"Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 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."
Guard the Reputation of the Elders Office
The office of the elder is divinely instituted by Jesus Christ Himself. The office of the elder is a symbol of Christ and His authority over the Church as the head of the Church. We must be careful to guard the offices reputation. We need to make sure that we do not receive unverified accusations against an elder and that we rebuke unrepentant elders.
Receive Not an Accusation
Since elders are very visible in their leadership and operate with certain part of their roles being authoritative, they are more susceptible to having slanderous reports said about them. One of Satan’s divisive strategies is to cause a bottom up revolt in any community causing the one in the subordinate position to bring false accusations against the one in a dominate position. People despise authority and they detest when another sinful person operates in a position of authority over them. Often when a person is in sin they can grow to despise elders for this reason. The elders represent Christ’s authority visibly and since they are in rebellion against Christ they then despise Christ’s representatives. Paul informs Timothy that you do not give an accusation the time of day if that accusation does not have two or three witnesses. An accusation is when you accuse someone of violating God’s law. When you say they are doing something out of sinful motives or selfish ambition. You can not make these accusations against an elder without having 2 or 3 witnesses to testify to this behavior and that the elder is remaining unrepentant in it.
Paul is not calling for elders to get special treatment as it relates to conflict. He is simply calling for equal treatment. He is saying that you cannot violate the steps of church discipline simply because someone is an elder. You must go 1 on 1, then take 2 or 3 witnesses before it is ever brought before the church (Matt. 18:15-20).
Mark my words my friends. There is going to come a time when someone brings an accusation to you about one of the elders (if it has not happened already). They are going to say that one of the elders is driven by selfish ambition or something of that nature; that he does not care about the people. In my short time as a elder I have been accused of several of these things. It is at this point that each person will have to make a decision, “do I listen to this counsel or do I go the my elders to see what is going on?” Slanderous reports are not always true. The reason that Jesus Christ was crucified was because of slanderous reports about Him. So, we must be careful not to receive false accusations and at the same time we must be careful to heed true accusations.
Rebuke an Unrepentant Elder
It is sinful to both receive false accusations and to wink the eye at true accusations against elders. Here Paul is telling Timothy that if the proper steps of church discipline were followed on addressing an elder and this elder still remains unrepentant then their sin should be brought out in the open. Again this is not a call to treat them differently, but rather to treat them the same as others. While elders are susceptible to false accusations they are also often privy to preferential treatment from their other elders. Paul exhorts Timothy to not allow this to be the case. There must never be partiality shown as it relates to justice in church discipline.
Paul was not writing this to Timothy in a “do what I say but not what I do” fashion. We have a record of Paul rebuking Peter, the founder of the New Covenant Church, in a public forum. Peter was reverting back to some old ways and was treating the Jewish Christians different than the Gentile Christians. He was showing partiality to the Jewish Christians. He did not heed counsel on it and the Scriptures tell us that Paul eventually had to rebuke him publicly, “11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal. 2:11-14).
The Sin of Partiality
Paul addresses a serious issue as it relates to rebuking sin in others. Paul was telling Timothy that he must rebuke fellow elders if they persist in sin. You see the thing is that these elders would have been his good friends. They would have been his partners in serving the kingdom. They would have been people that were used to bless others. This then leaves a temptation to treat them differently.
Whenever a church discipline situation comes up, whether it is one of the elders or a partner of the church, the sin of partiality will always creep its ugly head. People that are subject to church discipline are always good friends, at least with a certain group of people in the church. They appear to still be the same person who is just having some struggles. Just recently I heard about a story of how someone had to be brought to church discipline in the church. His parents were members there. When the vote came they cried out saying “NO!” The pastor wisely took a pause and went and talked to this father. The father agreed that church discipline was the right thing, but his concern was, “How do you vote against your son?” The pastor reminded him that it is not a vote against your son, but a vote for your son. They proceeded on. Publicly rebuking a person that is persistent in unrepentant sin is not voting against that person but rather it is voting for that person.
Paul treats the sin of partiality so seriously that he invokes some very strong language, “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” (1 Tim. 5:21). Paul was reminding Timothy thus reminding all of us that our actions as it relates to rebuking sin in another person is witnessed by God. It is done before the presence of God who sees and knows all things; is a righteous and impartial Judge; with whom there is no respect of persons. Also, in the presence of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, and the Judge of the quick and the dead; before whose judgment seat we must all appear; where there will be no respect of persons, nor partiality used. The elect angels are also present as a great cloud of witnesses. They see our heart, our intentions, and are actions.
Sin is serious. It is serious when an elder is living in unrepentant sin. It is serious when someone inside the camp is living in unrepentant sin. Sin is so serious that God sent his son to come and die on the cross for it. Sin is so serious that the one who knew no sin, Jesus, was treated as if He was the greatest sinner in the world. Paul told the church at Corinth, “For He who knew no sin, became sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:21). It was our sin that held Christ on the cross. So, therefore; we can’t let anyone, in particular an elder, live in open flagrant and unrepentant sin.
Sin is serious and sin brings consequences. All that we do is in the presence of God. He does judge people in time and place. Today we want to worship a deistic God that does not bring personal judgments. A married couple in the early church found this not to be true. They lied about voluntarily giving all of their money to the Church as they held some back for themselves. They wanted to be viewed positively in the church so they lied. God struck them dead. When we don’t obey God in church discipline because of partiality, we are leaving that person under the judgment of God. That is unloving.
Contributor / Eric Stewart
Eric Stewart is the Lead Pastor of ONElife Church in Flint, MI.