Elders Worthy of Double Honor

by Rick Shrader

Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honor,
especially they who labour in the word and doctrine (1 Tim. 5:17).


Baptists have never thought they were the only believers in the world or the only ones with Bibles.  All believers have the obligation to apply the Scriptures to every part of life, including church life.  The great Southern Baptist Greek scholar, A.T. Robertson, said however, “Give a man an open Bible, an open mind, a conscience in good working order, and he will have a hard time to keep from being a Baptist.”1 Baptists have always had a definite opinion about those elders who are worthy of such double honor.

Baptists have generally taken Paul’s instruction to mean that the one office of “pastor” is also called “elder” and that any pastor/elder ought to be a good teacher as well as ruler, and that some pastors/elders do a better job laboring in the Word and proclaiming it in doctrine than others.  There have been, since the days of John Calvin (and especially among our Reformed friends), others who have taken Paul’s words to mean that every local church should have two “kinds” of pastors/elders; a less honorable kind to rule (“ruling elders”) and another kind worthy of double honor (“teaching elders”).  While neither Baptists (holding to one “kind” of pastoral office) nor some others (holding to two “kinds” of pastoral office) make this difference a matter of salvation or heresy, both strongly defend their view as the Biblical structure for the church.

The Two Views Delineated

Calvin wrote of this verse,

We may learn from this, that there were at that time two kinds of elders; for all were not ordained to teach.  The words plainly mean, that there were some who “ruled well” and honourably, but who did not hold the office of teacher.  And, indeed, there were chosen from among the people men of worth and of good character, who, united with the pastors in a common council and authority, administered the discipline of the Church, and were a kind of censors for the correction of morals. . . . To return to Paul, he enjoins that support shall be provided chiefly for pastors, who are employed in teaching.2

Augustus Strong, the most prominent Baptist theologian of the last two centuries, in describing the Baptist view says,

The only plausible objection to the identity of the presbyter and the bishop [being the same] is that first suggested by Calvin, on the ground of 1 Tim. 5:17.  But this text only shows that the one office of presbyter or bishop involved two kinds of labor, and that certain presbyters or bishops were more successful in one kind than in the other.  That gifts of teaching and ruling belonged to the same individual, is clear from Acts 20:28-31; Eph. 4:11; Heb. 13:7; 1 Tim. 3:2-episkopon didaktikon.3

Rodney Decker, following Strong, and writing in the Grace Theological Journal said,

The terms “teaching elder” and “ruling elder” do not appear historically until Calvin.  1 Tim. 5:17 refers to elders who are ruling well—not to a class of “ruling elders.”  The noun is oi presbuteroi, modified by the participle, proestwtes, which is further qualified by the adjective kalws.  It is thus the “well-ruling elders,” not the “good, ruling-elders.”4

Which Is The Novel View?

It would be fair to point out that even Baptists, at times, have had ruling elders in addition to teaching elders.  However, this is rare and is usually seen as ruling elders (plural) and a teaching elder i.e. pastor (singular).  For example, Peter Masters (whom I greatly admire and whose services I attend when in London), now pastor of Spurgeon’s Metropolitan (Baptist) Tabernacle in London is a Baptist but also Reformed in theology.  He defends the separate office of ruling elder while maintaining a higher, and singular office of preaching elder or “pastor” (which he is). He objects to the arrangement of the equality of elders as novel, but maintains three offices in the church:  pastor, elders, deacons, as the historical position.5

Most Baptists would maintain, however, that the New Testament teaches the local church has only two biblical offices:  pastor and deacons, an “elder” simply being another name for the pastor.  I have already quoted Strong and Rodney Decker commenting that the third office of elder, separate from the pastor or deacons, began with Calvin.   Strong also has an interesting quote from Henry M. Dexter in a writing on Congregationalism in which Dexter says,

Calvin was a natural aristocrat, not a man of the people like Luther.  Taken out of his own family to be educated in a family of the nobility, he received an early bent toward exclusiveness.  He believed in authority and loved to exercise it.  He could easily have been a despot.  He assumed all citizens to be Christians until proof to the contrary.  He resolved church discipline into police control.  He confessed that the eldership was an expedient to which he was driven by circumstances, though after creating it he naturally enough endeavored to procure Scriptural proof in its favor.6

Now, whether one agrees with Dexter, or even has a dislike for his tone, it is worthy to note that it was the elder rule system that was seen as novel, not the two office system of the Baptists.  The greatest Baptist thinker of the eighteenth century, John Gill, wrote in his commentary on 1 Tim. 5:17,

There are no other that rule in churches, but such who also speak to them the word of God; wherefore by him that rules, and the labourer in word and doctrine; are not meant two distinct orders, but different persons of the same order; some of these ruling well, but do not take so much pains in the ministry of the word; whilst others of them both rule well and labour in the word, and who are to be reckoned deserving of the honour hereafter mentioned.7

In addition, Dr. Gill wrote in his great work on theology, “These pastors, teachers, bishops, and elders, are called rulers, guides, and governors.  A pastor, or shepherd, is the governor and guide of his flock; a teacher, and a ruling elder are the same, 1 Tim. v. 17.”8 Such a voice from the eighteenth century can hardly be said to be “novel” to our time in history.  Alexander Maclaren, who pastored the Union Baptist chapel in Manchester, England for 45 years (1858-1903), wrote concerning our text, “Of course a comparison with verse 17 shows that elder and bishop were two designations for one officer.”9 Edward Hiscox, writing a standard Baptist church manual in 1894 confesses that the pastor and elder are two names for the same office.10 An older Southern Baptist publication designed for use by their churches in 1907 delineates the same.11

Where Do Baptists Stand Today?

For the last fifty years, fundamental Baptists in similar practicing fellowships and associations have also described their method of church polity as the two office system of pastor and deacons.  Elders have always been seen as a different title for the office of pastor, not a third officer of the church.  Richard V. Clearwaters, in 1954, in a book that became the standard for the Minnesota Baptist Association, wrote, “By comparing Scripture references it seems obvious that both elder and bishop (1 Tim. 3:1, 2) can designate the same office (Titus 1:5, 7); sometimes referring to the officer or man at other times the office or its function (Acts 20:28, 29).”12 Paul Jackson, in his book that has been a standard for the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches, wrote, “Very honest differences of opinion may exist unless it is understood that the terms pastor, elder and bishop refer to the same office.”13 Mike Randall, writing in the Baptist Bible Tribune (of the Baptist Bible Fellowship) in 1987, wrote, “It seems unmistakable that the elders of the New Testament were all of them teachers and preachers . . . . New Testament elders, then, were ministers in the churches who exercised leadership as overseers and served their flocks as shepherd or pastor.”14

Though there will be exceptions to this view, they are just that, exceptions!  The twentieth century could hardly show anything other than the two office arrangement in conservative or fundamental Baptist groups.

“Especially” in  1 Timothy 5:17

If it is true that the apostle Paul was merely commending those elders that do a good job of laboring in Word and doctrine, not delineating two different kinds of elders, we would expect to find this expression reinforced in other uses in his writings.  My proposition is that in every instance where we find the expression “especially” (always malista), it carries the same meaning or picture of one among equals who stands out in some particular thing.  The word is used twelve times in the New Testament: three times by Luke (Acts 20:38; 25:26; 26:3, though quoting Paul in one); one time by Peter (2 Pet. 2:10); and every other time by Paul (Gal. 6:10; Phil. 4:22; 1 Tim. 4:10; 5:8; 5:17; 2 Tim. 4:13; Tit. 1:10; Phile. 16).

The word “especially” or “specially” (“chiefly” in Phil. 4:22) always gives a unique picture of a circle within a circle.  The larger circle A, contains a large group while the smaller circle B (placed within A) contains a smaller but special part of A.  If I said, “I like to watch high school basketball, but especially when my own sons play,” I would be drawing a large circle (watching high school basketball) but also drawing a smaller circle which points out a special part of the same thing (my own sons playing high school basketball).  We might say, all B is A, but not all of A is B.  In contrast, the elder-rule system would give a picture of two distinct circles of ruling elders and teaching elders.  Due to space, I cannot illustrate all of Paul’s usages, but a few will suffice to see the consistency in the way “especially” is used throughout.

Gal. 6:10.  As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all men, especially unto them who are of the household of faith.  Here the large circle is all men.  The smaller circle within the larger circle is especially .  . . . the household of faith.  Believers are still men, but they have taken advantage of a special opportunity which is available to all men.

2 Tim. 4:13.  The cloak that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments.  Of all the books Paul had (the larger circle), the Scriptures on parchment (the smaller circle within the larger) were of “special” desire to him.  The Bible is still a book, but is a “special” book.

Phile. 16.  Not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee.  Paul counted all converts dear (the large circle), but the ones he had led to the Lord such as Onesimus (the smaller circle) were “specially” dear to him.  Our own sons in the faith are still converts, but they are “special” to us.

I believe we would find that the same pattern repeats itself in every usage of the word malista (specially, especially, chiefly).  Some elder-rule brethren may object that they see all elders as ruling elders and from among those there are a few teaching elders, thus showing the same pattern.  But my observation has been that when you view their system from the top view it looks the same, but when you view it from the side, it is a pyramid with two distinct levels or “kinds” of elders.  The Baptist view would be more like a slice out of an old tree:  viewed from the top you see the circles and circles within circles, and when viewed from the side all the circles are still level.

Who are the elders?

All pastors are elders and all elders are pastors.  Every man who desires the office of a bishop desires a good work (1 Tim. 3:1) and that work is both ruling (lit. “to do the thinking”)  and preaching.  Those elders who labor diligently in the Word and in the proclamation of its doctrines are worthy of a double amount of honor from the fortunate people who hear them.

1. In his book, A.T. Robertson: A Biography (New York: MacMillan, 1943) 181, Everett Gill quotes Robertson from his writing, “How To Make Baptists.”
2. John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981) 138-139.
3. Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Old Tappan:  Fleming H. Revell, 1970) 915.
4. Rodney J. Decker, “Polity and the Elder Issue,” Grace Theological Journal 9.2 (1988) 275.
5. Peter Masters, “Confusion Over Eldership,”  The Sword & Trowel.  Note: I apologize that my photographed copy did not have the date on it.
6. Strong, 915.
7. John Gill, Dr. Gill’s Commentary, vol. 6 (London: William Hill Collingridge, 1853) 614.
8. John Gill, Body Of Divinity (Atlanta: Turner Lassetter, 1965) 864.
9. Alexander Maclaren, Expositions Of Holy Scripture vol. 8 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdman’s, 1959) 191.
10. Edward T. Hiscox, The New Directory For Baptist Churches (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1946) 90-91.
11. Montgomery Essig & others, The Churchmember’s Guide and Complete Church Manual (Nashville: The Southwestern Co., 1949) 68.
12. Richard Clearwaters, The Local Church of the New Testament (Chicago: CBA, 1954) 32.
13. Paul R. Jackson, The Doctrine and Administration of the Church (Schaumburg: RBP, 1968) 45.
14. Mike Randall, “A Defense of Baptist Elders” Baptist Bible Tribune, April 24, 1987, p. 12.