Rebuke Not An Elder

By Ron Daly

In 1 Timothy 5:1-2 God’s word says, “Rebuke not an elder, but exhort him as a father; the younger men as brethren: the elder women as mothers; the younger as sisters, in all purity.” First, what does the word “elder” mean at this place? It translates the Greek presbutero, dative masculine singular of presbuteros. Presbuteros is used in a number of ways in the New Testament, e.g., members of the Sanhedrin (presbuterous ton Ioudaion, elders of the Jews); Luke 7:3, the 24 members of the heavenly court (hoi eikosi tessares presbuteroi); Revelation 5:8, men who were appointed to preside over and shepherd local assemblies of Christians (tous presbuterous tes ekklesias, the elders of the church), Acts 20:17; cf. 1 Timothy 5:17-19, and those who are advanced in life (hoi presbuteroi, old men), Acts 2:17. The meaning of “elder” in verse 1 is “old man.” We can be certain that this is correct because of the “contextual indicators.” There is an antithesis which exists between “an elder” who is to be exhorted “as a father,” and “younger men” who are to be exhorted “as brethren” (neoteras hos adelphous). So, “elder” (presbuteros) is used in contrast to “younger” (neos). Whatever “elder” means, “younger” is the opposite, and whatever “younger” means, “elder” is the opposite. Furthermore, Paul continues by contrasting “elder women as mothers” (presbuteras hos meteras), and exhorting “younger women as sisters” (neoteras hos adelphas). The “elder” of verse 1 denotes the same thing as “elder women” of verse 2, except for the distinction in gender. “Younger men” likewise denotes the same thing as “younger women” excepting the gender distinction. Also, there is a parallelism which exists between “elder” of 1 Timothy 5:1, and the language of the same apostle elsewhere. In Titus 2:2, Paul exhorts Titus that he, in speaking sound teaching, inform “aged men” (presbutas) of their duties, and “aged women” (presbutidas) of their duty to teach the “young women” (tas fleas, vv. 3,4). Here, again, Paul uses antithesis. We find the same use of “elder” by the apostle Peter. “Likewise, ye younger (neoteroi), be subject unto older ones (presbuterois)” (1 Pet. 5:5). Note again the antithesis between “younger” and “elder.”

Second, what is the significance of the injunction “rebuke not an elder” expressed by the negative imperative (me epiplexes)? May we not “rebuke” all who are in error, and who persist in sin or rebellion against God, whether young or old? According to other texts we may (Matt. 18:15-18; Lk. 17:3-4; 1 Tim. 5:20; 2 Tim. 4:2). So, why does the Holy Spirit through Paul, so emphatically say to Timothy particularly to “rebuke not an elder”? The key is in the word “rebuke.” It is not the same word used in 2 Timothy 4:2.

The word used in 2 Timothy is epitimao. Contextually, epitimao means “to censure and render a sharp rebuke” by the preaching of the word. “Rebuke” in 1 Timothy 5 is from the Greek epiplesso which means “to reprimand, to strike (verbally), to assault with abusive speech, to chastise with words, to reproach or denounce.” In the context, Paul in-formed Timothy of the proper conduct among believers, which he as an evangelist must practice. One of the charges given to Timothy was, “Let no man despise thy youth” (1 Tim. 4:12). That is, let no man look down on you because you are young; treat old men and women with respect. There is an Old Testament text which contains the same idea couched in similar language, “Thou shalt rise up before the hoary head, and honor the face of the old man, and thou shalt fear thy God; I am Yahweh” (Lev. 19:32). One of the ways that Timothy would show respect for the elderly, is by not lashing out with harsh words, but by having this tongue tempered by love and gentleness.

Instead of the phrase “Rebuke not an elder,” the recent versions say, “Don’t criticize an older man” (Simple English Bible), “Never be harsh with an elder” (New English Bible), “Never censure an older man harshly” (James Moffatt Translation), “Do not sharply rebuke an older man” (NASV), “Do not speak harshly to an older man” (NRSV), “Do not reprimand an older man” (McCord’s New Testament Translation), “Do not rebuke an older man harshly” NIV.

The expression “Rebuke not an elder” does not restrict or forbid the younger from correcting the older brothers in the Lord who err, but it does teach that there is a proper way to do it. And, that the way is not by ridicule and harshness, but “as fathers and mothers,” that is, with genuine concern and kindness, attempting to win them by snatching them out of the devil’s grasp!

Guardian of Truth XXXVII: 2, p. 19
January 21, 1993