Who are your leaders?  Are they the most financially successful people in your church? Are they the people who have the greatest status in your community?

What about the early church?

Is it possible that some of the early church Elders in Ephesus were also bond-slaves to other men outside the church?

This is the question that comes to mind as I read 1 Timothy 5 and 6. Traditionally, there is a split at the end of chapter 5 verse 25. Van Neste summarizes the common reading this way;

The disappearance of ‘elders’ and the appearance of slaves (v. 1) and masters (v. 1, 2), both for the first time in the letter, signals the beginning of a new unit. In the verbs, the third person, which occurred at the close of 5:17–25, dominates 6:1–2b, and quite unlike 5:17–25 there are no second person imperatives in 6:1–2b. Thus, a new unit on slaves and masters begins at 6:1.1

It seems that most commentators assert this passage break because of a presupposition that Elders must be a different topic than bond-slaves. But why?  Why must they necessarily be different topics.? Read the passage below and consider the following:

1 Timothy 5:17–6:2 (ESV)

17 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.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. 22 Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. 23 (No longer drink only water, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.) 24 The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later. 25 So also good works are conspicuous, and even those that are not cannot remain hidden. 1 Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things.

Arguments for Elders = Bond-slaves

Textual Clues

Following are the items of internal evidence I see that argue for the possibility that some of the Elders in the church might also have been bond-slaves in the community.

1.The Elders in 5:17 are the Bond-slaves of 6:1 and Paul is giving instruction for how these men should lead first in the church and then how they should conduct themselves outside the church.

2. In the church Elders were to be given double “honor” (5:17) for their service, but outside the church, they still needed to “honor”(6:1) those who were in authority over them.

3. Paul is concerned that Elders not be men who persist in sin (5:20) and demonstrate good works (5:25) .  Some sins, Paul says, are harder to discern (5:24), so he gives some specific examples of what sin looks like for an Elder who is also a bond-slave (6:1 and 6:2).

4. Earlier in the first letter to Timothy, Paul made it clear that Elders were to be men of good repute outside the church (3:7).  Here in 6:1 he makes it clear that Elders who are bond-slaves must act so as not to bring disgrace to the teachings of God.

Cultural Considerations

Going beyond the text, there are also some cultural considerations that come into play.

1. Conflicts arose in the early church because when a person came to faith, they still had to live in the circumstance of their life outside the church.  We can see this clearly in the case of Paul’s instruction to wives with unbelieving husbands (1 Cor 7:12-16).  So it does not seem unreasonable to assume that a bond-slave could come to faith and demonstrate the necessary qualities of a mature leader in the church.  But what if his unbelieving master also came to faith at a later time?  At this point, the church would have a situation where a man could be the master of someone who was now his Elder in the church.  In this case, 1 Tim 6:1-3 becomes an important set of instructions for Elders who were bond-slaves.

2. It seems that the false teachers in Ephesus were concerned with making money.  They wrongly assumed that the purpose of their service was to gain wealth (1 Tim 6:5-10).  In this context, it makes sense that Paul gave special attention to Elders who were also bond-slaves because he needed to counter these false teachers who tried to diminish these men who were poor.


  1. Does the above make a good case for Elders as bond-slaves in the New Testament church?
  2. If the church did have Elders who were bond-slaves, what are the implications for the church today for how we select our leaders?


1. Ray Van Neste, vol. 280, Cohesion and Structure in the Pastoral Epistles, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series (London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2004), 66.

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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