“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”
There are so many things I wish to say about these verses that it is difficult for me to know where to begin. I’m going to try my hardest to save the preaching until this coming Lord’s Day and content myself to only explaining the text here.
First, notice the context. These verses are smack dab in the middle of the section dedicated to the care for the elders (vv. 17-25). Last week we studied vv. 17-18 and the double honor that is deserved by the elder who rules well. That rule was defined for us by Paul as one who labors to the point of exhaustion in teaching and preaching. The elder who rules well is not contrasted with an elder who rules poorly. Again, if he is unqualified to rule he is then disqualified and is therefore not an elder. This elder is one who rules with beautiful exception. He is one who had devoted his existence to teaching and preaching. Paul’s command is simple and straightforward: consider him worthy of abundant and overflowing honor.
Second, I cannot help but notice that there is no modifying phrase attached to the “elder” here in v. 19. The command is yet again simple and straightforward: Do not receive an accusation against an elder. You MUST understand this. An elder is one who is clearly and accurately represented by the qualifications in 3:1-7. If that does not describe the man, then he is not an elder. Period. Paul does not make any allowance for elders who don’t meet these standards. To call any man an elder is to naturally assume that they have been investigated and convicted of holiness. We will not make arbitrary distinction between the elders as some do. If he’s not qualified, he’s not an elder. If he doesn’t teach, he’s not an elder. If he doesn’t rule, he’s not an elder. If he’s not a he, then he’s not an elder (I just couldn’t help myself).
Third, the thought that ties these verses together is the desire to protect these elders. Elders are in need of protection as they are the leaders of the church. Any fool knows that if you strike the shepherd the sheep will flee. The enemy is no fool. The quickest way to attack the church of Jesus Christ is to attack the elders/overseers/pastors who rule on Christ’s behalf. These verses command the church to protect their elders.
Protection from Slander (v. 19)
“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.”
This is not a difficult verse to understand. But let’s mine it out and dig deeply. Notice that this verse consists of two parts. First there’s a prohibition, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder.” Then there’s an exception, “except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” Let’s take these each in turn.
The command do not receive is actually quite strong. The basic root word is similar to the hospitality mentioned of the widow considered for the list back in v. 10. The basic idea remains the same: to receive is to entertain, to welcome. If applied to people, then to receive someone is to welcome them into your home, to feed them, to bathe their feet, to make them feel as if they belong there. If applied to an idea (something a little more abstract), then it is to consider the idea a valid one, to think it over, to pursue it or to investigate it. But let’s not forget that the action is being prohibited. The present tense indicates either that this action is currently going on and it must stop immediately, or (and more likely) that it is an action that must never happen and it is prohibited from even being considered.
Let’s put this all together: to not receive is to not even open the door. If we were speaking of people, this command would not even allow them into the foyer. It’s not that we refuse to offer them coffee after dinner. It’s not that we never took their coat so as to send the signal that we’d rather they weren’t here. The picture is that we never even opened the door. They knocked. We looked through the peephole. And then we shouted through the door “NO SOLICITING!” But what is it that the church is to take such a hard stance against?
Do not receive an accusation against an elder
Again, this phrase is easy to understand. The problem is not that Christians cannot understand this verse (or the majority of their Bibles) but that they never spend time thinking through the implications and applying them.
The word accusation means just that. It carries the nuance of a courtroom scene. In any case, there is an individual or a group who are identified as the accused. Someone has broken the law and the trial that is underway is going to determine if the accused is actually guilty. But someone had to come forward before the trial and actually lay a charge, or accuse that individual or group. Who did they go to? Where was the complaint or charge lodged? What is the basis of the accusation? All of those questions would need to be sorted out by law enforcement and the prosecution.
But if we are to transport back into our text, Paul’s command is so very, very clear. Timothy, and the Ephesian church by extension, is commanded to not ever welcome or even crack the door to any accusation against an elder. If someone comes with an accusation against one who has already been vetted and ordained to serve the church of Jesus Christ as an overseer/elder/pastor, you slam the door in their face. Don’t entertain the idea. Don’t hear them out. Don’t even consider it. They come knocking and you send them packing. But that’s not where the verse ends.
Except on the basis of two or three witnesses
This phrase is desperately needed and must be understood. Elders are not God on earth allowed to do whatever they please without fear of repercussions (look at v. 20!). This verse does not prohibit the church from confronting an elder regardless of the circumstances. What this verse prohibits is slander.
Once again we find ourselves turning our Bibles back to Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 19:15 we read Moses prohibiting the sons of Israel from condemning anyone for any offense on the basis of a single witness’ testimony. If the case cannot be confirmed with a minimum of two witnesses, then the case is thrown out. Yet there are a few things that are going on here.
First, as we’ve already stated, Deuteronomy 12:1-26:11 applies the 10 Commandments to everyday living. The Law is not only rules not to break, but also principles to instill and enact. The majority of Deuteronomy is a guide to the ancient Israelite under the Mosaic Covenant to do just that. Deuteronomy 19:1-21:23 cover the 6th Commandment (Thou shall not murder). That’s a whole lot of space to dedicate to a pretty simple command. But just as Jesus made clear in Matthew 5-7, the fact that sin begins in the heart was not lost on Moses. If we truly understand the command, what does it mean to not murder?
If we were to just keep reading into the very next verse (19:16) we would see that a false accusation is the same as murder on the heart level. The reason for this is two fold. First, to falsely accuse someone is to put them in serious danger of being executed. Israel did not have a prison system. A guilty party either made restitution or they paid with they life. A false accusation could easily lead to death. But you don’t have to take someone’s life in order to kill them. Any charge laid is going to damage that person’s reputation. Even if he’s acquitted, the damage has already been done. That’s why we call this character assassination today. To slander someone is to assassinate their character. This is dealt with by the Mosaic Law as if it were 1st degree murder.
Tying it back to our current text: Elders are not above the law, but they most certainly must be protected from frivolous allegations. The slanderer loves to slander. If the case doesn’t come with at minimum two eyewitnesses to the fact, dismiss it. But on the other hand, if there are two legitimate witnesses, then the sin must be dealt with.
Protection from Sin (v. 20)
“Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.”
The context has not shifted away from the elders and so we can safely assume that those who continue in sin refers to elders in sin. We’ve already mentioned the connection to Deuteronomy 19, but there is another connection here. This one goes to Matthew 18 and Jesus’ model for church discipline. The model is very simple and is also based on what we read in Deuteronomy 19. Jesus gives several easy steps when pursuing repentance from a sinning brother.
Step 1: If you see sin, confront it (note that step one is not optional).
Step 2: If there’s no repentance, confront it again with one or two (a total of two or three witnesses) brothers.
Step 3: If there’s no repentance, tell the church so that they can confront en-mass.
Step 4: If there’s no repentance, turn the brother out and treat him as an unbeliever.
Step 5: There is no step five. This is the plan that Christ himself has given His church to purge sin and plead for repentance.
The text before us is patterned after the same model used by Jesus coming from Moses. Verse 19 assumes the private meeting and confrontation. If there are indeed two or three witnesses, then sin must be confronted. Verse 20 begins with the present participle sinning, which can indicate that the action is continuous and currently ongoing. In other words, there’s been no repentance.
Let’s think about this for a minute. If someone comes to Timothy with two or three witnesses concerning an elder in sin, what does that assume? Well, if handled biblically, it assumes that the individual has already gone to the elder in sin and confronted him. Then it would assume that the same individual has taken one or two people with him to confront the elder. Now they are all coming to Timothy. This is time for step 3.
The elder in question has not repented and now will be confronted by the entire church. Sin must never be covered up and must always be unmasked. We’re much less concerned with offending people as we are about offending God. I would even argue the validity of repentance if the sin is kept under wraps.
This public rebuke/correction has an interesting effect upon the rest of the elders. They have a real and genuine fear of facing such a trail. Make no mistake, it is the public rebuke that these other elders fear. There’s nothing wrong with that. Humanity needs physical reminders of spiritual truths. This is why we spank our children (and yes, you must spank your children). But the unrepentant elder will be a reminder to all the rest of the unpleasant business that is sin.
A lot of people do not understand discipline. Most families do not discipline the children. The vast majority of churches (even churches that still believe the Bible) do not practice discipline. The reasons for this are numerous, and all of them are equally invalid. Let’s cut to the chase: you must discipline those under your care for their own protection. A child that is taught through discipline will learn and grow. A member that is disciplined will also learn and grow. But it is also for all those who observe. Discipline protects everybody. It protects the member in sin from carrying out his sin to the point of no return (if he is indeed a believer he will repent). It protects the body from the adverse effects of a sinning member. And it protects other believers who see the pain involved in discipline and want no part of it. Discipline is good and discipline works.
Elders are not gods walking among us. They deserve the same protection that each and every member of the congregation deserves. They deserve a fair trial. If the prosecution cannot produce two or three witnesses, then they are thrown out on their ear. Don’t even let them present their case. But if the accusations are true, then elders deserve the same loving rebuke that any other member would receive. The goal of discipline is always repentance and restoration. Give the elder the same courtesy.
Protection from Shame (v. 21)
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality.”
Once again Paul uses the language of the courtroom. I solemnly charge you is really a statement of Paul’s legitimate and serious personal testimony. In today’s vernacular we might say, “I am deadly serious/listen up!” Paul testifies in the presence of Almighty God, Christ Jesus, and of the elect angels. What he is about to say is being observed by the creator of the universe, the savior of humanity, and the chosen servants who attend Him. This is serious. Paul testifies on a stake of Bibles, as it where, so that Timothy might keep/guard/protect these things without any bias or partiality.
The whole point of church discipline is to protect the bride of Christ from sin. Where there is sin, it must be repented of. But the elders who are investigating the matter cannot by any stretch of the imagination be swayed one way or the other. It matters not who the accusation is laid. If it is confirmed by a minimum of two witnesses, it will be pursued. If it lacks the necessary credibility, it will be thrown out. To place someone on trial without witnesses is akin to murder. Their character is dead. But to protect someone from trial when the evidence is there is to choose sin over God.
This is a reminder to Timothy that God, Christ, and their angels are watching his every move. Will he conduct his ministry in way that brings honor to Christ, or will his bias and partiality shame Christ’s bride?
So very few churches have a good understanding of elders and how they are to be treated. The pendulum seems to swing from elders being punching bags to overlords with very little balance in between. This text strikes a necessary balance. At the end of the day, elders are members of the church and deserve the same protection that each and every member is to receive. What we read here is not exclusive to elders. There is nothing here that Jesus did not cover in Matthew 18 and Moses didn’t cover in Deuteronomy 19. The emphasis upon the elders is placed here by Paul only because they receive much more fire than most members. But to receive any accusation against any member without sufficient witnesses is just as heinous.
Here’s a question: How often do we do just this? How often does someone come to you with nothing more than hearsay about a member of the body? What do you do with that information? Do you listen patiently? Do you make a few comments of your own? To do so is the exact opposite of do not receive. The second someone comes to you with an accusation, you slam the preverbal door in their face. With grace and love, but you must not listen to groundless accusations. If there is merit to them, then that individual needs to get busy by pleading for repentance.
I’m quite convinced that most people have no desire for any single person to ever come to repentance. We just want something to talk about over coffee. If we actually cared about the sheep, why do we tolerate sin? If we truly are aghast over sinfulness, why don’t we call those in sin to repentance? Until the body of Christ begins to function as Christ made her, blessed little ministry will ever take place.