How Christ Keeps His Church from Bad Pastors

This morning we come to a solemn text and a weighty topic.As Christians, we welcome all, and affirm none, because all of us are sinners. Including leaders. Including Christian leaders. And sometimes gravely so. Power often corrupts, or at least magnifies the corruption of sin already in us. It is tragic on Capitol Hill and in Hollywood, and even more tragic in the church.

We all have heard far too many stories about Christian leaders abusing power and failing egregiously — especially when not held accountable by a plurality of other leaders. And we’ve heard of leaders covering up the sins of other leaders, both in the Roman Catholic Church, and in Protestant denominations. This is a great evil. And it is expressly what Paul stands against here in verse 21 in one of this most piercing statements in all his letters. He gives Timothy a solemn charge to not show partiality or favoritism to guilty leaders:

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.

The only other place where Paul expresses such a solemn charge is 2 Timothy 4:1–2:

 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word.

We’re seen before in this series that the two main tasks of pastors are preaching/teaching and leading/governing. And so here, right alongside the magnitude of “preach the word” is, Do not show partiality to leaders to keep them from the just consequences of their sin.

Perhaps the charge in verse 21 needs to be so solemn because we often have such great affection for our teachers, even when they have failed us. And it is good when elders have great affection for each other and genuinely are good friends, and want to appropriately protect each other from unjust attacks. The danger comes with an inability to be impartial.

Elders 201

This morning we turn again in our study of 1 Timothy to the leaders of the church, and in particular the office of elder, also called pastor or overseer. We saw at the end of chapter 2 that it is not men in general but specifically the pastor-elders who feed and lead, teach and have authority, in the church (1 Timothy 2:12). Then, immediately Paul went into the qualifications for these leaders in 3:1–7. That was a kind of Elders 101: Qualifications. It was far more about character than skill, and the one distinctive skill was teaching. Elders are teachers. Now in 1 Timothy 5:17–25, we come to a second section dedicated to the church’s teaching office. This is a kind of Elders 201: how to honor them, hold them accountable, and appoint them.

Apparently part of the problem (if not the whole) in Ephesus, where Paul had sent Timothy, was that false teaching had arisen among the elders (whether a single elder or more, we don’t know). Paul himself had been part of establishing the church in Ephesus (Acts 19) and had stayed there more than two years teaching. He knew the church there well. He knew faces and names and personal histories. And he had prophesied to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20:29–30, that wolves would rise up from among the Ephesian elders. 

 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. — Acts 20:29–30

Now Timothy has the task of addressing the trouble Paul had anticipated. I draw comfort from the fact that this conflict didn’t take Paul off guard. And it didn’t take Christ off guard. Conflicts will arise in the church, even among the elders. And there is grace too for this. Choosing elders well goes a long way, but even then Christ, through his apostle, gives us more direction than simply the qualifications in chapter 3. In particular, Paul has three charges for Timothy, and for us.

1) Honor Good Pastors (Verses 17–18)

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”

In the New Testament, the word “elder” can have two meanings, depending on context. One is elder in age (translated “older man” in 1 Timothy 5:1 and Titus 2:2); the other is the office of elder (also called pastor or overseer). Here Paul refers to the office, to be filled by spiritually mature men, not simply men of age. And here Paul talks about the elders “who rule well.” Not the one or ones who have ruled poorly (we’ll come to them), but elders in good standing, who are living and leading according to the requirements and expectations of Christian leaders. “Rule” may sound odd to our ears; the word (proistēmi) is translated “lead” or “govern” or “manage” in other places.

Such elders, who lead well, are to be “considered worthy of double honor.” What is “double honor”? That means both (1) the honor of respect as leaders and (2) the honor of remuneration, or payment (honoraria). So good pastors are worthynot only of our respect but also our financial support in some form. Being “considered worthy” means they may receive pay from the church or they may not. Paul doesn’t require all pastors to be paid pastors, or all volunteers, but establishes a principle that is applicable to churches and pastors everywhere. He establishes the justice of pastors being compensated for their work, but does not force all pastors to make use of that right or not. And so at our church, and at many others, we have both vocational and nonvocational pastor-elders — both paid and volunteer pastors.

To establish this principle of justice, Paul gives explanation in verse 18. See the word “for” (or “because”) at the beginning of verse 18. Then he provides two quotes. The first is from the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 25:4: “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.” It would be cruel to put a muzzle on an ox so that he is unable to eat any of the grain as he works to free it from the chaff. And God does not want his people to be cruel. And if this for an ox, for an animal, how much more for fellow humans, including pastors?

Then the second quote is from Jesus, in Luke 10:7: “The laborer deserves his wages.” Not only did the Old Testament establish the principle implicitly, but Jesus himself explicitly applies it to Christian ministry. It’s a brief but powerful case for the fundamental justice of pastors receiving some kind of financial remuneration for the investments of ther work — and also it’s a remarkable testimony to how early and how authoritative were the Gospels. Paul wrote this letter in the mid 60s, and already at this point, the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels were available and functioning alongside the Old Testament as Christian Scripture.

So verse 18 argues (“for”) that it is justice, not kindness or mercy, for a church to “doubly honor” her pastors, with respect and remuneration. Some will receive that right, and bless the church through their willingness to give their vocational life to the church’s needs. And others, like Paul himself, will forgo that right at times and in various ways, and bless the church by supporting themselves through labors other than pastoral ministry.

The word “labor” really is the key here. That’s the last part of verse 17. “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.” If all elders who lead well are worthy of double honor, then what is this especially? Does this mean that not all the elders preach and teach? Does it introduce a kind of distinction within the office of elder, as some traditions do, that distinguishes “ruling elders” and “teaching elders”?

I don’t believe it introduces us to two different categories of elders. There is no indication of that, and there is no indication anywhere in the New Testament for two types of elders. Rather, all elders, according to 1 Timothy 3:2, must be “skillful in teaching.” In the New Testament, teachers are leaders, and leaders are teachers. Ephesians 4:11 even puts “pastors and teachers” together as one category (literally, “the pastors-and-teachers,” tous poimenas kai didaskalous).

All elders are teachers, but some work more at preaching and teaching than others. The “especially” is not about gifting but labor. The laborerdeserves his wages. And the central laborof the elders — the most challenging and costly — is preaching and teaching. That’s at the heart of the pastoral calling and office. All good elders are worthy of double honor — and especially those laboring at the grunt work and most important task: preaching and teaching. All elders teach but not all laborthe same amount at the hardest work. Some labor at it more — not because it comes easy for some but because good Christian teaching is hard work.

Preaching and teaching are at the heart of what we are called to together as pastors. We are called to more than teaching. To leading, overseeing, governing. But the heart of the calling — the especially — is teaching. Teaching is the nonnegotiable. We can limp along with inadequate admin, but we dare not compromise on the quality of our teaching.

 2) Hold Them Accountable (Verses 19–21)

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.

Verses 17–18 dealt with elders who were leading well. Now, because some pastors have not ruled well, Paul broaches the difficult subject of disciplining elders. And there’s a tension in verses 19–21: on the one hand is protecting elders from unjust accusations, and on the other hand is holding them accountable when they’ve sinned. Because the office of pastor-elder is a public position, much is at stake, from both sides. It’s not a one-sided affair, either way.

On one side, leaders are obvious targets of attack, perhaps especially in our day when we as a society increasingly love to take out the powerful. And the devil is regularly trying to take out the opposing lieutenants. Elders don’t deserve special protection, but at least the kind of protection afforded to every individual under the terms of the old covenant: two or three witnesses: 

A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. (Deuteronomy 19:15)

Elders deserve the same benefit of the doubt as a normal citizen. Timothy should not allow a suspect charge to sideline the ability of a pastor to serve the needs of the church. Leaders can be magnets for maniacal accusations or personal axe-grinding. The principle is don’t let the devil take out pastors with false charges. “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

On the other side, leaders are sinners. And sometimes gravely so, as we’ve acknowledged. And so Paul gives Timothy the solemn charge in verse 21 not to show partiality or favoritism to leaders.

So verse 19 and 20–21 are in tension: protect leaders from unjust accusations and treat just accusations seriously and without partiality. What Paul doesn’t lay out here is a specific plan for how to proceed with disciplining pastors. That he leaves to the collective wisdom of the elders in good standing. Paul gives principles for disciplining elders, not how-to steps. Each situation has its complexities, which is why we need pluralities of wise leaders, not rule books. So when a charge arises, we proceed carefully and patiently. Pluralities are often in efficient but effective, while authoritarian structures are often seemingly efficient and prone to error and partiality.

And when elders, who are public servants in the church, are caught in sin, their discipline (or removal) needs to be public. Here Paul says, “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” This may be another allusion to Deuteronomy 19, where verse 20 says, “the restshall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” Paul applies that to the other elders. The public rebuke of one elder will have a sobering effect on the other leaders. Like Paul publicly rebuking Peter “before them all” in Galatians 2:14 for the public sin of drawing back from table fellowship with Gentiles. Our leaders are not untouchable, and if not vigilant, they likewise could give in to sin. The discipline of one elder serves as a means of grace not only to him but also to the other elders.

So verse 19 protects innocent elders from false charges, and verse 20 gives guilty elders greater discipline by making it public. And the role of the other elders is vital in both counts. Which is just one more reason, among many, for churches to have a plurality of elders, not a single pastor. Plurality alone provides adequate accountability. It is a plurality of elders that can protect an elder from unjust charges and together strive for impartiality when one of their own has erred.

3) Have Patience Appointing Them (Verses 22–25)

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.

Three weeks ago in 1 Timothy 4:14, we saw a reference to this ancient ceremony called the laying on of hands. In the Old Testament, “the laying on of hands” can have a variety of meanings, depending on context. Most often, it’s negative, meaning to inflict harm or lay God’s curse on someone (Genesis 22:12; Leviticus 24:14). Also, in Leviticus, the priest would “lay hands” on a sacrifice to ceremonially place God’s righteous curse on the animal, in place of the people. But two Old Testament texts, both in the book of Numbers, anticipate how “the laying on of hands” would come to be used in the church age. In Numbers 8:10, God’s people lay their hands on the priests to officially commission them as their representatives, and in Numbers 27:18, Moses lays his hands on Joshua to formally commission him as his successor.

In the New Testament, we find a noticeable shift in the typical use of “the laying on of hands.” Now, with God himself dwelling as man among his people, Jesus often lays his hands on people to bless and heal. Then, in the book of Acts, once Jesus has ascended, his disciples become his hands. They heal, as Jesus did, but what’s new in Acts is the giving of the Holy Spirit through the laying on of hands from Jerusalem and Judea, then to Samaria (Acts 8:17), and then beyond, to Ephesus (19:6), to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). But like the two from Numbers, there are two mentions in Acts (6:6 and 13:3) of commissioning ceremonies (for the seven and for the first missionaries). Which leads to these two references in 1 Timothy 4:14 and 5:22.

When already-established leaders formally lay their hands on someone for a particular new ministry calling, they both ask for God’s blessing on the calling and put their seal of approval on the candidate — and share, in some sense, in the fruit or failures to come. It is both a commissioning to a calling and a commendation of him among the people he will serve.

What Paul stresses here in 1 Timothy 5:22 is how the laying on of hands, to ordain a man to the office of elder, shares in his work not just for good but also for ill. So Paul charges Timothy and the church to exercise patience. “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” Elders must not be new converts (3:6); they also must not be hastily appointed.

Verse 24 then continues the thought of verse 22. “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.” Be careful with your first impressions of people. Hasn’t God chosen the weak and foolish? Be patient and give time for testing. Beware candidates who seem to come out of nowhere and seem too good to be true. Sometimes they are not true. Paul is calling Timothy and the church to patience in praying for, identifying, observing, and ordaining elders. But even then, after patience and a wise process, we don’t know for sure. This is an ominous note to end on: “the sins of others appear later.”

So Paul doesn’t end there, but on encouraging note, in verse 25: “So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.” We will not know for sure how every elder candidate will pan out, but God does. And he will care for his Son’s church. He sent his own Son to live and die and rise again to create the church. He is more committed to his church than the most faithful of elders and most zealous of congregations. And Jesus is building his church. He will protect it. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. No matter what short-term setbacks we seem to suffer with the failures of our leaders.

And in the moments when it seems darkest and messiest, God often sustains and upholds his church through the hidden good works of its leaders and congregants. Sometimes they are conspicuous. But even when they are not, God will make sure in his perfect time that they do not remain hidden. Your labors in Christ will not be in vain.

To the Table

As we come to the Table, I’ll say a brief word about verse 23. It does seem to come out of the blue. Some translations put it in parentheses: “No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” Why say this here among these instructions for the discipline of elders? Two reasons: (1) Paul has heard of the anxiety Timothy is living under in trying to clean up this mess in Ephesus, and he adds this personal note, to settle his stomach with some wine. And also (2) “drinking only water” may have been just what the false teachers wanted (4:3), and so Paul aims to unsettle them with this note to Timothy, which clarifies that “keep yourself pure” (at the end of verse 22) does not mean from wine but from sharing in the sins of others. Paul wants Timothy to be settled and the false teachers to be unsettled — and a little wine will do both.

So here at the Table this morning we pray that God would be pleased to impart to us, by his Spirit, his soul-settling grace. The blood of Jesus is the great soul-settling elixir. In his blood, the just wrath of God against us has been settled Romans 3:25). In his blood, we are justified, fully accepted by God (Romans 5:9). In his blood, we have been redeemed, bought back by him at great cost (Ephesians 1:7). In his blood we who were far off now have been brought near (Ephesians 2:13). In his blood, the true and final peace has been made (Colossians 1:20), no matter our present distress and how confusing and painful the conflict.

David Mathis