Some verses in Scripture are difficult to preach—like men speaking on the subject of wives’ submission to their husbands in 1 Peter 3:1. There is something perceivably self-serving when a male too easily, over-confidently, or too frequently asserts the biblical truth of this subject.
Equally difficult is for an elder to speak on the subject of honor for elders:
The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching. (1 Tim. 5:17 NIV)
I agree with most commentators that this verse in context provides justification for financially supporting one or more elders, in order to free them from the burden of secular employment so they can give more time to ministry. My point, however, is not to prove this interpretation. Rather, I would like to address the more difficult issue: how do you apply the concept of bestowing “honor” in a given situation? This can be extremely difficult to do.
A few observations are in order. All elders are called upon by God to shepherd the flock of God (1 Peter 5:1-2) and are to be commended for their sacrifice and commitment to this work. However, implicit in 1 Timothy 5:17 is the recognition that some elders excel in their “elder ministry” and should be “doubly” honored for it. I suppose it is possible that all the elders of a given church may qualify, although that probably is not the norm for most churches. Simply put, some elders direct the affairs of the church well and some not as well. Some preach and teach the Word well, and some not as well.
To be sure, some may be elders in name only, enjoying the recognition without the responsibilities. Others may be doing the work for the wrong reasons, such as greed or power (1 Peter 5:2-3). These men, lacking in character, do not qualify for the honor about which Paul writes to Timothy.
However, there are various legitimate reasons for the differing levels of quality that do not reflect negatively on an elder’s character. Differing individual strengths may mean some do better than others—some men may have spiritual gifting that is more suitable to “leading” and “communicating” the Word of God.
Some elders may have more time, because of their life situations (children grown, self-employed, retired, etc.). Some may have a greater desire, expend more effort, and make greater sacrifice. Some may simply be used by God in a greater capacity with a greater effect on the body, and we just do not know why that happens.
Dealing with this verse honestly and forthrightly means that some elders, therefore, ought to be more recognized and more honored for their work. In an ideal church with perfect leaders, this all sounds good and acceptable. However, even in churches where the apostle Paul and his understudy, Timothy, spent considerable time, this teaching had to be given—indicating these were not ideal churches with perfect leaders.
Here is where things become thorny. Who is going to teach on this verse? The elder who attempts this may be stirring up a hornet’s nest of problems. The danger of pride, fleshly comparisons, and judgmentalism is ever present. At best, his efforts may be awkward. At worst, he may appear self-serving—if not in reality, at least in perception. How is this?
You see, a godly elder desperately wants to embrace John the Baptist’s maxim: “[Jesus] must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). Yet genuine, brutal honesty forces an elder to deal continually with his own heart. There was a time when I would not have admitted this shameful truth, but I must admit that I find in myself the insidious, competing desire, “I also want to increase! I want to be honored.”
Please forgive me for being overly dramatic. Humor me if you must, as one who may be overly introspective. But think hard about your own heart. Invite the Lord to search your soul deeply (Ps. 139:23-24).
There may be a sense in which the desire to be honored is a good thing. Otherwise, one should reject all honor. A godly elder wants to do his work in an honorable way. However, the desire to be honored can become a self-centered endeavor intended to boost oneself above others. This desire easily lies dormant in the background of the mind, hidden away like a coiled snake.
How can you tell if that snake is nesting in your life? Let me ask you a question. When you read 1 Timothy 5:17, do you find yourself objecting, “No one has honored me for all the work I do as an elder”? How do you feel when someone else is honored for their work as an elder? Do you quietly assert, “I do as much as he does. Why should he get credit?” Or, “Who does he think he is, accepting that honor?”
This attitude completely muddies any efforts an elder may have for leading the flock into the truth of this verse. You or I cannot just get up and assert our worthiness for honor, for we may be dead wrong in our self-assessment. Our objectivity is definitely limited, and our pride is greatly tempted as we speak on our own behalf. We simply cannot make people honor us. Such attempts are ostentatious and obvious to all but those making the vain attempts. “Honor” found this way is cheap.
This desire can be seen in subtle ways. An elder can position himself to do more of the pulpit speaking, or he can angle for the significant preaching opportunities on special occasions. He might speak in terms designed to lead others to think he is the “leading” elder. In its most obnoxious form, the elder who insists upon his way is argumentative or is stubborn, exhibiting the desire for honor through people bowing to his influence. One of the more subtle forms is to seek honor through false humility, in what I call the “gosh, ‘twernt nothing” syndrome.
At the core, can we be satisfied when another elder gets honored ahead of ourselves? Or do we feel it is our responsibility to see that that brother is humbled rather than exalted? In the church, that job is the prerogative of God alone. The Lord never called us to humble anyone other than ourselves (1 Peter 5:6, James 4:10). However, God has called us to honor others above ourselves (Rom. 12:10), and in particular, the elders who direct, teach, and preach well.
So how can we teach the whole counsel of God, which includes 1 Timothy 5:17? Of course, someone who is not an elder could teach on this. But it will most likely be the elders who decide this, so we cannot pawn it off on others. However, an elder can teach the passage if he does so as an explanation of what he has already put into practice, namely, he is actively bringing honor to another elder who is worthy of “double honor.”
Yes, it may turn out that you will not be honored as much as another elder. You will never receive enough honor here in the “office” of elder. We all need to get used to that fact. However, that should not stop us from obeying the Biblical mandate. If your heart is not right, you will feel like Haman in the story of Esther and Mordecai. The better path is to humble yourself and to honor others above yourself. That is the example of our Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 2:5-11). Then, when the Chief Shepherd appears, “you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away” (1 Peter 5:4).
When [Jesus] noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 14:7-11