Laboring in the word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17-18)
Why Elders Should Be Counted Worthy of Double Honor
Baptists have been notorious over the years for their stinginess in matters of money and ministry. The story is told of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, at the beginning of his ministry in London, that he would often call the deacons together, share a need, and then pass his hat around the table for donations (from the deacons) to meet that need. This happened so often that the deacons got together and decided that the next time Pastor Spurgeon called them together for such an occasion, they would simply pass the hat around without depositing any money in it. Such an occasion did happen soon after, and when the hat returned to Spurgeon empty, he bowed his head and prayed, “God, I’m just glad I got my hat back from these skin-flints.” Of course, the deacons relented and asked to have the hat passed around again.
I have myself seen such stinginess in action, and seen many pastors suffer for it. Evidently, it is not a new problem, for Paul in our text had to remind the church at Ephesus through Timothy that it is right to give the elders remuneration for their work in the gospel: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially they who labor in the word and doctrine” (ver. 17). Paul then gives two reasons why they should do this, using two analogies from the farmyard: “For the Scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, the laborer is worthy of his reward” (ver. 18). The first is a quotation from Deuteronomy 25:4, a text that Paul quotes in a similar context in 1 Corinthians 9:9. In that passage, Paul goes on to argue from the lesser to the greater: if God cares for the oxen, who are allowed to share in the proceeds of the harvest, then surely God also cares for his pastors, who should be cared for by those whom they lead.
The second quotation is actually a quote from the Lord Jesus (which Paul clearly takes as having the same authority as the Old Testament), which both Matthew and Luke record for us. When Jesus sent his disciples out, he told them not to take any bags, tunics, sandals, or staffs, “for the workman is worthy of his meat” (Matt. 10:10). They were to be provided for from those to whom they preached. Thus, Moses and the Lord Jesus unite in calling for God’s people to support those who are their spiritual shepherds.
In fact, in the Old Testament, it was considered a sign of apostasy when the people didn’t care for the priests, and part of any revival from apostasy was inevitably marked by a renewed care for the priesthood. Thus, Hezekiah’s reforms not only included purging idolatry from the land (2 Chron. 31:1), but also putting the priests and Levites back in the ministry and providing for them (ver. 2-10). Years later, after Israel returned from exile, Nehemiah had to rebuke the leaders because they had failed to take care of the priests: “And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field” (Neh. 13:10). Nehemiah worked swiftly to correct these abuses.
It is no different in the church. Let’s be clear: when Paul says that the elders who rule well should be given “double honor,” he does not mean an extra pat on the back. “Honor” in this context certainly involves financial compensation for a job well done. The context backs this up: when Paul tells Timothy to “honor widows” (5:3), he means take care of them in very concrete, material ways. In the same way, to honor the elders means to provide for their material needs.
What then does “double honor” mean? I doubt Paul meant that the elders who ruled well should be paid twice as much as the elders who did not rule well, or twice as much as the widows who were cared for by the church. Probably, Paul meant that elders should have the double honor of being both respected and compensated for their work. They should receive honor and an honorarium.
And this is important. It is important because an elder without respect cannot do his job. The job of an elder is to lead the church, to provide spiritual oversight, to rule. You simply can’t do that if you don’t have the respect of those you lead, or even if you don’t think you have their respect. This respect goes both ways: the pastor is to earn it (which is the point in chapter 3), and the church is to give it (which is the point here in chapter 5 – he should “be counted worthy”). Though honor is not just a pat on the back, sometimes that can go a long way in encouraging your pastor. But it shouldn’t just stop at respect. Pastors who are struggling financially are not going to be able to rule well. As one man put it, “It’s hard to clean out the swamp when you’re up to your armpits in alligators.” When a pastor is up to his armpits in alligators of debt, large bills, broken automobiles, etc., it’s hard to concentrate on the ministry. In such a scenario, a pat on the back just won’t cut it; in fact, it would be demeaning rather than encouraging. Thus, Paul is certainly right in calling for double honor.
Paul then goes on to encourage Timothy to support those elders who “labor in the word and doctrine.” Some see the phrase as indicating two groups of elders: those who rule well and those who labor in the word and doctrine. Thus, some ecclesiastical traditions have “ruling elders” and “teaching elders.” I think these categories are superfluous.
The main reason I think this is because all elders are supposed to be qualified to teach (cf. 3:2) and therefore teaching is part of the job description of an elder. Thus, all elders are teaching elders. This idea that in the church there are some elders who are gifted administrators but you wouldn’t want to listen to them very long in the pulpit goes against the qualification of an aptness to teach, and therefore cannot be right. No one should be ordained as an elder that does not possess a gift to articulate God’s truth clearly and engagingly.
More probable is one of these two scenarios: either Paul is referring to two groups of elders, all of whom teach (like bi-vocational versus full-time), or Paul is referring to just one group of elders. If the latter, the word “especially” (malista) would carry the same meaning as it does in 1 Tim. 4:10 – “to be precise.” In other words, Paul would be saying, “Honor elders who rule well – that is, those who labor in the word and doctrine.” The word for “labor” is a word which means “to work hard” and “is Paul’s normal word for Christian labors and describes strenuous work.” I prefer this view because otherwise by the word “especially” Paul would either be making a distinction in function (ruling versus teaching) or he would be making a distinction in the amount of commitment elders gave to their job (those who “labored” – possibly in the sense of full-time work – and those who didn’t). But neither of these options have much to commend them. The former goes against the requirement that all elders teach, and the second is hard to believe because even if an elder is bi-vocational, working hard at the word and doctrine would seem to be a requirement in any case. Thus, for an elder to rule well means that he must labor in the word and doctrine.
We need to understand what Paul is implying here: elders should be supported by their church in their work because their work is very important. Their work is laboring in the word and doctrine. Thus, preaching and teaching the Word of God is incredibly vital and central for the church. And what I want to do for the rest of this message is to help you understand why this is so important.
Four Reasons Elders Should Labor in the Word and Doctrine
Philip Ryken, in his commentary on this passage, admits that this part of 1 Timothy feels especially like a manual on church order. And manuals on church order can get very boring. However, he goes on to point out that regardless, this part of Paul’s letter to Timothy is nevertheless very important. For in verses 17-25, Paul outlines three things with regard to elders: their remuneration (ver. 17-18), their accusation (ver. 19-21), and their ordination (ver. 22-25). He invites us to think about what would happen if Paul’s instructions to Timothy were left unheeded: “If ministers were not adequately paid, then they are distracted by worldly cares and may be tempted to become discontent. If they are falsely accused, then their teaching will be dismissed. If they are not disciplined, then the whole church will fall into disrepute.” In other words, we need to listen to what Paul has to say here. But we also need to understand why he is saying what he is saying. In particular, why should elders labor in the word and doctrine?
The word “labor” here is just as important as the phrase “word and doctrine.” It’s not enough that pastors fiddle with the Bible. They need to work hard at getting the message right. I’ve been to countless church meetings where a minister is allowed to preach who has obviously not prepared. It shows and the people suffer for it.
1. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because they come from Scripture, which is the Word of God. In other words, it is what the man of God is dealing with that should make him want to labor in it. The Word of God is more precious than anything else in this world. As the Psalmist put it, “The law of thy mouth is better unto me than thousands of gold and silver” (Ps. 119:72). In the same way, we should care more about the message of the Bible than getting wealth or being famous or having fun. And if we care about it more than anything else, we are going to want to work hard at hearing exactly what God is saying to us in it.
People have worked themselves to death trying to get a little gold or silver out of a river or mountain. Today, some people are willing to spend millions and work long hours looking into the blackness of space in order to try to catch some evidence of extra-terrestrial intelligence. Why should not we, who believe that God is speaking in the Bible, work hard to hear his voice in its pages and mine its riches for Divine wisdom? Those of us in the church believe that God speaks in nature and in his Word, and that he does so infallibly in both. And yet we are often willing to work a lot harder at hearing what he has to say in nature than we are to hear what he has to say in his Word. Make no mistake about it: our appreciation of the nature of Scripture can be measured by how much effort we are willing to apply to understanding it and applying it to our lives. And any minister who deals tritely with Scripture just proves that he does not believe what the Scriptures claim to be: the Word of God.
2. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because of what Scripture, taught rightly, can do. The Gospel is the power of God unto salvation (Rom. 1:16). Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God (Rom. 10:17). “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). The Lord Jesus sent Paul to preach the gospel to the Gentiles in order “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in [Christ]” (Acts 26:18). In other words, God’s Word, empowered by the Holy Spirit (cf. 1 Thess. 1:5), has tremendous potential to change lives for the good. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
And only God’s Word can do this. It is God’s truth meeting hearts touched by His Spirit that changes lives, and nothing else. The amazing thing is that God has entrusted this word to broken vessels: “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor. 5:17-18). But if we want to see God use us as his ambassadors, we had better get his Word right. We don’t want to be misrepresenting God to the world!
In this connection, I’ll never forget what a godly man once said to me about training in the ministry. He compared preachers to heart surgeons. Both are physicians of the “heart” but with a very important distinction – one is a physician of the physical heart and the other of the spiritual heart. In other words, what pastors do is in a very real sense infinitely more important that what any heart surgeon can do. And yet we send heart surgeons to school for years and years of intense training. Why then do we think that all a man needs is some sort of itch to preach to qualify him for handling the Word of God?
3. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because of what Scripture, taught wrongly, can do. It’s important to get the message right, not only because of the good that can be accomplished as a result, but also because of the terrible harm that can come about by the false and careless teaching of the Word of God. In fact, most of the problems that Paul and Timothy had to combat at Ephesus (and other places) were not the production of an outright pagan philosophy but twisted interpretations of Scripture. It was the wrong use of the law (1 Tim. 1:7-8) that stood at the bottom of many of the problems in the Ephesian church. Peter tells us that some who were “unlearned and unstable” in the church were taking Paul’s words and wresting them, “as they do also the other Scriptures, unto their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16). It is a fearful thing that what can edify when received with understanding and faith can also destroy when wrested and disobeyed.
Doctors and pharmacists are trained extensively in pharmacology because even though medicine can heal us, it can also kill us. We teach people how to safely drive cars, because they are not only useful in getting us places; they are also very dangerous in the hands of an unskilled driver. The same is true of the Bible. Of course, it is not that the purpose of the Bible is to bring about spiritual harm; this is the result of a misuse of it. Thus, just because of man puts the Bible in his sermons does not mean that his message is good. The question is how the Bible is being used in the sermon. Is it being interpreted correctly? Or is it perhaps just being used like a Hallmark card uses Scripture, as a backdrop for the preacher’s own ideas?
4. Elders should labor in the “word and doctrine” because teaching, if it is done well, is hard. This is true in general. Teaching is hard, even for most of those who are gifted at it, no matter what the subject is. But this is especially true of the Bible, for the following reasons.
First, the Bible is an ancient document written in languages other than our own. Thus, the culture behind many of the stories and sayings in the Bible is lost to us. As a result, the significance of some of the statements of the Bible is lost to us because we don’t live in that culture. For example, unless you know about the Roman Triumph, you are likely to lose the significance of what Paul is saying in 2 Corinthians 2:14-16. I’ll never forget how much the book of Isaiah opened up to me once I understood the geo-political events that were taking place all around Israel at the time Isaiah wrote his prophesy. Whereas the book seemed a bunch of disjointed prophesies before, suddenly I saw a clear structure to the book. Thus, pastors of today need to labor to get a grasp (as much as they can) of the original languages and to understand the world the Biblical characters inhabited.
Let me balance this by saying the following: I do not believe that the ordinary Christian who is untrained in these things cannot read the Bible profitably. Of course they can. It is true that the main need of any person is not academic expertise, but the Holy Spirit. There is a clarity and perspicuity to the Scriptures so that any man, woman, or child can be led by them unto salvation, through the power of God’s Spirit. But neither does this reality remove the need of a teaching ministry – a ministry ordained by Christ himself (cf. Eph. 4) – a ministry whose main tool is the teaching of God’s Word. This Word has meaning objective to us, and if we are to get at its meaning, we have to get back to what the human authors (under the inspiration of Spirit, of course) meant. Another way to put this is: we know we are interpreting a text correctly if we understand it the same way the original audience would have understood it. But to do this well, we have to understand language and culture. And that takes work, especially at the distance of 2000+ years.
Second, teaching the Bible requires more than just reciting facts about the Bible and its doctrines. It needs to be applied. But to really apply the Bible well requires work. To illustrate: suppose someone is preaching through 1 Corinthians and comes to chapters 8-10, where Paul is dealing with the problem of the Corinthian believers feasting in idol temples. Now, a person can go through the text and explain what Paul was saying. But if you stop there, little application and edification is going to happen because no one in the West is going to be troubled by this problem. How then are you to apply it? This can only happen whenever the context is thoroughly understood – once this happens you can translate the principles that Paul used to address that particular historical event into the present. But the principles must be firmly rooted in the text itself, and not imposed on the text by the preacher. Thus, it takes more than a casual reading of the text, but an immersion in it, and that often requires hard work.
Finally, we need to preach the Bible in a way that glorifies the God of the Bible. Not just with respect to content – getting the doctrine right and so on, but even in the way we present truth. If I teach the Bible in a way that makes people think God is boring or small or insignificant, then woe is me. My words may not be the words of a Spurgeon, but I ought to try to get them there. God is worthy of the effort. On Valentine’s Day, my wife and I ate a fancy dinner with some friends. We dressed up for it. When one of my sons asked me why I was dressing up, I told him it was because the food I was about to eat was so good it required me to dress up. In the same way, God’s Words are so good, so magnificent and wonderful, that I ought to dress up my teaching as well as I can with fitting words, because God’s Word deserves it. And that takes work – good work, but it takes work.