Paul is writing to Timothy, who was a young minister in Ephesus. And Paul was giving Timothy some instructions on the things he needed to know and to do. In chapter 1, Paul wrote to Timothy about what to do about some false teachers who were in the church. In chapter 2 he gave him instructions on public worship. In chapter 3 he gave him instructions on the qualifications for elders to govern the church and for deacons to serve the church. In chapter 4 he returned to the problem of the false teachers and he reminded Timothy of his duty to read and preach and teach God’s word. And now in chapter 5 and into chapter 6 he gives Timothy some instructions about widows and about elders and about slaves and their masters. We studied what he said about widows the last time and today we’re thinking about what he said about elders and about slaves and their masters. And what Paul says about these three groups is connected by the word ‘honour’. So, in verse 3, while the NIV says ‘Give proper recognition to those widows who are really in need’, a more literal translation of what Paul said is that we should honour such widows. And then in verse 17 he says that elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour. And in verse 1 of chapter 6, Paul tells Timothy that slaves should honour their masters. The NIV spoils the connection by using the word ‘respect’, but it should be honour. So, the church should honour needy widows. And the church should honour their elders. And slaves who are members of the church should honour their masters.
Honour good elders
Let’s turn to verses 17 to 25 where Paul refers to elders. Back in chapter 3 he called the leaders of the church ‘overseers’. Here he calls them ‘elders’. These are two titles for the same role in the church, because an overseer is an elder and an elder is an overseer. And Paul refers to two kinds of elder in verse 17. There are those elders who direct the affairs of the church. More literally, they rule the church. But then Paul refers to another kind of elder whose work is preaching and teaching. Now, according to verse 2 of chapter 3, every elder must be able to teach. That is, every elder must be able to teach the faith and explain to others what we believe. Every elder must be able to do that. But there are some elders whose work is to preach and to teach. That’s their particular calling and responsibility. And so, in the Presbyterian Church we distinguish between the ruling elders and the teaching elder. I’m the teaching elder and the other elders on the Kirk Session are the ruling elders. We get that distinction from the Bible.
And according to Paul, both kinds of elder are worthy of honour. In fact, he says that both kinds of elder are worthy of double honour. And when he says ‘double honour’, he probably means that the elders should receive both respect and payment. The word ‘honour’ includes both of those ideas, because we honour people by showing them proper respect and we sometimes talk about giving someone an honorarium, which means we give them a payment for something they have done for us.
And to back up what he says, Paul goes on in verse 18 to quote from the Scriptures. First of all, he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy and to the instruction God gave his people in Old Testament times that they should not muzzle the ox while it treads out the grain. So, the Israelites would use an ox to crush the ears of corn either by getting the ox to walk over it or by getting the ox to pull a sledge over it. And instead of muzzling the ox, so that it could not eat while it worked, the people were to let the ox eat some of the grain while it worked. And Paul uses that verse to say to us that if an ox is allowed to benefit from its work, then surely an elder in the church should be allowed to benefit from his work.
And having quoted from the Old Testament, Paul goes on to quote the words of the Lord Jesus. In Luke 10:7, the Lord said that a worker deserves his wages. If you look up Luke 10, you’ll see that he said those words when he was sending out the 72 to preach and to perform miracles in his name. And he told them that they were allowed to stay in the homes of the people they meet and they were allowed to eat and drink what they’re given, because a worker deserves his wages. He was saying to them: you deserve to be looked after and fed while you serve me. And so, since a worker deserves his wages — and we’d all agreed with that, because all of us who work look forward to pay day — then elders in the church deserve to receive payment for what they do.
I’m not aware of any Christian denomination where ruling elders are paid. Normally the ruling elders have other jobs and that’s how they earn a living. And therefore it’s normally only the teaching elder who is paid. However, both kinds of elder deserve respect and we should honour them, because Christ has given us ruling elders and teaching elders for our good. He has given us elders to watch over us and to protect us from spiritual danger and to keep us from going astray and to help us grow in the faith by teaching us God’s word. And so, we should honour them for the work they do among us by listening to them and by following their lead and their example. And when you speak about them, you should speak about them with respect. And when you pray for them — and you should pray for them — you should give thanks to God for them, because God has given them to you for your good.
Rebuke bad elders
In verses 17 and 18 Paul is referring to elders who rule well and who do what is right. In verses 19 and 20 he refers to elders who have been accused of wrongdoing.
One of the interesting things about being an elder — and especially a teaching elder — is that they can be criticised merely for doing their job. In most other occupations, someone will only face criticism if they do their work badly. So, if someone is often late, or if someone is often lazy, or if someone often make mistakes, their colleagues complain. But elders can be criticised and they can face complaints merely for doing what they’re supposed to do. Think of the work of a teaching elder, for instance. The teaching elder, the minister, is to preach the cross of Christ. But the message of the cross of Christ is offensive to human pride, because the message of the cross of Christ makes clear that all of us are sinners who deserve to be condemned and only Christ can save us. And that’s a message makes offends human pride; and often people don’t like to hear it. And then, in 2 Timothy, Paul will tell Timothy to preach God’s word, because God’s word is useful for teaching and rebuking and correcting and training. Not many people like to be rebuked. Not many people like to be corrected. And so, elders and especially teaching elders can very often face criticisms and complaints merely for doing their job.
And so, Paul begins with a necessary instruction not to entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. That was the rule which the Lord laid down for his people in Old Testament times. One witness is not enough, because perhaps the witness is a false witness and he’s trying to get you into trouble for something you didn’t do. So, the accusation needs to be corroborated by others. This applies to every situation where church discipline is required. But since elders can often face complaints merely for doing their job, it’s important that we remember this rule.
But, according to verse 20, those elders who have done wrong should be rebuked publicly. So, witnesses have come forward and their testimony has agreed and it’s clear that the elder in question has done wrong. Given his leadership role in the church, he should be rebuked publicly as a warning to others, says Paul. It’s not clear whether this is a warning to the other elders or to the rest of the congregation, but perhaps it’s a warning to everyone. And, of course, as with all cases of church discipline, we’re talking here about cases where someone has been confronted privately about a particular sin or shortcoming, but that person refuses to repent, and continues in it. All of us are sinners and we all sin in lots of different ways. But hopefully all of us are sorry for our sins and we want to give them up. Church discipline is not required for every sin, but it’s only for those occasions when a member of the church refuses to repent.
And, of course, when it comes to dealing with church discipline, it’s important that we’re always fair and just and we do not show partiality or favouritism. That’s Paul’s instruction to Timothy in verse 21. And look at the solemn way Paul introduces this charge to Timothy in verse 21. He charges him in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels. God is the perfectly just judge and he expects his servants here on earth to judge justly as well. But it’s very easy for us to be biased, isn’t it? Without hearing all the evidence and both sides of the story, we dismiss complaints made against our friends and we’re ready to think the worst of those we don’t like. But we mustn’t show favouritism to our friends, and we mustn’t be biased against anyone, but we must be completely fair and just. And this applies not only to formal cases of church discipline, but it also applies in our daily lives and in our daily conversations, when we’re talking to one another and someone tells us about what one person is supposed to have done to another person. But instead of jumping to conclusions, we need to withhold judgment, because who knows? Perhaps the story we heard was wrong. Or perhaps we need to hear both sides of the story. Or perhaps there’s something else we need to know which will explain what happened. And so, just as Timothy needed to be impartial, so we need to be impartial. Just as Timothy shouldn’t show favouritism, so we shouldn’t show favouritism. We must strive to be fair to all.
When Paul instructs Timothy in verse 22 not to be hasty in the laying on of hands, he’s referring to the act of ordination, isn’t he? When new elders and ministers are being ordained, members of the presbytery will place their hands on them to signify that these people are being set aside for this special work. And by telling Timothy not to be hasty to lay hands on someone, he’s saying that we mustn’t rush to ordain someone, because we need to ensure that those who are ordained are right for this important work in the church. And that was especially important in Ephesus, where there were these false teachers who were leading the people astray. And so, Timothy had to take care lest a false teacher or one of the people who had been led astray by the false teachers was ordained. So, take time to ensure that the right people are being ordained.
When we go through eldership training, I usually make the point that Christians differ about many things. That’s why we have different denominations, because Presbyterians and Baptists and Anglicans and Methodists and Independents and Pentecostals disagree over many things. We disagree over many things; and, in a sense, we have agreed to disagree and to worship in our separate denominations. And so, we’re able to live in peace with one another. And that’s good. But what a disaster, what a disaster, if the leaders of a denomination or the leaders of a congregation disagree over what they believe. So, imagine if a person is ordained to the eldership in the Presbyterian Church, but he only believes in adult baptism and he doesn’t believe babies should be baptised. And every time parents bring their children for baptism, this elder argues about it and votes against it. And in his conversations, he tries to convince the members of the church not to accept infant baptism. If such a thing happened, then it would only divide the church and destroy it. And so, it’s always important that we take our time before ordaining anyone to ensure that this person knows what we believe and agrees with it. That’s why, in the Presbyterian Church, all our elders and ministers are required to subscribe to our Confession of Faith. By subscribing to it, they’re saying we are agreed about these things and we hold these things in common.
And then it’s also important that we take our time before ordaining elders and ministers to ensure that they are the kind of men who will set a good example to the congregation. Since they’re going to be leaders, are they the kind of men we’d want the congregation to follow?
But it’s not easy, is it? And Paul seems to acknowledge that in verse 24 when he makes the point that the sins of some men are obvious. And since they’re obvious, it’s clear that their sins disqualify them from the eldership or the ministry. But the sins of others are not so obvious. They trail behind. In other words, time will pass before their sins emerge. And that means, no matter how careful we are when choosing new elders and new ministers, it’s possible sometimes that the wrong person may be ordained. On the other hand, the good deeds of some men are obvious. And therefore, right away you know that this is a good candidate for the eldership or the ministry. However, just as the sins of some are not immediately obvious, so the good deeds of some are not immediately obvious. And so, once again we need to take care when choosing elders and ministers and we mustn’t rush the decision, but we must take time to discern what a person is really like before appointing him to leadership in the church.
So, it’s not always easy for us to make a good decision. But, when Paul mentions the place of judgment in verse 24 it’s possible that he means that the Lord will make everything right, so that the secret sins of some are exposed and those whose good deeds have been overlooked will receive the recognition they deserve. From time to time we hear of scandals in the wider church and we discover that some popular preacher has been living a double-life and while in public he appears to be upright and honest, in private he’s indulging in secret sins. And we greet this kind of thing with sorrow and sadness and it makes us sad that such a thing could happen in the church of Jesus Christ. But, in a sense, it’s good — isn’t it? — that their sin has been exposed and they have been found out and removed from the ministry before they have the opportunity to do even worse.
But before we move on to the next section about slaves and masters, there’s still verse 23, which seems to be unconnected with everything else. Why does Paul advise Timothy to take a little wine because of his stomach and his frequent illnesses? The advice to drink a little wine is straightforward, because drinking a little wine — and not a lot of wine — was standard medical practice in those days. But why does Paul give this medical advice here? We don’t really know, but at least one commentator wonders whether Timothy was suffering from stress and it was upsetting his stomach and making him sick. We get the impression that Timothy was timid; and perhaps dealing with the false teachers and with difficult elders and with difficult church members was getting on top of him and making him sick. And if that’s the case, then this is a reminder to elders and ministers to take care of themselves. But, as John Calvin says, elders and ministers should take care of themselves not for the sake of prolonging their life, but that we may be useful and profitable to God and to our neighbours.
Slaves and masters
And so, we come to Paul’s instructions for slaves in verses 1 and 2 of chapter 6. And I need to be brief. As I said before when studying what Peter said about slaves, it’s important to understand that slaves in the ancient world were often treated well and did important work. When we think of slavery, we think of slaves in the United States, who were often treated brutally, because they had no rights and were treated as less than human. Slaves in the ancient world could also be treated brutally. But others were treated well and they were given important and skilled work to do. The historians tell us that slaves could serve as doctors and teachers and managers. So, when you were ill, the GP was someone’s slave. When you went to school, the teacher was someone’s slave. Many of the slaves in the ancient world were doing the same kind of work that we do. And often they were treated well. And like us, they had time off from their duties and they could enjoy time with their family. So, what Paul says about slaves here applies to anyone who is an employee today. Slaves had masters; and we have employers.
So, what should a minister today teach his members about work? Look at verse 1: you should respect your boss. That is, you should honour your boss by doing what they ask and doing your work well. In this way, God’s name and our teaching will not be slandered. If your boss and your colleagues know you’re a believer, but you’re disrespectful and lazy and difficult to work with, it reflects badly on the Lord. They will think to themselves that if that’s what Christians are like, I don’t want to be a Christian. The Lord Jesus, of course, taught us to do the reverse. Do you remember? He said we should let out light shine before men that they will see our good deeds and praise God. So, if we’re bad workers, then people will despise God, but if we’re good workers, then people will praise God.
And in verse 2 Paul says that we’re not to show less respect to a believing boss. And we can imagine someone thinking that I don’t have to obey my boss, because we’re both believers. But at work he’s your boss. And if he’s your boss, then at work you need to honour your boss by doing what you’re told and doing your work well. In fact, since your boss is a fellow believer, you should serve him even better, says Paul, and you love him.
Here are Paul’s instructions about elders and employers. In the church, we should honour our elders. In the workplace, we should honour our boss. Christianity is not just about what we do here in church, but it’s about what we do at work. We’re to do God’s will here in church on Sundays, and we’re to do his will out in the world for the rest of the week. Sin spoils the church, because we don’t honour our leaders the way that we should. And sin spoils the workplace, because we don’t honour our boss the way that we should. But the good news of the gospel is that the Lord Jesus came into the world to pay for our sins and shortcoming with his life. And through faith in him, we are pardoned and accepted by God so that we are forgiven all that we have done wrong. And through faith in Christ, we can look forward to coming into that new and better world to come, when we will be made perfect and where we will love and honour one another as we should. And while we wait for that day, Christ gives us his Spirit to renew us in his image and to teach us to die to sin and to live for righteousness. In other words, he gives us his Spirit to help us to resist sin and the temptation to dishonour our leaders and he helps us to do what’s right and to give due honour and respect to those who have authority over us. And every time we honour our elders and our boss, we are honouring our God who made us for this and Jesus Christ who saved us for this.