Meditations in 1 Timothy: 31: Honouring Elders
1 Tim 5:17,18 The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honour, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.”
It is interesting that Paul moves from widows to elders, from vulnerable women to men in authority. But perhaps it requires a knowledge of men in ministry to understand the leap. Actually, I would suggest that elders are actually another group of vulnerable people who need looking after! Now that may seem strange for many of us because we look up to the vicar, the minister, the leader, the elder, and so we do not realise that they have the same struggles that the rest of us have. They are still redeemed sinners and are still working out their sanctification, they still struggle with family relationships and even relationships with others. They still get tired, have worries, and get old; they are still very much human beings – and they need looking after! Perhaps our greatest danger is that we take them for granted. Having observed church leaders in lots of different denominations, streams etc. over the last forty years, I believe this word from Paul is particularly needful.
We have considered the role and qualifications of elders in earlier meditations (17 & 18) and here we see Paul identifying their activities as directing “the affairs of the church” and “preaching and teaching”. The way he speaks of preaching and teaching might suggest that not every elder does this. He is speaking of those who fulfil their role “well”. How does an elder do these things ‘well’? I suggest he does them carefully, diligently, wisely, with grace, and with his whole heart, listening to the Lord and conveying the Lord’s heart to His people, and being there for them. That will do for starters!
But then Paul says that such men are worthy of ‘double honour’. What does that mean? At the very least it means we stop taking them for granted and we think about them and care for them. Now in some churches where the ‘elder’ is an authority figure that may require others in supportive roles ensuring they build their relationship with their leader so that they can speak into his life and be there for him. Practically I realise it is not always easy with some of the church structures and expectations that we have in this country. Nevertheless I would maintain that I know of men in the ministry – Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, Baptists, free church – who have struggled with life and ministry and who have not been looked after!
But Paul does allow us to think that this means thinking well of our leader(s) for he uses two illustrations that clearly indicate that they is a material or financial dimension here as well: “For the Scripture says, “Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,” and “The worker deserves his wages.” (v.18) The first quote comes from Deut 25:4 and is literally about oxen, while the second quotes Jesus in Lk 10:7 and both of them are about material and financial reward for service.
Now this is a difficult subject but it is one where I believe, looking back over many years as I have commented already, the church often fails. Yes, there are exceptions and sometimes (in the American mould it seems) there are leaders of big churches who seem to take this over the top and are paid and have lifestyles of top executives which divide them from the ordinary people of their congregation; they are superstars and seem out of place in the church of Jesus Christ. But they are few and far between and Paul would not have been able to imagine such a situation. No, he envisages the more normal church situation of the smaller church. What is common in the church of today is the full-time leader whose family struggles with the low wages the church gives him.
Perhaps this emanates from a wrong mentality that here is an employee and we then start assessing what he does with his time and so on. This is the mentality of those who have little understanding of the life and ministry of an elder, a man of God who must spend much time developing his relationship with the Lord on behalf of his flock. This cannot be ‘assessed’ or ‘measured’ in the same way as a man working a machine. The life in the ministry is too complex for that. Incidentally, in passing, sociologists often declare that the role of the church minister is often one of the most stressful jobs going! So we add to his stress by giving him a pitifully low salary, often below the national average, so he is having to worry about how to make ends meet and explain to his wife and children why they cannot have the same as the neighbours have!
Church, this is not honouring the elder and I have seen it again and again and again. We do not want to create a financial megastar but we do want to honour such men and provide for them reasonably. Simply ask yourself, IF you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, do you give the elder(s) of your local church “double honour”? Be honest, do you? And if not, why are you disobeying God? It’s as simple as that!