The New Testament reflects an elder based church government. Three interchangeable terms are used to describe the position of elder-leadership in the church. “Elder” (Presubteros πρεσβυτερος) describes spiritual maturity, “Pastor” (Poimen ποιμην) describes shepherding, feeding, guardianship and protection, while “Overseer” (Episkopos επισκοπος) describes authority, oversight and leadership. The general title of the leadership appears to be the elder and the general picture of leadership in the church is that of a plurality of elders who are responsible to guide and care for the church.
On the flip side, the church also has responsibilities to her elders. The church must properly provide for, protect the reputation and holiness of elders and select her elders properly.
How Should The Church Choose Her Elders?
Instantly we have to ask the question, “How should the church choose her Elders?” The answer to that question is the purpose of our text today. Please turn to 1 Timothy 5:22-25. While you’re turning there I’ll remind you of some of the background.
Early on in the church the Apostles (Acts 14:23) then the apostolic delegates (Titus 1:5) and finally the elders in the churches (1 Tim 4:14) were responsible for the actual ordination of elders in the church. The selection of Deacons, we can see in Acts 6 was done by the entire body of believers and their acceptance and subsequent ordination was performed by the Apostles.
There doesn’t appear to be a set pattern for selecting elders, though we can readily infer that since the elder requirements are listed in the third chapter that the church at large was responsible at least to put forth suggestions for the office in the same way they do for Deacons. Ultimately however it is the discretion of those performing the ordination to investigate those nominees and to place them into service.
The point of all of this investigation becomes clear when you note that “laying hands on” a candidate too soon makes you partially responsible for their sins! That builds the framework for our proper interpretation of this passage. Let’s read this passage together please.
In the first part it goes back to the rites of blessing. As with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob blessing their children – the Patriarch would place his hands upon the heads of his children and pronounce a blessing over them which was as much prophetic (1 Tim 1:18) as it was prayerful. Both the giver and the receiver of the blessing viewed it as final and binding.
Second it calls to mind the Levitical sacrificial system. Since sin demands a death penalty an animal was chosen as a substitutionary representative and was brought to the temple for slaughter as a sin offering. The person bringing the sacrifice first had to ensure that the animal was qualified – it had to be without blemish, it could not be sick or weak. Then he would present the beast to the priest who would himself examine the animal. Finally the offerer would place his hands on the animal and the priest would then kill the animal. In the Levitical sacrifice three key actions were embodied in the laying on of hands: Presentation to the Lord, Personal acceptance, and Representation.
With these undercurrents running through the laying on of hands we can begin to understand it’s meaning in the ordination of Elders. There’s nothing magical that happens in the laying on of hands but there is a world of meaning which is communicated. When an Elder is ordained we are taking all of those aspects and applying them.
First we are presenting the candidate to the Lord and saying that we have examined and subsequently acceptedhim as a representativeto us of the Lord. Through this we prayerfullyproclaim that God has indeed set that person apart for service – thus we are acting almost prophetically.
Now, imagine for a moment that in this process you ordain a man who is categorically not Elder material? Looking at verse 22 we discover that doing so causes you to share responsibility for the sins of others. In other words, entering into this ordination makes you partly responsible for their sins!
This is why we spent the time going through 1 Timothy 3:2-7 which lists the character requirements of Elders. We must proceed carefully and we must proceed with purity. Even Jesus when he selected his twelve apostles spent the entire night in prayer before calling them to himself in the morning. (Luke 6:12-16)
The final phrase in verse 22 is to “keep yourself free from sin.” First of all I think that Paul meant that proper care in this matter will keep us pure of sin in terms of ordaining elders. That being said, staying free of sin is a constant injunction in scripture. “Pure and undefiled religion is this,” says James – taking care of Widows and orphans and keeping yourself unstained by sin.
It’s at this point that Paul injects a very personal note to Timothy in this public letter. By reading it we can surmise a few facts. (1) Timothy was a teetotaler – he drank only water exclusively. And (2) judging from the context, it’s likely that Timothy did not drink wine because he thought it might be unrighteous to do so. No doubt his feelings on this comes from the requirements that neither Elders (3:3) nor Deacons(3:8) are supposed to be alcoholics. Timothy – perhaps because he wanted to build a hedge around himself has chosen to abstain completely from drinking any wine.
The problem is that purified drinking water is a relatively recent invention. As our current water situation at the parsonage attests it’s not entirely uncommon to have some kind of pathogen in the water. This is one of the reasons I think that Paul tells Timothy to have a little wine to help with his stomach. The alcohol would have a disinfectant effect.
Of course you have to be careful here. We could end up in a situation like the old preacher who was trying to illustrate the evil of liquor in his sermon. So to help drive home his point to the congregation he took two glasses and placed them on the podium. In the first he poured fresh water, in the second he poured a bit of whiskey. Then out of a bait box he produced two worms. “Observe closely” he commanded as a worm fell into each glass.
The congregation watched as the worm in the glass of water merely wriggled around – apparently happy with it’s aquatic surroundings. The second worm however immediately reacted with a few violent twitches and vainly tried to get out. Within moments it sank dead to the bottom of the glass.
Pausing for dramatic effect as he pointed to the dead worm in the glass of whiskey he asked his question. “Now then, what lesson can we learn from this worm?” The congregation was silent until finally one child in the back row nervously raised his hand and then stood. “Sir,” he said, “If you drink whiskey you won’t get worms!”
All joking aside, I think we should note a few items which can enlighten our thinking on this matter. #1 he tells Timothy to use the wine medicinally. #2 he tells timothy to use only a little wine.
The principle at work here is that being holy does not mean abusing your body. Failing to care for oneself does not a martyr make. Otherwise stated: purity does not mean strict asceticism to the point of damaging your body and failing to care for it. I always think of some of the ancient monks which flogged themselves in order to be holier. Meager meals, cold sleeping conditions and more did little to make them holier and did much to shorten their lives.
Indeed if your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit – taking good care of it with proper food and diet, and even medicine is the right way to practice holiness.
Back to the topic at hand then we see that selecting and ordaining elders should be done Carefully so that you don’t rush into something – being mindful that we can share responsibility for another’s sin. Second we should guard our own purity. And third we should approach such a task with confidence.
Having looked into all of this we might walk away with a feeling that selecting an Elder could be a frightening thing. Verses 24-25 are there to comfort you if you do your research because neither sin nor saintliness can be hidden.
If you look back at 1 Timothy 3:10 you see that Deacons were first to be tested before being allowed to serve, how much more should this be true of Elders? Paul gives us two negative and two positive rules of thumb by which to trust in our decisions. (Read 1 Timothy 5:24-25)
1. Some men are outright unfit to serve as elders and the obvious sins (v24a) in their lives disqualify them before they ever reach the church’s judgment. (judgment in this passage is not the final judgment though this truth is applicable there – here the judgment in question is the determination of the church for fitness as an elder.)
2. For some men their sins follow after them; which means that they may not have glaringly obvious sins which instantly disqualify them for eldership but after some investigation they will be uncovered. These men are not qualified to be elders.
3. Sometimes the godly or “good” deeds of some men are equally self-evident and you can see the qualifications for elder before the church reaches judgment. This is the kind of person who’s a no brainer for elder.
4. Some men may not have glaring or hidden sins but they may not have any obvious good qualities either. Some investigation will show however that there is some worth there.
The plain fact of the matter is that the church needs qualified elders who’s lives (3:2-7) and ministries (4:6-16) measure up.
As pastor Warren Wiersbe said, “No pastor or church member is perfect, but that should not hinder us from striving for perfection. The ministry of a local church rises and falls with its leadership. Godly leadership means God’s blessing, and that is what we want and need.”1
As the body of Christ we should do everything we can to select and ordain godly Elders and Deacons.
1Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, “An Exposition of the New Testament Comprising the Entire ‘BE’ Series”–Jkt. (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1996, c1989), 1 Ti 5:17.