Studies in 1, 2 Timothy and Titus—Lesson 14 (1 Timothy 5:17-25)
by Reta Halteman Finger
The nine verses of 1 Timothy 5:17-25 are directed toward male elders who “rule” the churches of Ephesus (v. 17). Who are these elders? According to Jouette Bassler, the concept of church elders lies “in the institution of synagogue elders, a group of adult men who provided general oversight of the Jewish community, especially in regard to the interpretation and application of the law” (p. 98). The author of 1 Timothy does not limit the number of elders nor require them to be over sixty, as he does the “real widows” of 5:1-16 (see Lesson 12). Instead, he declares, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor” (v. 17).
With instructions to female widows and male elders combined as they are in chapter 5, one can see how the patriarchy of the Judeo-Christian tradition persisted. Annette Huizenga observes that 5:17-18 has been “used to justify many diverse ‘honors’ given to males throughout church history, whether their titles are deacon, elder, pastor, priest, rector, or bishop.” In 5:19, making sure an elder is not “subjected to unfounded accusations from others [is] another mark of the high regard owed to ecclesial authorities” (p. 67).
More translation challenges
To more fully understand this passage, two Greek words in verse 17 need explanation. Using the word “especially” (Gr. ma′lista), the reader must assume that the author means a subset of elders who do the teaching and preaching and who are “especially” deserving of honor. If there are two groups, which group is addressed in the rest of the paragraph? But Huizenga notes that ma′lista can also mean “namely.” If so, the author is specifying just one group: “the elders who rule well . . . namely, those who labor in preaching and teaching” (p. 66). (See also 5:8, where “relatives” and “family members” are synonyms if ma′lista is translated as “namely.”)
The second translation issue concerns the meaning of “honor” in 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” The Greek verb for “honor” is timáō, the same word used in 5:3 where the author calls the church to “honor [timáō] widows who are really widows.” In English, “honor” means to “revere” or “highly respect,” which is also the second meaning of the Greek timáō. However, in a major NT Greek lexicon (the so-called BDAG), the first meaning is “to set a price on,” as in the price Judas was paid to betray Jesus (Matt. 27:9). Therefore, the honor owed to “real widows” or to elders who “rule well” more likely refers to financial remuneration. The pay check of these male elders is twice that of the widows!
First Timothy 5:18 confirms this monetary reward, since the two scriptures quoted refer to fair payment. “You shall not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4) was later referred to by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:14. Bassler suggests our author “probably knew Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth and borrowed his warrants from it” (p. 100).
The other quotation, “the laborer deserves to be paid,” is from Luke 10:7. Identified as “scripture,” the quotation is revealing for another reason: Luke’s Gospel was not composed until after the apostle Paul’s death. However, it may have come from a collection of Jesus’s sayings that Luke later included in his Gospel. At that time, such Christian writings were read alongside Jewish Scriptures during the worship liturgy (Bassler, p. 100).
Back to the problem of internal conflict
By the time readers reach 5:19-22, it becomes clear why the author was limiting payment only to elders who “rule well.” Some do not rule well, as previous lessons have made clear. False teachers with bad consciences lurk throughout this letter (e.g., 1:4, 19; 3:6; 4:1-3)! Thomas Long calls this “some kind of tangled mess involving rumors about some of the elders” or even some “who vacillate between these two camps.” The author may even be tying such rumors and gossip to the younger widows as they go “gadding about from house to house . . . saying what they should not say” (5:13; Long, p. 156).
Long lists four measures the author takes “to calm the churning sea of recrimination” (pp. 156-57). First, he uses Torah (specifically Deut. 19:15) to insist that charges against an elder will be considered only if there are two or three witnesses (1 Tim. 5:19). Second, if the charges by these witnesses are true, the elder should be publicly rebuked—possibly by his peers—so that this will serve as a deterrent for others (v. 20). Third, the author uses solemn, oath-like language to warn those in charge to be impartial and unprejudiced: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels, I warn you . . . ” (v. 21). Finally, the leadership is instructed to be more careful in choosing elders in the first place: “do not participate in the sins of others; keep yourself pure” (v. 22).
Although we do not know what these particular sins were, apart from various hints throughout the letter, Long suggests that “the fact that this passage occurs in the context of a discussion about young widows and monetary stipends,” as well as a warning to stay pure, we may be dealing with “the age-old problems of sexual misconduct and financial impropriety” (Long, p. 157, referencing Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary, p. 281.)
Verse 5:23 has stumped many readers, especially teetotalers. Why should Timothy take wine instead of only water? There are both health and religious reasons for this. City water usually flowed through lead pipes or was otherwise contaminated, so stomach problems in the ancient world were common. Wine as fermented grape juice was considered medicinal. This instruction also hints at the ascetic beliefs of the false teachers, as in 4:3 (Paul Zehr, p. 118).
After a mini-sermon on sins and good works (vv. 24-25), the author moves on to discuss the role of slaves, which we will take up in the next lesson.
Questions for discussion and reflection
- In your experience, has 1 Timothy 5:17-25 been used to limit church leadership to males? If so, in what ways?
- In spite of patriarchal assumptions, what principles of governance in these verses could be helpful in today’s religious organizations?
- How common in churches today are the “age-old problems of sexual misconduct or financial impropriety?
Bassler, Jouette. M. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.
Bauer, Walter, Frederick William Danker, William F. Arndt, and F. Wilbur Gingrich, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (BDAG). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Huizenga, Annette Bourland. 1-2 Timothy, Titus. Wisdom Commentary. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2016.
Long, Thomas G., 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus. A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016.
Zehr, Paul M. 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus. Believers Church Bible Commentary. Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010.
I think it is important to remember that in both Hebrew and Greek grammar, a plural masculine noun can include females, but not vice versa. That is, a plural masculine noun might be composed of all males or might be almost all females with one male or anything in between. Only if a group is composed of all females is a feminine noun used. So elders may be understood as either inclusive or exclusive, depending on how one understands other Scripture.
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