Each year we see new stories of Christian leaders who get entangled in scandalous sin. Our experience tells us that this has happened before and will happen again. Often we ask, “Who was holding this man accountable?” And, “If I can’t trust this seemingly godly man, who can I trust?” It is very common and very appropriate to also ask, “How are we supposed to hold leaders accountable?” If they are local church elders, the Bible speaks directly to the question. The Bible gives a very clearly defined method for dealing with sin in church elders.
How does the Bible say that church elders are held accountable? How do you confront elders in the church?
1 Timothy 5:19-21 gives us the answers. In this passage, God prescribes a system precisely for these circumstances. The apostle Paul issues direct commands for how the church must deal with an elder who is caught in sin. He says,
“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear. I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality.”
Following are nine ways that 1 Timothy 5:19-21 shows how church elders are to be held accountable.
1. Personal responsibility
Paul makes it clear that church members have a very specific role. Every church member has the divinely appointed right and responsibility to bring a charge against a church elder when it is necessary. It is remarkable that woven into the very relational and sociological fabric of the local church is the assumption that at no time should elders be above the evaluation of the people they serve. Every person in the pew has this responsibility.
Many church members are not aware that the Bible explains that they have this role in dealing with sin in their elder’s lives. As a result, in our modern church environment, this is one of the most ignored aspects of local church life. This is especially unfortunate since church members are intimately connected to one another as family. This connection in Christ obligates them. There are several levels of this relational obligation. One of the most obvious of these relational obligations is that, as brothers and sisters we are called to fulfill over 50 “one anothers’” in Scripture. As family members, we are accessible enough to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15, 25-26; Luke 17:3-4; Galatians 4:16; Matthew 5:23-24; Colossians 3:13). However, it must be performed in an orderly and biblically prescribed manner.
2. A stricter judgment
It is immediately evident from 1 Timothy 5:20 that the Lord has designed His church to have a very specific set of rules for dealing with church elders when they sin. These procedural commands are obviously focused on elders, not the wider church. Eldership carries with it greater risks for a greater number of people, and therefore they are subjected to a “stricter judgment,” (James 3:1). James makes it clear that those who teach the Word of God are under a magnifying glass of a higher power. In this sense, church elders are treated differently, and even more severely, than those in the general congregation. With greater responsibility comes greater accountability, and greater vulnerability to public rebuke.
3. Multiple witnesses
Holding church elders accountable requires two or three witnesses, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.” Notice how the Lord has commanded that there be a careful process that includes the following elements. First there must be a personal witness. Then in order to bring an accusation, that person is obligated to bring a minimum of one other witness. This language implies a vigilant examination and verification process.
This procedure is designed to protect the elder from trivial, false or evil accusations. It also protects him from accusations based on rumors, gossip or internet slander. It is part of the territory: Church elders are often targets of criticism since they are all imperfect in their life and doctrine, and the best of men can be picked apart. Furthermore, elders are often subjected to unrighteous criticism because the standard to which they are held is often higher than any elder is able to meet. It is common for church members to fall into merciless criticism, because elders are sinners and have weaknesses and inadequacies. However, the process commanded by God in 1 Timothy 5 protects elders from unnecessary accusations by immature, unnecessarily offended or envious parties.
The requirement Paul outlines here is obviously only for flagrant, public, or scandalous sins. If the sins are private and lesser in nature, then the rebuke should be less severe and spoken in private between brothers. However, if a public rebuke for serious sin is to be delivered, it must be upon the testimony of two or three witnesses. These witnesses are evaluated and if found to be truthful then the rebuke is required. The foundation for Paul’s command is found in Deuteronomy 19:15, where Moses communicates the law of witnesses: “One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” Thus, Paul establishes a careful and orderly environment where hard evidence is gathered (not rumors), and testimony is examined.
4. Partiality avoided
Paul makes it clear that there must not be any partiality, “I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality.” Partiality has many faces. Sometimes it expresses itself when there is a very gifted elder and because of his charisma, persuasiveness and position, people actually hold him to a lower standard when they should be holding him to a higher one. It may be manifested in a desire to continue seeing the benefit of his life. We may think that he has done so much good, and that it will all be lost. Sometimes partiality is promoted by thinking that “Many people will be hurt so I will not say anything.” Or, “It will be so hard on his family, it’s better to keep it quiet.” Some people may even fear reprisal, rejection, or a forever broken relationship. They often feel that the worst thing that can happen is that their relationship with the elder is broken. This kind of partiality often occurs when church members have a low view of sin, a high view of themselves and an unhealthy affection for outward appearance. They feel that it would be too damaging to expose the sin, when in fact the worse thing that could happen is to be disobedient to the Word of God so that the sin continues to grow in the darkness, unconfronted. Partiality is one of the great dangers to the proper fulfilling of Paul’s commands because it is one of the sins in the church that facilitates elders who continue in their sin.
5. Accountability for what happened
Paul is advocating accountability for the sin, in the phrase, “Those who are sinning rebuke…’ This phrase presents an exegetical challenge. As William Mounce observes, “What appears initially to be a straightforward verse actually has many exegetical problems.”1 There are some who maintain that an elder should only be rebuked if he persists in the sin. The use of the present active participle “sinning” (tous hamartanontas) is used to advance this view. This Greek participle does, in fact, indicate continuing action. In other words, the argument is this: an elder must be rebuked only when he continues in a particular sin (or sins); but if he has stopped that sin there is no need for rebuke. While this interpretation is possible, it appears to be at odds with the purpose of the command. Further, this interpretation renders a rebuke, an extremely rare occurrence when an elder sins. It makes the command nearly pointless for its lack of usefulness, and almost unemployable as a command except in the most rare cases. In the case of sins of a financial or moral nature, for instance, the very act of getting caught almost always brings these sins to an immediate stop.
For example, if an elder is caught embezzling funds from his church, the ability to embezzle is taken away the moment he is found out. He is therefore no longer continuing in his sin. Does this mean that he should not be rebuked? Or if a man is caught in adultery, he usually stops. Does this mean there is no need to rebuke him? To maintain that rebuke is only in order when the sin persists renders Paul’s command almost irrelevant. In order to avoid a rebuke, all an elder has to do is to stop the sin for a while. In his commentary on 1 Timothy 5:20, George Knight explains it this way: “Although the note of persistence may be intended by Paul, the more probable understanding is that the accusation is found to be true and the present tense is used to designate present guilt (TEV and NEB: “those who commit sins”). It is the committing of sin that is at issue”2 (emphasis added). In order for there to be a public rebuke, there must be the act of biblically defined sin regarding morality or doctrine. The elder must truly be guilty of the sin. The issue is not if he is continuing in the sin, or whether he is sorrowful over the sin, but rather that he is guilty of sinning. In doing so he is no longer above reproach, as Paul requires (1 Timothy 3:2).
What if the man says he repents: does he then escape the rebuke? This passage gives no indication that repentance suspends rebuke. In fact, there is no mention of repentance in the text. Paul’s instructions are very clear. The purpose of this rebuke is not to produce repentance in the elder—important as that may be—but to cause all “to fear.” The issue here is not excommunication (whether that happens or not). The issue is the public exposure and reproof of one who holds a high office. No one gets a pass in Christ’s churches when it comes to sin, especially not its elders. While true repentance is a critical matter in the elder’s relationship with the Lord and His church, it is important to remember – the explicitly stated purpose of the rebuke is not repentance, but the causing of fear.
There is also a practical reality that must be considered. In almost every case, when men are caught in serious sin, they confess to what can be proven and profess to be repentant. Most often, they weep and sorrow for their sin. They will almost always ask to be forgiven, apologize, and go to great lengths to communicate how profoundly they regret their sin. As a pastor I have been witness to many tearful confessions, only to find out later that there was no true repentance as evidenced by a changed life (see 2 Co. 7:11; Psa. 51). If repentance suspends the need for rebuke, then the command would be very rarely put into practice. It would mean that the command to rebuke would only be applicable if the elder was wanton, belligerent and willfully continuing in public sin. But if he was living an immoral life or embezzling, even in the recent past, and was found out, and stopped, the sin would be covered up.
This is most likely why Paul does not figure repentance in to the equation of rebuke when an elder is guilty. This perspective is carried out every day in our courts of law. Because many of our laws here in America are based on the Bible, we use this same principle applied in the civil realm. When someone steals, they are held accountable regardless of their repentance. This is the same treatment Paul is prescribing for an elder.
However, if the elder is hard hearted and/or willfully continuing in his sin, then he is a candidate for excommunication, a discipline far more severe when compared to a simple rebuke. Paul’s point then is this: when an elder’s sin is discovered and verified by witnesses, he must be publicly rebuked in order to produce in the hearts of his fellow elder(s) and his congregation, a holy fear of sinning against Christ (which may or may not bring the sinning elder to repentance).
6. A rebuke
If the accusation brought by multiple witnesses establishes that the sin is real, a rebuke is required. The investigation process must reveal that the sin was not trivial. It must verify that the accusation was for serious sin, not the result of pickiness, harshness, personal vendetta, envy, or a critical spirit in the hearts of the accusers.
The rebuke is designed to expose and bring the sin to light. The word that Paul uses here speaks of exposing, convicting, disapproving or punishing.”3 The rebuke should be delivered according to wisdom. It should be measured according to the severity of the sin and the disposition of the offender. There could be a simple public rebuke, or temporary removal, or even excommunication depending on the many factors involved. The punishment should be delivered according to wisdom.
7. A public rebuke
The rebuke is to be delivered before the whole congregation, “…in the presence of all.” There is the tendency in many situations like this to try to protect people from hearing. Sometimes, in an attempt to express sympathy or to act out of a sense of misplaced kindness, there is a private meeting for the church members only, or a subset of the church. It is difficult to see how these approaches are appropriate applications of the scriptural language. The Bible says that the rebuke takes place “in the presence of all.” I understand this to mean the entire congregation, and not before the elders only, as some maintain. Matthew Henry explains it this way, “Those that sin before all rebuke before all, that the plaster may be as wide as the wound, and that those who are in danger of sinning by the example of their fall may take warning by the rebuke given them for it, that others also may fear.”4 If an elder has a national or international presence it may be necessary for the rebuke to go beyond the local congregation to cover the reach of his ministry. Therefore, Paul’s use of the term “all” should be defined by the scope of influence, with the rebuke extending across the full range of the elder’s influence. It follows that if a local church elder is also a national leader, it is up to the local church to deliver a national rebuke.
8. The courage to cause fear
In today’s church environment, church elders and members often prefer a positive, upbeat church life; free from guilt, repentance or fear. In contrast to this, Paul’s stated purpose of the rebuke is so that “the rest also may fear.” Paul uses very strong language to communicate this. The word he uses to communicate the desired result indicates “alarm” and “fright.” Paul desires that there be a fear of sin in the congregation. The good that comes from an elder’s rebuke is that it causes all to search their own hearts and lives for ongoing sin. In this sense, the elder’s rebuke is also their rebuke. It heightens godly fear of sin and restrains wickedness (Psalm 97:10-12; Isaiah 55:7; Jude 23; Luke 12:13; Ephesians 4:22; Hebrews 12:1; 2 Thess 2:12; 1 John 1:9; James 4:17).
In order for congregations to have the courage to obey the Lord in this, there must be an understanding in the congregation that this kind of fear is actually a good thing and that it accomplishes godly purposes. Fear causes repentance, and fleeing from sin. Turning from sin ultimately brings about the well-being and happiness of the believer and the whole church, for a holy church is a happy church. It is in this spirit that James Denney writes, “The judgment of the Church is the instrument of God’s love, and the moment it is accepted in the sinful soul it begins to work as a redemptive force.”5 The question is, do you or does your church have the courage to cause fear?
9. Trembling at the seriousness of the matter
The requirement to rebuke must be regarded with utmost seriousness. The gravity of handling the matter properly is identified by an unusually sober warning, “I charge you before God and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels that you observe these things without prejudice, doing nothing with partiality.” It should startle us that nothing less than God, the Lord Jesus Christ and His holy angels are watching how churches deal with sin in their midst. These matters are spectacles to the heavenly hosts. This is why John Calvin underscored the seriousness of this issue, declaring that to ignore this is to “promote the entire dissolution of the church.” He said, “As the saving doctrine of Christ is the soul of the church, so discipline forms ligaments which connect the members together, and keep each in its proper place. Whoever, therefore, either desires the abolition of all discipline, or obstructs its restoration, whether they act from design or inadvertency, they certainly promote the entire dissolution of the Church.”6 Baptist theologian, John Dagg expressed this same sentiment in these words,, “When discipline leaves a church, Christ goes with it.”7
The blessings of obedience
Undoubtedly, dealing with such things will always be heartrending. However, the pain should not keep us from faithfulness. Blessings always flow when Scripture is obeyed. It causes the power of gospel repentance to be known and seen. It causes sin to be purged in both elder and congregation. It diminishes love for the world and increases love for the Lord Jesus Christ. It heals. It warns. It restores. King David called it, “excellent oil.” He was the direct beneficiary of a man who came and confronted him in his sin. He said, “Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness. And let him rebuke me; It shall be as excellent oil; Let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5). Job made it clear that it causes happiness, “Behold, happy is the man whom God corrects; Therefore do not despise the chastening of the Almighty. For He bruises, but He binds up; He wounds, but His hands make whole” (Job 5:17-18).
While people may wonder how church elders are held accountable, it is a great comfort to know that the church is not left to figure it out on her own. God provides us with 1 Timothy 5:19-21, which describes an orderly and healing process for how a sinning elder is held accountable and set free by loving witnesses dedicated to his restoration and the purity of the church.
Some very important questions must be considered: Is your church afraid to expose sin? Is there partiality? Are you personally reluctant to play your role for an elder trapped in sin? If so, the consequences can be terribly harmful for the purity of the church and the elder entrapped in sin. It easily blemishes the public reputation of the church as “pillar and ground of the truth.” It can muffle the proclamation that God saves and sanctifies sinners. In the presence of God, the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels, it hides an important expression of the redemptive power of the gospel itself.
1.↩ William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, vol. 46, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2000), 312.
2.↩ George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: a Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 1992), 236.
3.↩ Vol. 2: Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (473). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.
4.↩ Matthew Henry Commentary on 1 Timothy 5:20
5.↩ Denney, James. The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. New York City: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1905. Print.
6.↩ John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill (Philidelphia: The Westminister Press, 1960), p. 1,238 (Book IV, Chapter XII, Section 10).
7.↩ J.L. Dagg, A Treatise on Church Order (Charleston: The Southern Baptist Publication Society, 1858), 274.