They Who Labor in the Word
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadedth out the corn. And, the laborer is worthy of his reward. (1 Tim. 5:17-18)
Paul quoted from the law or referred to it a great deal. He even, as here, quotes the Lord as upholding the use of the law. Those Christians who believe that the law was abolished by Christ's atonement and that it is no longer binding must explain away constant references to it in the New Testament. It would have been dishonest for Paul to have repeatedly used the law to support his teachings if he believed it was now no longer binding. Rather, Paul here states the present responsibility of the church and uses Mosaic case law as his basis. Our Lord is quoted not as the ultimate authority (though as God he obviously is) but as the authority for applying this law to workmen. Paul then specifically applies it to ministers of the word. The Mosaic law was the standard. Its applications by Christ and the apostle are merely expressions of the binding precept of Scripture.
Elders of the church were to be given double honor, says Paul. His context is that honor, in the form of maintenance, be given to widows who have no family to support them (vs. 16). If these were deserving of the church's support, says Paul, then ministers were worthy of double support. Self-imposed poverty by a minister is a false piety. Ecclesiastically imposed poverty Paul here equates with theft.
There were qualifications for this double honor, however. It was limited to those who ruled well. It is not the title one must honor but the workman who fulfills the responsibilities which the title conveys. To rule well is to rule under the authority of Jesus Christ in his kingdom. Each of us must rule in the name and authority of the King. Ministers of the word have a particularly critical role in conveying these qualifications for good rulers. This involves the two roles here mentioned — studying and teaching. To labor in the word is to study it and seek its meaning. It was a common Jewish expression to say that rabbis labored in the law. But efforts in the word should not be limited to the theoretical. Ruling elders were to insure that the word was taught to those in their charge. Study must manifest itself in the teaching of doctrine. Paul would later remind Timothy that the Scriptures he had studied from a child were "to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which in Jesus Christ" (2 Tim. 3:15). They were to be used, not for the esoteric exercises of intellectuals, but "for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness" (vs. 16).
Both the study of the word and its teaching require time and effort. One's respect for a faithful minister of the word reflects one's respect for the word itself. This respect must manifest itself in words and actions but also in that man's obedience. Paul is talking here about salary. The minister who rules well in studying and teaching the word deserves not only honor in the form of salary, but double honor. Poverty is, as we have said, a false piety; but it is also a hypocritical piety when we impose it on pastors but not on congregations. Paul had just said that if any did not provide for the needy widows in his own household he had effectively denied the Faith and was worse than an infidel (v. 8). Yet if ruling elders are worthy of double the honor due widows, does not the church earn at least as strong a condemnation for denying elders their due?
Paul bases his instruction on Deuteronomy 25:4, which forbade muzzling an ox as it tread (threshed) the wheat. Attempts to compare ministers to oxen toiling in God's harvest miss the point. The prohibition against muzzling the ox was a case law — a specific example of the application of the law (in this case, that against theft). If God forbids us to deprive animals of their reward for labor, how much less are we to deprive men? In 1 Corinthians 9:10 Paul applied this law to men: a plowman who worked only on the expectation of payment. Denying the workmen, then, was both theft (as per the case law) and economically counterproductive to one's own purpose (getting our fields plowed). Ministers of the word are worthy of double honor, or salary. To the Biblical case law Paul added the words of Christ that the laborer is worthy of his hire (Lk. 10:7). If it is theft to benefit from the labor of a beast without providing for its needs, then to deny a man compensation certainly is. Paul here uses two lines of argument. The first says the elders' position of authority and efforts in the kingdom is deserving of double honor. The second line of reasoning is that to deny them this honor is theft. If you do not respect your faithful minister of the gospel, then do not compound it by stealing from him his due — double honor.
Topics: Biblical Law, Charity, Biblical Commentary