In 1 Tim 5:19 we are taught how to “rebuke” an elder —
(1 Tim 5:19-20) Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. 20 Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning.
But it’s extremely rare that this teaching is followed. Most men will step down rather than suffer a public rebuke. But let’s imagine for a moment that this teaching were to actually be followed.
First, it’s limited to sin. It says nothing of inept or weak leadership. On the other hand, the worst problems that we have with elders are due to sin, such as —
* Legalism. Legalism is sin, and when an elder’s legalism becomes an impediment to the church doing God’s mission, the elder ought to be rebuked.
* Partiality. When an elder advocates for his friends rather than God, he sins. He is charged with God’s flock, not that part of the flock he socializes with.
* Failure to equip. Eph 4 teaches that pastors are to equip their flock for good works. If they impede good works or simply refuse to do their jobs, they sin.
In fact, I think many of the worse problems within our elderships could be addressed this way. And I’d take Paul’s instructions to Timothy to be part of the larger approach to confronting sin described by Jesus in Matt 18 —
(Mat 18:15-17) “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony 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, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
If an elder sins, he should be confronted as Jesus teaches. The goal is to gain repentance. If he repents, the process stops. If he doesn’t, it proceeds to the next step.
Ultimately, an unrepentant elder is not only removed from office but from the congregation. And, ultimately, the congregation decides whether to remove him from their fellowship.
But there’s one important difference — and I tremble as I type this — in 1 Tim 5, Paul commands that the rebuke be public. Now, I believe that some discretion is required. After all, we all sin and we all make mistakes. Manifestly, this must be the sort of sin that deserves such a rebuke.
Ultimately, you see, we have to get over the notion that church is a place where sin is never confronted. We Southern Americans hate confrontation. We sometimes see it as un-Christian, and yet in the scriptures we see Jesus rebuking his apostles regularly and, at times, very sternly. We see Paul rebuking Peter.
Now, we are required to do our rebuking gently, humbly, and lovingly. But we are repeatedly told to rebuke sin —
(2 Tim 4:2) Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage — with great patience and careful instruction.
(1 Tim 5:1a) Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father.
(Gal 6:1) Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.
Disqualification other than sin
Sometimes a man needs to be removed for reasons quite apart from sin. For example, a man suffering through clinical depression may need to step down and tend to his own mental health. While he’s mentally unhealthy, he shouldn’t be carrying the tremendous burden that eldership is.
Just so, a man may have been ordained because he’s nice and fatherly, but may have never been qualified. The church made a mistake, he was flattered, but he is no shepherd and no teacher and no leader. He really needs to resign.
A harder case is a man who served well but because of age or health needs to step aside.
In all these cases, the wisest course is for the other elders to lovingly urge him to step aside. And the wise eldership should have a covenant among themselves that, if asked to do so, they’ll quietly step down and be no cause of disharmony. I’d get it in writing from all new elders. We do.
I can’t really disagree with the various kinds of re-affirmation. They’re not sin. But I’ve never been a big fan. On the other hand, my entire adult life has been guided by a series of masterful shepherds.
Part of my problem is that the congregation often has no idea how sorry the elders are. While a public rebuke takes only three people, a non-affirmation requires a majority (some churches require other percentages). It’s quite possible for truly awful elders to be repeatedly re-affirmed. I’ve seen it happen.
I’ve seen great churches ruined this way. Many knew that the elders up for affirmation were legalists and intended to take the church deeper into legalism, but a majority of the church was blind to the possibility. There was no discussion and no confrontation. Just an insert in the bulletin with two boxes to check.
Worse yet, the preacher likely says something about having to re-affirm unless there’s a “scriptural objection,” meaning a violation of the Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3 disqualification. Well, what about if he’s a lousy shepherd and overseer? Doesn’t the office itself imply a scriptural qualification beyond “not a brawler” and such like?
Therefore, for re-affirmation to really mean something, there needs to be a means — other than gossip — for the church to learn about the men they are being asked to re-affirm. Perhaps a question and answer period. Somehow or other, the elders need to be required to expose their opinions to the congregation.
Of course, we all live in the Church of Nice, and hard questions risk a decided lack of niceness. But I think God’s church is too important for us to allow our fear of confrontation to let wolves in among the shepherds.
Now, in a church with a transparent eldership, the problem isn’t so great. When the elders teach more than one class and their views and character are “on the record,” the church knows who they are dealing with. But when the elders only associate with their social circle and have little interaction with the church that reveals their hearts, someone has to have the right to ask questions.
Now, if a re-affirmation process allows the church to see the man for who he really is, then I’m all for it. Of course, the practicalities of doing this in a very large church can be quite challenging. But larger churches usually have a deeper talent pool and a large enough pool of elders that the elders themselves can deal with a lousy elder who gets in by mistake.