Paul needs Timothy to know how to deal with the elders who have been teaching different doctrines. The church flounders when it has leaders who are permitted to get away with anything. Now again, the church is more than its pastors. If you look at most of Paul’s letters, they are written to churches, not pastors. The pastors were to read aloud and explain these letters to the churches. So it’s not always the case that if a pastor sins that the church will implode. But there is a lot working against a church whose leadership is setting a bad trajectory. The church that ignores when pastors teach false doctrine do implode. Poor leaders will run off good people and exasperate the ones who stay. When a pastor teaches false doctrines, he must be removed and replaced. When a pastor no longer focuses on the gospel but instead becomes an activist, he must be removed and replaced.
Because the fact is that nature abhors a vacuum. Paul give us good reasons why an elder might be to be removed. But what do you do after that? In this case, a vacuum of leadership will be filled by someone. If the wrong people are leading, or if there is no one qualified to put in place to lead, someone will rise up and take that spot. There will not be a vacant office for long. So, instead of just hoping that a warm body raises their hand, as the church, it is required of us to fill leadership roles with qualified men. We should hold our leaders to the standard set forth in Scripture. And when we do that, we can face whatever comes our way. There’s nothing a purified people and qualified leaders can’t handle. And a purified people have to trust their pastors. But what kind of pastors should the people trust and honor?
Honor elders who honor the gospel.
If a leader cannot be charged with any wrongdoing, then he’s not trustworthy. And by that I mean that if the culture of the church is such that the man up front is the holy man who is not to be questioned, then the chances of the rest of the church being healthy are pretty slim.
But on the other hand, a healthy church also honors its leaders. It may seem strange to have a pastor speak of how important it is for the church to honor its pastors, but the point is not to inflate anyone’s ego. For Paul, it’s not about the person but about what they teach and how they live. Whoever stands behind the pulpit regularly and oversees the administration of the church should be honored, regardless of who it is. Honoring someone doesn’t mean ignoring their imperfections. It doesn’t mean to think they’re irreplaceable. Every irreplaceable person eventually gets buried beside another irreplaceable person.
The biggest problem the church in Ephesus was facing was elders or pastors who were teaching different doctrines. Anything that pulls the focus from Scripture and the Christ of Scripture is a different doctrine. Because when you start to have this sense of, “We need to appeal to as many people as possible, so let’s just focus on a few things instead, just focus on the widely acceptable things, just focus on conversion and not real, deep, abiding discipleship,” then people will be prey for any kind of doctrine or ideology that actually has the backbone to standup for itself. And usually, it’s not what honors God. Elders that keep the focus on bringing the gospel to every area of life are to be honored. Those who teach anything else, in word or deed, those who neglect the responsibility of the office, should be removed. And Paul tells Timothy and us just how that should look. Honor elders who honor the gospel.
17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.”
First, one of the principles guiding what Paul says is that leading the people of God into greater maturity takes great effort. Pastors should put forth as much effort as any profession. Pastors spend time with the Scriptures and pray for clarity and understanding. The Bible is a foreign book, and we need to take the necessary steps to get it right. Then a pastor must bring the clarity that he now has to his people and let the Spirit do his work.
The teacher Apollos from Acts 18 was commended for his teaching but also corrected in some pretty significant ways. For him, it was a matter of accuracy in the things of God, not out-right heresy. One sign of a good pastor-teacher is his willingness to be corrected and amend his ways. And that’s what Paul hopes to see happen there in Ephesus. Let the elders who have taught different doctrines be confronted clearly, and give them a chance to fix it. If they do not, go public in hopes that they change their ways.
To rule well means to be set over and care for a certain group of people. In Scripture, it doesn’t refer to a scepter but a rod and a staff. Ruling well, or leading well, sometimes requires the rod, or the tool used to guide a flock of sheep. "This is where we’re going.” The rod also defended the flock against wolves. It was like a billy club. It’s the tool used for guidance and defense. But the staff is a long, thin stick used for when gentleness and safety are the main concern. The curved, rounded end could save a lamb by dragging it out of a hole. It wouldn’t hurt the sheep, but neither would it let the sheep get away. A staff was used for guiding sheep into a pen for safety and rest.
Both of them are for the sheep’s good. In the most famous Psalm, Psalm 23, King David thanks God for using both rod and staff with him. The LORD is David’s shepherd, and the shepherd’s rod and staff are a source of great comfort, not anxiety. In the hands of the Good Shepherd, we are both defended against evil and guided into righteousness. In a similar way, all under-shepherds lead or rule well by using the right tool for the right time. There’s a time to announce direction and a time to lead gently into the pen. There’s a time to use the rod to defend against wolves and a time to find and comfort the ones who have gone astray.
Under-shepherds, pastor-teachers who rule well, should be honored for doing so. In the next verse, he makes clear that involves fair compensation for their labors. That doesn’t mean the church should seek to make its pastors wealthy beyond their wildest dreams. It simply refers to making sure its pastors can devote their time to teaching, preaching, visiting and praying with the sick, counseling, and general oversight of the church. All church elders should be honored for their office, but those who labor in teaching and preaching more so, which refers to honest work earning an honest wage.
Paul uses one Old Testament passage and one New Testament passage to buttress his point. He’s not just using quaint, Old Testament sayings to say pay your pastors. He’s saying that the Old Testament still has authority for the church. He quotes Deuteronomy 25:4, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Oxen were once used to stomp on the grain so that it broke open and was usable. Oxen were then allowed to graze as they tread the grain. Their service wasn’t done out of the generosity of their big, oxen hearts.
But interestingly, Paul quotes Jesus in Luke 10:7, “The laborer deserves his wages.” This means Paul knew about the words of Jesus, apparently as they were put together by Luke, by the time he writes to Timothy. There are those who argue that the Bible was put together over long periods of time, the traditional authors are not the real authors, and is therefore not trustworthy in what it says. But for Paul to quote the New Testament, while it was still being inspired and written, it came together a lot earlier than many think. The Bible is trustworthy in what it says.
The church in Ephesus was in the middle of a battle for the truth. The elders were responsible for taking care of the flock, but it seems as though at least a few of them had abdicated their duty. He reminds Timothy that the church is always in a battle for the truth. Elders are always in a state of defense, always on the lookout for the latest offense. We should be able to help you cut through the murky middle and practice discernment. People need answers, and if the church doesn’t give them, then someone outside the church will. And that’s how false teaching enters a church.
19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Second, “Thou shalt not bear false witness” applies to everyone. The immediate context for Paul and Timothy was a group of elders, or pastor-teachers, who have swerved from biblical doctrine. You should not stand idly by while doctrine is being watered down or while the lines between church and world are being erased. And when we become convicted that something is wrong, we can become so emboldened that we take immediate action without thinking too much about it. In our crusade for righteousness, it’s easy to overlook the fact that elders charged with false teaching should be able to give an answer. If what they say is true, then we stand corrected. But if what they say is wrong, then they should fix it or be removed.
If an elder has swerved from sound doctrine, then he should be approached with gentleness and respect. Here, we’re moving in to church discipline, of which elders are not exempt. Paul again uses Old Testament patterns for the church. He pulls from Deuteronomy 19:15 when he says that if only one person brings a charge against an elder, then it’s an unqualified charge. This is when we think of grudges, resentment, or just flat-out proving a point. And that’s not something the church should ever entertain.
If there are multiple eyewitnesses to a sin committed by an elder, then it’s appropriate and necessary to speak to that elder. Nobody wants to be charged with wrongdoing by hearsay. In Matthew 18, Jesus also pulls from Deuteronomy 19:15 and gives us a clear sequence of events to deal with offense. If a charge is true, then you approach your brother alone. Don’t make a scene because of a possible offense. Most of church discipline ends right here. Whenever you confront a person in love and win them back, you’ve practiced church discipline. But if the offending party, in this case the offending elder, does not listen to you, then it’s time to bring more people with you. This is not a mob but a group of witnesses who can corroborate what you say. Should the story not end there, then it’s time to bring it before the other leaders and members of the church and remove the elder.
Paul says here that for those who persist in their sin, rebuke them in the presence of everyone. “Rebuke” simply means to make your charge public. Not on social media, not among your friends, but among the members of the church in an organized setting. Rebuking an elder is perhaps the time to show the most restraint, to fully insist on church order. We’re not burning witches but doing the heartbreaking work of dealing with unrepentant people. Are we acting out of zeal for our own self-righteousness or zeal for God’s glory? You should only make it public if you have addressed him in private more than once.
The desired outcome is that the people have a genuine fear of sin. Again from Deuteronomy 19:20, which says, “And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you”, Paul pulls out the general equity, or the principle, from an Old Testament law. The law is not a condition of the new covenant made by Christ, but it does still serve a function. As the law showed the people their sin, so the law still shows us the severity of our sin.
We see a perfect example of this in Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. The first Christians were selling property they owned in order to have funds readily available to help those in need. You can imagine that people were given all kinds of applause for doing so. So a husband and wife, Ananias and Sapphira, sold some property. The money was theirs to do with as they pleased. There was no command to sell your stuff and give it away. But their sin was lying about it. They gave only a portion of the money to the church, but they said they gave all of it. All they wanted was the acclaim and recognition that others had received while still keeping their money. Peter knew what they had done and approached them about it. Both Ananias and Sapphira died for their sin. The result? “And great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).
Woe to us if think we can sweep anything under the rug, if we can keep anything from God—especially those called on to lead God’s people. There should be a healthy fear of sin both in ourselves and in the church. When sin is public, it brings shame on us. But that’s not bad. Godly fear should prevent any further sin. We lose sight of the gravity or weight of our sin when we refuse to deal with it.
21 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. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)
Third, discernment and impartiality are necessary for healthy church life. Paul plays by the same rules, and he has his own witnesses. Before God the Father, God the Son, and the heavenly court of angels, Paul urges Timothy to be impartial in his judgments, in two ways. One, do not be hasty in condemning an elder without many witnesses and corroborating evidence. Two, do not be hasty in ordaining someone an elder. By making someone an elder without testing him first, you participate in his sins.
God himself is the impartial judge, and our judgments should be like his to the best of our finite ability. Paul has said earlier in Romans 2:11, “For God shows no partiality.” Back in Judah, hundreds of years before Christ, King Jehoshaphat appointed judges all around Judah and told them, “Now then, let the fear of the Lord be upon you. Be careful what you do, for there is no injustice with the Lord our God, or partiality or taking bribes” (2 Chronicles 19:7). Discernment and impartiality are necessary for righteousness in the body of Christ. In the case that some of the elders would be removed for their teaching, it would be necessary to replace them. Timothy is to take the lead on this. He should seek men who meet the qualifications, and he should also show due diligence in his selection.
Paul tells Timothy to keep himself pure, then there is a short, almost throw-away sentence about Timothy not drinking only water but drinking a little wine. It seems a little out of place at first glance, but somehow it must be tied to purity. In the ancient world, drinking only water and avoiding alcohol was a typical practice of an ascetic. Ascetics were people who avoided worldly pleasures as a way of attaining a higher spiritual state. Instead of taking a vow of abstinence, they were proud of their lack of self-indulgence, which is itself a form of self-indulgence. The humble-brag is an old, old sin.
But back in chapter 3, not being a drunkard is a necessary qualification for both elders and deacons. So it seems most likely that Timothy had given up drinking wine because there were those who were abusing wine by drinking too much of it and those misunderstanding their office by being ascetics. We should not jet off to extremes just to avoid being called extremists. There is no law against avoiding certain things for your own good. That is a matter of conscience. All things are lawful, but not everything is beneficial. In keeping himself pure, Timothy should not harm himself or set a poor example for the flock.
24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden.
Lastly, even when we fail to make the right decision every single time, nothing is hidden from God’s sight. We should try as hard as we can, but we should know that we will never get every action right. We should absolutely seek to keep the church pure. However, mistakes are unavoidable. Not every sin will get caught, and not every decision will be right.
In the case of elders, who live extremely public lives, some sins are so obvious that church discipline is purely procedural. A pastor caught in adultery should be removed. A pastor caught stealing from the church should be removed. A pastor who teaches anything contrary to the word of God should be removed. Our sins go before us to judgment, meaning that God is the ultimate judge on the last day. There is coming a day when Christ will return to judge the living and the dead. The day of Lord will bring salvation for his people and judgment for his enemies. To shy away from that truth because some consider it dangerous is to do great evil to those who are perishing.
If judging sin in the present, as faulty as our judgments can be, should cause great fear among the people, how much more fearful should we be of the perfect judge who knows all things? We are hiding nothing from him. Even more fearful are the sins which aren’t evident to others and only come to light on the last day, sins for which we have never repented.
There are those good deeds which are well-known. If judgment of sin brings about fear, then acknowledgment of good deeds should bring about joy. We’d be lying if we said we didn’t enjoy recognition, but the Christian knows that that is not the right motivation. We live to glorify God in all we do, especially our good works. But in the same way our sin is known fully only to God, so are our good deeds, even if imperfectly executed. The righteous judge sees our sin as well as our acts of worship. The judge of all the earth will do what is right. He rewards those who diligently seek him. There will be nothing hidden from his eyes at the final judgment.
It seems as though Paul has spent an inordinate amount of time on the issue of pastoral leadership, but this isn’t even his final word on the matter. If Paul has this much to say in 1 Timothy and in his other letters, then we should heed his words. We should honor our leaders, but only those who honor the gospel. As important as oversight is, perhaps the most important thing elders can do is teach their people and always shine a light on the gospel of Christ and him crucified. Those are the only elders we should honor. Ministry requires great effort in discipling a church toward maturity so that we are not swayed by every shifting wind. So we must not bring spurious charges against leadership and waste resources and effort. This requires a great deal of wisdom, discernment, and impartiality, ultimately, because God is the impartial judge.
He sees our inner life, the things that no one else sees. This calls for confession of sin and faith in Christ. Only in his name do we find salvation. His perfect life made him the acceptable substitute for our sins and rebellion. God received Christ’s blood in the heavenly temple once-for-all. Therefore, we are spared from being cast away from his presence. The righteous judge accepted the perfect righteousness of Christ, counting it as ours. So we confess Jesus is Lord with our lips and believe that truth in our hearts. This is the gospel we preach. This is the gospel we honor.