There is no shortage of cartoons and humor when it comes to the subject of leadership.
There are various styles of leadership—autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire.
When it comes to leadership in the church, one truth remains the same. The church will rise and fall according to the caliber of its leaders. The body of Christ will only be as godly and fruitful as those they follow. Consequently, we should honor the leaders who work hard, discipline the leaders who fall, and choose leaders wisely. That is the message Paul communicates to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17-25.
Paul starts by explaining that we should honor leaders who work hard (17-18). Rather than setting up two different classes of elders—ruling elders and teaching elders—Paul is saying that all elders have the task of leading, and some lead through their teaching and preaching. His main point is that those who lead well deserve to be honored and respected.
The New Testament explains that the task of leading the church is a challenging one indeed (Acts 20:28-35; 1 Peter 5:1-4). The elders are to follow the model of a shepherd as they feed, lead, guard, care, and model Christlikeness for the congregation. Rather than one elder taking charge, they serve as a team to shepherd and lead the church.
Those who take up the challenge and faithfully discharge their duties are worthy of double honor. Not only are they due their proper respect, they also can be paid for their efforts. In support of his argument, Paul quotes Moses (Deuteronomy 25:4) and Jesus (Luke 10:7). I have said on several occasions that I and our other elders have the same responsibility. The only difference is that I get paid so I can devote my full time to the task.
Paul goes on to say that leaders who fall should be disciplined (19-21). Paul explains that we are to exercise caution when it comes to confronting an elder. The nature of leadership is that someone will always disagree and be ready to complain. Rather than listen to every rumor and complaint that comes along, we need to make sure we have our facts straight before proceeding (19).
We also need to practice courage. Like a soccer referee handing a red card to a player who commits a serious foul, so there may be occasions when we have to publicly confront a sinning elder. Note, however, that Paul doesn’t say rebuke over a single sin. Instead, he is pointing out a pattern of sin, a habit of sin. We are to confront and publicly rebuke a persistent, repeated, unrepentant sinning elder in order to scare the rest of the congregation (in a healthy way) to remain true to God’s word (20).
As we practice this type of confrontation and rebuke, we need to ensure fairness. Rather than making a decision in isolation, we have an audience. All of heaven is watching what is taking place (21).
Since we are to honor hardworking elders and discipline erring ones, we need to make sure we make wise choices in appointing them in the first place (22-25). We would never dream of taking a kindergarten graduate and appointing them as CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In the same way, we should not rush a person into leadership in the church (22).
Verse 23 seems rather curious and out of place. Paul seemingly makes a random comment giving Timothy permission to drink wine for his stomach ailments rather than only drinking water. However, when we remember that the false teachers in Ephesus practiced a mixture of Jewish legalism and asceticism, we discover that Paul is telling Timothy not to practice asceticism to the detriment of his health.
Paul closes the section by saying that hidden sins and anonymous good deeds will be revealed in due time (24-25). In light of that, we should be patient and not rush into appointing leaders in the church.
This is the synopsis of a message preached at First Central Baptist Church in Chicopee, MA, on April 6, 2014. It is part of an ongoing series in 1 Timothy. Please click on the link to download a copy of the sermon notes.