What is the teaching of 1 Timothy 5:17 and 18?
In this chapter and the beginning of the next chapter, Paul teaches the Christian responsibility of honoring others: widows (5:3), masters (6:1), and elders (5:17). In the first case, this involves financial care (vv 5, 8, 16). This, however, can hardly be the meaning regarding masters, but it includes working diligently for their believing masters. The context determines the meaning of “honor.”
Who is involved? The teaching is about elders, men of spiritual maturity, who stand before (literal meaning of the word translated “rule” Strong) or lead the believers in a church of God (see Acts 20:17, 28). Paul gives two qualifying descriptions: they lead effectively because of their moral qualities (“well,” usually “moral” Strong), and they labor (to exhaustion, in weariness) “in the Word and doctrine.” They are men who give themselves self-sacrificially to the study and teaching of the Word of God and they lead God’s people by exemplifying what they teach. Such men deserve respect for both their leadership and their labors.
In the next verse, Paul supports his teaching by citing the principles given in two Scriptures. From the Old Testament, God taught that an ox that was providing food for others should receive sustenance from what he produced (Deu 25:4). When he cites the same passage in 1 Corinthians (9:9), Paul asks, “Doth God take care for oxen?” He is pointing out a principle, from a laboring animal, that teaches us regarding a man who labors. From the New Testament (Luke 10:7), the Lord taught that a man laboring in the Lord’s harvest field (v 2) could properly receive his basic necessities (food and drink, v 7 with v 4) from those who received his message (v 6).
The principles of these two passages support Paul’s teaching in the previous verse. Assembly leaders deserve “double honor” for the moral and spiritual quality of their leadership and for their labors in God’s Word. Especially in cases where their exhaustive labors for the edifying of the Lord’s people may cause them to lack necessities, those who benefit from their labors should honor them with financial support.
Is this practiced in assemblies today?
Yes and probably. Yes, some elders have evidently labored in the Word and doctrine to the extent that some further afield than their assembly recognize the value of their ministry. If an assembly asks such an elder to visit and help them from the Scriptures, that assembly will generally consider the expenses involved in the brother’s traveling and reimburse him for that expense. They will often express their appreciation for the spiritual help he has given. He receives from them a financial expression of their fellowship (Gal 6:6).
Probably, believers in an assembly recognize on occasion that an elder who has cared for them at the expense of his own necessities should have their financial support. “The laborer is worthy of his hire,” receiving his basic necessities from those who benefit from his labors. This is done in a private or “unofficial” way and may never be known by others who are not directly involved.
Would “reward” (v 18) enable an elder to devote time to shepherding and not be dependent on secular employment?
“The laborer deserves his wages” (Luke 10:7; 1Tim 5:18 ESV) is a misleading translation. The Lord is not suggesting that a laborer in His harvest receives a stipulated wage (Luke 10:7). In general, laborers receive a stipulated wage (Mat 20:1-7). However, a laborer in His field, based on that principle, should not be ashamed of receiving whatever food and drink the home where he is staying provides. So, first of all, Paul is not teaching that a laboring elder should have a stipulated wage.
Secondly, the question has reversed the order. The elder does not have some agreement about remuneration before he labors. He labors without regard to his own welfare (1Peter 5:2). His first concern is the flock and the feeding of each one in the flock. He diligently does the work the Lord has entrusted to him and leaves the meeting of his needs to the Master Whom he serves. The Lord causes others, whether from personal or assembly funds, to appropriately support him financially.
Why would an elder not receive compensation for his labor?
Many elders who labor self-sacrificially for the benefit of the believers may be financially comfortable. They would not want a believer they help to sacrifice from his own means to meet their financial necessities.
If the question is asking why elders should not receive a stipulated wage for their labor, another consideration might be helpful. Paul speaks of “the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers” (Acts 20:28 ESV). Peter instructs elders to “Feed the flock of God which is among you” (1Peter 5:2). God intends the shepherds to be among the flock, not over them. When the Lord’s people experience financial need, the shepherds “among them” experience the same. Like Ezekiel, who sat where the captives sat (Eze 3:15), men who care for the Lord’s people experience the same trials and joys as other believers do. Anything that insulates them from this limits their effectiveness. Men who serve in secular employment, just as the rest of the believers do, lead the believers through the same experiences they have had (2Cor 1:4) and help to sustain them through the same Word of God that has sustained them. God’s Word does not envision a class difference between the sheep and the shepherds. In fact, it speaks against shepherds acting as “lords over God’s heritage” (1Peter 5:3). Any distinction of clergy and laity runs counter to the Word of God.