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Rule Well

March 5 2023

Book: 1 Timothy

Scripture: 1 Timothy 5:17-25

This morning we will finish the fifth chapter of 1 Timothy. Next week we will finish the letter.

And I get to awkwardly talk about my job for a few minutes this morning, because that’s where our text begins.

17 Let 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.”

We learn two things here about the early church.

First, this is where we get the distinction between teaching elders and ruling elders in the Presbyterian church. In chapter 3, Paul lists the ability to teach as a qualification for all elders. But some of them also “labor in preaching and teaching”, which clearly implies that some elders did not. So, we have two types of elders in our church.

Second, Paul clearly expects these teaching elders to be compensated for their labors. He defends this by quoting both the Old Testament and the words of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke, which he calls Scripture! That’s fascinating, because it means the Gospels were already accepted by the early church as having authority.

Anyway, this is why we pay pastors a salary. And personally, I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to labor in the Word and my family has always felt God’s provision for us through His church.

I would like to add, this is not a justification for preachers to get rich by exploiting the church. And unfortunately, that is happening in many places which is shameful and dishonoring to Christ.

And that brings us to another practical question answered by Paul. What do we do with elders who bring dishonor to the office by some moral failure or significant error in teaching?

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.

Again, we learn two things here. First, Paul sets up a way to protect elders from false charges. This is a boundary that goes all the way back to the law of Moses. In general, the accusation of one person was not enough to convict someone of an offense.

However, this rule has been abused by many churches over the years and has rightly become a subject of debate in the past decade because of the “me too” movement. Many churches have been guilty of covering up serious allegations against church leaders because the accuser stands alone in his or her testimony.

And unfortunately, false reports do happen, even though they are extremely rare. The problem, of course, is that there are almost never other witnesses to these crimes.

Thankfully, we are learning how to better handle situations like this in the church. Our denomination recently published a lengthy paper considering these issues from the perspective of Scripture. I can provide it for you if you are interested in reading it, but I’ll offer a few points from the study:

  • According to the laws of most states, churches are not qualified to handle their own investigations into serious accusations of abuse. There are mandatory reporting laws that govern how we should handle many of these cases.
  • In cases where reporting is not required, but the accusation is serious, churches would be wise to involve an unbiased third party to investigate.
  • There are also special rules in our book of the church order that dictate how churches should handle charges against elders and pastors.
  • Finally, I want to add one point that I found especially helpful from the study. The law concerning two or three witnesses was NOT universal in the Bible. Look at this, in Deut. 22:

25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die.

26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor,

27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.

What do you notice about this? No witnesses. And yet, the law says to believe the woman and put the man to death. This clearly implies that false reports of this nature are rare. Again, we have civil laws that deal with criminal charges. The point here is that churches should be careful not to cover things up on the basis of this two witnesses requirement.

Paul continues:

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.

In other words, do not automatically believe the person you are closest to. This also reminds us that a person is innocent until proven guilty. Even in the church, we have due process.

I’ve been asked before what Paul means by “elect angels.” I honestly don’t know for sure, but probably he means the ones who aren’t fallen.

22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure.

In other words, the best way to avoid scandals in the church is to be extremely careful who you ordain. From earlier context, that’s what Paul means by laying on hands. If we elect bad men to office, we become partially responsible for their failures.

23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.)

At first glance, this verse seems out of place. Probably, Timothy was abstaining from alcohol in an effort to keep himself pure. Paul remembered it as he finished writing verse 22 and wanted Timothy to stop doing it.

Wine was useful as medicine in some situations and safer to drink than water. This is also why Presbyterians, including me, have been known to partake in moderation and in accordance with local laws.

Finally, the chapter ends with this statement:

24 The sins of some people 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.

Paul recognizes that some people are really good at hiding their sin – but the truth comes out eventually. The same is true of good works. What’s his point?

Don’t judge a book by its cover. People often have better or worse character than we might assume by a first impression.

Some have called this the iceberg principle. Most of what we can know about a person is under the surface. And so, Paul instructs Timothy to use discernment. Take time to look under the surface. There’s often a difference between appearances and reality.

This is a good opportunity to say again that what we often look for in church leaders is not necessarily what God wants us to be concerned with. We look for personality and charisma. We look for a dynamic speaker, someone with a gift of persuasion. Someone who looks the part of a leader. We are culturally drawn to celebrity types.

Do you remember what the Lord said to Samuel when he rejected David’s older brother as king?

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

What did Jesus say about the religious leaders in his day?

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.

So, you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”

What did the Apostle Paul say about his own ministry?

1 Corinthians 2:1-5 –

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling,

and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power,

so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.

2 Corinthians 4:5 –

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.

Finally, remember that even Jesus was not what He seemed to be. Speaking of the Messiah, Isaiah 53 says:

He had no form or majesty that we should look at him,

    and no beauty that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by men,

    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;

and as one from whom men hide their faces

    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

But this was our King – our Savior. And this is a very common theme in the Bible. There are more than a hundred verses teaching us not to judge people by their appearances.

And yet, if we are honest, that is what we do most of the time… especially when we pick our leaders. We look for the obvious choices and sometimes miss the humble servants who would be a much better fit.

But we have a responsibility to dig deeper, and to be honest with each other about who we really are – not just leaders, but all of us.

Don’t be two people. Be you… the good, the bad, and the ugly. By the grace of God, we are all a work in progress. There are certainly things about each of us that need to change. But hiding those things doesn’t do us any good. Expose your darkness to the light and bring your light into the darkness.

This is also an encouragement to be slow in our judgment and patient with other people in their sin. The goal is always repentance and restoration, but there are provisions here for people who persist in sin without repentance.

We practice church discipline, not because we want to, but because we must. To protect God’s church. This is all serious teaching, important teaching. This is part of what it means to fight the good fight of the faith.

A lot of practical wisdom but remember the big picture we talked about last week. Jesus is building a family in every local church. These instructions were given to help guide us toward His vision for the church. They protect us and make us better able to fulfill our mission. Let’s pray for God’s help.