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Accountable Leadership

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Oct 4, 2004

1 Timothy 5:17

The Lord's Day Morning

October 3, 2004

I Timothy 5:17-25

“Accountable Leadership”

Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

If you have your Bibles, I invite you to turn with me to I Timothy, chapter five, as we continue to work through the Pastoral Epistles: these three letters from Paul, I Timothy, II Timothy, and Titus, written from an apostle, a master teacher/preacher, evangelist, missionary, church planter, to a young man who has been part of his mission team, who is now a settled pastor in a local congregation. Paul is establishing in these books the priorities of a healthy church. He's not just telling us how Ephesus ought to be, or how the churches in Crete ought to be, or how the churches elsewhere in Asia Minor ought to be. He's telling us how church life ought to be everywhere, where the Lord's people are gathered.

And as we work through this passage today, it is a passage in which Paul gives us instruction about elders in particular: how we are to honor those elders; what we are to do in the case of discipline of those elders; he again exhorts us not to ordain elders too quickly, or not to ordain men who are not sufficiently spiritually mature too quickly to the eldership; and he talks about the call to personal holiness amongst the pastors and elders of the church, as well as gives encouragement in the midst of the struggles of church discipline in the local church.

So it's a passage about elders. We've seen passages about elders before. In I Timothy 3, for instance, Paul has given some explicit instruction about the qualifications for this office. Now, however, he gives a series of directives. In fact, in the passage before us today, there are seven directives. Let me just outline them for you before we read the passage, so that you can follow along more easily.

In verses 17-18, you’ll see the first directive, and it has to do with the material support of elders.

Secondly, if you look at verse 19, there is a directive about how to handle unsubstantiated charges against elders.

In verse 20 there is a directive on how to discipline elders for serious sins.

Fourthly, in verse 21, there is a directive calling on unbiased treatment of elders in cases of church discipline.

Fifth, if you look at verse 22, there is a directive calling on Timothy not to prematurely ordain someone to the eldership.

Sixth, if you look at the end of verse 22, just the last few words, there is an exhortation to Timothy to pursue godliness, to be pure, to be holy.

And then finally, in verses 24-25, there is an encouragement to Timothy in the midst of the hard work of doing church discipline. We’ll walk through this passage together, but let me say again, though this passage is taken up with the issue of elders, there are principles that not only impact every local church, but which impact every Christian that are set forth in this passage that deals with elders.

So, before we hear God's word read and proclaimed, let's pray and ask for His blessing.

Our Lord and our God, we thank You for Your word. We thank You for the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You for the gospel, and we thank You for the church. We recognize that in Your word You have told us how we are to live and minister together as a local congregation. As we contemplate Your instructions in this passage about elders, we pray that we would not only be faithful in implementing these truths and principles in our congregational life, but that as individual Christians we would respond to the principles that are set forth in this passage for how we relate to one another. We ask that You would, by Your Spirit, open our eyes to behold the truth of Your word, and cause us in our hearts to embrace and believe it. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.

Hear the word of God.

“Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,’ and ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.’ Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also may be fearful of sinning. I 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. Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin. No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments. The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow after. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.”

Amen. And thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to it.

Here is Paul giving Timothy instructions about the elders of the church. The whole of the passage relates to the elders of the church. Some of it talks about their appointment and ordination. Some of it talks about the remuneration that the church gives to them. Some of it talks about church discipline. But all of it pertains to the order and government that God has established in the local church; and yet, in these directives to Timothy about how elders are to live and minister together, there are messages for every single one of us. So let's give attention to Paul's directions here.

I. Honor and support hardworking teaching/ruling elders of the Church.

First of all, look at the first directive in verses 17-18. This is a direction that Paul gives about the support of the ministry of the church. He says to Timothy that pastor/elders are to be cared for generously. He's talking about the honor and the material support of hardworking pastors/elders in the church, and he says the elders who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor.

Now, in this passage he's talking about the church making adequate provision for those who minister in the congregation. Perhaps you have friends that are part of Christian fellowships that do not have full-time ministers, and they don't have them by conviction. They may not believe that there ought to be such a thing as clergy, or as paid clergy. They rely only on lay ministers in their church. And you may wonder why we do it the way we do here at First Presbyterian Church. Why do we have nine ministers that labor full-time in our midst and are supported materially by the congregation? Because of I Timothy 5:17-18, that's why. Paul is saying there is to be a ministry in the church devoted solely to the work of ruling, preaching and teaching, and that when that is the blessed case in the local congregation, the congregation is to support them.

You will remember, Paul in his own ministry sometimes would receive that support, and sometimes he would refuse it. When he thought that there were congregations that were holding that over his head as if his only motivation was gaining money, he would just be a tent-maker and supply his own support. But there were other congregations that he happily received support from; and he's telling Timothy, “Here's the principle: the church ought to support the labor of her ministers.”

And so this passage indicates a number of things about life together in the local congregation. First of all, notice that it indicates that there is not going to just be one elder in a local church. There's going to be a multiplicity, or a plurality of elders in a local church. Notice, “the elders” who rule well are to be considered worthy of double honor. Everywhere in the New Testament, whether you’re looking at Acts 20, or James 5, or I Peter 5, or in the book of Hebrews, or in I Timothy, you will find that the New Testament expects there to be a plurality of elders in the local congregation. Not just one, but a number of elders in the local congregation. Why do we have multiple elders here at First Presbyterian Church? Because that's the way the New Testament says it is to be done.

Notice also that this passage indicates that there is going to be some sort of evaluation of the labor of pastor/elders. “The elders who rule well,” Paul says, “are to be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who are working hard at preaching and teaching.” Notice the language. These are elders who rule well, and they work hard. This is one of Paul's favorite metaphors for ministry: hard work. It's the language of a day laborer; it's the language of a construction worker that's doing backbreaking labor...who is faithfully ministering in the Lord's church. And he's indicating here that there is some evaluation of that. And that's a word to all of us elders, fellow ministers in this congregation as well as elders. We’re called to hard work, to inconvenient work, and we need to be holding one another accountable in our evaluation of those labors.

But notice also something interesting about the way Paul justifies this particular practice of providing remuneration, or material support, for those who are ministers and elders in the local church. He bases it on Old Testament case law. He goes to a law of Moses that, very frankly, was about the fair treatment, the kind treatment of domestic animals. He says, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing.’” Now, ministers, don't be offended! This is how Paul defends your support by the church: “Don't muzzle the ox while he is threshing.” The point is this: if God would take the time to tell people in His book that they ought to treat their domestic animals kindly–the image is from an ox being used to go across a threshing floor crushing the grain, separating the grain from the chaff, being allowed to munch a little bit along the way. Now, if God is so concerned to allow oxen fair treatment, Paul is saying how much more ought we to fairly treat those who live and minister in the church, to and for us?

So he goes to the Old Testament civil law, and a case law, and notice what he does. He applies it to the Church. Over and over, in fact we're going to see it in the very next verse, Paul will apply Old Testament civil law, not to the state, but to the Church. Why? Because in the Old Testament the institutional form of God's kingdom was Israel. And Israel was a nation-state. For Paul, the laws of that nation-state have spiritual principles that are to be worked out in the Church. And so, consistently here and in I Corinthians 5, he will apply those laws and draw from them spiritual principles in the life of the church.

But notice what he also says: “For Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing,” and, ‘The laborer is worthy of his wages.” Now, what Old Testament passage does that quote come from? It doesn't come from an Old Testament passage. It's found in Luke 10. It's a saying of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, here in one verse Paul is saying “Scripture says...” and he quotes from the Law of Moses and he quotes from Luke, and he treats both of these statements as settling the matter. The Scripture has spoken. This is how we're going to do it. It says something about the status of this statement, which is part of New Testament Scripture.

And so Paul begins with the first direction to Timothy. “Timothy, here's how it's to be in the local church. Those preaching and teaching elders who are part of the settled ministry of the local congregation are to be supported by that local congregation.”

II. Uncorroborated charges against a pastor/elder of the Church should not be entertained.

Secondly, if you look at verse 19, he says this: No unsubstantiated accusations are to be entertained against pastor/elders. It's a directive for due process in charges against the minister, or the ministers or elders, of the church. His point is that uncorroborated charges against a pastor/elder should not be entertained. “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”

Now again, this comes right out of the Old Testament civil law. One of the protections of justice in Israel was that you couldn't simply make an anonymous charge, or a charge that could only be corroborated by the person bringing the charge, and have it entertained before a judge in Israel. You had to have witnesses. There had to be some proof of the reality of the charge that was being brought against a person. And Paul is appealing to that same principle. He's saying, “If that's the case in the nation-state of Israel, certainly it ought to be the case in the church. We shouldn't allow unsubstantiated charges.” Obviously, ministers and elders are put into circumstances where it would be rather easy to make an unsubstantiated charge against them, and here Paul says only corroborated accusations are to be considered in the process of discipline.

Now, what do we learn from this? Well, obviously we learn how we are to proceed in cases of charges against ministers. But we also learn something else, friends. You know, so often we say, “Oh, if it could only be in our church like it was in the days of the early Church.” You know, we think of all the problems that are in the Church today. Back then, everything was wonderful. Well, look. Here's Paul writing to a congregation thirty years after the ascension of Christ; less than thirty years after Pentecost and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. And what's he writing to them about? He's writing about how to handle charges against elders; how to handle discipline of elders; how to find out when elders have actually seriously sinned publicly. He's talking about a church that has problems! Its officers are being accused of serious sins.

There has never been a perfect local church on earth, and there never will be. We’ll never be in a perfect church until the age to come is here; until we are in glory we’ll never see a perfect church. Now, that's so important, because very often in the Christian life we are deeply disappointed by the shortcomings of our local church in various ways. And very often the reason for that is we have unrealistic expectations about how it is going to be to live and minister together. We think that Christians are always going to act like Christians in the local church. And isn't it beautifully freeing to realize that Paul envisages a circumstance where even serious charges can be brought against the leaders of the church, and it does not compromise the reality of the gospel preached or of the work of Christ in the midst of this body. It's a real encouraging thing, if you’ll think about it. We need to be realistic about the church. The church, the local church, is never going to be perfect. There are always going to be issues and problems, and even serious sins. That doesn't mean that we become complacent about those sins, but it does mean we live in a fallen world, and the fall has impacted the church as well. And so Paul gives us a reality check here, even as he tells us not to accept uncorroborated charges against a pastor or elder.

III. Ministers/elders who sin seriously publicly are to be chastened publicly.

He goes on to give us a third directive in verse 20. It's a directive for the discipline of serious sins by ministers and elders. He says that elders who walk in public sin are to be publicly rebuked. “Those who continue in sin,” he says, “rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” Paul is saying that ministers and elders who sin publicly should be chastened publicly. Paul has just said don't accept a charge against an elder that's unsubstantiated, but if you do get a charge and it turns out to be true, and the sin is of a nature that it has been known in public, then you need to rebuke it in public. He's determined that elders who sin in such a way to call into question the holiness of the church and the consecration and integrity of their office, they are to be disciplined openly. And Paul is telling this to Timothy because there's every reason to want to soft-pedal discipline against elders because of their significance and influence in the local congregation. You can imagine Timothy himself might be inclined to ignore indiscretion on the part of his elders. And Paul says, ‘No, Timothy. Elders are to be disciplined.’

This is such an important point. I want to say to you that it's one of the great blessings of my life that I know that were I to do certain things, I would be treated with the rebuke by my fellow elders. They would not let me get by with certain things, and that's freeing to me, my friends. I need all the help that I can get in this fallen world, and with the temptations of this world: and knowing that I'm subject and accountable to my brothers, fellow elders and ministers, is a freeing thing–to know that I can't even begin to think of getting by with doing that, because I will be rebuked. And every elder in this church ought to be aware of that kind of mutual accountability. In fact, that kind of mutual accountability in the church is not only something for elders, it's something for the whole congregation, as we’ll see in just a few moments. But Paul says here that elders who sin seriously are to be chastened publicly.

And he tells us why. Listen: “So that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” Now, who's Paul talking about; so that the rest of the congregation will be fearful of sinning, or so that the rest of the elders will refrain from sinning? Well, it could mean either one. I suspect it's the rest of the elders. You know, the idea is an elder is called up and admonished before the church. The rest of them go, “Oooo, I'm never going to do that!” The point is to provide them a disincentive to sin. And again, that is a wonderful thing. That is not constraining or binding in a bad sense; it's constraining and binding in the most freeing possible sense! To know that I can't cross that line without knowing that God's elders are going to rebuke it. And so he says, “Do it so that the others will be fearful of sinning.”

By the way, notice that that is not a grace-motivation to obedience. You know, there's no way that you can live the Christian life without a great consciousness of God's free grace to you, and there's a sense in which all of our actions in the Christian life are motivated by God's grace to us. We show our love to God, we walk in accordance with His word out of thankfulness to God's grace. But grace is not the only motivation given to us in the New Testament for living the Christian life. In this case, Paul gives a motivation to elders–rebuke elders publicly who have sinned publicly, so that the others will be scared to death to commit that sin! And again, I'm thankful for that blessed pressure that comes from knowing that I'm accountable and that my elders will discipline me if I am unfaithful.

You know, that kind of constructive, godly, peer-pressure is something that would be collectively so helpful to us struggling against the various worldliness-es around us right now, set right here in Jackson. I know so many of you are struggling against those things. And that kind of accountability and godly peer-pressure is a blessed thing in those contexts.

IV. Ministers/elders are to be disciplined without bias.

Now, he goes on to say, fourthly, in verse 21, that elders are to be disciplined without bias. He gives a directive for elders in the cases of process against fellow elders. And the directive is this: employ these without favoritism. “I 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.” Now you can imagine elders being tempted to soft-pedal the admonition of the fellow-elders. There would be a variety of reasons to do that: the relationships with one another; the influence of a particular officer in the church; there might be a tendency to want to downplay the seriousness of a particular sin. And Paul says to Timothy, “Timothy, don't play favorites. Don't play the game of favoritism. Don't be biased. What will the congregation think, Timothy, if the elders of the church who are supposed to administer discipline for the whole church won't discipline one another?” Paul is saying to Timothy that he needs to be aware that when he goes into the work–the hard work, the heart-breaking work–of church discipline, that it's not just the congregation that's watching you. What does he say? You’re in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, and of the elect angels.

Now again, notice that's not a grace motivation. He's saying, “Timothy, just think of it. Think of the last day, when you’re standing before the throne of the Holy of Holies, and the cherubim and the seraphim are swirling around singing, ‘Holy, holy, holy,’ and the Lamb of God is at the right hand, the elect angels and the elders of the churches are gathered around. Timothy, when you administer discipline to the elders of the church, you remember they are watching now.” That's an awesome thought. It stokes the awe and fear of God in Timothy to think of that, and it ought to stoke our fear and awe of God. Paul wants Timothy to be scrupulously fair in his administration of discipline in the church.

V. Ministers/elders are not to be appointed and installed too quickly.

But there's a fifth thing. Look at verse 22. He goes on to say don't ordain a man too quickly. It's a directive against premature ordination of a person to the office of elder. Ministers and elders are to be appointed in a measured and deliberate fashion, not installed and appointed too quickly. This is the second time that Paul has said this in the letter. Remember back in I Timothy 3 he said don't make a novice an elder. Don't have someone convert to the Lord Jesus Christ, embrace Him by faith, and then three weeks later start him in the elder training program. Paul doesn't say exactly how long, but the idea is, of course, that you’re able to observe a man's steady commitment to Christ, his shepherding of his family, his growth in grace, his understanding of biblical truth, his practice of the Christian life. You’re to see enough of a consistency in pattern there that you recognize that you've got a mature believer before he's appointed to be an elder–a shepherd, a pastor of the flock.

I’ll never forget a conversation a friend of mine overheard in the first election cycle here at First Presbyterian Church right after I came. I came in 1996 to minister in your midst, and that autumn the elders began a cycle of elections, and I think eventually they were elected and installed in early 1997. And during that cycle as one of the congregation members was thinking about whom she was going to vote for, my friend overheard her say, “I'm not going to vote for him. He's only been a member for seventeen years!” Well, I'm not sure whether seventeen years is the order of the day, but it was heartwarming to think that there was a person who was concerned that we really need to have mature church officers. We need to have folks that we can have confidence in, that they’re going to stay in the fight, and that they’re committed to the Lord Jesus Christ. Seventeen years may be a little on the long end, OK, but the sentiment was a good sentiment. Paul is saying to Timothy, don't lay hands on a man too quickly.

And notice why he says to Timothy he shouldn't do it: “Do not lay hands on anyone too hastily and thereby share...” ...and it literally says ‘share the sins of others.’ Our translation I think rightly says share responsibility of the sins of others, but Paul puts it even more forcefully: “...and thereby share the sins of others.” You see, there is a concept of corporate accountability here, that Timothy is responsible for the men that he is involved in ordaining to office. Why is that? Because of union with Christ. We have a communion of saints. We are brothers and sisters in a family, and we are responsible to one another, and not one of us can sin without there being a consequence for the whole congregation. And so because of the doctrine of the church, there is a mutual accountability. And there is yet another principle that is important not just for elders, but for everybody in this congregation. You cannot live in negligence of your Christian profession and commitment without it having a direct impact on the spiritual welfare of every single person here. We are sharers in one another because we are all united to Christ. And therefore, we live not only for ourselves, but especially for one another. And so elders especially are responsible for one another, but that responsibility, that mutual accountability in the local church which is so clear for leaders is also clear for Christians in the pew.

VI. Ministers/elders are to be holy and undefiled.

There's a sixth point as well that I want you to see. There's a sixth point as well that I want you to see. You see it right at the end of verse 22: “Keep yourself pure,” Paul says to Timothy. This is a directive for ministerial godliness. Elders and ministers are to be holy. They are to be undefiled. Paul is calling Timothy and all ministers and elders to holiness, and to pursuit of purity of life. You remember the famous statement of Robert Murray M’Cheyne, that “My people's greatest need is my own holiness.” And that's true for every minister and elder in this church. The people of God need our own commitment to purity and to godliness in the Christian life. We will only be able to take the people of God in this congregation so far as the Lord has taken us in the walk of godliness. And that is a tremendous burden that we bear.

Now Paul says something very strange, doesn't he, in verse 23? In the midst of this whole passage about elders, he pauses and he says to Timothy, “No longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach.” Now, we don't know why Timothy was an abstainer. He may have been an abstainer from wine on religious grounds. We know, for instance, that John the Baptist abstained. On the other hand, we know that Jesus didn't.

We’re not told why it was that Timothy didn't drink wine, but we do know that he was drinking water, and you can imagine that unboiled water from the aqueducts of Ephesus in the first century could have some serious bacterial issues. And if Timothy was weak constitutionally, and he apparently was, he was sick frequently as Paul indicates here, that kind of bacteria would have played havoc with his stomach. And so Paul says, “Timothy, don't just drink that unboiled water. Drink some wine for your stomach's sake.” Now what's the principle there? Paul's saying to Timothy, “I not only want you to care about growing in purity: I want you to take care of your body. I want you to do what's wise for taking care of your own body.” Paul is concerned that Timothy would care for his body as well as pursue purity of life, and so he tells him to drink a little wine as opposed to this unboiled water, which would have contributed to his stomach ailments.

VII. Ministers are to take hart in the hard cases of discipline.

But then Paul gets back on message in verses 24 and 25. And this is the seventh and final direction that he gives, and it's really a word of encouragement. It's an encouragement to Timothy in the hard work of administering discipline in the church. He wants Timothy to take heart. He knows that it's hard. Whenever you get into the matter of disciplining members, especially elders, there are difficulties that arise. Disputes come out over the facts: did he do this, did he not? Is this fair, is it not? Is it too harsh, is it too lenient? It's a can of worms. And so Paul says this to Timothy: “The sins of some men are quite evident, going before them to judgment; for others, their sins follow afterwards. Likewise also, deeds that are good are quite evident, and those which are otherwise cannot be concealed.”

You know, Timothy may have been daunted by this call for a young man to administer discipline to elders who are older than he. But Timothy should take heart, Paul says, because if he is faithful to do these things, if he is faithful to examine, if he's faithful to carry out these directions, then Paul wants to point to four comforting realities.

First of all, he says, the sins of some are obvious. There are going to be some things that are just crystal clear. There would be no judgment call whatsoever to make, Timothy. Some of those sad cases are going to come up where it is clear that a man needs to be disciplined.

Secondly, however, the sins of others, Timothy, will be found out eventually. Whether it's through their own confession, whether it's through later evidence, whether it's through investigation, eventually those things will come out.

Thirdly, he also says the good character of a man will be obvious. If there's someone whose character has been called into question, and he is a man of upstanding integrity, eventually that will come out, Timothy. It will be shown that he is a good man, a faithful elder.

But finally, he says, bad character and bad behavior cannot be concealed. Eventually it will show itself. You see, discipline always involves difficulties in ascertaining facts and assuring fair judgment. Paul is saying, ‘Timothy, the truth will show itself if you will be faithful.’

Now, this is a sober passage. It's a sober passage for all of us here who are elders and ministers. This is a passage about us. It's about how we are to hold one another accountable. It's how the church is to hold us accountable. It's how we're to practice some difficult things in our own congregation. I want to say that over time I have seen our elders are incredibly patient and kind with those who are struggling in our congregation, but I've also seen them hold one another to a higher standard. And they should. I'm glad that they do. We have more to grow in this area in this local church, but I also want you to see, as a member of this church, this passage isn't just about those elders that meet one Monday night a month here at the church. This passage is about all of us. We’re a community of mutual accountability, and how we live matters. Else Paul wouldn't have spent his time in this passage talking about bringing people to account for not living in accord with their profession.

We live in a day of easy believeism in many, many churches. Paul expects our profession of faith to mean that we live a particular way together in the church. May God help us to do so, by His grace. Let's pray.

Lord God, make us as a church to be holy. Make us as a church to be a family accountable to one another, and help us, O God, to grow in love for Your church. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.

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