Text: 1 Timothy 5:17-25
Our text today gives us three principles, three encouragements when it comes to the treatment and accountability God expects between leaders and the church:
1. Honor church leaders. (vv. 17-18)
Paul singles out elders – those who teach and preach God’s word. He says these men should be considered worthy of “double honor”, or “dual honor”, which – simply put – means they should be honored by being respected. And they should be honored by being paid. Paul is teaching the church to honor your leaders, especially those elders who serve well by preaching and teaching God’s word, by showing them respect, and by allowing them to earn a living in the work of ministry.
Now it’s true that Paul didn’t take a salary from the churches he planted, and one reason was because he didn’t want his critics to be able to question his motives. But he also makes it clear, that was a personal choice for him (see 1 Cor. 9:9-14). The principle Paul taught, and backed it up with Scripture, was that those church leaders, especially those elders who labor in the word, should be paid so that they can devote their time to caring for the church in this way.
This does not diminish those pastors and church leaders who serve well, but their church cannot afford to pay them. Nor does it mean that to be a faithful pastor he has to function in a full-time ministry capacity. On the other side of the coin, this principle does not mean a pastor should be paid whatever he wants. A pastor should not become rich off of his congregation, nor should he be relegated to poverty.
2. Hold church leaders accountable. (vv. 19-20)
Remember Timothy’s situation: a church rocked by the scandal of having false teachers in leadership. Some of them have been removed. Some of them are still there. There’s probably a lot of suspicion going on. A lot of mistrust. So, Paul gives another balanced principle when it comes to holding church leaders accountable. On one side, those who are serving as church leaders deserve the benefit of the doubt (see v. 19). No charge against an elder should be heard unless it was corroborated by 2 or 3 witnesses.
This was based in OT law and Jewish culture, and was carried over into the NT church. And it wasn’t just for church leaders. It was for everyone. To be convicted of a crime in under Jewish law, there had to be at least 2 witnesses. Paul told the Corinthian church that “Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (2 Cor 13:1). That’s why it’s so important we don’t entertain gossip or slander, especially against a church leader.
But pastors don’t get a pass just because their pastors. They are held to a higher level of accountability (see v. 20). Paul tells Timothy, for those church leaders whose lives are not reflecting the character and the qualifications listed out in ch. 3, for those men who are living in patterns of sin, who are not responding when approached privately, then you must rebuke them publicly. When the church is assembled together, that church leader needs to be admonished and corrected in front of all.
And here’s the reason why: “So that the rest may stand in fear.” This could mean the rest of the false teachers, or it could mean the rest of the whole congregation who are also continuing to live lives of unchecked sin. When the wayward leader is corrected, it is meant to serve as an example to everyone that it’s not OK to believe one thing and live another, to teach one thing and live another.
As the bad leaders are being removed, Timothy had the important job of recognizing and installing new leaders. But this needs to be done carefully. So, Paul gives a series of personal instructions to Timothy in how to choose new leaders.
3. Use wisdom in choosing church leaders. (vv. 21-25)
Paul leads out with two negatives. Timothy is to fulfill this charge without prejudice, and without partiality. To be prejudiced is to judge before you know the facts. It’s to jump to wrong conclusions based on personal bias. And partiality is the opposite. It’s to give preferential treatment to someone without fair treatment to all. It’s to reward someone because of personal preference, not because of character or merit.
Paul is making it clear to Timothy, and to all Christians, we must not remove leaders or install leaders with these motives. Instead, we must be objective, which means we must make all major decisions – especially when it comes to leadership in the church – we must make those decisions based on the criteria given in scripture (the three c’s – character, call, competency), not based on personal bias.
Interjected in these instructions is a tender encouragement from Paul to Timothy concerning his personal health (v. 23). Notice the care, the love Paul had for Timothy. Paul knew Timothy well. Timothy was young, he was sometimes timid. And Timothy had some health problems. So Paul encourages Timothy to take care of himself, to not let his health go unaddressed.
And then, just as quickly as he inserted the personal note, Paul goes right back to his bigger point of using wisdom and why we need to be patient in installing church leaders. Verses 24-25 remind us for some people, their sins are obvious. For others, their sins are more hidden and will only come to light later on. For that reason, we shouldn’t be in a hurry to put people in leadership positions.
And at the same time, just like a person’s sin is not always obvious at first, sometimes a person’s good works – their talents and evidences of grace – are not always obvious. So take your time, Timothy, to get to know the people in your congregation. And over time, you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the evidences of grace you’ll see in people – the areas that God is growing and sanctifying, the areas of leadership in that man that maybe you didn’t see before.
All of these instructions Paul gives to Timothy are instructions for us today – in how we relate to church leaders, how we hold them accountable, and more than that, how each of us honor and glorify Jesus by how we love and serve the church that Jesus died for.