calling, reject his teaching, dislike God’s Word, or be jealous of God’s blessing in his life. So they raise questions, second guess intentions, judge motives, invent innuendos and like Satan they will use their most dangerous weapon–false accusations.

False reports can range from vocalized innocent speculations, to intentional lies. “I wonder what he’s saying to Mrs Jezebel? . . . I saw him walking down the liquor aisle at Von’s.” False reports and direct accusations are the attack of the enemy through people at leaders. Those who are accused are in good company–Moses, David, Jeremiah, the Apostle Paul, our Lord Jesus Christ, and every solid leader today all suffer from false accusations.

There is a trust that must be extended to those in leadership or they can’t lead. When that trust is discredited by false reports, it can destroy their ministry. It’s important for the church to know how to protect their leaders from false accusations, so Paul gives Timothy instructions how to deal with allegations against elders.

Of course the New Testament commands you to maintain healthy responses to saints who sin. “Love covers a multitude of sins.” Overlook unintentional sin and privately deal with what appears to be intentional, dangerous, defiant or divisive sin. Then directly from this text . . .

First  Unsubstantiated comments are to be REJECTED

God commands in verse 19, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” Literally, you yourself don’t receive—meaning, don’t entertain or consider in your mind, don’t think on it, don’t dwell on any of these accusations, speculations, or doubts. Those comments are not to be investigated, entertained or considered. They are to be rejected–totally ignored.

God is calling for you to turn a deaf ear to them as one of the best ways to protect your elders.  By using the word accusation, Paul is using a compound word from against and public meeting place–the idea is anything said as a public attack or said in conversation undermining an elder. It is not to be entertained in your mind at all.

Second  Conditions must be met in order to CONSIDER an allegation

Verse 19 adds, “except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” The church should not even give a hearing to accusations unless there are 2 to 3 witnesses—there must be more than one, and three is preferred. The accusation may yet prove false, but it must be confirmed by 2 to 3. The Old Testament (Deuteronomy 19), and New Testament (Matthew 18) both affirm the necessity of confirmation by 2 to 3.

Elders are not beyond accusation, but must be protected from illegitimate accusation. Because elders are leaders who confront, expose sin, and address hidden issues, they cannot be left at the mercy of frivolous accusations, masked revenge, personal vendettas, or speculative slander. Elders and leaders must be protected.

Long ago, a family in the church wanted to give me a bad report about another and I immediately said, “I trust them.” Their response was, “We knew you’d say that” . . . for which I was glad. To attack someone in authority is a very serious matter. Remember how David felt when he snipped off a part of the king’s robe? In 1 Samuel 24:5, “It came about afterward … David’s conscience bothered him because he had cut off the edge of Saul’s robe.”

So what if, after legitimate confrontation, the elder does not repent of this sin? Paul tells Timothy and Ephesus in verse 20, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” Elders are to be protected from false accusations, but elders do not receive immunity from biblical confrontation.

God commands that elders who intentionally continue in sin be publicly rebuked–the command rebuke meaning to expose, to bring to open conviction, to correct in the presence of all. This means not merely before the elders, but before the congregation. An unrepentant sinning elder has nowhere to hide. Why? Because, they are more responsible.

Like James 3:1 reminds us, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.” There is a stricter judgment because there is greater spiritual responsibility given to elders and teachers. If an elder’s choice to sin has ruined his credibility and he is no longer above reproach, it doesn’t matter if he has repented or not, he must be brought before his spiritual family.

There are two guides, like banks of a river that must direct dealing with a sinning elder. On one side, you must realize there are certain sins that demand disqualification. Adultery is one–adultery is like popping a balloon. There is no restoring or repairing–the reproach of that sin never goes away.

Listen to Proverbs 6:32 and 33, “The one who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; he who would destroy himself does it. 33 Wounds and disgrace he will find, and his reproach will [what?] not be blotted out.” A repentant elder must be forgiven and embraced by the church, but it does not mean they should automatically be restored to ministry–sometimes that never can happen.

On the other side, elders have sinful bents and battles with sin (like every other Christian) which they themselves war against–and those should not be used against them, unless they become intentional, dangerous or damaging to others. Far too many preaching pastor friends have been under the sweat lamp of scrutiny when their church suffers a trial.

Demon-motivated accusations always use the same ammo–they attack a man’s weaknesses, personality bents and pastoral shortcomings. Those become accusation fodder, shot like a cannon against him–and they keep firing until something sticks, destroying faithful men, crushing their families, and damaging the church, when none of it is actually disqualifying.

All those who desire great ministry for Christ, hear this warning–service to Christ as an elder, pastor, deacon, community shepherd is a two-edged sword. Those who serve faithfully are to be honored and protected, but those who sin are to be removed and publicly rebuked. Why public rebuke? God says in verse 20, “so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.”

The Greek word rest refers to others in the same class–the class here being elders. When one elder is publicly disgraced because of sin, that rebuke puts a healthy fear into the hearts of other elders and into the flock as well. Fear, along with love, is a proper motive for avoiding sin and obeying God.

Second Corinthians 7:1, “Beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” Fearing God in order to not sin and fearing God to move you to do what is right, even though it’s difficult, is good. All attempts to hush up an elder’s sinful compromise will cause God’s Church to question the credibility of those who cover it up–don’t do it.

I recently talked to a missionary and told him, “If you cover this leader’s sin up, the entire congregation will lose trust in you and the other leaders.” It doesn’t matter how important this man was or is to the church, when you hide their sin you violate their trust in you. It is so important, Paul says this in verse 21, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”

To publicly rebuke a sinning elder takes courage–so in order for Timothy to not shrink away, Paul literally charges Timothy to be unbiased and impartial. Paul reminds Timothy–God the Father, God the Son Jesus Christ, and all His chosen angels are watching. They are the ones to fear, not the reactions of men.

All of heaven is concerned with the purity of the Church. And a church that tolerates intentional sinning from its leaders to protect its reputation on Earth will lose its reputation in Heaven. No one is to receive preferential treatment. Christians are to show no bias. There must be no effort to protect those who are famous, specially gifted, or popular. The attitude must be one of sorrow over sin.

To rebuke sinning leaders is not easy, but God requires it because holiness in the Church must be upheld. The big question facing the church is, whether you’re more concerned about your reputation or God’s reputation and holiness. Don’t listen to or share false accusations, slander, and comments undermining trust. But confront a leader’s defiant sin and pursue them in order that they would repent.

Churches are to treat their elders as responsible undershepherds by . . .

#1  PAYING them, and by

#2  PROTECTING them, and by

#3  PICKING them  Verses 22 to 25  Be slow in your selections

Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. 23 No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments” (verses 22 and 23). The best way to prevent unqualified elders from serving in the ministry is to not lay hands upon anyone too quickly. Do not be too fast to appoint leaders.

Laying on of hands is affirming a man’s suitability to be an elder. Laying on of hands was a public affirmation of their acceptance into public ministry. Laying on of hands expressed solidarity, union and identification with them. The laying on of hands had its roots in the Old Testament, when they laid hands on the sacrificial animal to identify with it.

Its usage in the New Testament also means those men laying hands on another identify with him. Three categories laid hands on others in the New Testament—1) The apostles, 2) close associates of the apostles, like Timothy, and 3) elders laid hands on new elders. Today, it only falls upon elders of the church to lay hands on select others in order to set them apart for unique ministry–usually an elder, deacon, missionary, or future pastor teacher.

God tells elders and congregations, do not set someone part for ministry too quickly. The examination, investigation, and relational confirmation requires time to determine three crucial aspects of supported ministry. Do you have a desire to be in ministry? Then ask others and ask yourself if you have . . .

1  CHARACTER that’s humble

Do they have the character of life?  1 Timothy 3:1 to 13

2  FUNCTION that’s proven

If an elder, do they function as a shepherd? Or if they are deacon, are they a proven, church wide, 24/7 servant? Or if they are a pastor-teacher, do they function as a hardworking preacher equipper teacher?

3  FIT that’s natural

Do they fit in the doctrine, direction and personality of the church? Character, biblical function and fit. If the leaders and congregation do not investigate, then it leaves the church liable to sharing the responsibility for the sins of others. Verse 22b, “and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.”

Share is the word fellowship/sharing–a hasty approval of a leader without proper examination makes those who appoint that leader actually share in the responsibility of that man’s sins. By exercising proper caution in choosing elders, Timothy keeps himself free from sin. The word keep, “keep yourself free,” means to exercise watchful care. And “free from sin” is literally pure from sin. So by not lifting up unqualified leaders and thus avoiding participation in their sins, Timothy would remain pure.

Paul then inserts this parenthetical comment in verse 23, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” By calling for Timothy to remain pure, Paul wasn’t promoting rigid legalism or harsh ascetism. Paul did not want Timothy to injure his health–so he clarifies in verse 23 that purity doesn’t mean drinking only water, like drinking only water makes you more pure. No.

Literally, you yourself, Timothy, use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. Timothy had obviously committed himself to the total abstinence from wine. He desired to be a model of spiritual virtue and never establish an example that might cause someone to participate in liberty, like wine, that might ruin their life.

Paul instructed Timothy not to let that commitment injure his own health. Water in the ancient world and in many places today was impure. Water carried diseases, like dysentery and giardia. I got giardia from a stream at 11,000 feet in the High Sierras. I have also contracted dysentery in foreign lands.

Paul advised his number one apostolic assistant to use a little wine to safeguard Timothy’s health from the sickness-producing effects of polluted water. It was a medicinal use of wine to kill the germs in water. By advocating the temporary, curative use of wine, Paul does not ask Timothy to alter his commitment to the highest standard of behavior for leaders–using a little wine will not affect his purity. It will merely help with his health.

After this aside in 23, Paul returns to his main emphasis of selecting elders. He gives Timothy four helpful picking principles in verses 24 and 25. “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. 25 Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.”

What does this mean? Simple–if you watch them carefully, then if the guy is a bad pick, it’ll become obvious and known. If the guy is a good pick, it will become obvious too. What Paul is telling Timothy here is very important. The truth will be known in time. Trust the Lord. The bad eggs will show their rottenness and the good eggs will show their protein.

All ministry benefits from this principle. A good tree will demonstrate healthy fruit in time and the bad tree will produce none or produce its poison. Truth in time. You have to wait and trust the Lord and the good picks will become distinct from the bad picks. The local church desperately needs qualified, functioning, and fit men to serve as elders. And we as the church must pay some, protect all and pick only those whom God has set aside for this great work.


#1  You can’t ignore your earthly dad, and you can’t ignore your spiritual FATHERS

No matter what your age, you are to honor your parents. And no matter what your spiritual age, you are to honor your elders. They are the spiritual fathers of the flock–not the men in control, not barking orders, not cowboys over the herd, but spiritual dads whose main goal is the spiritual health of the flock. Get to know them, encourage them, pray for them, and help them shepherd this great flock.

And do you know how you can minister to them best? This is how to bless your elders. Pursue 3 John 4, “I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.” Live by God’s Word!

#2  God is the one who sovereignly selects your elders, and God is the one who sovereignly DIRECTS you

God is the one who appoints elders, we as the church merely recognize those God has chosen. Acts 20:28, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” What about you? God has a specific plan for each one of you.

In Ephesians 2:10, “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” If you’re God’s child, you have a special calling to fulfill. As you faithfully serve, as you seek to obey the Word in all things, the Lord will make your calling clear to you and others. The most joyful, full, abundant Christian life is experienced by living out your preselected sovereign calling–go for it.

#3  Make certain your heart is in SUBMISSION to Christ

True elders are those who seek the one will of Christ for His Church. And true Christians are those who seek the one will of Christ for their everyday lives. Second Corinthians 5:15, “And He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.”

You were saved to live for Christ, not to live for yourself. You were saved to serve Him, not yourself. You were saved to do all you do each day for Him–do you? Are you truly His? Is your life lived for Him? He is God, your creator–yet in arrogant rebellion you chose to rebel, corrupting your entire mind and heart with sin.

But He loved you so much, He took the punishment for your sin. He became sin so you could live now and forever with Him. And those Christ saves live for Him. If you don’t, you are not His. Surrender in faith and repentance to Christ today. Life begins in Christ. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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