What does it mean to count some elders worthy of “double honour” in 1 Timothy 5:17-18?
In answering the question, we must first consider the context. The chapter is dealing with the support of the widow (vv3-16), and with the support of the worker (vv17-18). We must also reiterate that Timothy was not, as is often asserted, “the pastor in Ephesus.” Clearly, it was a plurality of elders who were labouring, to the point of weariness, in the Word and teaching. (Study again the work of these same Ephesian elders outlined in Acts 20:28-32.) Timothy, like Titus, was an apostolic legate, temporarily placed in an area where the local church or, in the case of Titus, local churches were developing. Let us also state categorically that Paul was not enjoining what is often called today the position of “the teaching elder,” which may be an attempt to pattern local assemblies after the clerical world around us so that we can be “like all the nations” (Deu 17:14; 1Sa 8:5,20). Our pattern is not the world but the Word.
Returning to our verses, note that Paul contextually supports his exhortation while elaborating on the term “double honour.” His references to not muzzling the hard-working ox (Deu 25:4) and to the Lord Jesus’ words that the laborer deserves his wages (Luk 10:7) show he has material support in mind. A careful reading of 1 Corinthians 9:9 also makes it clear that “not muzzling the ox” refers to the financial support of a worker.
Do we see this being done today in New Testament churches in North America? We support commended evangelists and teachers scripturally. But what about the elders/overseers/shepherds within a local church? Our practices are not the test of truth – our practices should be tested by the truth.
Are there assemblies in parts of the world that are so large that doing the work of overseership would interfere to some extent with one’s earning a living for himself and his family secularly? If such were the case, financial support would be a necessity. Are the elders in 1 Timothy 5 making a sacrifice for the little flock? Indeed! Do we need men today who will make sacrifices for God and His work? Certainly! Might this prohibit or limit one’s climbing the corporate ladder? Often it will. Where circumstances permit, the elder may choose to reduce his secular work hours so that he has more time for eternal things. Spiritual men, who have done the work of overseeing during their working life, will wisely consider, if possible, retiring from secular employment while they still have physical health and mental acuity so that they can give more time to labouring in the Word and teaching. Does retirement mean more time for me selfishly or more time for God and His people selflessly?
Do not hire someone to do the work – do the work. And sacrifice with those who are sacrificing.