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Exposition of 1 Tim 5:17 — On the office(s) of elders

How many offices are there in the church? Reformed churches generally hold to the 2.5 view of church polity, in which there are the offices of the ruling elder and the teaching elder, with some overlap between the two. However, is that what Scripture really teaches?

In this article, I would like to do a short exposition on 1 Tim. 5:17, the main (in fact only real) proof text for the distinction between ruling elders and teaching elders, which is something seen within most Reformed churches. In general, ruling elders rule the church while teaching elders teach, and their duties do not usually overlap or overlap to a certain degree. My contention is that such a distinction is qualitatively unbiblical and is only there functionally; i.e. some elders tend to rule more while others tend to teach more, but in roles and responsibilities, they are the same.

Without further to do, here is 1 Tim. 5:17:

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching.

For a exegetical take on this verse, check out Pastor Keller's article here. I will only be looking at the verse mostly in English for this post.

The verse in question can be separated into two parts. The first part of the verse seems to show there are some elders are rule well, and leave open the possibility of there being elders who don't. However, the fact of the matter is that all elders are to rule the church. It can be seen in Acts 20 that Paul exhorts ALL the elders in the church in Ephesus to rule well (Acts 20:28-31), and Paul in the pastoral epistles require that all elders to manage and care for the church (1 Tim. 3:4-5 — analogy being drawn between managing the home and the church). Therefore, this statement is not saying that there are elders who do not rule, but rather, as Pastor Keller says of this phrase:

Third person imperatives often are translated in English with the words, "Let him/them..." The ... Bible reader may easily become confused, thinking that this phrase indicates the idea of mere permission. For example, "Let them go" would usually be understood to mean that permission has been granted. The ... reader may not immediately understand the idea of command, which is the usual force of the imperative, in the translation, "Let them." ... A commander in the military would say, "I command them to go.[1]

Therefore, we have established that all elders are to rule in the church. The elders of the church are thus to be considered worthy of double honor; to be highly esteemed due to the work and responsibilities they bear before God.

The second part of the verse seems to show that there is a distinction between two group of elders: those who rule only, and those who rule and teach, by using the word "especially" to link the two statements. However, is this distinction really present?

First of all, it must be seen that elders are to be able to teach (1 Tim. 2:2). Thus, it can be said that all elders have at least the potential to be 'teaching elders'. In Titus, the emphasis of (any of the) elders being able to teach and refute error is more clearly seen (Titus 1:9). In context with verses 10-16, it can be seen that Paul very clearly does not treat this quality as something which is just a hypothetical possibility; that elders are to rule and able to teach but whether they actually teach or not does not exactly matter. All elders are instructed to silence these heretics and false teachers through teaching and rebuke (Titus 1: 11).

Now, of course, it can be objected that perhaps the situation whereby all elders are both 'ruling and teaching elders' is only in situations as dire as that of Titus, whereby there are many heretics and false teachers about. However, if that were so, this only goes to show that all elders are 'ruling elders' and that all 'ruling elders' must have the potential to be 'ruling and teaching elders' when the situation requires it, a position which is definitely less than the 2.5 office position traditionally taken by some Reformed, especially Presbyterian churches. Maybe this could be called the 2.25 office position. Anyway, let us go back to 1 Tim. 5:17.

Let us look at a few other verses in Scripture to note how the word 'especially' is used:

For to this end we toil and strive, because we have our hope set on the living God, who is the Savior of all people, especially of those who believe. — 1 Tim. 4:10

For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party — Titus 1:10

and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. — 2 Peter 2:10

For the first verse, 1 Tim. 4:10, we can see that the word 'especially' does not give rise to the possibility of there being people who are saved but who do not believe (unless you are a Universalist). We can also see that the word 'especially' used in this manner limits the set of 'all people' to 'those who believe'. In Titus 1:10, the word 'especially' functions in like manner in that the circumcision party specifically shows who the 'insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers' are who are mentioned in the verse. This can be proved in Titus 1:14 where these men are promoting Jewish myths. In 2 Peter 2:10, the word 'especially' function in like manner here, as ALL these ungodly men are previously described in similar manner in 2 Peter 2:1-2.

Now, I am not saying that the word 'especially' is always used in this fashion in the Bible, but that the word can be used in such manner; as a form of specifically narrowing the name or character of the group which is being addressed previously, but not the people involved. However, the fact that the word can be used in such a manner give impetus to the possible rendering of 1 Tim. 5:17 as such:

It is commanded that all the elders, who are to rule well, be esteemed highly and worthily of double honor, and more so when they fulfil their responsibility diligently in preaching and teaching.

This is especially so given the use of the word 'especially' (3 times) in the epistle of 1 Tim, where in 1 Tim. 5:8, the word could be possibly interpreted that way also (The families at that time tend to live together; few nuclear families), and we have already seen the way the word is used the other two times.

Anyway, to finish off this study, let us look up the Greek a bit to see what we can discover. The Greek word translated 'especially' here in 1 Tim. 5:17 is μαλιστα (malista). If occurs some 12 times in the GNT (Greek New Testament), of which the usage which have been suggested could be applied to all of them. This usage is in fact made even more plausible since other Greek words which have been translated 'especially' could be used instead. For example, the word 'especially' is also used in 1 Cor. 14:1, but the Greek word here is μαλλον (mallon) instead, which is used some 78 times in the GNT and has a much closer meaning and usage to how we use the word 'especially' in normal, daily English.

In conclusion, it can be seen that the Scriptures in general do not differentiate a lot between the 'classes' of 'ruling elders' and 'teaching elders', with elders being commanded by God to BOTH rule and teach. 1 Tim. 5:17 have been shown not to support the idea of separate classes of elders, and in fact reinforced the notion of elders both having the roles and responsibilities of ruling and teaching in the church. Therefore, I subscribe to the π-1 (2.14159...) position as the position that conforms most to the text of Scripture.


[1] Brian R. Keller, Exegetical Brief: 1 Timothy 5:17—Did All πρεσβυτεροι Proclaim God's Word? (