A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

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Presented at Trinity Fellowhip on 02/25/2001

1 Timothy 5:17-22

The Church And Its Pastors 17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who work hard at preaching and teaching.18 For the Scripture says, "You shall not muzzle the ox while he is threshing," and "the laborer is worthy of his wages."19 Do not receive an accusation angainst an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. 20 Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest may be fearful of sinning. 21 I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Jeus Christ and of his chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.22 Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thus share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.

A person whose threshhold for embarrassment was more normal than mine might be uncomfortable preaching on this passage, for much of it must either sound self-serving or else be very threatening to the preacher who dares to tackle it. But the Text asks it of us, so we will forge ahead, whether with boldness of lack of sense, you must judge. Paul has had much to say in this epistle about the pastor's responsibility to the Church. Now he addresses the Church's responsibility to its pastors. He lays our four principles to guide us in that area.


Because of the importance of his office: he is the undershepherd of Christ, the teacher of Christ's people, the spiritual leader of the flock, and example to the Church, its counselor, its most public and official spokesman in its proclamation of the Gospel and the Word of God. Therefore we must choose him carefully, yea, slowly. The word "too" is not in the original--it does not say not to ordain him TOO hastily, but rather not hastily at all.

We are no doubt expected here to remember the qualifications of chp. 3. They emphasize that no man is called to preach simply by his own say-so but rather by the Church, which must recognize in him and then develop in him the character, doctrinal soundness, and gifts required by the office. This takes time. Too often in American evangelicalism we focus too much on the "experience" of the call to ministry. I have heard people give testimonies in which they claimed to have been saved and "called to preach" the same day. One sounds really judgmental if one criticizes another's testimony, but I am required to point out that according to 1 Tim. 3:6 and 5:22, this is not possible. New converts are quite specifically excluded from eligibility. They may have an intimation of a call, but it perforce must be confirmed later in order to be known as valid. Many evils in the contemporary church flow from our failure to follow Paul's instructions here.

The Church is too often merely reactive in this process--it waits for, or even tries to engineer the "experience" of a call, and then it says, "Oh, my, now what do we do? Let's send him off to seminary and then let some other congregation inherit the problem!" Rather, it should be proactive, identifying the potential qualifications and encouraging and discipling those with promise in them toward the end of their entering the ministry. Ministerial training is too important to be left to the Bible College and Seminary. When healthy, they merely aid the Church in what is its own proper task.


This is the dignity of the office, not the man. Those who watched me almost spill the communion cups this morning may well ask, "How do we protect something that does not exist in the first place!" While the Univeral Priesthood of Believers forbids us to put the pastor on a pedestal and reminds us that he is simply to be exemplary in qualities that should be present and growing in all believers, nevertheless, to be an example to the Church and a teacher of it is still a high office and calling indeed. His dignity is to be protected then positively in v. 17. How do we honor one who works hard at preaching and teaching? Certainly by listening to him! It is the responsibility of each member to help foster an atmosphere of active listening. This can have a greater impact on visitors, on the whole dynamics of the service, than we often realize. The negative side is in v. 19. We are not to entertain gossip about him. (I have a friend in the ministry who retired. At a special service in his honor on that occasion, someone asked what he planned to do now. He got a very sly grin on his face and said, "Just sit back and criticize." Touche.) This is simply the same treatment we should give every brother and sister in Christ, but it is especially important with the pastor, because gossip about him is such a temptation--by his very position he becomes a lightning rod for criticism--and can be terribly damaging to the whole body. So don't call him unless he deserves your respect, and then give it to him.


Because of the dignity of his office and the respect it deserves, and because of the care exercised in filling it, for that very reason the abuse of that office is a very serious matter that must be dealt with openly and decisively. First we exercise preventive care to keep the problem from ever arising: we develop our pastors painstakingly and we make sure they are accountable to mature lay leaders like all Christians should be. Then we do not even listen to idle gossip about them, but when evidence of wrongdoing becomes strong and incontrovertible, then the Church must act. If a pastor has denied the Gospel either in teaching or in practice, he must be confronted before the whole congregation; if the charges are substantiated he is to be rebuked; and if he proves unrepentant, he must be removed from office. In every case of a denomination that went liberal, it was because conservative lay leaders failed to apply 1 Tim. 5:20 when they had the power to do so. But it must be done without triumphalism, without trumpets blowing and banners flying, with tears.


We end on a more positive note, but even this must give the pastor pause. He is not compared to the eagle who soars, impressing the congregation with his flights of rhetoric; nor to the fox who scampers, impressing them with his cleverness and wit; nor to the horse who runs, impressing them with his speed and grace in dashing from one meeting to another. He is compared to the ox who plods, laboring to provide sound wholesome spiritual nourishment for his people. Therefore, the principle in supporting him is that they should free him to do the work. That is, they should support him generously so that he need not be distracted by mundane concerns from the ministry of plowing biblical corn. And if his development has been painstaking, his dignity protected, and we are prepared to discipline him publicly if need be, then we will be able to trust him with that kind of freedom.


What makes a Church great is not its buildings or its programs, but the Lord manifesting himself in its people--one of the most crucial of whom is the pastor. Therefore we should love him, honor him, take care in choosing his replacement when he leaves, support him generously, and for the same reasons discipline him if need be. Because thus we help God use him to build up and edify the Church, to the glory of her Lord.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams