The Role of Pastors in the Church (1 Timothy 5:17-25)

Sermon by Daniel L. Sonnenberg | January 11, 2015

This message is adapted from a sermon by Philip Ryken, entitled “What Sheep Owe Their Shepherds” in the Reformed Expository Commentary series on 1 Timothy.


17 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.  22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.  23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)  24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.  25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. (1 Tim. 5:17-25 )


Paul’s first letter to Timothy is sometimes treated as a manual of church government.  It’s much more than that, of course, but some parts of it do sound like something out of a book of church order.  This is especially true of chapter five, which closes with a set of instructions about elders.

The instructions seem to fall into three categories: remuneration – how pastors should be paid (17-18); accusation – how pastors should be disciplined (19-20); and ordination – how pastors should be called to the ministry in the first place (22-25).  This may not seem like an exciting topic, but consider what happens when these instructions are ignored. If pastors are not adequately paid, then they are distracted by worldly cares. If they are falsely accused, then their teaching will be dismissed. If they are not disciplined, then the whole church will fall into disgrace, especially if they should have never been allowed to become pastors in the first place.


Paul introduces this section of teaching by explaining what sheep owe their shepherds. Look at verse 17.  “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” The elders mentioned here are the same men as those who are called overseers in chapter three.

What Paul says to Timothy gives some clues about what these men actually do: they “rule,” that is, they direct the affairs of the church.  In other words, these spiritual leaders manage God’s household. This means that they teach Biblical doctrine, pray for the work of the gospel, and chart a vision for the church’s future. They also warn wayward sinners and welcome them back when they repent.

To one degree or another, all the elders do all these things.  But here a distinction seems to be made between two kinds of elders, what Presbyterians call teaching elders and ruling elders.  Some elders labor as preachers.  In the contemporary church they usually are fulltime members of the church staff.  Since they do the bulk of the public teaching, they’re identified as teaching elders.  The difficulty of their work is suggested by the word “labor,” which is a term for strenuous effort.  Ruling elders are able to teach, of course, but that is not their primary vocation.  Most of them have fulltime jobs outside the church, yet one important part of their life’s work is to rule or to govern the spiritual affairs of God’s household.

This is what elders do. The main point here is that some of them deserve what is called “double honor.”  The word for “honor” was often used in that day to refer to a stipend or an allowance. This is illustrated by the English word “honorarium,” which is a gift given to a pastor for teaching on a special occasion, such as a wedding, a funeral, or a Bible conference.  The word honor is also used this way earlier in this chapter in verse 3 when Paul tells Timothy to “honor widows who are truly widows.” The kind of honor he has in mind is financial support.

So what is “double honor”?  Some scholars think this has to do with compensation.  However, it’s unlikely that double refers only to a church’s salary scale.  There’s another kind of honor that may explain what Paul has in mind.  Honor can also mean “respect.”  Because of the importance of preaching and teaching in the church, pastors who do their jobs well are worthy of corresponding respect. They deserve respect as well as a stipend. They are worthy of double honor.

Respect for pastoral ministry can come in many forms.  It starts with how members of the church speak to and about their pastor. The command to honor explains why the pastor is sometimes called Reverend. Honor also includes receiving his counsel and even his correction in accordance with God’s will. As Hebrews 13:7 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Another form of respect is to encourage a pastor.  Few things are more helpful to a preacher of the gospel than specific words of encouragement for his ministry.

This doesn’t mean that pastors should go around expecting to be treated like kings.  Paul has already warned them in chapter 3 not to be greedy. (v. 3) In fact, a man who loves money is ineligible to become a teaching elder at all.  But it’s not the church’s responsibility to teach their pastor to be content to giving him the gift of poverty either!

When a church refuses to pay its pastor a decent wage, it’s in disobedience to the will of God.  As Paul writes in verse 18, “For the scripture says, ‘you shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain’, and, ‘the laborer deserves his wages.’” Both of these examples come from down on the farm.  The first is a direct quotation from Deuteronomy 25:4.  When a beast of burden is helping with the harvest, it’s entitled to eat some of grain even as it works. Besides, it’ll work longer and harder if it gets something to eat along the way.  So what’s fair for livestock is fair for clergy as well. They too should be given enough to live.

The second quotation likely comes from Jesus himself as we read earlier.  When he sent his disciples out two by two, he told them not to take any money with them. Instead, he told them to stay wherever people would give them a room, because the laborer deserves his wages. (Luke 10:7.) Preachers of the gospel are like farmhands: they deserve room and board in exchange for hard labor.

Sheep have always owed their shepherds a decent wage. The Levites of the Old Testament were supported so they could devote themselves to God’s word. King Hezekiah commanded the people who lived in Jerusalem to give the portion due to the priests and the Levite so they might give themselves to the law of the Lord. The Chronicler wrote, “As soon as the command was spread, the people of Israel gave in abundance the first fruits of grain, wine, oil, honey, and of all the produce of the field.  And they brought in abundantly the tithe of everything.” (2 Chronicles 31: 4-5.) Churches don’t need to pay their pastors in oil and honey necessarily, but the principle is still valid. Every pastor should have his basic needs adequately met.  Otherwise, he may become distracted from his true calling.

To that end, the church board should ask their pastor if his needs are being met.  A good rule of thumb to follow is that the pastor should receive roughly the average wage of the people in that congregation. Paul was an exception to this rule because he sometimes provided for his own needs by working as a tent maker. (Acts 18:3).  But he understood that he was an exception, so he always insisted on the right of teaching elders to benefit from their labor saying to the Corinthian church, “The Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:14), and to the Galatian church “And let the one who is taught the word share all good things with him who teaches” (Galatians 6:6).


The elders who deserve double honor are the ones who “do their work well” as we saw in chapter 3:4. This suggests that others do not do so well.  Delinquent elders were a problem in Ephesus.  Although Timothy had to deal with them, Paul directed in v. 19 that he should not “admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses”.  These instructions explain how to handle a grievance against an elder.  It almost sounds as if elders get special treatment, yet the bible always insists it takes at least two witnesses to convict someone. The bible is clear that a single witness will not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense he’s committed.  As we read earlier in Deuteronomy, “Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” (Deut 19:15; 2 Cor 13:1). And Jesus applied the same rule to everyone in the church, not just to elders, when he said in Matthew 18:16, “But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”

What’s unique for elders is that they may not even be accused of a sin unless there are multiple witnesses.  Two or three witnesses are required, not for a conviction, but before an accusation can be entertained at all.  The wisdom of this command is obvious, especially in our own scandalous time.  In recent decades American politics has been dominated by scandal, often of the “he-said, she-said” variety.  In many cases it proves impossible to know the truth, yet the accusations themselves generate endless gossip.  The same thing can happen in the church.  When a church member stirs up trouble by slandering one of the elders, either publicly or privately, even if the charges ultimately prove to be unfounded, the man’s reputation will be tarnished. That’s why every elder should be presumed innocent until he gets a fair hearing.

One reason to be especially cautious about attacks against the elders of the church is that Satan is out is to destroy their ministry.  As Calvin says, “None are more exposed to slanders and insults than godly teachers.  This comes not only from the difficulty of their duties, but even when they do all their duties correctly and commit not even the smallest error, they never avoid a thousand criticisms. It is indeed a trick of Satan to estrange men from their pastors so as to gradually bring their teaching into contempt.  In this way not only is wrong done to innocent people whose reputation is undeservedly injured, but the authority of God’s holy teaching is diminished.”

But this doesn’t mean that teaching and ruling elders are above the law. Quite the opposite. The fact that they receive special protection from slander makes their sins all the more serious. As verse 20 says, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” If the charge against a repeat offender can be proven, his sin should be brought out into the open, as Paul brought Peter’s hypocrisy to the attention of the church in Antioch.  (See Galatians 2:11-14.)  However, public rebuke ought to be the last resort.  First an elder should be reproved privately, especially if the sin is a private one.  But if an elder refuses to repent of dishonorable sin, he should be treated the way Paul treated Hymenaeus and Alexander, who were “handed over to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme.” (1 Tim 1:20.)

In these undisciplined times many churches have allowed discipline to fall into disuse.  Christian leaders too rarely have the courage to correct sinners.  Sometimes there is a kind of cover-up. Even scoundrels never get punished, so people think they can get away with sin and the whole church is harmed.  When a scandalous pastor or elder is rebuked in front of the entire congregation, then “the rest” – meaning the rest of the elders –will be warned not to sin.  No doubt the rest of the church will take the hint also. Literally, they will “stand in fear,” fearing not only the consequences of sin, but also God himself, who is perfectly holy and ought to be feared by every sinner. In this context, we’re reminded of the punishment for idolaters in the Old Testament which was intended to have the same effect: “And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this.” (Deut 13:11.)

Timothy may have been a little afraid himself when he read the apostles instructions.  The reason Paul wrote to him in the first place was to tell him to “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine” (1 Tim 1:3).  This put Timothy in an awkward position. It might have been tempting for Timothy to lock himself in his study and hope that his problems would simply disappear. But problems in the church never go away all by themselves, so the apostle gives him a solemn warning in v. 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.” When it comes to church discipline, Timothy had to be evenhanded.  He had to handle each case without prejudice, being careful not to entertain an unfair accusation, even if he thought it might be true.  On the other hand, he couldn’t sweep things under the rug just because the man accused was a fellow elder.  Pastors and elders may not play favorites. An accusation against an elder must be judged solely on the merits of the case.

Anyone who has ever been involved in a dispute in the church knows how difficult it is to avoid choosing sides.  To help pastors and elders remain impartial, the Bible gives the reminder that every act of church discipline is carried out “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels.” (V.21.)

In other words, if God will render perfect justice at the end of history, then justice should be done in the present.  Whenever a judgment is called for, the church ought to give the judgment that God himself would give, without partiality or favoritism.  One day even pastors and elders who render judgment must appear before the throne of Christ to account for their actions.


We might suspect that the turmoil in the church of Ephesus was stressful, because Paul tells Timothy in v. 23: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” It’s not entirely clear why Timothy’s drinking habits are mentioned. But most likely, pastoral ministry was giving Timothy a case of indigestion, and he needed to take some wine for medicinal purposes. Timothy had to look after his health, but as we saw in chapter three (v. 3) elders must not be drunkards, so any such drinking must be done moderation.

What’s more important than Timothy’s drinking habits is what Paul says about ordinations in v. 22: “Don’t be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.” In the New Testament, the laying on of hands usually refers to ordination. The Holy Spirit appointed men to pastoral or evangelistic ministry through the laying on of hands.

Ordination is not something to be taken lightly.  f a church is not careful about who gets ordained, it’s liable to have a mess on its hands, which is exactly what Timothy had in Ephesus.  Yet we have similar problems in our own times as well.  In one case, the pastor of a historic church in a major city was removed from his pulpit for committing adultery. A few years later his successor was removed from the same pulpit for the same offense.  Anyone who has suffered through such a disaster knows the wisdom of Paul’s counsel to Timothy.  One of the best ways to avoid church scandal is to be careful whom you ordain in the first place. The procedures for ordaining teaching elders in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church include a number of steps: first the man becomes a member of his local church.  When his elders can testify to his Christian character and promise of the usefulness in the ministry, he submits himself to the care and guidance of the Presbytery in his course of study and practical training to prepare himself for the ministry. Before being licensed to preach the gospel, he will be examined in his Christian experience, his sense of call to the ministry, his practical knowledge of the English Bible, his understanding of Biblical doctrine, church history, church government, the sacraments, the responsibilities of the office of the minister, and his ability to preach. During this time he must complete an internship in pastoral ministry, and normally he will also earn a master of divinity degree at a Bible-teaching seminary. And the man will not be ordained until finally he is called to serve as a pastor in a local church.  All these requirements help to prevent ordinations that are too hasty.

The requirements for ruling elders are much less strenuous, but they are just as important to follow. A ruling elder must first be nominated by a member of the congregation. Then he is examined as to his life and doctrine. Once the elders have approved him as a candidate for elder, he is presented back to the congregation for election.

Ordination to the office of elder is a solemn occasion, not only for the man who’s ordained, but also for those who ordain him.  Paul tells Timothy to keep himself pure and “not to take part in the sins of others.” This seems to suggest that Timothy bears spiritual responsibility for the man he ordains. If elders fall into scandalous sin, it will be a reflection on his ministry. He will be implicated in their scandal, at least in part. The way for him to keep his hands clean, therefore, is to refuse to lay them on the men who are not qualified to become elders.

One good reason to proceed to ordination with caution is that a person’s suitability for ministry is not always immediately obvious.  As verses 24-25 say, “the sins of some men are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.  So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not can’t remain hidden.”

These verses describe four kinds of people.  Some people are such blatant sinners that they can be ruled out for leadership from the beginning.  Their reputation precedes them.  In fact, unless they turn away from their sins and come to Christ in faith and repentance, they will surely end up in hell.

Other sins are much less conspicuous, especially in the church, where we typically find the most sophisticated sinners of all.  Some sins take a while to surface.  But eventually, when the peace of the church is disturbed or when there’s trouble in a family, the sin will come to light.  Therefore, the church should take its time to discern whether a man is really qualified to be an elder.  In fact, the more pushy someone becomes about taking a leading role in the ministry of a church, the more reason there is to be cautious.

This principle can be applied positively as well as negatively according to verse 25, “so also good works are conspicuous.” True godliness shines like the sun. There are some candidates who obviously belong in the ministry.  They not only have strong gifts; they also have servants’ hearts.  Not every good deed is equally obvious of course, but “even those that are not can’t remain hidden” as verse 25 says.  Good deeds done in secret are still known to God.  To apply this to ordination, some men who don’t have obvious gifts for pastoral ministry will eventually realize their potential.  So Paul wants Timothy to give them a second chance to make a first impression.  He shouldn’t rule out the man who may later develop into a good pastor.  This applies not just to pastors, but also to the quiet work of every humble Christian servant.

To summarize, there are four kinds of people in the visible church. Jerome, a fourth century church leader and contemporary of Augustine, described these four kinds of people this way: “Certain persons sin so deliberately and flagrantly that you no sooner see them and you know them at once to be sinners. But the defects of others are so cunningly concealed that we only learn them from subsequent information.  Similarly, the good deeds of some people are public property, while those of others become to know only through long intimacy with them.”

The obvious practical question is this: what kind of persons are you and I?  What will people find out about us in the days to come?  Will our sins catch up with us?  Or will people discover that we are much godlier than they ever expected?

Some sinners won’t be found out until judgment day. Then their works will be revealed and will perish with them. Fortunately, many good deeds will also be brought to light on that day. In this life some worthy Christian men and women seem completely overlooked. Yet because they’ve received the grace that can be found only in Jesus Christ, they quietly perform many beautiful acts of self-sacrifice. And one day all their good works will be revealed, to the praise of god’s glory.

There’s a wonderful example of this in The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.  In the story, a man travels to the outskirts of heaven where he sees a most magnificent woman.  All around her are dancing lights, spirits scattering flowers, and boys and girls singing beautiful songs.  The traveler imagines her to be some famous person from earth.  When he asks his guide if this is the case, the guide says, “Not at all. It’s someone you‘ve never heard of.” The traveler says in response, “She seems to be a very important person.” The guide replies, “Yes she’s one of the great ones. As you’ve heard, fame in this country and fame on earth are two quite different things.”

Many things will look different in the light of eternity.  By the power of God’s grace, we are all called to perform the kind of good deeds that will not be hidden forever, and especially those who are shepherds who serve Christ’s sheep.

Categories: 1 Timothy, 2015, Church Leadership, Sermons

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