In 1st Timothy 5:17-21 we learn about leadership in the church. Apparently, Timothy was having trouble with some of the leaders he had appointed in the church. Part of the problem may have been that he had made some hasty decisions and appointed some of them too quickly (v. 22). They hadn’t been properly vetted. Consequently, Timothy had misjudged some of them (vv. 24–25). Character deficiencies began to surface of which he was unaware. There is a lesson here. Pastors make mistakes, even if their hearts are right! And so do other church leaders. But when leaders make mistakes the stakes are higher—because leaders are influencers. Our influence can be either positive or negative, good or bad.
Paul knew this, and so he writes this portion of the letter to share some important leadership principles with Timothy that will help him make wiser decisions in the appointment, discipline, and compensation of future church leaders. He begins with the compensation piece. He tells us that faithful church leaders should be honored and fairly compensated (5:17-18). Here, Paul is drawing a distinction between elders or church leaders who are faithful and competent and those who are not. Faithful leaders should be recognized and appreciated— especially those, Paul says, who work hard at preaching and teaching.
Church leaders do more than preach and teach. They have administrative, financial, and counseling responsibilities. They help set the vision and goals for the church. But Paul says that those who work hard at preaching and teaching are worthy of double honor. The term “double honor” has produced a good deal of discussion. Most Bible scholars believe that Paul is arguing that faithful elders who teach and preach well are worthy double honor in the sense of appreciation and remuneration. Faithful, hardworking church leaders should be fairly compensated. After all, they play a valuable role in the church and in society. Their salary should acknowledge that fact.
In verses 19-21, Paul moves from discussing faithful church leaders who deserve financial compensation to unfaithful leaders who deserve a rebuke. He tells us in no uncertain terms that unfaithful leaders should be held accountable for their actions. But he does more than that. He sets forth ‘grievance procedures’ for handling situations when a complaint is made about a church leader. Paul gives us two complementary directions: first, when a church leader is accused of something (19) and secondly, when he is found guilty (20). First, he says, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” That is, the charge must be substantiated by several people. In the Old Testament, two or three witnesses were required to sustain a charge and secure a conviction. This very practical regulation helps protect church leaders from unjust slander.
In verse 20, Paul gives directions on how to proceed when a church leader is found guilty. In others words, a charge has been made by multiple witnesses and a guilty verdict has been reached. What do you do then? We know from other passages, such as Matthew 18:15-20, that first you go the person in private and confront him. If he does not repent, you bring one or two more with you to help confirm every fact. If he still refuses to repent, then the pain and embarrassment of a more public showdown cannot be avoided. Thus, Paul says, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.”
Paul then turns his attention away from the discipline of church leaders to their selection. When it comes to selecting church leaders, we must not be hasty. A failure to properly vet potential leaders may lead to some very undesirable consequences. Potential church leaders should be thoroughly vetted before being placed into service (vv. 5:22, 23-25). The New Living Bible translates verse 22 this way: “Never be in a hurry about appointing a church leader. Do not share in the sins of others. Keep yourself pure.” Paul’s main point is this: The best way to avoid a scandal is to carefully screen candidates before selecting them. Don’t be hasty in the vetting process.
Everyone will one day be judged by a God who sees everything clearly, both our sins and our good works. For some people, their sins or good works are obvious to everyone. For others, their sins or good works are largely hidden from view. For this reason, Paul argues, we must exercise great discretion in selecting church leaders. While God sees things clearly, we do not. We can mistake a well-presented outer facade for the real thing. Therefore, when selecting church leaders, we should be thorough in our evaluation process. It is better to take the time to appoint the right person than to have to deal with the consequences of an unwise selection.
APPLICATION / CHALLENGE
- Take time to extend appreciation to church leaders who are serving with distinction.
- More than a dozen men are in training as elder. Pray for their growth and our wisdom in selection.
- If you have a problem with a church leader—don’t gossip! Speak to him privately.
TAKE ONE STEP
Each week, identify and write down one, concrete step of obedience, small or large but doable, that you will put into practice this week. (James 1:22: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.”)