Sermon preached on 1 Timothy 5:19-21 by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 4/23/2017 in Novato, CA.
1 Timothy 5:19-21
“Against an Elder”
Last time we were in 1 Timothy, we talked about honoring elders that do a good job. But what about when they don’t? Or worse, what about when they are practicing some sin and won’t turn from it? That’s what we’ll have a chance to think about today. We’ll focus on verses 19-21. Ultimately this will be a sermon on church discipline. And this reminds us that leaders are not exempt from such discipline. Yet, church discipline is meant to be a good thing, not only for the church, but for the person under the discipline, that they would be grown and restored through the process. Let’s dig in then to this passage as we learn various important principles about church discipline and think about how to apply them.
We begin in verse 19. “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.” Here we find the transition from talking about honoring elders to what to do when an accusation might come against an elder. Remember the context of this letter. At that start of the letter, Paul reminded Timothy that he had been left in Ephesus to combat the false teachers. There is at least some reason to believe that some of these false teachers had been or were elders in the church. If so, today’s section is important. If there are elders who are teaching false doctrine, there will need to be church discipline brought against them. Yet, verse 19 reminds us that justice must still be served. Due process cannot be thrown out. This is true for all church members. But it should be especially true for the elders. If the previous passage about honoring elders tells us anything, then we should make sure if accusations are brought against them, that they are given justice and not just assumed to be guilty without adequate evidence.
And so, Paul appeals in verse 19 to that well established principle of justice that you need multiple witnesses. This was the explicit requirement under the old covenant. Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” Paul says that principle still applies today under the new covenant. Unfortunately, this can often limit our ability to enforce justice. Sometimes a crime is truly committed but it is a matter of one witness against another witness, a “he said, she said” sort of thing. Often in that type of a situations, injustices can happen. They can happen because we humans aren’t omniscient. If we can’t determine someone is definitively guilty based on the evidence that is before us, then we must not declare them guilty in the church courts. Proverbs 17:15, “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the LORD.” Similarly, God said about this in Exodus 23:7, “Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and righteous, for I will not acquit the wicked.” There’s a comfort in that statement given this reality. We humans can’t know everything. Some crimes will be gotten away with in this life, because of this limitation. But that’s the key, “in this life.” Ultimately, God is the Judge over all and he will see that justice is ultimately served; if not in this life, then in the life to come. But for us, as much as we are able, we must see that justice is done using evidence and facts. Thus, this principle, that two or three witnesses are required to find someone guilty.
And yet as true as that is, I’ve already noted that this does not apply only to elders. All church members should be guaranteed to not be found guilty without adequate evidence. So, is this just repeating this general principle for elders? Well, note the word “receive”. It is often understood that this passage speaks not of requiring multiple witnesses to find an elder guilty, but to even receive an accusation before the court. How this works in the OPC, for example, is that ordinarily one person could bring an accusation against someone else, but they would need to cite other witnesses or evidence that would prove their accusation. We would ordinarily receive such an accusation before the church court and then consider the evidence and cite the witnesses to appear and give their testimony. But for an elder, we would add the extra requirement that we won’t even move forward with considering the accusation if it is not originally brought by at least two or three people, despite how many witnesses the accuser might cite. The point is to provide sensible protection to those in leadership who might more often be the brunt of frivolous accusations because of their position. With this requirement, an accusation would at least have to have two people who agreed upon the charge.
What I love about this first point for today is its yet another reminder of the high view of justice that we see in the Bible. It reminds us that God cares to protect the innocent. You don’t just assume someone is guilty because someone tells you they are. If our earthly courts rightly state “innocent until proven guilty”, how much more should the courts of the church look to protect people’s good names. If there is not ample evidence, we can’t judge someone as guilty. This is especially true for our elders who often find people mad at them when they are faithful to bring them God’s Word even if it challenges something the person is doing. Sadly, that can tempt such upset people to bring slanderous accusations against elders. If they try to discredit the elders it can take the attention away from their own area of life where they need repentance. But we must make sure to give any accused elder proper due process. The Bible demands that justice be done during any kind of church discipline.
Let’s turn now in our second point to verse 21. We will come back to verse 20 in our third point. Here in verse 21 we see that prejudice and favoritism is forbidden. Let me read it again. Verse 21, “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.” Notice that the context is still the church discipline matter. He talks about “observing these things” and that draws us to the immediate context of accusations against elders and as we’ll see in our third point what to do when the charges are found to be true. And notice the serious tone of Paul here in verse 21. He puts this verse in the form of a solemn oath. He swears before God, Christ, and the angels. In this swearing, he requires Timothy to not bring prejudice or partiality into the process of justice. In the courts of the church, there is no place for any of that. Church discipline must be impartial and simply look to the facts and evidence and seek justice.
The words for prejudice and partiality are closely related, but we can distinguish them somewhat. The word here for prejudice refers to how you make judgments ahead of time, without any justifiable reason. Of course, you surely have a reason for making that prejudgment, but it’s not a justifiable one. For example, if you are racist you might prejudge against someone who is a different ethnicity than you. If you are a financial elite, you might prejudge against someone who’s in a different economic class. If you are a McCoy you might prejudge a Hatfield and assume their guilt in any accusation. If you are of a certain political party you might prejudge someone of the other party. Hopefully these examples make the point. It would be wrong to come to a judgment before you actually know the facts and evidence simply based on other irrelevant factors. Such prejudice is not justice.
Similarly, is the partiality mentioned here. This speak against favoritism. This is about an unjustified preference for someone or something that plays into your judicial decision. James, for example, speaks about this in James 2. There he is not talking about it in a judicial context, but in an interpersonal one. He speaks against the temptation that if a rich person comes into your church that you treat him better than the poor people in the church. That would be showing favoritism to someone simply because of their economic status. This is something the Old Testament prophets sadly speak against in several places in a judicial context. For example, in Jeremiah 7:5-6, the prophet calls for judgment to be properly executed between a man and his neighbor. He then goes on to specifically mention this for the stranger, fatherless, and the widow. You see, that’s the problem with favoritism. Often the people you don’t favor don’t get heard; they get injustice by being overlooked or their case decided in preference to the more favored person. But that’s not justice. Similarly, the Old Testament prophets often speak against the judges wanting bribes. That’s the problem with showing favoritism to a group like the rich; you are probably doing it so that you’ll get some benefit from them like a bribe. But again, that would not be justice. That would be perverting justice. Such partiality must not be a part of the justice system when it comes church discipline.
Thus, the courts of the church must not have either prejudice or partiality in how they make their decisions. By extension, may each of us guard our minds from such temptations. Even though most of us are not elders serving in the courts of the church, we are certainly all going to think about various matters of justice that come before us. Even though the church courts make the official decisions, we can’t help but think about the matter as well when the court considers and speaks towards various issues. We ought to make sure justice is operating in our hearts and minds as we think about this. And Paul is very clear: prejudice and partiality has no place in the determinations of justice.
Let’s turn now to our last point and consider verse 20. This addresses the public censure involved for those found guilty in church discipline. Let me read it again. Verse 20, “Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” Let me start by saying that based on the context, this likely has in mind the elders who are found guilty of sin. Those elders who are accused and found guilty at the testimony of two or three witnesses are not worthy of double honor. Rather, they must be publicly rebuked for their actions. That being said, though this seems to most specifically have in mind these wayward elders, there are certainly applications here beyond just elders. As we’ve already seen, there are principles of church discipline in this passage that have an application to how we deal with any matter of church discipline in the church. There’s a lot of passages in the Bible on how to do church discipline, and this one contributes to that teaching, and certainly has applications beyond just disciplining elders.
So then, there’s several important aspects about verse 20 to notice. First, notice that the people to publicly rebuke, are those who are sinning. This is a present active verb, so the idea is that these are people who are presently sinning. In other words, these aren’t people who were sinning but repented of their sin. It’s people who aren’t repenting of their sin. This is important to understand. The whole point of church discipline is to promote genuine repentance. It is to get people who are not living Christianly, to repent and turn back toward the way of Christ. But for those who persist, church discipline seeks to publicly declare to them how they are living contrary to the Word of God. Think about it. At the heart of the Christian life is faith and repentance. But if someone stubbornly refuses to repent of some sin in their life, then church discipline is a means to call them back into the way a Christian is supposed to be responding to the gospel. Faith and repentance.
Another clarification I would make here is that this verse only describes one specific form of censure: a public rebuke. The courts of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church actually have at their disposal five different forms of censure. We get these five different forms when we study all the Scripture’s teaching on the subject of church discipline. The five forms are admonition, rebuke, suspension (either from membership or church office), deposition from church office, and lastly as a last resort, excommunication. Today’s verse deals with the rebuke. There can be a time or a place with certain sins, that the church court determines they are to be rebuked publicly for their continued sin.
Notice next from this verse that the rebuke described her is to be done publicly. In most circumstances, official church discipline involves a public announcement of the censure. One reason why the Bible says this, is so that the congregation can help enforce that church discipline. For example, think of the excommunication described in Matthew 18:17. There it says that the final step in church discipline for an unrepentant brother is to tell the matter to the church, and if they still won’t repent of their sin, then to treat them like a tax collector and a sinner. In other words, that’s something the church needs to enforce. The congregation needs to speak in one voice by no longer acting like that disciplined person is a Christian, since they have not been acting like one. The public announcement in part helps us all as a church enforce the discipline determined in justice by the church courts. This verse doesn’t address excommunication, but in the case of the public rebuke the church needs to speak in a united way here. The church members need to speak against the sin being publicly rebuked and not act like it is not a big deal. And so, this is a benefit of a public rebuke; it gets the congregation involved to support and reinforce the rebuke given to the person.
That being said, this verse doesn’t highlight that benefit of it being publicly announced. It mentions another, different benefit. It says to publicly announce it so that all may fear. What an interesting concept, that even under the new covenant, there is a continued value of this. This was certainly something seen under the old covenant community. For example, do a search for the phrase “hear and fear” in the book of Deuteronomy, and you’ll find four references to this idea. Three of those four references all follow how a guilty person was to be publicly stoned after some evil crime they committed. That public stoning not only purged the evil from the people’s midst. It also urged everyone else in Israel to see the outcome of such evil and not want to commit such evil themselves. This language of fear is often used in the Old Testament in this sense: in the sense of how we relate to authorities and the punishment they can give for those who disobey. In English, today, we tend to not use “fear” that way anymore. We’d probably say “respect”. For example, when a police officer shows up, we respect him for the power and authority he wields. That would be similar to how we’d treat a judge in court. We know that we could get in serious trouble if we don’t show proper honor and respect to a policeman or a judge. Ultimately it is a fear of punishment that underlies it. Well, that is what this verse is talking about. Here in the new covenant it’s not talking about physical stoning. But the fact that someone could be publicly rebuked before the congregation is supposed to have a similar “hear and fear” response among the church. No one should want to be called out like that. No one should want to be publicly disciplined in the church. So, this is meant as a deterrent to the rest of the church members.
Let’s be frank. In today’s postmodern culture, the notion of a public censure within the church is really distasteful for most people. This is true in the world’s eyes, but it has left a mark on many in the church too. Even though church members can see the Biblical teaching on it, we tend to not like to have public censures like this. We might even tend to be a bit embarrassed about it happening when it happens. Yet, this is a biblical principle that in terms of a concept spans both old and new covenants. It might at first glance seem harsh, but we should remember that it is for our own good. Such authority and their threatenings are meant to encourage doing the right thing. It’s like how the Westminster Confession of Faith 19.6 speaks of the value of this for the born again believers. It says that such “threatenings” serve to show what even “our sins deserve”; and even “what afflictions, in this life,” we may expect for them, “although freed from the curse thereof threatened in the law.” Even for true born-again believers, such threatenings are meant for our good.
And that of course brings us back to the gospel. Our salvation in Christ speaks to this fear. I think of 1 John 4:18, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love.” The truth in that verse from 1 John doesn’t negate the reality of the fear that should come when someone is disciplined in the church. We should see it and have some sense of fear like we talked about today. It should bring a fruit of deterrence in the church on such a matter. But ultimately for the Christian, such fear will not consume us. For who we are in Christ tells us that if we truly are trusting in Jesus, we won’t need to fear punishment. If we are living in the Lord, we shouldn’t even need to end up being publicly rebuked or excommunicated. Romans 13:3, “For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong.” And even if we should stumble into some sin and come to the point of receiving church discipline, in Christ we should see this as for our good. Don’t reject in anger such discipline, but by the grace of God become renewed in repentance and the joy of your salvation. For the Christian, being in Christ speaks to this fear. It ultimately calls us away from the path of such fear to confident trust in the Lord who has saved us from all our sins and makes us to stand!
So then, we agree with the Lord again today on the value of church discipline. Let us pray that by God’s grace we would continue not only in faith, but in obedience to our Lord Jesus Christ. And may we grow in that obedience by his grace and for his glory. May the Lord especially protect our elders from sin, that they would be useful to us in lovingly shepherding us according to Christ and on his behalf. To God be the glory in his church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
Copyright © 2017 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.