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How Should a Church Handle Accusations against an Elder?

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The local church is a marvel. Members and elders work together to communicate with each other, serve beside each other, learn from each other, and stand together for the gospel.

But all of us have been in churches where some members were displeased with one of the elders. It might be issues related to his interpersonal skills—he’s too aloof or too casual. It might be issues with the tone of his teaching—he’s too cerebral or too dry. It might be questions about his family—his children are rowdy or his wife doesn’t participate in church events. These kinds of issues do not disqualify him from ministry but they hinder his ability to minister well and can become the occasion of discord—or even gossip—in the church.

Paul instructs the Ephesian church through Timothy: “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching” (1 Tim. 5:17). But Paul doesn’t think of generous compensation as the only way to respect elders. Following Deuteronomy 17:6, he adds: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).

Why does he add this admonition? Because he knows that, as saved sinners, accusations will arise against elders from members of the congregation. How should we deal with them?

Leaders are visible, and visibility attracts slander.

Paul begins by advising, “Don’t entertain hearsay regarding your elders.” Leaders are visible, and visibility attracts slander. To “admit” in 1 Timothy 5:19 means to “acknowledge something to be correct.” If the accusation isn’t true, then gossip may erupt with poisoning effects. Gossip destroys Christian testimony and dismantles the church’s gospel witness. We must refuse to countenance hearsay—false accusations that spreads through the church—against anyone, especially undershepherds of God’s flock.

During an especially difficult time in our church, the rumor spread that I was unapproachable. As a pastor to the flock, it devastated me that some thought I couldn’t be spoken to or reasoned with. Admittedly, I have a stubborn side. But I desired to be teachable regarding church-life issues. Even if I didn’t like what might be said, I wanted to be open and to listen while defending my point.

Of greater concern, though, was how this perception arose. Did I shut people off? Did I speak gruffly? Did I seem too animated in my responses?

One woman who understood my desire to listen told me frankly, “When you sit in your chair behind the desk looking intensely at the one talking, you grind your teeth, and it makes your jaws bulge. And so they think you’re angry with them.” We both laughed at my jaw proclivities. At her wise suggestion, I became conscious not to grind my teeth while meeting with critics. Another pointed out, correctly, that I was too quick to defend myself instead of listening carefully to what was spoken. I profited from both corrections. Those observations quelled the rumors and opened the door to better conversations, then and in the future.

How to Handle Legitimate Accusations

That situation was more a matter of personality and practice, not a sin issue. But what happens when accusations against an elder are legitimate?

Maybe an elder consistently speaks harshly or uses questionable language. Maybe he reacts with anger, or seeks revenge on those who disagree with him, or harbors a pattern of sinful behavior. Elders are sinners—like the rest of the congregation. Yet because of the unique responsibilities entrusted to them, they must vigilantly guard against allowing sins to entrap and tarnish their character. They’re to be exemplary in repentance as a lifestyle. They must seek to be “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6).

If an elder persists in sinful practice, however, church members have a responsibility to guard the church’s unity and witness by following the threefold practice Paul outlines in 1 Timothy 5:19–21.

1. Verify the Accusation

If the accusation proves to be false, fellow members—not just other elders—should reprove the one making the meritless accusation. We often misunderstand each other. Things we say get mistaken, as does a glance or nod or gesture or tone of voice. We mustn’t be quick to take offense or to create a crisis that doesn’t exist.

That said, elders sometimes fall into patterns of sin that need correction. Paul borrows the sobering template of Deuteronomy 17:6, where Moses gave instructions concerning the evidence necessary in order to apply the death penalty in Israel. So Paul echoes Moses: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19).

Why does Paul call for more than one witness? Suppose someone bears a grudge against a particular elder. Or maybe someone not appointed as an elder grows jealous and decides to pick off an elder out of revenge. One witness didn’t suffice in a capital trial in Israel, so Paul takes the principle into the church. Two or more must corroborate the sinful pattern before it is addressed. Once confirmed, it must be addressed with the aim toward correction.

Though each church will likely have its specific approach, it seems two or three witnesses, along with some elders, will confront the erring elder. Assuming the sin is not one that immediately disqualifies him from office (e.g., embezzlement, sexual immorality or one that demands intervention by authorities such as physical or sexual abuse), plans must be established for restoration. The confrontation may be a simple matter of correction. Or it may be more detailed, with his elders’ responsibilities suspended while working through a remedial process.

But what if the elder refuses to respond to this small group—similar to the pattern in Matthew 18:15–20? Then move to step two.

2. Publicly Reprove the Unrepentant Elder

Paul’s language is uncompromising: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). “Persistence in sin” emphasizes willful continuance. Public rebuke comes only when the sinning elder refuses to repent after private confrontation. “The presence of all” implies that the church hears the rebuke, so “the rest may stand in fear.” The latter may point primarily toward the rest of the elders, but certainly affects the sin-consciousness of the entire congregation.

Paul doesn’t specify the elder’s removal upon public rebuke. Mounce suggests that “rebuke” or “reprove” implies a remedial confrontation. Certainly, the goal would be his restoration to full fellowship with Christ and the church. But we must assume his unrepentant spirit blurs the lines of being “above reproach” (1 Tim. 3:2) and, so long as this is the case, disqualifies him. The elder must be removed from office.

Of course, feelings and friendships may get in the way of properly handling an elder who refuses to repent. Thus the third insight is vitally important.

3. Play No Favorites

“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). Here is a twofold application: Don’t short-circuit the process by “taking a side beforehand,” and do nothing partisan.

When a church ignores Paul’s threefold practice—verify the accusation, reprove publicly if he’s unrepentant, and play no favorites—it reveals softness toward sin and preference for personal comfort at the expense of Christ’s reputation and glory.

True Love Corrects

Every elder is a sinner who needs divine grace and gospel application. His words and actions might offend at times—without malicious intent, perhaps, but offend nonetheless. If the pattern persists, however, he may have a blind spot. He may need the body to love him enough to deal directly with his sin—and thereby set a godly example to the gathered church and the watching world. Otherwise, the congregation gets careless, and sinful patterns gain a foothold. That’s too high a price to pay at the expense of those redeemed by Christ’s blood.

An elder’s office does not put him above correction. Yet the congregation must show such respect to those appointed to lead, so that only with much humility, verification, and care will they reprove an elder. Members and elders will faithfully serve one another with this kind of accountability.

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