The Distinction Among Elders - 1 Timothy 5:17-18

A Difference between Elders

The question: Are there different categories of elders? In my view, the answer to this question turns on 1 Timothy 5:17-18.

A. The distinction is not between “ruling elders” and “teaching elders”.

1. The Geneva Bible of 1560 erroneously comments on 1 Timothy 5:17: “ There are two kinds of elders, the one attended upon the government only and looked to the manners of the congregation; the other did besides that attend upon preaching and prayer to and for the congregation.” (Reformation Today Sept/Oct 1882 p 12).

2. All elders are required to be “able to teach” - 1 Timothy 3:2. Therefore no such officer as a "ruling elder" (one who governs only) exists in the New Testament Church. All elders must at least occasionally utilize their required ability of teaching. “...All elders should have some ability to preach, but that does not mean that all elders should be able to sustain a week-by-week ministry with sermons of forty-five minute length. Although all elders have a right to the pulpit, the man or men who occupy it most will be those most gifted in preaching and teaching.” (Richards Banner of Truth, n.d. p 20)

B. Primarily, the distinction is between elders whose vocation is the eldership and elders who vocation is something else - the “labor” concept.

Two descriptions of the group of elders Paul has in mind are given in this verse: those who rule well and those who labor at preaching and teaching. A diagrammatical analysis of 1 Timothy 5:17 is helpful. BWW version 9.1 2012 provides a good diagram; however, in my view a preferable diagram might be similar to the one constructed by Keith Pannebaker. In either case there is one group in view: the elders who function (rule) well are worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.

If malista means “in other words” as it sometimes does, then the “labor” phrase defines the “rule well” phrase and the point is even clearer that one group is being referred to by the author. However, “especially” seems to be the preferred translation. So, among other things and as noted below, some elders do not rule well or “labor” at preaching and teaching. The bottom line is that there is no warrant for a body of ruling elders who merely govern the congregation as an administrative board. In fact, 1 Thessalonians uses both kopaiw and proisthmi of the same men, presumably elders.

Apparently then, at this early date, there was already a distinction being drawn between those whom we commonly call “pastors” or full time pastor- teachers (Ephesians 4:11) and those who are commonly called “elders.” Perhaps an appropriate way to mark this distinction by terminology is to speak of vocational elders and non-vocational elders. This is seen by the fact that the present participle describing those who are especially worthy of double honor is oi` kopiw/ntej The KJV renders it “they who labor” while the NAS renders “those who work hard”. This term is from kopoj meaning a beating or laborious trial and koptw meaning to strike or cut off; to beat one’s breast. It has emphasis upon the fatigue which comes from straining all of one’s efforts and power into the task. The most reasonable explanation is that the term refers here to the elder who pours his whole life into the task of preaching and teaching (evn lo,gw| kai. Didaskali,a|) as opposed to those who have another vocation. Hence the NIV translates “...those whose work is preaching and teaching.”

Hence, at this early date in the life of the church some men serving as elders were giving themselves entirely to the ministry while others were engaged in work outside the church.

However, this distinction among elders says nothing about relative status. All elders, whether “full-time” or not are to be viewed on equal footing.

C. Secondarily, the distinction is also between elders who excel and those who do not. The “double honor” concept comes into play here.

What does "worthy of double honor" mean? All agree that the phrase implies that those elders who serve with excellence (as opposed to those who serve with no effort or average or sub-standard) should be given extra respect. The term “worthy” ( ἀξιόω ) is worthy in the sense of weight. Hence we might say “a heavy hitter.” Honor is to be given to all elders because of their position and extra honor to those who serve with distinction.

However, the term “honor” (timh/j) clearly connotes "a price paid." (See Matthew 27:6, 9 – the “price of blood” regarding Judas betrayal; Acts 4:34 – possessions shared among early believers; I Corinthians 6:20 – believers are “bought with a price”). In other words, remuneration is commanded. This is also a direct conclusion of the immediate context (v 18). This same principle is found in 1 Corinthians 9:7-15 where Deuteronomy 25:4 is also quoted. There, the "full time" minister is apparently in view. This has led some commentators to suggest “compensation” or “honorarium” or “payment for services” as the best rendering of the term in 1 Timothy 5 (see Robertson for discussion).

This does not necessarily imply that every elder who rules well will get a salary. Elders may choose to support themselves by working outside the church. It does imply that those whose entire life is given to the work and who work “well” should be well paid. Because "double" is comparative, one must ask "double what?" Is it widows; the average; other professionals; the poorest; the richest; other elders; or what? Perhaps, it is best not to insist on mathematical exactness. "Well paid" seems to satisfy the principle of the passage

This also implies that an evaluation is necessary in order to distinguish between those who serve and those who serve well so that those who serve well can be accorded “double honor”. This evaluation should not be a comparison between elders per se; rather it should be a comparison between the performance of an individual elder against the standard set by God that presumably is also the standard set by the church he serves.

What does serving “well” mean? The sense of the verse is that elders who have ruled well and are continuing to work hard at preaching and teaching are worthy of double honor. “Well” (καλῶς = adverb of καλoς) seems to be a general term that conveys beauty or excellence (Thayer 2713 BWW). For instance, Friberg (14847 BWW) defines the term as used “(1) of things done in the right way fitly, well, appropriately (1C 14.17); (2) in a moral sense commendably, honorably, well (HE 13.18); (3) of behavior rightly, correctly, well (MK 12.28; 3J 6)...” So, Louw-Nida (3403; 88.4 BWW) says it reflects “...a positive moral quality, with the implication of being favorably valued - 'good, fine, praiseworthy.” Inherent is the main idea of wholeness or completeness (Trench 389).

So, how does this play out when the term is used to describe functioning in a responsibility or office as it does in 1 Timothy 5:17? The term “well” is used three times in the qualification lists for elders and deacons (3:4,12,13). This is one piece with Hebrews 13:17-18. Clearly, the expectation for office bearers in the church is that they serve “well”. Perhaps Cremer best captures the sense of serving well when he suggests that the term refers to the outward appearance in comparison to the synonym agaqoj that speaks to the inner essence (Cremer 389-341). Putting the two together the idea is probably competent service that can be readily observed. Or to put it differently, “The excellently presiding elders are certainly those who grace their office by doing their work well” (Lenski 679). I can only conclude that the sense of serving “well” assumes going beyond minimum requirements. Average doesn’t cut it. This is reinforced by the vivid “working hard” (κοπιάω) with which “well” is paired. Of course, at the end of the day there is no precise measurement of this standard of excellence. Ultimately, conclusions regarding an individual serving well are the responsibility of the one doing the evaluation.

A number of sub questions may be introduced. Answers to these questions to a large measure fall into the preference arena rather than Biblical didactic.

1.Who does the evaluation? The following schematic seems reasonable:

•The non-vocation elders or a subgroup thereof evaluate the senior pastor (or whatever designation is given to the head of staff).

•The senior pastor evaluates staff pastors. In the case of a large staff this responsibility maybe delegated to an executive pastor. In such a case the senior pastor evaluates the executive pastor.

•Evaluation of ministry directors and support personnel should be determined by the church organizational chart but subject to modifications by the board of elders.

2.Who can qualify for double honor? This is a difficult call to make. As argued above, there are not two categories of elders – ruling elders and teaching elders. So, on the one hand it might be that any elder who receives remuneration and who rules well/works hard at preaching and teaching could be a candidate for receiving double honor regardless of his primary ministry. But, on the other hand, the vocational elder who rules well/works hard at preaching and teaching and whose primary ministry is preaching and teaching may be the intended candidate for double honor. So, Lenski concludes that, “These richly deserve the twofold honor.” (Lenski 682). It may be that Earle has it right when he sums it up as, “Highest honor is to be given to “those whose work is preaching and teaching”...some elders gave themselves to preaching and teaching in addition to their regular duties.” (EBC vol 11, 380).

3.Should staff or associate pastors serve as members of the elder board? The question is not whether an individual staff pastor is qualified for the eldership. If he is not qualified, he should not be serving on the pastoral staff. Furthermore, the question is not whether a staff pastor desires to serve as a member of the elder board. Whether a staff pastor serves as an elder is a decision made by the congregation as recommended by the elder board itself, the staff pastor’s desire notwithstanding. A few factors may argue against staff pastors serving on the elder board of the church.

•Tension over dual role. Invariably (well maybe “invariably” is to strong) the staff pastor will become confused over whether he is wearing his elder hat or his associate pastor hat. The lines can easily become blurred and his decision making ability can become impaired. This arrangement also tends to produce an uncertain climate among his fellow elders in assessing the staff pastor’s input.

•Threats to organizational integrity. The organizational structure at many churches place staff pastors under the direct operational control of the senior pastor. The senior pastor determines and supervises the details of the staff pastor’s function and evaluates his ministry. In short, the line of authority is clear - they are accountable to him. Consequently, should a difference of opinion surface between the senior pastor and a staff pastor, the staff pastor can easily succumb to the option of going around the senior pastor by appealing directly to the elder board in order to get the outcome he wants. He may reason that, after all, he is an elder having equal standing with all other elders. Or, this course of action may simply be a natural tendency with unintended consequences. Regardless of the intent, the chaotic result is the same. This can also have a detrimental impact on other elders in that they can easily forget about this organizational structure. Perhaps a wiser model of operation would be that the elder board formally requests regular or periodic input from non-elder staff pastors.

•An inordinate number vocational elders. In medium size churches or churches that carefully select only qualified men to serve as elders it is possible that vocation elders might have a disproportionate voice and influence on the elder board if all staff pastors serve as elders.