When I was in seminary I had a church polity class, that is a class on how churches work and govern. It was taught by an old school professor who loved diving into every clause and phrase of church constitution and bylaws. He would give details of different situations and problem encountered in his denomination, and which sections addressed it. It felt like I was learning the city code for home improvement. I hated it.
I was part of a relatively young church and ministry that didn’t have a detailed written polity. I talked with my pastor about my class, and he said they didn’t do much on polity. At his church they just did ministry relationally and talked through things by the Spirit of God. The simplicity! That sounded awesome! Sign me up. I bailed on significant portions of my class and didn’t think twice about it. A few years later my church would see several pastors resign and an unhelpful leadership style was discovered. I went running for polity class notes. Ignorance is bliss! Church can be messy because life is messy.
No one goes into ministry to work with church governance. But it is so important. It is especially important when things go wrong. It is better to follow it on the front end so you don’t get into challenging situations, but some situations are inevitable. Today’s text addresses how the church is to govern itself. We want to understand it.
But this text is so much more than a housing code. In it you see God’s plan for his church. God desired that his church work through leadership transitions, failures, and voids. The church is to maintain, grow, and reproduce even when men fail or things go wrong. The church is greater than any individual. As a good business owner sets down how his business will continue for future generations so also God instituted how the church will continue on.
The church is God’s plan A for changing the world. When you see things go wrong in the church you don’t give up on God’s plan, you don’t abandon Christ, you draw in deeper to God’s purpose for the church and his design of how it is to function. This passage gives the baseline of church polity and preserving the church.
TextLet 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."
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. 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.) 24 The sins of some men 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. (1 Timothy 5:17-25 ESV)
The good deeds of the church should be conspicuously preserved. Three ways the legacy of church is continued.
● Payment: When Things are Right
This passage deals with the elders, presbuteros, the leaders of the church. Maintaining good leadership is a key way to preserve the church. “Honor the elders who rule well.”
There are different ways of honoring. We saw earlier to honor widows meant to hold them in esteem. You are to hold elders in esteem.
I realize it is not common today to hold pastors in esteem. I get interesting comments when I tell people what I do. In DC it wasn’t uncommon to tell people I’m a pastor and they would get a funny look on their face and ask “what is that” or “I have never met a pastor before.” I have not gotten that question down here. But I do get a fair amount of people who are uncertain what a pastor does. Pastors are to care for the church. Lead people spiritually.
Honoring can mean thanking them, it can mean going to them for advice. You honor them, their thoughts, their role in your life.
Honor here also pertains to paying elders . Two Proverbs are used. “You don’t muzzle an ox while it is treading the grain”(Deut 25:4) is used to show the elders deserve their wages. Those who labor at something deserve to make their living from it. An ox treading grain is working, when you work you get hungry, so you need to pay your workers. It is a general proverb that is good to acknowledge in all of life. A roofer works and deserves his ways (Luke 10:7, 1 Cor 9:7-14). A car salesman works and deserves his wages. Pertaining to the church, it means your workers, your pastors elders, should be compensated accordingly.
It doesn’t mean you have to pay them. You could honor them by esteeming them for their role and help. Church’s don’t have to pay them a salary, but this passage clearly lays out that it is a way for churches to continue. This allows you to have workers that are solely focused on the work of the church.
Some churches have a mix of this. We have that as well with a mix of staff and non-staff elders. I think that is a good balance because it allows some to focus on the church and also have others in the church play a part in leadership. Those who are doing a good job are paid to preserve what they are doing. It allows some to focus on their work here. You all know the difference between fulltime and parttime engagement in a job.
Another thing to see in this text is the plurality of elders, and the exhortation that those who give themselves to “teaching and preaching are worthy of double honor.” When elders are mentioned in the Bible it is always in the plural (21 times plural, 3 uses of singular do not pertain to church leadership). Churches were to have a plurality of leadership. Plurality lets other voices be heard and if used rightly it allows ideas and initiatives to be sharpened, honed, and best practices implemented. I think it provides a basis of discipling others in the work of the church.
This is one of the things we have sought to do since I have been here, and our leadership has a good working relationship. I view my role to lead the elders. We are equal but I am designated to lead them, this helps to make sure we don’t get bottle necked. We are talking through ideas and initiative. Others are taking ownership. If you have ever studied the Bible with someone and been enriched by their observation that you see why community is important and why it is helpful to have a plurality of leadership. I’m grateful for these men and the way they have helped me and the church. I’m grateful that they let me lead. We are moving forward and I hope and believe we are going to get more done as a group than we would as isolated individuals. Team!
Also note that it speaks of the elders who labor in teaching and preaching. Some churches have designated the teaching and caring role of leadership as “Pastor” and those who help in board meetings as “elders.” This distinction comes from this verse. It’s helpful distinction but you can’t press it too far because in Tim 3 the qualifications for any elder is that they are able to teach.
All elders should be able to teach, all elders should be able to lead, all elders should care for the church, but it will differ for each one depending on their gifts and the needs of the church. We will plan to have some distinction in elder roles and are going to address it this year as we rework our bylaws.
Let me talk on this for a moment about Bridgeway. We have a good group of guys on our elder board, but we do have more than we should for the size of our church. We plan to address this in the upcoming year as we look at our governance. We need to shore up a number of things. I want to have strong leaders and teachers as elders. That’s what Scripture calls for. Guys who flourish in teaching and preaching and leading.
Where people are serving well we want to encourage them and make it possible for them to continue doing what they are doing. This is true of pastors, do it for them, but also find way to encourage people where they are serving the Lord well. When a friend shares a verse with you, tell your small group leader thanks for opening their home and planning lessons. Let give honor where honor is due in order to move the church forward. Build each other up.
● Unbiased Judgement: When Things are Wrong.
Things don’t always go as you hope in ministry. v 19-21 gives guidance on how to handle that. There may be times someone brings a charge of wrongdoing against an elder. There may be legitimacy to the accusation and there may not. Jesus was on trial because of a false “accusation” (John 18:29 ESV).
When an accusation arises you have to establish if the charge is true. Don’t listen to the first thing you hear. It is not always right. Pro 18:17 “ The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him.” True in the world today too. Don’t believe the first thing you see on tv or the news, or that you hear about another at church. People say wrong things.
This calls for due process, (and any relationship conflicts can benefit from this principle). The church vets accusations with an unbiased process. False accusations need filtering out and legitimate accusations need hearing. God provides a way for the church to handle such things. This also follows the pattern for church discipline that is in Matt 18. (Also Deuteronomy 17:6)
When things go wrong it is important to have an unbiased process. There is to be no prejudice in vetting. Church leaders need to make sure this process happens, it is the only way to ensure the church and the elder involved can maintain a good standing. The church needs to embrace the process of waiting for things to be looked into. The elder needs to embrace the process of being examined. It goes both ways. These biblical precepts need to be followed.
I have seen discipline situations go bad because people wanted the elder fired as soon as they heard a charge. I have seen them fall apart because the elder wanted those making accusations rebuked immediately with no hearing. Neither honors the biblical process.
Next, if the elder is indeed sinning then there is a responsibility to rebuke him in the presence of all. Leadership sets an example (1 tim 4:14), and there are times that a leader’s actions need to be rebuked so that others do not follow.
That is case with big sins but also consider Peter in Galatians. Paul says, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?" (Galatians 2:11-14 ESV)
Paul rebuked Peter because he did not want the rest of the church behaving in that manner. Some sins simply need brotherly correction. Some sins lead to a disqualification. The result depends on the offense and on the repentance of the individual.
The nature of public leadership and the proclamation of an offensive gospel ensures there will be false accusations that need to be rebuked. The nature of fallen leaders means failures will have to be dealt with. The fear of God gives the church faith and confidence to determine which is which. When things go wrong we press into the word of God. “When life cuts we want to bleed Bible.” The times things don’t go well are also a powerful opportunity to demonstrate faith in the word of God.
● Ordination: When things are Restored.
Sin doesn’t get the last word. Failure doesn’t mean the church closes its doors. God’s unfailing mission and the resolve of the church are seen in the appoint of a leader.
V22 mentions laying on of hands. With accusation you might think they are being taken to jail! But this is more likely a reference to ordination, and a person being set apart for the task of eldering/pastoring. The act of ordaining is the elders gathering, praying and commissioning. After failure, Timothy is charged to move on in appointing another.
Some think the laying on of hands pertained to installing a new elder. Some think it’s a reference to an accused elder being reinstated.All church discipline is to be redemptive. That is the goal. It’s a good reminder that the ugly parts of church life is being redeemed just as God redeemed our ugliness before we ever came to church.
He warns not do it too quickly. There is and always should be a time of testing a person for the fitness with the office. You take time to get to know them, evaluate their character, evaluate their gifting, their pursuit of God, their, service in the church, and yes even perhaps their repentance. Don’t allow for hasty ordinations or reinstatements. But do allow for them! The church needs it.
V23 Paul addresses Timothy’s stomach problems and advises him to have a little wine. There are different opinions on why this sentence is here. Timothy had ailments and this certainly had medicinal merits. And nothing in church life will give you stomach problems like accusations and the failing of leaders! If you have been in angst, frustrated by church, I think Timothy would sympathize with you. But I don’t think he would sympathize with quitting on the church. Some of my heros in the faith are those who were on the opposite side of leadership changes and direction, and they stood by even in disagreement, manned their post, and then went and joined another church. That happens sometimes. There are good ways to differ and leave. But too many people give up and turn away. Don’t turn away from Christ when leaders fail. Those times prove what we know: that only Christ is worthy of your worship. Good elders are worthy of you honor, but not your devotion.
V24 is a sobering statement of our duty and our trust in God. When you ordain someone as an elder you certainly search them and examine them. This is often why the first vetting of elders is done with confidentiality. A man may be nominated to be an elder and you talk with him and realize he has done or is struggling with things that disqualify him. Perhaps his marriage is not as it should be. Perhap his anger issues are more significant. You do your duty. Some are obvious and you take care of those. But no person is omnipotent and no process is either. Some sins do not appear until later. But they will appear. You can’t keep them hidden.
But just as you cannot hide sins, good deeds also are conspicuous and cannot remain hidden. So much of life is having to do the right thing when everything and everyone seem to be doing the wrong thing. You have to keep doing that and not grow weary. Your resolve will be tested! But know when we stand before God it will be clear.
These words are not here just to know what to do. They are here because God wants his church preserved.
As I studied this passage, having been through some messes. I was amazed at one thing. God’s clear instruction for his church to continue. Jesus said he will build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail. Jesus is at work and that is our confidence. But our/your responsibility is to do all that we can to propagate the church. We support when going well, we vet when not going well, we restore fallen leaders or we install new ones. That is the mission of the church. Man down; bring in a new one. The church is bigger than one individual, bigger than one persons failing, bigger than our bumps in the road.
Now it can be difficult when a leader’s fails, falls or stubs his toe (figuratively). Pastors are given honor and an open door into the lives of others. It is emotional when there is a change. It is easy to say next man up, but sometimes your heart is not ready. You have to deal with your emotions and allow for healing there. But all that will be tempered and balanced when we are looking to the only perfect leader, Jesus Christ. He alone rules without fault, with no wrongdoing, with no poorly conceived plan. His work is perfect and all his ways just. And he will reign forever and ever.
If you have fallen off the church bandwagon, see God’s commitment to it. See his purpose for it. See his instruction that its ministry continue, and be a part of it. Embrace it and do your part to propel it forward.