Also available as MP3: Paying Spiritual Leaders – 1 Timothy 5:17-25
“Elders that rule” (v.17) in the United States are members of the church board. In the context, the “honour” owed them is financial honor. But most churches don’t pay their board members since they usually have jobs, and so have an alternate means of support, just as we are told not to support widows with an alternate means of support (5:3,4).
Ruling elders can labor in the Word, but aren’t expected to (5:17 cf. Rom.12:8). Good boards usually have a mixture of teachers and non-teachers.
To prove his point, Paul quotes Deuteronomy 25:4 (v.18). “Corn” just meant grain (John 12:24). They separated the grains of wheat from the chaff by having oxen walk on it. Cruel owners muzzled the ox so he couldn’t partake of the fruit of his labors. God said they shouldn’t, “altogether” for the purpose of teaching us to pay spiritual leaders (ICor. 9:9-11). Paul also quotes Luke 10:7, calling it “Scripture” as well. This shows the canon of Scripture was known and recognized as soon as the books were written.
Another way ruling elders should be honored is by not receiving an accusation against them without two or three witnesses (5:19). This was also drawn from the Old Testament (Deut.19:15). Without these witnesses, an accusation shouldn’t even be received, let alone believed.
If an accuser does have witnesses who determine a ruling elder has sinned, he must be rebuked before all (5:20). Paul’s giving a pastor a lot of leeway here by not saying how big a sin must be rebuked. Also, if an elder is, say, angry without a cause in private, should he be rebuked publicly? You would think an affair should be rebuked publicly, but Ephesians 5:12 might suggest otherwise. A commonly known sin must be rebuked publicly, however (ICor.5:1,13). Compare how Paul rebuked Peter before all when he sinned openly (Gal. 2:11-15). In addition, perhaps a ruling elder who sins once and repents should not be rebuked as one who continues in sin and refuses to repent. Paul’s ambiguity here gives a pastor latitude in this area.
But it is important to remember that “rebuke” in the Bible is never like a drill sergeant chewing out a recruit. In the Bible, that kind of “furious” rebuke was only given to God’s enemies (Ezek.25:17). Jacob rebuked his adult son by gently asking him what he was doing (Ezek.37:10), and God sees us as adult sons, having received the adoption (Gal.4:1-5).That’s also how Nehemiah rebuked some rulers (Neh.5:7,8), and that’s how God himself rebuked a leader named Balaam (IIPe.2:15,16 cf. Num.22:28-30). And nothing changed in the New Testament (Lu.9:55), or under grace (Gal.2:14). Any time we’re told what words were used to rebuke someone, they were always gentle words.
Paul knew Timothy might not want to rebuke elders who were his coworkers, so gave him a charge not to neglect to (5:21). This is the only time Paul charged anyone before God, His Son, and the elect angels. Those Catholic leaders who didn’t rebuke the priests who molested those boys show why God gave Timothy such a serious charge. People were outraged that spiritual leaders were shown partiality and given preferential treatment (cf. Lev. 19:15).
Paul went on to tell Timothy to be careful in the selection of ruling elders (ITim.5:22). Hands were laid on a man to ordain him (cf. Nu.8:10). This should not be done “suddenly,” i.e., before you get to know a man. If you ordain a man and serious sins come out later you are a partaker of his sins (5:22) because it looks like you knew about them and ordained him anyway. Paul tells Timothy to keep himself pure of the sins of others by not doing this.
Paul knew that rebuking elders and inquiring about their sins would give Timothy a nervous stomach, so he interrupts himself to address that (5:23). If he could have healed him as he did folks in Acts 19:11,12 he would have, but the gift of healing had been withdrawn.
The reason Timothy shouldn’t ordain a man too quickly is because sometimes their sins don’t come out till later (5:24). But Timothy shouldn’t worry about missing some hidden sins in men, since hidden good works are just as likely to come out after ordination (5:25).