This verse is found in the first letter from Paul to Timothy. It is a great verse because it deals with two issues that we are clueless about in many churches today.
The immediate context of the verse is about how the church should financially support some groups of people. The verses before verse 17 talk about how the church should support worthy widows. And the verses after verse 17 talk about muzzling oxes while they are threshing, which Paul also discusses in 1 Corinthians 9 to make the case that churches should provide financial support to those who provide spiritual support to them.
Let’s look at the main words of verse 17. The elders are the ‘presbuteros’, which almost always gets translated as elders. It can refer to seniors, or the forefathers, or to the leaders of the Sanhedrin, or to the leaders of New Testament churches. The word for rule is ‘proistemi’, which means to stand before. It means to lead or manage or care for. To count worthy of double honor is ‘axioo ‘ (to deem worthy) ‘diplous’ (twofold, double) ‘time’ (value, honor). To labor in the word and doctrine is ‘kopiao’ (to grow weary, toil, labor with wearisome effort) ‘logos’ (word, what God has said in His Word) ‘didaskalia’ (instruction, teaching).
So the meaning of our verse is pretty clear. We have to deem the elders who lead our churches well with double honor, and especially those who work hard in studying God’s Word and teaching it.
Let’s dive a little deeper. The elders had a prominent role in both the Old and New Testament. Titus had to appoint elders in each church on Crete (Titus 1:5) and Paul and Barnabas also appointed elders in each church they founded (Acts 15:23).
What were the responsibilities of these elders? Paul explains this in Acts 21 where he addresses the elders of the church of Ephesus.
Acts 21:28 Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
So the task of elders is first of all to take heed to themselves. Their own faith has to be strong, without wavering, because otherwise how can they take care of the flock that God put under their responsibility? They have to shepherd the flock. This means they have to protect the flock against the spiritual wolves (from within churches, Acts 21:29) that will attack it, and the means by which they do this is by studying God’s word and teaching it.
This is the first thing that many churches today are totally not getting. Qualified elders (see Titus for the qualifications) must be appointed from within the church and they must shepherd the flock, not by lording it over them but by being an example (1 Peter 5:3), and by working really hard on bible study and. Many churches today outsource this task of shepherding to their pastor, whom they hire away from another church! However, a church should be led by elders, who are appointed from within it. These elders should study the bible and teach it.
And what is the second thing that churches these days are often missing? These studying and teaching elders should be counted of double honor. The first honor is the regular honor, esteeming them highly. The second honor is that you pay them, that is what the context of this verse is all about. A church in which people give 10% of their income only needs 9 people with a full income in order to afford a full time teaching elder. It is a shame that many churches with far more people are struggling financially.
Are your elders ruling well, studying and teaching the word? Do you count them worthy of double honor? Godspeed!