Disciplining Leaders

In this section, Paul instructs Timothy concerning the way he should deal with church leaders who cause trouble.
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We are in a section of Paul's letter to Timothy where the Apostle is talking about various issues of concern to the church. In the previous chapter we reviewed the instructions Paul gave for the care of widows in the assembly. The brethren at Ephesus were not sure which ones should be helped and Paul provided some guidelines for the care of those Christian women who were truly in need and deserving of assistance.

In the next section, Paul will instruct Timothy concerning the way one should deal with leaders who cause trouble. There was unrest in the church where Timothy preached and apparently some of it was caused by those who were, or wanted to be, in leadership.

The potential for damage to the church is great when the division or the trouble is caused by those in leadership roles. Paul cautions Timothy about how to deal with this situation.

Concerning Elders

Verses 17-25 deal with three subjects:

1. Honoring Elders

17The elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. 18For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing," and "The laborer is worthy of his wages."
- I Timothy 5:17-18

Paul describes three areas of elders' work: ruling (leadership), preaching (proclaiming the Word) and teaching (instruction and application of the Word in Christian life). Leaders in the church are to be busy and absorbed in these duties. This is fairly straightforward, the problem lies in understanding the next verse.

Paul says that those who do these things well, and make a great effort at these things, are worthy of "double honor." There are several opinions as to what "double honor" refers to:

  • Double pay
  • Honor plus pay
  • Twice the amount 60 year old widows received
  • Two kinds of honor: one for age and one for the role of elder

There is nothing wrong with an elder who devotes himself completely to teaching and ministry receiving a salary from the church. I do not believe, however, that "double honor" means that he should receive double the salary of ministers or others. Paul says "double honor" in relationship to the service they give and then provides two examples to illustrate his point.

  • The ox receives food from the grain it is threshing.
  • The worker receives something back from his work: the pay agreed upon for his effort.

The elder receives something back from those he leads and teaches: honor for his role as elder in the church, extra honor (double) for his extra effort and ability in preaching and teaching. An example of this extra honor is seen in the next section where Paul will show Timothy the care taken in dealing with elders accused or guilty of sin.

2. Correcting Elders

19Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. 21I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.
- I Timothy 5:19-21

Accusations against elders need to be brought up by a minimum of two witnesses, and having three would make a strong case. The idea is that no charge can be brought forward unless there are two or three witnesses that do so. This protects church leaders from baseless accusations, gossip and jealousy. If there are not at least two or three witnesses at hand to prove the accusation, it cannot even be made! We often see people's reputations ruined simply because they have been accused of something. Requiring two or more witnesses to even make an accusation protects church leaders from losing their good names without cause. On the other hand, if the witnesses have a case, then this protection cannot be given to the leader.

  • Those elders guilty of continuing sin need to be rebuked by the evangelist before the other elders so that they will be warned not to behave in the same way.
  • Elders guilty of serious sin (fornication, heresy, etc.) need to be removed.

These are difficult instructions and Timothy needs to make sure that he acts fairly in every situation.

  • It is easy to confront a person that you may have issues with or struggle with over control or power.
  • Timothy, however, must be committed to following these instructions with everyone and not show favoritism.

In the church, it is easy to ignore problems when friends are involved, but when it comes to discipline, Timothy (the minister or other elders) must judge and act with impartiality.

3. Selecting Elders

Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.
- I Timothy 5:22

The "laying on" of hands was a gesture used at that time to signify various things:

A sign of blessing

Then some children were brought to Him so that He might lay His hands on them and pray; and the disciples rebuked them.
- Matthew 19:13

A sign of healing

Then again He laid His hands on his eyes; and he looked intently and was restored, and began to see everything clearly.
Mark 8:25

A sign of empowerment

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was bestowed through the laying on of the apostles' hands, he offered them money,
Acts 8:18

A sign of commendation

And these they brought before the apostles; and after praying, they laid their hands on them.
Acts 6:6

We still use the laying on of hands as a sign of blessing and commendation, but not one of healing or empowerment. God still heals (and hears our prayers for healing) but no longer grants humans the miraculous powers given to the Apostles and transferred to others by the laying on of their hands (Acts 8:18).

What Paul is talking about here is the laying on of hands to commend or "ordain" someone into the office of elder. He warns Timothy not to "ordain" or put men into leadership too quickly, meaning without making sure they qualify and are tested first. If he does, and because of this they stumble into error or sin, Timothy will share a portion of responsibility and guilt for their sins or failure.

Timothy is ultimately responsible for not getting involved in others' sins by ordaining them too quickly.

Concerning Timothy — 5:23-25

In the last section, Paul continues to talk about elders but does so in an indirect way.

No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.
- I Timothy 5:23

It seems that Timothy only drank water (which was contrary to the custom of the day). Perhaps he did this to make sure no one would accuse him of any type of abuse. But Timothy's habit made him vulnerable to illness (because the water in that day was often impure). If he fell ill, he wouldn't be able to carry out his work so Paul encourages him to drink wine in moderation in order to maintain good health. If he, as a leader, was sick from dysentery or other ailments, he would not be able to be an effective leader.

This is not a general command for all Christians to drink wine (since our water is treated and safe). But, on the other hand, it is a passage that makes it difficult to defend the idea that drinking wine is a sin. Keep in mind, however, that the wine of that day contained no more than three or four percent alcohol (today it has 12 to 13 percent) and the custom was to add water to the wine to further dilute the alcohol content (biblestudytools.com).

Timothy has an important role to play in appointing and training leaders in the church and he cannot do this if he is constantly ill.

This section is a summary statement regarding the entire issue of choosing or rejecting different men for the position of leadership in the church beginning in verse 22 where Paul instructs him to be careful in being too hasty in appointing men as elders.

The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after.
- I Timothy 5:24

Paul, therefore, is saying that in the matter of choosing the right man for the eldership, do not worry about choosing the wrong person. When deciding about a man's worthiness, you will be able to see fairly easily his faults and weaknesses (the sins of some men are quite evident; for example, someone's arrogance or foolishness).

For others, their sins follow, meaning that their sins are "not evident," they are behind them (out of view). However, in the same manner, these sins also become evident when Timothy examines these men in the light of the qualifications Paul has outlined previously.

Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.
- I Timothy 5:25

Paul states the same idea again but uses "deeds" instead of "character" this time. Good deeds are evident. A man's good life will be easily discerned because his good works will be known. Conversely, an evil man will not be able to hide his evil deeds, they will eventually be found out. Paul, therefore, warns Timothy about not appointing men to leadership too quickly lest he share the responsibility for their sins and errors. He then comforts the young evangelist by telling him that it will be evident who the good and bad men are by the fruit of their characters and lives.


1. Elders are Human

We all know this to be true but many times expect them to be above humanity.

  • No mistakes
  • No character weaknesses
  • No limits on their willingness to serve or put up with laziness or other bad behavior by members

Most of the time they also have jobs and families to care for and have volunteered to minister to the church family as well.

Of course, we owe them honor, obedience and respect as the Bible says (Hebrews 13:7), but in addition to these I say that we also owe them the benefit of the doubt. Let us not assume, for example, that an honest mistake is really a purposeful slight, or that a lack of attention concerning a need or issue is a planned insult or a proof that the elder does not care. There may be a perfectly normal reason for his action or lack of action (e.g. sick wife at home or overtime at work) and giving him the benefit of the doubt should be our first reaction.

Not jumping to negative conclusions or not having a hair-trigger in getting our feelings hurt will not only help the elder do his work, but it will also spare us a lot of unnecessary turmoil when it comes to our relationship with various leaders.

2. Elders Need Both Encouragement and Correction

The worst case scenario for an elder is when he will listen and accept encouragement but will refuse correction. Elders need both encouragement and correction because they are human.

  1. They need encouragement in order to validate their work. Encouragement answers their main question, "Is what I am doing making a difference?" A positive word, a note of appreciation, a hug, all of these say to the elder that his efforts are recognized, needed and appreciated. It is this type of feedback that neutralizes unfair criticism and fuels the elder's desire to continue serving.
  2. They also need correction in order to protect their leadership and the souls for which they are responsible. Paul gives careful instructions on how to go about doing this so that a simple course correction about an elder's attitude, behavior or teaching does not turn into a public spectacle disrupting the peace and unity of the church.

Correcting leaders can yield a tremendous amount of good for the elder (who through humility will grow spiritually) and the congregation (who will benefit from the renewed spirit of the corrected elder). Elders have a heavy load of responsibility given to them by God, but if they are encouraged often and receive correction in humility, both the man and the church will benefit.

Discussion Questions

  1. Explain the three areas of an elder's work:
    • Ruling
    • Preaching
    • Teaching
  2. Explain Paul's use of "double honor" for elders who rule well.
  3. How do we determine if an elder rules well?
  4. How does Paul's instructions about correcting elders relate to Jesus' instructions in Matthew 18:15-17?
  5. Explain Paul's use of "laying on hands" in I Timothy 5:22 and explain the wisdom behind it.
  6. What is today's application of I Timothy 5:23 concerning Paul's instruction about using wine?
  7. What is the relationship to Paul's use of character traits (I Timothy 3:2-7) and deeds (I Timothy 5:25) for qualifications of elders?
  8. What are some lessons we learn regarding elders?
  9. How can we use this lesson to strengthen our faith and help others grow spiritually?
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