Now, let’s suppose we have man called “elder” who is not qualified. What do we do? Well, the Bible says very little on the subject, but there is some significant guidance.
We begin with –
(1Ti 5:19-20 ESV) 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.
Paul borrows the teaching of verse 19 from Deuteronomy –
(Deu 19:15 ESV) 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.”
This passage reflects an attitude toward accusations that threads through much of Deuteronomy — and it was typical of Jewish rabbis, such as Jesus and Paul, to quote a passage briefly in order to invoke the broader context of that passage. (They didn’t have chapter and verse numbers back then.)
Thus, I believe that “two or three witnesses” also invokes the commands in Deuteronomy to “ask diligently” and to establish that the charge is “true and certain.”
(Deu 13:12-15 ESV) 12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the LORD your God is giving you to dwell there, 13 that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.”
(Deu 17:2-7 ESV) 2 “If there is found among you, within any of your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, a man or woman who does what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, in transgressing his covenant, 3 and has gone and served other gods and worshiped them, or the sun or the moon or any of the host of heaven, which I have forbidden, 4 and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently, and if it is true and certain that such an abomination has been done in Israel, 5 then you shall bring out to your gates that man or woman who has done this evil thing, and you shall stone that man or woman to death with stones. 6 On the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses the one who is to die shall be put to death; a person shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness. 7 The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.
This is justice according to God. That is, God recognizes the value of a good reputation and how easily a man may be destroyed by rumor and speculation.
Therefore, the system is frankly biased in favor the accused. Some may well escape punishment because proof may be hard to come by. In such a case, the man is not to even be accused, much less convicted.
It’s very much like the American criminal system (innocent until proven guilty; the state bears the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt), and that’s no coincidence.
It is remarkably unlike most churches, where rumor and gossip can destroy an elder based on nothing but lies and speculation. The elders — and the members — should never allow such behavior.
* Accusations must be made by witnesses. “Witnesses” are people who actually saw the events involved. It’s not enough that three gossips all heard the same rumor. The charge cannot be brought at all unless two or three people actually witnessed the event.
* An accusation is not a conviction. If two or three witnesses come forward, then the charge must be thoroughly investigated and found to be, not only true, but certain. There must be a high level of confidence that the charge is true.
* There are no secret witnesses. Indeed, in Deuteronomy, if the penalty is stoning, the witnesses throw the first stones. They must be willing to stand up and be responsible for the consequences of their testimony. Hence, no elder may be charged based on a confidential source.
* The penalty — public rebuke — is invoked only if the elder “persists” in the sin (Greek present tense, implying continuous action; not all translations pick this up). Therefore, it appears that the elder is to be first warned to desist, after the charge has been found to be true. If he fails to do so, he is to be publicly rebuked.
Frankly, most men would resign rather than face public rebuke.
One of several challenges presented by this passage is coordinating it with –
(Mat 18:15-17 ESV) 15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Verse 15 makes clear that this passage only applies to someone who has sinned against the accuser. If an elder sins against his congregation, the preacher for another church is not authorized to bring a charge. (And many a sermon would be ruined if these passages were actually honored by our preachers.)
Just as in 1 Tim 5:20, there is a warning. Just one person approaches the sinner and, face to face, confronts him with his sin. One advantage of this step is that it’s confidential — as there is but one witness to this conversation. If the conversation goes well, the accuser has gained his brother, but the conversation cannot be used against the accused because there would be but one witness.
This is followed by a second warning — but a warning with one or two additional witnesses, so that the fact of this second warning may be made a part of the charge against him when his guilt is to be determined.
Notice that Jesus goes to great lengths to protect the pride and confidentiality of the accused. If the accused can make it right just between the two, it ends there. The accuser is not allowed to talk behind the back of the accused.
The second conversation may be later brought up in a public accusation — to prove fair warning — but even it remains confidential if the accused confesses and repents. After all, the point of the warning is to avoid some kind of hearing or trial by obtaining voluntary repentance. If the man is going to be the subject of gossip even if he repents, he doesn’t have nearly the same motivation.
The next step is to take the accusation before the church. Just as is true of Paul, Jesus borrows language from Deuteronomy that refers to a trial. The accusation isn’t true just because it’s been made. The accusation itself (not just the warning) must be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses and diligent inquiry must be made to establish whether the charge is true and certain.
The accusation is brought before the entire church. Modern churches rarely do this, preferring to let the elders try the case. Part of the practical difficulty is the size of many modern churches and the sheer difficulty of trying a man before two or three hundred or more people.
Commentators therefore disagree as to the meaning of “church” in this context. After all, Jesus was speaking before the church had even been established.
Frankly, the idea of trying a charge against a church member — even an elder — with witnesses and the church sitting as jury is so foreign to the modern church that this would be very difficult to pull off. In fact, most members faced with the prospect withdraw as members or resign as elders to avoid such a scene.
Perhaps more importantly, when the Matthew 18 actions are taken strictly as commanded by Jesus, most people respond in repentance long before there is any prospect of a trial before the church. The first and second steps, when actually followed, tend to work very well indeed.
The real problem is not the difficulty of a trial before the whole church but the refusal of most to even begin the process. And yet this is plainly the commanded process for dealing with a sin or “charge” against an elder (or other members).
And so maybe the best way to see this is kind of a grand jury/trial process. That is, it only makes sense that no charge be brought before the congregation unless the elders agree that the charges merit such consideration. I mean, sometimes people bring truly absurd charges.
Hence, I see the elders as a clearing house to save the church from having to deal with absurdities and irresponsible charges. Obviously, the elder being charged can’t be part of the process. He must recuse himself.
But I think the elders should seriously consider putting the ultimate decision before the church — when the charges have real merit — rather than just assuming that the church will accept as true conclusions they’ve reached from evidence they’ve not heard.
But what if the elder hasn’t sinned but is rather simply not well qualified for the task?
[to be continued]