Honoring Church Elders

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (v. 17).

- 1 Timothy 5:17-18

Honoring widows by providing for the needs of those women who have no relatives to care for them has been Paul’s concern in 1 Timothy 5:3–16, and it is this concept of honor that leads him to instruct the church in how to deal with its elders in today’s passage. Those “elders who rule well…especially those who labor in preaching and teaching,” the apostle tells us, are to receive double honor (v. 17). In keeping with the context of this verse and 1 Corinthians 9:1–14, Paul is saying the church should not only pay its elders but pay them generously.

Paul seems to allow for all the elders to receive remuneration for their work in 1 Timothy 5:17, but he does emphasize those elders who are particularly focused on the task of instruction. Presbyterian forms of church polity often look to this passage as a proof text for distinguishing between ruling elders and teaching elders, the latter group mostly consisting of full-time ministers. At the very least Paul highlights a select group of elders who are especially gifted in teaching and preaching. What we may infer from this is that although every elder must be “able to teach” (1 Tim. 3:2), not every elder will have to devote himself full-time to the labor of teaching. God will grant certain people special gifts of communication, wisdom, and insight, and the church recognizes their calling by making sure they can earn a living from this work.

The apostle grounds his admonition to pay the elders well in Deuteronomy 25:4 (1 Tim. 5:18). Just as oxen should not be muzzled and thereby prevented from eating some of the grain that is produced when their labor is used to separate the husk from the edible part of the wheat, so too must teaching elders not have to go hungry when they do the work they have been given.

What is most remarkable about today’s passage, however, is that Paul also bases the propriety of paying the elders upon the phrase “the laborer deserves his wages.” In the Greek, this phrase is identical to Jesus’ words in Luke 10:7. If Paul is quoting from Luke’s gospel, then he is calling it Scripture as well, showing that the New Testament writings were regarded as authoritative by the apostles during the same period in which they were written.  

Coram Deo

The way in which we value goods or services is seen in the amount we are willing to pay for them. We have no qualms about spending money in order to get the best medical care or receive the best food in a restaurant. Why, then, are we too often unwilling to make sure those who teach us the life-giving Word of God are able to make a decent living? The amount of time and money we give to the servants of the church reflects our valuing of their service.

Passages for Further Study

Numbers 18
1 Chronicles 29:1–9
Luke 8:1–3
Acts 5:1–11

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