Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. (1 Timothy 5:19-21)
Wow! What do you make of Paul’s words here?
The first part of this passage is not all that complicated. It is supported by Jesus in Mathew 18. Here is the passage: “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Of course, Jesus’ words in Matthew refer to a brother who has wronged us and not an elder who is sinning, but the cultural norm of two or three witnesses is consistent. I have been around long enough to know how stories can be embellished, and how brothers and sisters in Christ can knowingly lie to one another. I used to think this was improbable, but now know some people will do almost anything to protect their egos. So we would not want to entertain an accusation against any leader without proof.
It is the public rebuke that is problematic in this morning’s passage…at least for me. And in carrying out this instruction, Paul warns Timothy not to cut anyone any slack, regardless of his relationship with them.
There are three considerations that immediately come to my mind. First, is Paul talking about a public rebuke before the church family or can the same thing be achieved by communicating the sin and confrontation in a more discreet manner? Secondly, if such a rebuke is to be performed before the church, should it involve unbelievers or “guests” as we call them in our culture, or only church members?
Third, what kind of sin requires a public rebuke? Is Paul thinking of an ongoing immoral lifestyle, such as a sexual affair or embezzlement from the church body? Does the list include public drunkenness or any other infraction of the qualifications we found for elders earlier in our study of 1 Timothy?
I will be honest: my personal preference would be to discretely rebuke an elder if there is sufficient proof that he has disqualified himself from his role. Then, he could be asked to share his circumstances with believers in the church body only, and in a way that would not bring greater pain to his family. I would even suggest he could share his circumstances in a letter, or have other elders do it for him.
So I hold my personal preference up against Paul’s words: “Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.” Keeping in mind that we should not go against scripture, how close or far away do you think I am in my preference? I think I know the answer…and it isn’t to my liking.
Dear God, help me follow Your Word, even when it goes against my nature. In Jesus’ name, Amen.