Degrees of Punishment: Interpreting the Parable of Faithful and Unfaithful Slaves (Luke 12:41-48), Part 3


Proposed reading

Degrees of punishment.

I don’t buy the Purgatory arguments, and I can’t overlook the fact that the second and third managers were punished — even severely. Most commentaries offer no help at all on this question (the first 10 of my favorites say nothing).

In the Conditionalist interpretation, it’s entirely possible, even expected, that there be degrees of punishment. How God varies the punishment is not revealed. Perhaps some suffer for longer than others. Perhaps the pain of separation from God differs. It’s not necessary that we know — only that the doctrine allows for what Jesus teaches: degrees of punishment.

And unlike Purgatory, there are several other passages that suggest degrees of punishment:

(Mat 10:15) I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.

(Mat 16:27) For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.

(Rev 22:12) “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”

See also Psalm 62:12; Proverbs 24:12; Jeremiah 17:10; Romans 2:5–6 ; 1 Corinthians 3:8; 2 Corinthians 5:10; Colossians 3:23–25; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 20:12.

A higher standard for leaders

Every reading has its fair share of difficulties, but the reading that makes the most sense to me is that Jesus was announcing a higher standard for leaders in the Kingdom than for others. If we read the punishments as though they apply to the non-leader, then Jesus is not answering Peter’s question. And since in each of the three cases Jesus is speaking of the manager, not the indentured servants he oversees, he is speaking specifically about believers who have supervisory authority. In the Church of Christ tribe, elders would be the ones most clearly in mind.

Remember Jesus’ own summation of the parable:

(Lk. 12:48b ESV) Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

Plainly, the overall point is that leaders are held to a higher standard than everyone else. If this is true, then leaders in the Kingdom can lose their salvation (1) for abusing the office for their own good, (2) for being lazy, and (3) for not knowing their jobs. Few would question the justice in the first case, but (2) and (3) are hard. I’m particularly concerned with (3) because most teaching on the role of the elder is poor and many men are ordained with very poor Bible study skills.


Now, I’ve been blogging nearly every day for nearly 10 years. I’ve read literally tens of thousands of comments, and I’ve had countless sidebar conversations with readers off the record. Perhaps the one dominant theme that has impressed me about the current state of the Churches of Christ is the unhappiness so many members have with their elders. I mean, our members are so disappointed in the job performance of elders that many urge that elders shouldn’t have any authority at all. We’d rather run our churches without anyone in authority than have the poor elders we have!

And for nearly as long as I’ve been blogging, I’ve urged that more attention be paid to the training of elders. There are, in fact, a few training options available, but the offerings are insufficient compared to the need. For example, ACU and Lipscomb offer a traveling symposium called ElderLink, which is an annual 1 1/2 day seminar. I’m a fan and have attended several.

Several of the universities offer an “elder track” as part of their annual lectureship. And some of our universities offer other training courses. But most elders do not avail themselves of these training opportunities. There are several reasons:

  1. They cost money and time, and many elders humbly refuse to accept reimbursement from their churches. Budgets are tight, and they’d rather that the training funds go to another cause. But this is very shortsighted. In the long run, any church will be far better off if the elders seek out training opportunities to be better at what they do. It’s like servicing your car. If you try to save money by delaying needed service, well, the price is only going to go up.
  2. We are so divided that many elders are afraid of the criticism they’ll receive if they attend a training course sponsored by the “wrong” university. Is it worth the heat to go to a seminar? Some churches have so many factions that there’s no lectureship that an elder could attend without drawing criticism. Of course, this only demonstrates that these elders haven’t adequately taught their church members about grace and such. The way you cope with division is not by yielding to every sheep’s bleat but through teaching. And how does an elder get equipped to teach such difficult subjects? Through continuing education — being exposed to teachers, books, and ideas that he wouldn’t find in his home congregation.
  3. Some elders actually believe that don’t need any training because they have all the answers. I would suggest that any man so arrogant be summarily removed from office.
  4. Some preachers enjoy being the best educated man in the room. They fear a loss of control should the elders develop the ability to study and think independently. Therefore, they counsel the elders against such things — or prevent them from being trained by not telling the elders about training opportunities. (If I’m wrong, then why don’t our preachers routinely urge our elders to seek continuing education?)

I’ve attended (and spoken at) excellent lectureships offered by Pepperdine (the largest gathering with the most class offerings), ACU, and Lipscomb, as well as the Tulsa Workshop. There are, of course, many others. I just haven’t been to all of them. The point is that few elders aren’t within driving distance of an excellent annual lectureship. The cost is free, but you will have to pay for travel and a room (and few even make free rooms on campus available on a first come, first serve basis).

I can think of no one reform that would benefit the Churches of Christ more than elders choosing to attend the best training courses and lectureships. It would be time and money very well spent.

PS — One of the greatest advantages of these events is the networking. It’s a chance to meet with other elders, preachers, and university teachers to discuss problems and questions, to share ideas, and to encourage each other. You’ll quickly build a network of people you can call on for confidential advice — and every eldership sometimes needs to hear a trusted, outside, objective opinion.

We have taken autonomy too far, confusing isolation for autonomy. Get to know leaders from across the country who can help you be better at your task.

(Lk. 12:48b ESV) Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.

This passage is no exception. The same thought appears in —

(Jas. 3:1 ESV)  Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. 

I would add that being a teacher is a gift of the Spirit (Eph 4:11, Rom 12:7, 1 Cor 12:28). That means, (a) that we shouldn’t appoint someone to teach who isn’t gifted, (b) the eldership is a teaching office (more than that but at least that), and so elders should be gifted to teach (not necessarily in the classroom, but certainly able to distinguish false from true teaching), and (c) those who are gifted and refuse to teach are violating the command not to quench the Spirit, unless they have other gifts that they believe are more needed by the church today.

Now here’s the point. If you love your elders, or if you detest your elders and wish them to get better at their jobs, you’ll vigorously press your church’s leadership to insist that they seek at-least annual training. I mean, the penalty for inept eldering is felt both in the misery of the church and the salvation of the elders themselves.

Think of the churches that Paul wrote to. These were new congregations of Gentiles — with leaders who could understand these letters and convey the meaning to the churches. They must have spent a great deal of time in study — not just of Paul’s letters, but the OT and the sayings of Jesus … whatever they could get their hands on. And without even a complete NT to work from, these men understood the scriptures far better than we do. Surely that gives a sense of the level of commitment and study of First Century elders and teachers.

And none of us can do this without help.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
This entry was posted in Afterlife, The, Hell, Luke, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Degrees of Punishment: Interpreting the Parable of Faithful and Unfaithful Slaves (Luke 12:41-48), Part 3

  1. laymond says:

    ” he is speaking specifically about believers who have supervisory authority. In the Church of Christ tribe, elders would be the ones most clearly in mind.”

    When, ” an elder” posts a picture of a man engulfed in fire, with the following statement, “what happens to a soul when they reject Jesus Christ as Lord God Almighty ?” I don’t know what the question mark says, but it is plain this is not intended to be a question.

    *I believe this falls under the discription of “false teachings”.

    2Pe 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.

    Jhn 3:16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
    Jhn 3:17 For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved.
    Jhn 3:18 He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.

    Yes it is true Jesus was the price God paid for man’s sins. but The Father bought us, and the price was the death of his only begotten son.

    1Co 6:20 For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

  2. Larry Cheek says:

    I believe that it would very important to understand what Jesus was addressing in the following, rather than just attempting to apply a definition from [bearable] which is not the subject of the message in this text. I don’t see that the house or town will receive a differing amount of punishment than Sodom and Gomorrah. What I do see is that the town would be held to a greater amount of accountability. He is not stating that the punishment is any different. Bad is bad.
    Mat 10:14 ESV And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.
    (Mat 10:15) I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town.
    In reading through the following examples which you have presented, I am not believing that he has degrees of rewards in mind, it is either reward or punishment. This I believe is confirmed in the context of 2Co 5:10 ESV its either good or evil and Col 3:23-25 ESV with the same context.
    (Mat 16:27) For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.
    (Rev 22:12) “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.”
    Psa 62:12 ESV and that to you, O Lord, belongs steadfast love. For you will render to a man according to his work.
    Pro 24:12 ESV If you say, “Behold, we did not know this,” does not he who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?
    Jer 17:10 ESV “I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.”
    Rom 2:5-6 ESV But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. (6) He will render to each one according to his works:
    1Co 3:8 ESV He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.
    2Co 5:10 ESV For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
    Col 3:23-25 ESV Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, (24) knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. (25) For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality.
    1Pe 1:17 ESV And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile,
    Rev 20:12 ESV And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.
    In all of the forgoing, I see no variation between amounts of work giving differing amounts of rewards. The division line is between good and evil. Reward or punishment.

    Even with all this said, it is true that leaders and teachers are held to a greater accountability, but they will not receive a larger mansion than the very least of believers. Equality with God is upon Faith and Belief.

  3. Larry Cheek says:

    Are you attempting to make a statement that non-believers will not suffer a burning Hell?

  4. Alabama John says:

    Those early first elders without complete knowledge of God understood loving Jesus and their neighbor and also what was naturally and instinctively good and wrong to do in their behavior.
    They will be judged accordingly..

  5. Jon Edwards says:

    (b) the eldership is a teaching office (more than that but at least that), and so elders should be gifted to teach (not necessarily in the classroom, but certainly able to distinguish false from true teaching),

    Jay, thanks for not dodging the “hard” passages. I have to admit that it is passages like these that make me loosen my “grip on grace”. I am an elder with no formal higher education or biblical training. Like most elders, I want to be a better one than I am.

    Two congregations have asked that I serve in the capacity. I have accepted on both occasions because I feel called to do so. I also have always felt a need to bear the responsibilities of the the office and not simply leave it to other men. I have never felt that I had a gift for teaching. I do teach on occasions and enjoy much of it. I feel a special need to call our body out of legalism to grace and more specifically the love of Christ and our neighbors.

    Would you amplify the comment above: “not necessarily in the classroom, but certainly able to distinguish false from true teaching”. Certainly every elder would “think” they have that ability.

    Why on earth would our academic brethren from the Church of Christ heritage not put together an on line curriculum for elders? A co-operative effort would spread the burden. If our fellowship is asking us to be judged at a higher standard on their behalf, it seems like the least they could do is help us oversee their spiritual lives and those they love.

    Thanks for your ministry. It is desperately needed.


  6. Jay Guin says:


    My thinking starts with —

    (Tit. 1:9 ESV) 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

    I’ve known elders who were excellent at one-on-one studies but very weak in the classroom. Well, the passage says nothing of classroom teaching, just “able to give instruction.” Per BDAG, the emphasis is on personal instruction.

    Refuting false doctrine is important as well, but again, not necessarily in the classroom. My experience is the value in knowing and influencing the church leadership away from unhealthy directions. I’ve been very blessed to serve with men who might not be able to quote chapter and verse but had a deep insight into the heart of God — and so they knew error when they saw it and would stand firmly against it.

    On the other hand, any eldership would be blessed to have a chapter and verse guy — someone who is a scholar in God’s word. But no church needs an eldership that is made up of all scholars. The healthiest elderships have a mix of talents — but a single heart when it comes to grace and love.

    Make sense?

  7. Jay Guin says:


    ACU Press has put some books on shepherding, and there’s Lynn Anderson’s seminal They Smell Like Sheep. But I’ve not been happy with the materials on the whole. I’ve got literally 5 or feet of shelf space dedicated to church leadership materials, and they just aren’t that good. Hence, my recent series “Advice to a New Elder.” /?s=%22advice+to+a+new+elder%22

  8. Jay Guin says:


    There are passages that suggest equal reward (Parable of the Day Laborers, for example) but passages that speak of storing up treasures in heaven or degrees of reward, such as —

    (1 Cor. 3:10-15 ESV) 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw– 13 each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

    Paul says the missionary whose church survives the Second Coming “will receive a reward” whereas the missionary whose church does not — he suffers loss (of the reward, presumably) but will be saved.

    My theory (and it’s just a theory) is the “reward” is the gratitude and presence of all those who were saved by the missionary’s efforts. He’ll be greeted by all those who were saved by his efforts, which may include those saved many generations laters who wouldn’t have made it had he not converted the first generation. “Treasures in heaven” are thus saved people that you’ll get to spend eternity celebrating with.

    If so, then whether there are differing rewards is more about how you look at it. Same New Heavens and New Earth either way. After all, the one thing we know that will survive from this age to the next are saved people.

  9. Ray Downen says:

    Laymond seems to imply there’s no fire in the future for “the wicked.” We can agree that God could furnish heat without flames, but surely we all can see that there will be punishments in Hell which vary in some way depending on the extent of the wickedness of the person. Is Laymond denying Hell? Such excellent teaching by Jay! Helping us want to work for Jesus.

  10. Alabama John says:

    If we, as humans throughout time, do the best we can based on our knowledge and inborn God given spirits directions to live a good productive life and then find our selves after we leave this earth in death, burning in hell, we sure would be disappointed in God, the HS, and Jesus wouldn’t we.

    Just looking at it from a different perspective.

    Think that could possibly happen? I don’t.

  11. Monty says:

    I suppose being kicked out of the garden and being cursed and then death could seem a bit much for eating a piece of fruit from our fallen perspective.

  12. Alabama John says:

    Right, but that was just a planned slap on the hand so to speak.
    Burning in hell is for all of eternity as we have taught, and most still teach it in the South.
    Glad to see we are interpreting scriptures a lot differently these days.
    God is love and Jesus died in our stead for all our sins.
    Sounds far more old time denominational than coC doesn’t it!

  13. Dwight says:

    I try to look at it like this. When we go to the airport to fly to another destination, we go to a gate and wait and then board a plane. What plane? A 737? A 747? A Aribus A380? We don’t know, but we do know that we will be on an airplane flying.
    There is much we don’t know about our final destination, the glory, the punishment, the rewards, the actual place….heaven or a renewed earth (there is a lot of supposition of it all with revealed glimpses), but we do know that God will be present and will give to us what we deserve (grace) and perhaps don’t deserve (mercy). We also know that all that wish to get to God must go through Jesus…the savior and wed must stay true to God as God stays true to us.

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