A Biblical Understanding of Honoring Elders
“Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10)
Sandbox Church is a community of market-place professionals, both married and single, with a desire to develop a deep and authentic faith, build rock-solid families and impact the community around us. We are imperfect people, rescued by a perfect Savior, growing into our God-given purpose together. We are committed to a life of love in our homes, our workplaces and our community. A core function of Sandbox Church is leading people into the fullness of Christ in a safe environment where one can learn, grow and make mistakes. It is also a place of collaboration, unity and fusion of gifting. Our church is passionate about developing and launching our people beyond the Sandbox.
It is through the direction and guidance of the elders at Sandbox that the church body is able to meet this vision of finding the lost, empowering the found and building life together. Eldership is the highest leadership calling in the church and comes with great responsibility (1 Peter 1-5). Among the many responsibilities of the elder or “overseer” is overseeing the doctrine, direction and discipleship of the church. Elders are responsible for hearing the voice of God for the guidance of the church (Acts 6:1-4). At Sandbox, eldership is a major commitment requiring 15-20 hours of ministry each week. All elders have full-time jobs and no tithes or offerings to the church go towards salaries.
In Paul’s first letter to Timothy, Paul provides instruction to Timothy about honoring men and women, young and old, and honoring elders. In I Timothy 5:17-25, Paul states, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” These verses are not the only time that Paul discusses the subject of leaders receiving wages for their work. Paul further discusses this thought in his first letter to the church in Corinthians. Paul establishes his rights as an apostle to reap material things for the spiritual things sown among the church. (I Corinthians 9:4-18). He emphasizes this point in verse 14 when he states “…the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.”
Sandbox Church endeavors to do all things in accordance with Scripture and the plans God has laid out for proper church functioning. In order to do that properly, it is important that we do not ignore passages of Scripture and also allow the Holy Spirit to interpret the text. This means having a proper understanding of context while also applying the main concepts to our church today. The purpose of this document is to gain a better understanding of the biblical mandate to honor elders and to determine how Sandbox Church can be obedient to that understanding.
Honor in Western culture is an abstract term. Most people today would link honor with respect, fame or integrity. A person in the first-century Mediterranean world would understand honor in those terms and more. In his book Honor: Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, David DeSilva states that “the culture of the first-century world was built on the foundational social values of honor and dishonor.” In second temple Jewish world, honor was more important than wealth. Honor could be given or it could be taken away. It could be gained through birthright, but also given through achievements. This is the aspect of honor that Paul speaks to when he counsels “that the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor.” Elders in the early church were responsible for preaching and teaching while also overseeing the flock. Because there was no New Testament written like we have today, their task was a very important one. As a result of their giving to the church body, elders were worthy receiving double honor from the church. In his book Men of Honor, Mike Cleveland states that receiving double honor meant that the elders should receive respect because of their position in the church and material/monetary support because of their devotion to caring for others.
Scripture clearly supports payment for work. In Luke 10:7, Jesus instructs the disciples to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide, for the laborer deserves his wages.” as part of his instructions to them when he sent them from town to town to minister. This is a concept rooted in an Old Testament law that Paul quotes in both I Timothy 5 and I Corinthians 9. Deuteronomy 25:4 says ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.”, but why does Paul quote a seemingly obscure law in the middle of Deuteronomy to support a view of honoring elders?
This law is in a section that discusses how an ancient Israelite should treat his neighbor. Understanding this is important in understanding the context of this passage. It would be normal for oxen to eat grain while they work. It would not be normal for someone to muzzle their own oxen while working, because that food would give the oxen energy to keep working. Similarly, It would not make sense for someone to mistreat their own oxen since they were a families’ source of income. This means that the law was speaking against someone borrowing their neighbor’s oxen and muzzling them while they work. Doing this would allow a person to maximize their own profit, but it was also wrong and selfish.
Returning to 1 Corinthians 9, we see that Paul defends his right as an apostle to work for a living. “Who plants a vineyard without eating any of its fruit? Or who tends a flock without getting some of the milk? (I Corinthians 9:7). Paul’s purpose in this chapter is not to rebuke the church in Corinth for not supporting his and Barnabas’ work, but to demonstrate His devotion to the Gospel and make clear his motivation for serving the Lord. Paul didn’t do it for material gain, but, he was still entitled to that honor because it is supported in Scripture. Although Paul makes this argument for himself and Barnabus as apostles, he repeats the same defense for elders in I Timothy 3:17. Honoring through material support applies to the role of eldership.
As we seek to gain a biblical understanding of honoring elders it should be understood that honor should be given regardless of an elder’s existing status or wealth. Revelation 4:10-11 states that “the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say: ‘You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.’” The identity of the elders in this passage is beyond the scope of this document, but these elders are honoring God, the Creator of all things. The Lord alone is worthy of ultimate honor, and Christians are still called to honor Him despite the fact that we can’t give Him anything He doesn’t already own. This concept holds true for those elders who lead well in the church. We are called to honor them as a show of gratitude for what they do regardless of our view of their apparent need for material goods or support.
In the discussion of honoring elders, it is also important to mention that an elder has an option to not accept their right to material gain for their work. Paul states “But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision…What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.” (I Corinthians 9:15,18). He restates the same message to the elders in Ephesus in Acts 20:33-34. “I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me.” An elder has the right to turn material support as Paul did and that still applies today.
Continuing in Acts 20:35, Paul says “In all these things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” As Scripture does not contradict itself, what does Paul mean in his instructions to these elders? Is he suggesting that these elders not receive material support because he didn’t? We know that Paul was a tentmaker and supported himself through his own work (Acts 18:3). This is what he is alluding to when he says that his “hands ministered to his necessities”. Paul sought to be an example to the elders of what it meant to love others by giving to others. He understood that there was a spiritual inheritance far greater than material goods. His devotion and service to the Lord was with a mindset of tending to others and this was the same mindset he desired for the elders in Ephesus to have in their ministry to the church. Acts 10:35 supports the Scriptural principle that leaders should be servants first and foremost to those that they serve, but it should not be used as a proof text that elders are not deserving of material gain for their work. Paul’s instruction to Timothy is that elders be given double honor and his instruction is supported by multiple Scriptures . Whether this letter would have been shared with the entire church is difficult to say, but Timothy was an elder within his church. He was entrusted with making sure the elders were being honored among many other things.
So how do we apply these Scriptures to Sandbox Church today? Some churches have applied these Scriptures by opting to pay their church staff full salaries for their work regardless of their role in the church. As stated previously, Sandbox Church elders have volunteered their time and resources to the church body free of salary or payment. Elders have been individually honored in the church at times through gifts (e.g. purchase of a table, purchase of a car for an elder in need, buying breakfast, and laying of hands in prayer) and through kind words. They have each individually made the decision to forego material gain for their work. Despite that, honoring elders and others is a mindset that must come from a change of the heart. This is only accomplished as a person submits to God and the inner workings of the Holy Spirit. Gratitude comes easier to some rather than others, but gratitude is an expression of honor. How we honor others- including those who are in leadership over us- is ultimately an expression of honor to God.