1 Tim 5:19-25
As an elder, you will be criticized—that is axiomatic. Sometimes it comes from well-meaning Christians who are trying to “help” you. Sometimes, from those who for various reasons (whether jealousy, insecurity, fear, selfishness – you can probably add some other reasons) feel “called upon by God” to be the prophets of criticism. But at other times, the criticism may be justified—you have fallen short in some area! These are all hazards of the trade, so to speak. And they are very real.
In the last two issues of ESN we talked of honoring elders based on 1 Tim 5:18-19. The reality, though, is that elders probably receive more criticism than honor. Being an elder is a very risky proposition. As one brother said, “When I became an elder I didn’t realize that I was stepping into the line of fire.”
No other ministry has such high standards and expectations from others. Being in the lead of anything exposes a person, leaving them vulnerable to the arrows of criticism. So elders in the church need special protection.
Paul, in 1 Tim 5:19-25, lays out some specific ways for safeguarding elder ministry in the face of criticisms or accusations:
Separate out the spurious (19)
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses (NASB).
While Paul was quite adamant about the inferiority of the Law to grace when it comes to justification, he none-the-less found value in its practical application to relationships among God’s people. In particular, he alludes to Deut. 17:6 and 19:15, 18 and 19 where the Law speaks of handling personal accusations of wrong doing.
The phrase “two or three” occurs frequently in both the OT and NT and infers “more than one.”There must be at least 2 or 3 people willing to vocalize and take responsibility for their accusation. In fact, under the Law, it was the witnesses that were to be the first to execute judgment (Deut 17:7)! Paul’s intent is not to bring us under the Law, but to apply the principle found in the Law to the treatment of elders, namely that they should be protected from superficial criticism.
An older brother once gave me some wise advice when, as a young leader, I was weighed down by criticism: “A man who is never criticized is a man who never does anything.” In other words, don’t be too discouraged, it comes with the territory. That was a tremendous encouragement to this young leader!
However, at times, criticism can wear a man down. So Paul instructs church leaders to carefully evaluate criticism against a fellow leader. There must be substantial evidence of wrong doing. This means when you or I as elders hear rumors, innuendo, gossip or any kind of idle criticism against a fellow elder, we should give the benefit of the doubt to that elder. After all, the elder has been deemed qualified, and therefore is presumed to be spiritually mature. The other elders, of all people, ought to resist the rush to judgment (see Proverbs 18:17).
If a person feels there are legitimate grounds for an accusation, he comprises a single “witness” and, according to Matt 18:15-16, should therefore go to the elder alone with his concern. If that does not bring resolution, then “two or three” witnesses should be employed to “confirm every fact” —which brings us back to 1 Tim 5:19! There is a responsible, Biblical pattern to follow when genuine concerns arise.
Now, what if an elder refuses the admonition of “two or three witnesses” and continues in his sinful behavior? Then there needs to be public censure! Paul now addresses this.
Respond intentionally and clearly (1 Tim 5:20, 24-25)
Notwithstanding the cautionary protection for elders, when an elder doessin and it becomes public – in other words, there is a justifiable accusation from more than one person, then the full force of Matt 18:17 must be brought forward. Namely, he should, as Paul puts it here, be rebuked “in the presence of the congregation.”
This is severe treatment and not to be engaged in lightly. A few observations are in order. A) The treatment of elders and the standards to which they are held, in reality, are the same for all Christians. B) If ever there is a time to press the standard, it is with those who accept the mantle of eldership. C) Public rebuke carries a deterrent value so the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (verse 20). Yes, there is a place for “fear” in the Christian walk, in the sense that God takes sin in the believer’s life seriously. He is not mocked; we had better understand that. Grace does not render holy behavior optional—God expects holiness (1 Pet 1:15-16), especially in the leaders.
Now there are two sides to this issue of rebuke. The elders, along with the church, must rebuke their errant fellow-elder. But elders must model the willingness to receive correction. Every elder at times needs correction, sometimes even rebuke. Indeed, modeling Christ-likeness as an elder is not for the faint heart. Even King David, the “man after God’s heart” accepted the rebuke of Nathan the prophet. So, we as elders, absolutely must have that quality of godliness which welcomes correction. “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding, than a hundred blows into a fool” Prov 17:10 (See also Prov 8:33, 9:8-9).
Avoid favoritism (21)
The nature of this issue, as most elders have experienced, is not always easy. Some elders form closer bonds with some of their fellow elders than with others. The human tendency toward bias waxes strong and can result in either overly lenient treatment or overly harsh treatment. This can be especially true when there are blood or marriage relationships involved. Elders need to identify this tendency and have the courage to objectively respond biblically in these matters.
Prevent the avoidable (22)
The weight of these matters leads Paul to caution against thrusting any man too quickly into the role of elder. Someone who is not spiritually ready or sufficiently mentored will fall prey to the pressures.
This is critical, because often an assembly can become desperate for more elders and may take short cuts to add to their number. In business, leaders latch onto the bright rising stars and thrust them into significant positions of responsibility where they either flourish or they bomb out. But eldership in the church is not the place for “rising stars” nor is it a way for a young Christian to “make his mark.” The spiritual health of the believers is greatly affected by the spiritual functioning of the elders. Some men have buckled under the weight.
Watch your health (23)
It is no mere coincident that Paul now counsels Timothy to take care of his health: “Use a little wine for the sake of your stomach and your frequent ailments.” The pressures of shepherding can affect one’s health. Is it possible that Timothy experienced ulcers or other stress related disorders? Elders need to look after their health so they will be able to handle the stresses of watching over the flock of God.
Although elders are (or should be) qualified and spiritually mature, they are still men of the flesh. They are both subject to personal faults and sins, as well as subject to false criticisms—a crossfire of sorts. We need to ensure the elders protect one another and at the same time are courageous enough to confront one another about their sins and shortcomings. As the elders take these instructions seriously, they become God’s model for all believers in the church.