Robert Wurtz II
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 (1 Tim. 5:20-21 NKJV).
Leaders hold a special place within the churches as they are living examples before the people as to the reality of the kingdom of God that they represent. Therefore, leaders are always held to a higher standard. As James 3:1 reminds us, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” Leaders are accountable to God for what they teach and how the lead the churches in the affairs of God and men.
Paul instructs Timothy not to receive an accusation against an elder unless there are two or three witnesses. This is in keeping with Old Testament protocols and is designed to ensure that someone isn’t falsely accused and judged for something they didn’t do. The emphasis in the kingdom of God, indeed, the focus of God, is righteousness and justice. Mercy may come later, but the facts of a case must be rightly established. Will not the Judge of all the earth do right? Indeed He will. In fact, when we stand before God He will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart (1 Cor. 4:5 ESV) as part of the judgment process.
Paul further instructs Timothy that when a leader is found to be sinning that they are to be rebuked in the presence of all so that the rest also may fear. This could mean to rebuke them before the other elders or the entire church of which they are a part (A.T. Robertson). The word “rebuke” in this case, due to the severity of the situation, carries the meaning to convict, to prove one in the wrong, and thus to shame him (See CWSD* Spiros Zodhiates). This means the one sinning must be held accountable before the other leaders with a view to stopping their sin and the destructive impact that it will have on that church (and other churches if they are transient).
The purpose of rebuking them before the others or the church is to detour others from following their example. When leaders sin with impunity it brings shame on the church and emboldens the enemy to use others who may be tempted to sin to cause further damage. Public rebuke puts the sinning leaders on notice (so to speak) and diminishes their influence among the people. This is a vital point to make. Why?
Justice is turned back, And righteousness stands afar off; For truth is fallen in the street, And equity cannot enter (Isaiah 59:14 NKJV).
When leaders sin in a way that is worthy of public rebuke, and it’s swept under the rug (hidden from public knowledge contrary to scripture), at first, it seems like the loving and merciful thing to do. But I have lived long enough to see the wisdom of God in making this charge to Timothy. What happens? The sinning person is almost always emboldened to carry themselves among the people as if they had done no wrong. I have seen leaders publicly accuse others of sins far less than things they had committed and no one was the wiser. Why? Because their sins were never exposed according to 1 Tim. 5:20-21. Had the people known the truth years before, the accuser would have been shamed to the uttermost for having had the audacity to charge their fellow believer(s) with something trivial by comparison. Again, this is one of the reasons why Paul instructed Timothy along these lines. It prevents this type of pride and hypocrisy.
To take things to a different level, Paul writes, “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.” The word “charge” in this passage arrests our attention. This is not optional. If Paul were speaking to leaders today, he would charge them, too. In other words, this charge applies to us as surely as it did to Timothy. Paul charges before three witnesses that are looking on in all of these situations. These are the ones who will execute judgment in the last day. They are watching. What is the charge?.
Paul extends the warning, in a most emphatic way, to include the element of strict fairness, on the model, undoubtedly, of divine impartiality. Emphasis is created with two parallel phrases, containing strikingly similar terms that each occur only here in the NT. The first term, in the phrase “without partiality” (prokrimatos), is a legal term that stresses objectivity; it instructs Timothy to administer justice without pre-judging the case. The second term, in the participial phrase “do nothing out of favoritism” (prosklisin), describes an inclination or predisposition. Its negative connotation in this kind of context is that of giving preferential treatment to a person or persons, which Timothy must not do. It is clear that the human agent of God is to emulate the divine objectivity in the administration of church discipline, without jumping to conclusions before the evidence has been heard, and without discrimination based on personal relationships (New International Commentary on 1 Tim. 5:21).
In modern times, this approach to handling accusations and sin among leaders seems excessive and harsh much in the same way that spanking (corporal punishment) is frowned upon as a legitimate discipline for children. The consequences are the same. What happens with children? As Samuel Butler might say, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Proverbs is loaded with instruction on disciplining children, and Paul has instructed us regarding accusations and church discipline regarding leaders. To reject it, even in the name of mercy and love, is to risk a generation of leaders who have no deterrence towards sinning and a host of “sinning ones” who won’t hesitate to play the hypocrite. To exercise church discipline in this regard is not being hateful and unloving, it is, in fact, the loving thing to do. We do well to acknowledge the wisdom of God in this and all other areas of life — and follow His directives rather than what may seem to us at the time to be “the loving and merciful” thing to do.
CWSD* Complete Word Study Dictionary, Spiros Zodhiates