The Church and Its Pastors
Passage: 1 Timothy 5:17-21
I’m excited to preach this passage today but not for the reason you might first think. Of course, this passage has to do with the church’s relationship to its pastors, and if you are at all familiar with vv. 17–18 you might think, “What a golden opportunity for Pastor to challenge us about how we need to pay him and respect me.” Certainly, we have to touch on those things because God raises them in his Word, but that’s not what I’m most looking forward to discussing.
Rather, this passage is full of very important truth regarding what God expects Life Point to be, and we should all be passionate, not just pastors, about seeing our church honor God in ever area. But there’s also a lot of important truth in this passage for your personal life as a Christian. We are going to be challenged today about how we should serve Christ with excellence, how we should relate to those in authority, and how we should respond when we suspect sin in other people or hear accusations of sin.
None of it’s rocket science, but we often fail to live what Paul says here, and we suffer and those around us suffer as a result. And so there is a lot of significant truth here for all of us, whether you are in an official position of leadership in the church or if you are a brand new Christian just trying to figure things out.
There are two pretty obvious sections to this passage that each have a very different feel. Verses 17–18 couldn’t be more positive. They talk about the church giving “double honor” to pastors who are doing a great job, and they picture a very warm, friendly relationship.
However, vv. 19–21 have a very sober tone as they address what the church should do when a serious accusation is leveled against a pastor.
Let’s begin by looking at vv. 17–18, which command the church to…
Honor faithful elders (vv. 17–18).
I’d like to divide our study of vv. 17–18 into three important questions. First…
Who are the elders?
I think it is fairly obvious that the elders in this passage are not simply older people; rather, they are officer in the church. We know that because the elders are responsible to rule and to teach, and they are to be paid for their service.
Clearly, these are church officers, but there is a lot of disagreement among denominations about exactly what office Paul has in mind. We are a Baptist church, and as Baptists we believe that there are only two offices in the church—pastors and deacons, and they are ultimately accountable to the congregation. We believe that the church is the final authority in church matters, not its leadership.
However, those who believe in elder-rule such as Presbyterians and many Bible churches will often point to this passage as saying that there are essentially three offices in the church. They believe in deacons, but they split the pastoral office into ruling elders and teaching elders. And v. 17 is one of the primary places they go for justification because it talks about elders who rule and elders who teach.
But the problem with this interpretation is that Paul doesn’t actually say there are two kinds of elders. Rather he says the church should honor elders who “rule well” and, you could say, “in particular those who labor in the word and doctrine.” And so Paul’s purpose is not to establish two distinct groups of elders but to simply say that the church should especially honor the ruling elders who work hard at preaching and teaching. And we saw in 1 Timothy 3 that all pastors must have the gift of teaching. The NT never establishes a distinct office of ruling elder that is not responsible to pastor. And so in sum, the elders in this passage are pastors, or as chapter 3 calls them overseers.
The second question is…
What is their responsibility in the church?
As I already noted, Paul mentions two basic responsibilities. First…
They must rule.
Again, this word often gets defined differently. Elder-rule churches believe this means absolute rule. In the their form of government, the congregation doesn’t have any authority. All the authority resides in the elder board. But the NT talks about the congregation choosing deacons, exercising church discipline, and so forth. Therefore, as Baptists we believe the pastor’s authority is ultimately subject to the congregation.
But under their authority, pastors are still responsible to “rule” as this verse says. A pastor must work hard to manage the business and life of the church. He must also make sure that everyone in the congregation received good spiritual care. A good pastor must be more than a theologian and a teacher. He must rule well.
But that’s not to say that he can get by with not being a theologian and teacher. Paul goes on to say that the church should especially honor pastors who labor in preaching and teaching.
They must preach and teach.
The Greek verb Paul uses describes strenuous labor. Therefore, Paul pictures a good pastor as being a student of the Word who spends considerable time in Scriptures finding out exactly what they mean and working to teach it well to God’s church.
God is clear that the preaching and teaching ministry of the church must be more than a pep talk. It must be rooted in deep study of the Bible, which the pastor uses to feed his congregation. Sadly, this kind of teaching is nonexistent in many churches. The people are more interested in being entertained than fed, or the pastor is more enthralled with his own wittiness than the rich truths of God.
Charles Spurgeon said in his Lectures to My Students, “Some brethren have done with their text as soon as they have read it. Having paid all due honor to that particular passage by announcing it, they feel no necessity further to refer to it. They touch their hats, as it were, to that part of Scripture, and pass on to fresh fields and pastures new. Why do such men take a text at all? Why limit their own glorious liberty?...Surely the words of inspiration were never meant to be boothooks to help a Talkative to draw on his seven-leagued boots in which to leap from pole to pole” (pp. 72 –73).
This is an important warning for Pastor Kris and me. We need to always make sure that we give lots of time to study and that we are feeding you biblical meat. But it is also very important that you value the meat of the Word and that you come to church on Sundays prepared to engage your mind in the truth of God because you see the Word as your necessary food. Make sure that you come to church not merely looking for emotional buzz that will be gone in a couple of hours but instead looking for a healthy meal that will build strength and maturity and give you sustained energy to endure.
Again, I’d like to quote from Spurgeon. He says, “The true value of a sermon must lie, not in its fashion and manner, but in the truth which it contains. Nothing can compensate for the absence of teaching; all the rhetoric in the world is but as chaff to the wheat in contrast to the gospel of our salvation” (p. 70). “Rousing appeals to the affections are excellent, but if they are not backed up by instruction they are a mere flash in the pan, powder consumed and no shot sent home. Rest assured that the most fervid revivalism will wear itself out in mere smoke, if it be not maintained by the fuel of teaching. The divine method is to put the law in the mind, and then write it on the heart; the judgment is enlightened, and then the passions subdued” (p. 71). “It is infamous to ascend your pulpit and pour over your people rivers of language, cataracts of words, in which mere platitudes are held in solution like infinitesimal grains of homeopathic medicine in an Atlantic of utterance. Better far give the people masses of unprepared truth in the rough, like pieces of meat from a butcher’s block, chopped off anyhow, bone and all, and even dropped down in the sawdust, than ostentatiously and delicately hand them out upon a china dish a delicious slice of nothing at all, decorated with the parsley of poetry, and flavored with the sauce of affectation” (p. 74).
I hope your heart resonates with that. I hope you come to church every weak ready to chew meat, not merely to snack on some Skittles.
A good pastor must lead the flock and feed the flock. This brings us to the third question…
How should the congregation respond?
God says that the congregation must respond to the pastor who leads and feeds well by “counting him worthy of double honor.” Verse 18 is clear that this honor involves paying him for his work, but we shouldn’t read “double honor” as meaning that a pastor who does a good job should get double the salary. Paul is going to have some very strong words in chapter 6 about greed, so he can’t mean that pastors should get rich off their ministry. The better understanding of “double honor” is that it refers to respect and financial remuneration.
The church must respect the pastor who does his job well. Sadly, we live in a day where people look at pastors with more and more suspicion. And sadly many pastors haven’t helped their cause. There are a lot of lazy pastors out there who shouldn’t be in the ministry, or who have done great harm to the church by their sin. I know that some of you were really hurt by what happened here almost three years ago, and it might be that your love for the church and your trust in pastoral leadership still hasn’t recovered.
There’s no doubt that trust is not a right; it is earned. And Pastor Kris and I want to earn that trust. But at the same time a cynical skepticism that denies God’s good and sovereign rule over our lives is sin. I hope that all of us will respect the office God has established and that as we do our jobs well that you will give thanks to God and support our leadership.
I’m very thankful for how you have gotten behind us and followed our lead. I know guys who have gone into churches and met with constant resistance from the start, but my transition has not been like that at all. It’s been very smooth, and I am very grateful for that.
The second half of double honor is…
Verse 18 is clear that Paul intends this, and it fits well with how vv. 3–16 said to honor widows. Verse 18 makes this point with two quotations. The first quote comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. At harvest, the people would gather shocks of grain and take them to a threshing floor. It was very common to have an ox pull a heavy sled over the grain to separate it from the husks. God said that the ox must be allowed to eat some of the grain he is threshing.
And the point behind this law was to make sure Israel treated the ox humanely by allowing him to enjoy the fruits of his work. Paul also quotes this command in 1 Corinthians 9:9, and he goes on to say, “Is it oxen God is concerned about? Or does He say it altogether for our sakes?” Paul understood the law as establishing the principle that workers should be paid for their work.
Paul’s second quote comes from Luke 10:7, which is rather significant in that it demonstrates that Luke’s gospel was written early and that Paul considered it to be Scripture. Liberals don’t like that Paul understood that, but it’s right there. Jesus said workers should be paid.
Again, Paul says some fairly strong things in 1 Timothy about greed because of the abuses of the false teachers. It’s very possible that some were swinging the pendulum the other way and saying that pastors shouldn’t be paid at all or very little. But Paul understood that this wasn’t in the church’s best interest. The church needed to give its pastors the ability to wholly dedicate themselves to the ministry, so that they could labor in the Word and preach well and so that they could administer all of the other business of the church. A paid ministry isn’t just a pastoral perk; it benefits everyone, assuming the pastors are working hard, like v. 18 describes.
Again, I’m so grateful for how you take care of us. I have friends in small churches where they have to work a second job. Their lives are crazy, and the church suffers.
And so vv. 18–19 say that the church must honor faithful elders. The second challenge of the passage is that the church must…
Address accusations with great care (vv. 19–21).
These verses are quite a turn from vv. 18–19. We just talked about honoring pastors who are doing a good job. There is a very positive feel to vv. 18–19. But we know from what we’ve studied so far in 1 Timothy that everything wasn’t positive in Ephesus. Hymenaeus and Alexander had already been disciplined out of the church for heresy, and it seems that some of other elders still needed to be removed. It was a tense climate, and so these three verses instruct Timothy regarding how he should handle accusations that were made against elders. There’s a lot of good stuff here, not just for dealing with pastors but for dealing accusations against anyone. Notice first that…
Accusations must be substantiated (v. 19).
In other words, Paul taught that we should assume innocence until proven guilty. Paul makes this point by again using a principle from the Law. God was concerned that Israel establish a just justice system; therefore, Deuteronomy 17:6 said that someone could not be put to death on the testimony of a single individual. Later in 19:15 the same principle is applied to any courtroom situation.
Paul’s concern in our text is just the same. He wanted to make sure that the pastors were protected from false and presumptive accusations. Therefore, he established that a pastor should not be disciplined based on the testimony of a single individual.
Therefore, the situation here is a different from what we find in Matthew 18. The sin in Matthew 18 begins with a conflict between two individuals. When the sinning party refuses to deal with his sin, Jesus says to bring a long 2 or 3 witnesses. The point of the witnesses is to confirm the first individual’s efforts to reconcile and the 2nd person’s refusal to do so. In contrast, Paul’s concern in our passage is to protect pastors from unfounded accusations. Again, we should assume innocence until the accused is proven guilty.
Folks, there is so much practical value to this verse, not only for accusations against pastors but accusations against anyone in the church or in personal relationship. The fact is that we all like the principal of “innocent until proven guilty” when we are the ones being accused, but we aren’t always very good about applying it when it with other people.
I don’t know how many times I’ve been involved in conversations with Christians where they just know what someone’s motives were or that they most definitely committed a particular sin. But when you start to ask questions, the accuser has no solid basis for his assumptions. Those kinds of assumptions are just wicked. First Corinthians 13 says that love always assumes the best of people. That’s not to say that we should be naïve, but sometimes we can be incredibly cynical toward each other. And there is no place for that in the church. We have to be committed to truth and love and to not jumping to conclusions that are not based in facts.
Paul says that any accusation against an elder must be substantiated. And if they are, then…
Unrepentant sin must be confronted openly (v. 20).
I want to begin by emphasizing the qualifier “unrepentant” because it is important. This verse concerns those who “are sinning.” That’s a present tense verb that describes an ongoing action. What Paul says here is again consistent with what Jesus taught in Matthew 18. If you confront someone over a sin and they repent and make it right, there is no need to go further with it.
But when the person refuses to repent, you move it up the ladder until the sin is brought before the church. And if the sinner continues to stand his ground and refuses to acknowledge his sin, Jesus said to “tell it to the church.” Paul says the same thing here. He says to rebuke this sinning elder in front of the whole church.
I’d like us to just imagine for a second weightiness of this situation. The sinner here isn’t just anyone; he is a pastor. And Timothy is to stand up in front of the church and publicly rebuke him.
This is the kind of step that most churches in our day would never consider. I would dare say that even most Christians would say, “how dare they publicly embarrass that man like that,” or “how dare they judge someone like that.” They may even couch those statements in very Christian language and talk about freedom in the gospel and love.
But here’s Paul, who was as committed to the grace of God as anyone who has ever lived, and he is telling Timothy to publicly rebuke the sinning elder. Why is that? Paul answers so “that the rest also may fear.”
Paul’s point is that tolerating sin sends a very destructive message both to the person sinning and to everyone around him or her. In particular, by not acting the church let’s that person think that he is okay with God when he actually isn’t. That’s not love; that’s lying. Do you realize that when a church rightly practices church discipline it is expressing one of the highest manifestations of love it can express? Someone living in sin does not need a pat on the back like everything is okay because that pat on the back just pushes him a step closer to hell. No, love tells him you are not right with God.
Again, this isn’t just an expression of love to the sinner; it’s an expression of love to the whole church. Paul says to do this so that the whole church will fear. It’s always sad to learn about someone who has fallen into sin. It breaks my heart every time. But I always benefit from it because it reminds me of the wickedness of my own heart and that drives me to run to the grace of God and to renewed spiritual discipline.
Folks, let’s all be very careful not to buy the world’s assumptions about love and discipline. Sin is wicked, and love does not overlook sin; it confronts it.
It might be that you have someone that you need to confront. He or she is heading down a path of evil, and you know it, or you suspect it. Maybe you are really nervous about saying something. You aren’t sure what to say, and you are scared that the person may blow up at you. You don’t want to lose a friend. But understand the loving that person requires confronting their sin. Love that person enough to say what they need to hear, because that person’s relationship to God is far more important than his relationship with you.
Notice finally that…
Every situation must be handled justly (v. 21).
Paul understood that the command he gave in v. 20 was absolutely necessary but also incredibly difficult. Confronting a pastor in front of his congregation is a major step. Therefore, he follows in v. 21 with a sober charge to make sure this step is only taken with great care. He calls the Father, the Son, and the elect angels, or the unfallen angels as witnesses to what he is about to say.
Paul warns Timothy to be very careful to make sure that he practices church discipline without prejudice or partiality. In other words, Timothy needed to make sure that he did not judge a situation before he had the facts and that he didn’t give preferential treatment to anyone. The church needed to see that Timothy was handling these difficult situations in a trustworthy manner that really did honor God, honor the church, and care for the sinner.
What Paul says here is so important, not only for how we practice discipline as a church but also for how we conduct our individual relationships. Sadly we let prejudice and partiality affect our thinking far too often. It’s amazing how often we can jump to conclusions when we actually know very little. As I said earlier, that is not love. And partiality helps no one.
Folks, let’s be a church where we don’t just talk about loving each other; let’s be a church where we actually do. Let’s assume the best but never ignore sin because we really do care for each other, and we want to help each other on to genuine holiness.
I hope in particular that you will never place me or any other pastor above what Paul calls on us to do here because the church deserves better and my soul needs more. And let’s pray for each other and support each other, so that we can stay as far away as possible from these sorts of sinful tragedies.
Before I close, there may be someone here who is just dumbfounded that we would take such a strong stand against sin. You’ve always heard that God is love, and you can’t see how love can take the form of public rebuke. Maybe you think that you could never serve a God who is so hard and judgmental. You are right that God does take a very harsh stance against sin, but the harshest stance he has ever taken is not in the judgment of sinners but in the judgment of his Son. When Jesus died on the cross, he bore the judgment of God against the sins of humanity so that God could remain just and also forgive sin. I pray that you will see God’s justice today through the lens of the cross, and that you will come to the cross today understanding your own sin and the judgment you deserve and that you will find forgiveness in Christ.