The Agora
Godliness with Contentment - 1 Timothy

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IX. Elders (5:17-25)

The word "elders" is presbuteros, which signifies older persons. Sometimes in the New Testament, this word is used to denote seniority in general (as in v 2; Luke 15:25; John 8:9; Acts 2:17). At times, the word refers to the Jewish elders of the synagogue (Mat 15:2; 16:21; 26:47,57; Mark 7:3,5; Acts 4:5,23), usually associated with the scribes and Pharisees. These were in authority by virtue of their greater years, and after the pattern of elders throughout the Old Testament times, who performed the judicial and executive offices among the various families and tribes (Num 11:16; Deu 27:1). And the word presbuteros is found in the Septuagint in Gen 50:7 and Num 22:7, referring to Gentile "elders".

But in this section the elders were certain people appointed to serve in the first-century body. In the earlier section concerning bishops we explained that elders and bishops are at times synonymous terms. Cp Tit 1:5,7: "Ordain elders in every city.. For a bishop must be blameless... " And Acts 20:17,28: "He called the elders of the ecclesia... (and said to them) the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers (the same word as 'bishops'), to feed the ecclesia of God".

The only important difference between these two words is this: "elder" indicates the mature spiritual experience and standing of those so described (the inward character). In contrast, "bishop" lays stress upon the character of the elder's work, comparable to that of a shepherd (the outward manner of service).

A. 5:17-21: Their Treatment

Elders occupied a special position in the ecclesia, then and now. This is not an elevated position as such, but one of responsibility due to Scriptural maturity through knowledge and experience. The judgment of such men in spiritual matters was (and can be) valuable. It is necessary that others be respectful of elders because of their years of faithful service and their spiritual maturity. (But being respectful does not imply being a "respecter of persons", nor slavishly worshipping men and men's ideas.)

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.

The elders were to rule well ("direct the affairs" -- NIV) of the ecclesia as loving "fathers" in God's family (cf 1Ti 3:4, where the same word "rule" is used). The picture of a dictatorial, domineering person handing down Olympian pronouncements is not what is intended here. The true picture is that of Christ, standing before his brethren, lovingly and yet sternly, as a faithful guide and example.

Double honour refers to a twofold honor -- now and later. Honored by discerning men of God now, and honored by Christ and the Father in the future.

Double is also used in the sense of 'much greater' (as in Rev 18:6). The Old Testament and the Law of Moses, which previewed the gospel system of affairs in many ways, outline the duties and privileges of the first-born son, the elder. He was to be the leader and decision-maker of the family. On him devolved the responsibilities for family care, should his father die. More importantly, he assumed the role of priest for the entire family. (This was superseded when the family of Aaron was designated the first-born of all Israel.) And along with all this, the elder was to receive a "double portion" of inheritance in the Promised Land.

As in v 3, so also in v 17 honour refers to material provisions (Acts 28:10), and possibly also to respect and obedience. Even today there may be a time when ecclesial or individual funds can be effectively used to aid an elder brother who labors in God's vineyard. But such matters must be handled with tact and love. A brother's service for the Truth must not degenerate into a pay-as-you-go, businesslike preaching of smooth and pleasing words for the sake of money. Making a brother dependent upon the financing of others may dull the sharp sword of the Spirit which he endeavors to wield. They who labour in the word and doctrine might be elders concerned specifically with financial matters, or the care of the poor. There might be elders who had the Holy Spirit gifts of healing or speaking with tongues. But Paul here especially singles out those who had the "best gifts".

"God hath set some in the ecclesia, first apostles secondarily prophets, thirdly, teachers..." (1Co 12:28).
Greater responsibility and greater "honour" (in the sense already described) was conferred upon the brethren receiving the gifts of interpreting and expounding the Scripture. These gifts were the most important, for they might be the more readily used to the edification of the body in love. Paul himself could certainly be classed as an elder of this type.

For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his hire.

The singular word scripture, as here, is used of a particular passage of the Old Testament (John 7:38, 42; Acts 1:16; 8:32, 35). The plural in the Greek refers to the sacred writings as a whole (Mat 21:42; Luke 24:32; John 5:39).

The oxen who turned the great treadmills to grind the grain were not muzzled in any way, so that they might reach down, and thus partake of the fruit of their labors. This typical lesson from the law is found in Deu 25:4.

Paul uses this same scripture in another letter:

"Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? Who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof?... Say I these things as a man? Or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, THOU SHALT NOT MUZZLE THE MOUTH OF THE OX THAT TREADETH OUT THE CORN. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partakers of his hope. If we have sown unto you spiritual things is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things?" (1Co 9:6-11).
Paul is here encouraging the wealthier ones to use their abundance to the good of the Truth, by supporting those who have labored well. However, in another place, Paul speaks of a danger that might come up when certain brethren are supported by others:

"Neither did we eat any man's bread for nought; but wrought with labour and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you: not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an ensample unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat" (2Th 3:8-10).
Paul was not customarily supported by any brethren, but this was only by his choice, so that no man could make his preaching void (1Co 9:12,15). He could have received wages, but his reward was in witnessing the fruits of the planting of the gospel, the gospel that is free to all, "without money and without price" (Isa 55:1).

Paul's words of warning were not heeded by some, and this led to the development of the paid hierarchy of the apostasy -- men who depended upon their constituents for support and who therefore preached what their followers wanted to hear and not what they needed.

The statement that the labourer is worthy of his reward' is comparable to Luke 10:7 and Mat 10:10, where Jesus is sending forth his twelve disciples. Here he certainly expected that they would be provided food and lodging, so he counselled them not to make extravagant preparations. Instead they were to trust that God would provide them with what was necessary, from one source or another. This is an excellent example for us to imitate in our attitudes to the work of the Truth.

Again, the future aspect is hinted at also. Is not one who labors in the work of the Truth also allowed to partake of its benefits? Is not the workman in the Father's vineyard to receive just wages, at the time when every man shall be rewarded according to his works?

Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.

Those that do good are often unjustly accused by those who are jealous of their positions and labors, and by those presumptuous ones who seek their own glory and not the Lord's. A man who is in the forefront, giving stirring and meaningful and stern exhortations, fighting vigorously for the maintenance of truth and peace in the ecclesia, will probably incur much more than his share of wrongful criticism and insinuation from those who themselves lack the vigor, determination or desire to oppose error, or laxity, or to stimulate to activity.

Timothy was never to consider any accusation against an elder unless it were "at the mouth of (RV) two or three witnesses." To go even further, this is the proper course for an ecclesia in hearing an accusation against anyone (Mat 18:16; 2Co 13:1, and the related OT passages of Deu 17:6; 19:15).

Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.

This is of course only after private efforts have failed, in accordance with the principle of Mat 18. A brother having a matter against another should first go to the offender alone, then (if this fails to win the brother) with one or two others, making diligent efforts to reclaim him from his error. Only when this has failed may he go before the whole ecclesia and a public rebuke be issued. The public aspect is stressed here because these elders stand as examples of the Truth to those within and without the ecclesia. In certain cases, disfellowship may be the only course (1Ti 1:20). This would point out that there can be no respect of persons when willful transgression is practised. These matters affect the "elders" as well as the "lambs" -- we are all subject to God and prone to fail (see esp v 21).

I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality.

B. 5:22-25: Their Selection

Extreme care and caution should be exercised in the selection of elders. The following is good advice for today's ecclesia.

Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partaker of other men's sins: keep thyself pure.

Laying on of hands was the means whereby elders were ordained to office (1Ti 4:14; 2Ti 1:16; Tit 1:15). "Do not be over-hasty in laying on hands in ordination" (NEB). An examination of the individual alongside the qualities of 1Ti 3 should be made. God's guidance should also be sought by prayer in such matters.

An alternative rendering and interpretation of this verse might be: "Do not be hasty in condemning or speaking reproachfully of an elder" -- thus making this phrase follow up on v 19.

This could very well fit better than the allusion to selection -- the context would seem to point to this. It could also apply to anyone in the ecclesia who needed correction. Perhaps a good paraphrase of vv 22,24,25 might be: 'Don't be too hasty to bring someone before the ecclesia for reprimand, and be sure to have two or three witnesses when this individual is an elder. On the other hand, if you hesitate to act when it is warranted, you could become a partaker of this individual's wrong by allowing it to foment or condoning it in any other fashion. Don't support others who also may seek hasty judgment. In any case look prayerfully into the matter and strive for purity in your behaviour. In some cases it is easy to judge -- the obvious is manifest. In other situations we cannot judge. But rest assured, neither good works nor sins can be hidden from the view of the one who is coming.'

Neither be partaker of other men's sins is translated as "Neither have fellowship" by Rotherham, and "Do not share in" by the NIV The ecclesia as a whole is responsible for the deeds of an elder whom they have selected, or whom they unwisely allow to remain in office -- for he is exercising the authority of that office with their sanction and as their representative.

A second possibility in interpreting this verse is that it may include a "laying on of hands" in fellowship, with the re-admission to the ecclesia of brethren previously withdrawn from (for example, 1Ti 1:20). Caution should be used in such a situation as this also. This might, because of emotional involvement or family ties, be carried out too hastily, thus destroying any benefit.

Keep thyself pure is spoken both to the individual and to the ecclesia. Choose your serving brethren carefully; remove them from office if they act unwisely or unscripturally. Do not directly have company with sinners and so become defiled by touching the dead body. Withdraw from those that walk unworthy of their high calling. This letter and all of Paul's letters counsel the same things with no slackness in acting against the open sins of others.

Paul is also warning Timothy against hasty judgment, for if he joined with those who might suddenly, without sufficient cause, lay hands on a brother for purposes of ecclesial reprimand, he himself will be subject to the higher judge. It is just as wrong to be too hasty as it is to be too hesitant.

Regardless of how we may take this verse, whether in selection of elders or in ecclesial reprimand, care in decision, and purity and sincerity in action are stressed.

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities.

The NIV has stop drinking only water. In this verse Paul feels it necessary to qualify what he means by "Keep thyself pure". Timothy may have been of a weak constitution, as Paul had seemed himself to be, and he would then need the strengthening effects of a little wine. (This verse is a corrective against the suggestion that "wine" in Scripture means unfermented grape juice and nothing more. If so, then what strengthening effect could be derived?) Also Timothy may have been prone to follow the example of the ascetics (1Ti 4:3,8). We recall from reading his autobiography the recounting of a similar miscalculation on the part of Robert Roberts. While a young man he embarked with the best of intentions upon a strict (but unbalanced) vegetarian diet, only to come dangerously close to ruining his health. Paul is saying here, "Not that I enjoin upon you that extreme and foolish 'purity' which is asceticism. You may even go so far as to use a little wine, as it might be needed for your health." God commands believers to use all Scriptural means which may be at their disposal for preserving health to keep their "temples" sound. But it is good never to forget the other side of the coin. "Be not drunken with wine" (1Ti 3:3; Eph 5:18). Our thoughts must not be clouded by the effects of alcohol or any other strong depressant or stimulant.

The sentiment here expressed is inconsistent with the opinion of some fanatical advocates of total abstinence, that drinking wine is altogether incompatible with true Christianity. Pharisaic 'purity' in such cases does not guarantee true godliness. On the contrary, it can lead to mechanical, rote worship, in following the do's and don'ts of "the Law". Even so, common sense (scriptural sense) should guide us in matters such as this. Paul recommends this to Timothy for purely medicinal purposes, not as a means of escape or a way to warm the 'cockles of his heart'. In addition, we must consider the weaker members because our liberty should not be an occasion of stumbling to someone else. "If meat makes my brother to offend, I will not eat meat so long as the world stands." We would not want our liberty to be an occasion of stumbling to someone outside the faith either. An elder will give no occasion for the Truth or its adherents to be evil spoken of. Ascetic ideas regarding alcohol seem to play a more professed role today than in the past (wine was frequently taken with the meals in Jesus' day). Therefore this word of caution.

[The very unpretentious quality of this tidbit of personal advice is an argument for the genuineness of this letter. Would an imposter have thought to include such mundane but practical details? This verse could have come from no pen but Paul's.]

Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after.

The open sins of some men proclaim their sure condemnation to all discerning brethren even before the judgment. And consequently, there are some sins which must not be ignored or glossed over by brethren, and some characteristics which should (if nothing else) influence their selection of serving brethren.

But the sins of some men are so well hidden that they are never manifest until the judgment, at which time their sins confront them. (Thus the "tares" of Christ's parable -- Mat 13:24-30,36-43). Neither Timothy nor we can see all the sins of our brethren. Imagine what a sorry state we would be in if we could! We should not search for their sins either. We cannot truly, fairly and completely judge them (1Co 4:5). The final decision is Christ's, who judges the hidden man of the heart, through the all-knowing power of the Father and the Spirit-word (John 12:48; Heb 4:13).

Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid.

Those good works which are done in secret now will not be hidden when we stand before the judgment seat of Christ, "that everyone may receive in his body, whether he hath done good or evil" (2Co 5:10).

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