On the First Epistle to Timothy

Chapter 5:17-18.

Taken from The Bible Treasury Number 348 - May 1885


Chapter 5:17-18

As we had elders in respect of years (proved by the contrast of youngers, both of the two sexes) brought before us in the beginning of the chapter, we have here the apostle's injunctions as to official elders or presbyters.

"Let the elders that preside well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they that labour in word and teaching. For the scripture saith, An ox when treading out corn thou shalt not muzzle, and Worthy [is] the workman of his hire" (var. 17, 18).

It is remarkable how much we may and ought to glean from these few words, decisive as they are of important differences among Christians, and not least of all since the Reformation. For the revival then lay more in shaking οff the main hindrance in Christendom to free reading of the Bible, and in a measure to the recovery of the gospel, than in any real intelligence of the assembly or of ministry, &c. Men's notions got cleared of gross superstition, but church truth was the less learnt, because it was assumed that there way little or nothing to learn; and so traditional error as to what is of such moment rests on the mass of christians to this day.

The business of the elders was to rule or take the lead among the saints. They were responsible to see to godly order in public and private; and hence, as we saw in chapter iii., qualities were looked for which would give them moral weight, not only in cheering the weak and •timid and tried, but in repressing the forward and rebuking the disorderly. They are therefore quite distinct from the gifts, of which we hear so much in Ram. xii., 1 Cor. xii., Eph. iv. and elsewhere. Hence we must distinguish, as scripture does, a pastor from an elder. For as the latter is never enumerated among the fruits of Christ's ascension, the former is incontrovertibly treated as a gift of His love, no less than apostles, prophets and evangelists, for the perfecting of the saints, unto the work of the ministry, unto the edifying of the body of Christ.

The two might be united, doubtless, in the same person. But eldership was a local charge, which needed the authority of an apostle, or adequate person acting definitely under apostolic commission, to make the desired choice of fitting men. This is clearly shown in Acts xiv. 23; where, we are told, that Paul and Barnabas chose or appointed elders for the disciples in each assembly. That the disciples those elders, whom the apostles ordained, is a fiction, perhaps due to the wholly different case in chap. vi. of "the seven," whom the saints at large did select and the apostles appointed over the business of the tables. The reason of this seems plain. The saints, as they contributed of their goods, were left most wisely to look out from among themselves brethren so endowed as to inspire the confidence of all. But the gifts are given by Christ, not by the church, and therefore in this case He alone chooses; and as authority also is from Him who invested the apostles with power to act for Him on earth, we see them, directly or indirectly, choosing elders accordingly. Hence Titus was sent for the purpose of appointing elders in every city of. Crete. Never was the assembly told in scripture to choose such. Directions also are here given to Timothy only, not to the assembly. .in Ephesus. Authority and power are from above.

So we see both gifts and elders not onlyy subsisting, but this together, in apostolic times. Thus in Acts xv. we hear of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and of Judas and Silas as chief men or guides among the brethren; but these are also described as "prophets," and so they exhorted, freely at Antioch, and are never viewed as " elders." Gift is in the unity of the body of Christ, and might therefore be exercised as freely in one place as in another. An elder was a local charge, exercised in the particular assembly for which it was appointed; and this, it would seem, not singly but more than one in each church. The distinction will be found sustained everywhere in scripture, and rests on the difference of principle already explained, while both might be found harmoniously working together, as was seen in early days. Let us be subject to the word of God.

The practical bearing of all this is as immediate as it is important. Men have confounded the local charges with the gifts to the immense dishonour of the Lord and to as decided loss of all concerned. Again, economic desires have concurred with the democratic principle (now more rampant than ever) to swamp both gifts and elders by that singular" invention, the minister of a church, instead of that which is exclusively found in scripture—a minister of the church. And godly souls are so little versed in the truth as to imagine that this upturning of all ecclesiastical truth and order, as far as the subject is concerned, is so unimpeachably sound, that there is no sect at all where the like disorder does not reign: so ruinous is the force of tradition and habit against the confessed meaning of God's word.

It will be argued of course that we ought to have elders, though we have neither an apostle nor an apostolic commissioner to appoint them. But "scripture cannot be broken," as it must be if either an assembly, or a person without the due authority, usurp apostolic functions. It would be holier and humbler to own that we lack apostolic authority as a living reality; and that therefore, though there are no doubt very many among the believers possessed of the qualities required in an elder, it would be more seemly to search the scriptures whether divine principle does not provide for godly order without our assuming beyond our power and title. There were many assemblies of old which had not enjoyed the intervention of an apostle to this end and had no apostolic vicar sent to do this work. Yet the great apostle himself exhorts the saints to own and honour those who laboured and were over them in the Lord, even though they had no official stat us as elders.

So to the saints in Rome (where, it would seem, apostles went to be prisoners or to die) these are the words: "Having gifts differing according to the grace that was given to us, whether prophecy, [let us prophesy] according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, [let us occupy ourselves] in ministry; or he that teacheth, in teaching; or lie that exhorteth, in exhortation; he that giveth, in simplicity; he that presideth, with diligence; he that sheweth mercy with cheerfulness." (ch. xii.) Now here it is expressly a question of gifts direct from the Lord, who gave and still gives what is needful—yea far more than is barely needed —for His saints; still though there is no trace of office,. we find rule as well as teaching &c. in their midst. Neither order nor doctrine therefore need fail for want of elders. Base is the spirit that despised an elder. It was a great boon, and so was most thankfully received and owned and honoured when given. But where they were not and could not be, was it faith to say "we must have elders "? How much better to have used such things as they had, praising Him who, whatever the lack or the weakness, never fails in His faithful love, but is the same yesterday and to-day and for ever?

Similar is the lesson of 1 Cor. xvi. 15, 16: "Now I beseech you, brethren (ye know the house of Stephanas, that it is the first-fruits of Achaia and that they set themselves to the saints for ministry), that ye also be subject to such and to every one that joineth in the work and laboureth." It is the same principle; for though the apostle had been in Corinth, it was but a youthful assembly, and of elders we have not a word, of gifts a great deal. But did means even there fail, however ill use they had made of what they had? Let others judge what the apostle here enjoins—of all moment for us to-day.

Gal. vi. 6 proves that the duty of the saints toward one "that teacheth" is not dependent on elders. Of Eph. iv. 11, 12 enough has been said for our present purpose; and Phil. i. 1 compared with 14-17 suffices to shew that the fullest order consists with the freest preaching, and the apostle's joy triumphant even where motives were sadly mixed. Col. ii. 19 is not silent on the joints and bands that knit together the body and so contribute to growth. It is in 1 Thess. ν. 12, 13 that we find luminous and full instruction on this head; where two things are equally plain, that these saints, but lately converted, had not elders, yet that they had simple and sufficient means in God's grace for their orderly walk together. More might be added; but this is surely enough. There were circumstances in apostolically owned and founded assemblies where elders were not; and this affords comfort and instruction in times when they cannot be in the due manner. But the written word prescribes amply for all times. Only a single eye is needed to ensure the light of God.

Where elders exist, those that preside well were to be deemed worthy of double honour. For honour was due to an elder as such, double honour if he did his work well. There is no comparison with any preceding class. And "honour" means what it says; though it would be strange honour that could neglect their wants. But there is especial value, beyond that double honour, to those that labour in word and doctrine. This also is notable and instructive. Ruling was the aim of their institution; but, if they laboured in word and teaching, it had peculiar price in the apostle's eyes. All did not so labour. They were not "teachers," though aptness to teach was sought in one eligible for the office. The Presbyterian system may be far from a resemblance; but others surely are more distant still; while in all sects the minister is in contrast with the facts of scripture.

But to make "double maintenance"1 out of the text is as mistaken as to deduce from it two classes of elders, lay elders that shared the government without maintenance, and clerical or ministerial elders that taught publicly as well as privately. The truth conveyed is opposed to both of these contending schemes, as divine truth never can really mix with any polity of human origin. But false interpretation begets and fosters pseudo-criticism. Thus even so ripe a scholar and able a reasoner as Bp. Bilson,2 under the influence of a foregone conclusion, would resolve the participles with the article in ver. 17, like the participle without it in ver. 18, as if they were alike conditional. " Presbyters if they rule well are worthy of double honour, specially if they labour in the word:" or, " Presbyters for ruling well are worthy of double honour, specially for labouring in the word." To bear such a sense the construction ought to have been anarthrous: with the article as it stands in each clause, it is a described or defined case, and not a conditional one, and the true force is given in the Authorised Version as well as the Revised. To take those "labouring," in the sense of travelling from place to place to visit the churches, is not only without the least foundation but opposed to the clearly revealed fact that the elders were, as such, local charges, and had no title from their office save to rule or preside in the assembly in which they were appointed.

The true meaning then of the apostolic injunction is, that the elders that preside well should be counted worthy of double honour—honour in their office, honour because it was excellently filled, with especial distinction for those of the elders that labour in word and teaching: which clearly all might not do and some could not equally do. For it is a delicate and difficult task, demanding tact and moral courage more than public exposition or the like; and assiduous perseverance, in the face of frequent discouragement and trial as well as opposition, calls for such "labour," rather than moving from place to place like an apostle, prophet, or evangelist, from all which eldership is wholly distinct. "Honour" is the right version and sense, not "maintenance" or "price" though it often means so, as we have seen elsewhere. But here such a force is only tolerable in eyes rendered dim by the mist of evil influence and habits in Christendom. "Honour" however, as the true and larger word, would imply this where support was needed, as is suggested by the quotations that follow.

In every case then, whether they were needy or above need, 'those that rule well are to be held worthy of double honour. For such an elder if wealthy or with competent means, would it be truly honouring him to give him a salary or even money? He who wrote now to Timothy insinuated the very reverse in the strongest way from his own example to the elders of the assembly in Ephesus assembled at Miletus. But it was important here to indicate that an elder who rules well is to be deemed worthy of such honour as would neither let him want nor turn him aside from his absorbing work to provide the bread that perishes. Such men ought no more to be forgotten than the evangelists (1 Cor. ix.), though the latter may labour without, the former within. Indeed the same scripture (Deμt. xxv. 4) is cited, though it be from the less to the greater in both cases, a remarkable witness to the depth of God's word below the surface. There is a difference in the order, as well as in the word for "muzzle," of the two κ. in 1 Cor. being the more technical, φ. in 1 Tim. the more general, but both meaning the same thing.

There is a second scripture cited which calls for more notice as presenting matter of peculiar interest. Possibly from its cast, the workman [is] worthy of his " hire," or "wages," may be proverbial; but the apostle quotes it expressly as "the scripture." Whence did he draw it? From the Gospel of. Luke, chap. x. 7; for so it stands there to the letter, not in Matt. x. 10 where the Lord declares the workman worthy "of his food."3 Surely this is the more instructive (not to speak of its bearing on the date of our Epistle as necessarily subsequent to Luke's Gospel) as it is a decisive instance of an apostle's quoting from another inspired man as "scripture." So Peter in his Second Epistle (iii. 15, 16) speaks of "our beloved brother Paul's" epistles as part of "the scriptures." It is unwarrantable to contradict Theodoret and Theοphylact, who say that one citation is from the Old Testament and the other from the New. Everywhere else no doubt the two apostles speak of the Old Testament as scripture; but each of them as here predicates scripture of the New at least once, which is as authoritative as if said a dozen times. It was uncalled for save here; but here it is of all importance, let Wieseler, Ban; or others, reason as they may. It is put, not as only explanatory of the first, but as an added and distinct quotation.



1) There are cases where r. meaty once (as Matt. xxvii. 6,9; Acts iv. 84; ν. 2, 8; vii. 16; xix. 19; 1 Cor. vi. 20; vii. 23 but these are all in the New Testament. Extend it to "maintenance," in 1 Tim. vi. 1 or to the verb in v.8, and see what would result. "Double maintenance" or "price" here would be a heathen, not Christian, idea.

2) The Perpetual Government of Christ's Church, ed. Eden, Oxford, 1842, pp. 9,191.

3) Dr. Bloomfield (Res. Syn. viii. 289)s therefore short of the truth in referring to Matt. x.; the elder Roseumüller errs in saying that Paul added it de suo; and Heinriche wanders still farther.