1 Timothy 5:17-21 The Care and Feeding of Elders II

When it comes to the care and feeding of that elusive creature: The Elder – the church has some specific responsibilities. The first is to provide which we covered last week. The second is to protect.

In 1 Timothy 5:19-21 we have a few simple guidelines for protecting the reputation and holiness of an elder. Church discipline is never a fun topic – but it is a necessary one.

The principles of Church discipline are laid out in Matthew 18:15-20. Let’s read that text again for a refresher. <read it> The quick principles then are:
1. Go talk to a sinning believer in private to urge them to repent.
2. If he refuses to listen, take one or two witnesses with you for another private meeting.
3. If he refuses to heed all three of you, inform the entire church.
4. If he refuses to heed the church – have nothing to do with him until he repents.

I feel the need for a brief rabbit trail here to motion to Matthew 18:19-20 there and ask you to pay attention to this church discipline context. This is not a gang up on God and you’ll get what you want prayer formula. This is a confirmation that in the midst of the distress of church discipline the Lord is there to confirm his word of holiness.

The question of our text in Timothy is whether or not the procedures are somehow different for an elder. The answer to that is “NO”. The principles of Matthew 18 are brought to bear on the pastor/elder as well as any Christian. The focus on this passage however looks at the first aspect with a desire to protect an elder’s public integrity.

“Since elders occupy a position of responsibility in the church, they become a special target of Satan’s attack.”1 This is a simple fact which over the last decade I have learned to be especially true. Like all of Satan’s attacks he will attack a leader internally and externally. Internally he will strike with temptations, lies and attempts at false doctrine. Externally he will do the same but he since it is so vital that an elder in the church have the highest moral character – surprise surprise – Satan will add attacks on his Character.

It happened to Paul, he had to clear his character with the Corinthian church. The false teachers moved in and began accusing Paul of taking advantage of the Corinthian believers – to which Paul counters by reminding them that it was they and not he who was taking their money. It was apparently happening to Timothy and I suspect it was one of the reasons why Paul had to urge Timothy in 1:3 to stay put in Ephesus.

This is part of the backdrop against this passage in 1 Timothy 5:19ff. The first principle is intended to protect an elder’s reputation from false attacks.

Protect Their Reputation

It takes a lifetime to build a reputation; to destroy it takes only seconds. Those are sobering words but they harness the profound truth presented in 1 Timothy 5:19-21. There are two things that can instantly destroy a reputation built over a life time. The first is the truth, the second is a lie. This first rule is intended to decide that matter.

Look down at verse 24-25 (Read). Without digging too much on it today the principle is clear – for the most part we can count on sin being visible. And when it becomes visible to two or three people it is time to take corrective action.

The requirement to use two or three witnesses doesn’t come out of nowhere. It comes from the Old testament.

(Deuteronomy 17:6) “On the evidence of two witnesses or three witnesses, he who is to die shall be put to death; he shall not be put to death on the evidence of one witness.(NASB95)

(Deuteronomy 19:15) “A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.(NASB95)

(Matthew 18:16) “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.(NASB95)

(1 Timothy 5:19) Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.(NASB95)

(Hebrews 10:28) Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses.(NASB95)

Considering what was at stake in those death penalty cases it was easy to understand why two or three witnesses were needed. In a sense there is just as much at stake when an elder stands accused. If a solitary man sins he alone suffers. If a family man sins his entire family suffers, and if a pastor sins the church suffers. And if an elder is falsely accused the church still suffers.

When he says, “do not receive an accusation…” he means don’t legitimize it by paying attention to it. Paul is not trying to secure special treatment for the Elders he is trying to protect them from unfounded accusations which can be detrimental to the church. Sadly enough it is not unusual for a disgruntled individual to start spreading malicious rumors and unfounded accusations. Sometimes being a pastor means you step on somebody’s toes. And sometimes you get kicked for it.

Let me give you another example. Today it’s not uncommon to hear people claim that President George W. Bush “lied to the American People about going into Iraq.” Now, Frankly I really don’t care what your political views are about our current president but one thing I do know is this: most of those people screaming that he lied voted to go into Iraq because they were reading the same intelligence reports. But it is in their political interest to repeatedly accuse him of lying – so they do. It is not hard to look around and see the damage that those unfounded accusations have caused.

In the same way, the reputation of an elder matters in the greater community. Ever since the horrible stories have started coming out regarding pedophiles in the priesthood – nearly every member of the clergy has attracted some degree of suspicion from from the non-Christian public.

There is a clear contrast between an accusation by one individual which has no traction but has the ability to destroy a man’s reputation and a necessary accusation which is corroborated by others. This is where I presume the rest of Matthew 18 comes into play.

The requirement to protect their reputation must take a back seat to protecting their holiness because once it’s discovered that an elder is refusing to repent of sin – it’s time to take it to the next level.

Protect Their Holiness

Publicly rebuke them when they sin V20a

Note that he says, “Those who continue in sin…” Again we have to consider the pattern of Matthew 18. He is referring to someone who has failed to listen to the first individual who came to him privately and he has refused to listen to the two or three witnesses who have come to him privately the second time. When that happens you must treat an elder the same way you would treat anyone else in the church who refuses to give up their sin, and rebuke them publicly.

When you do that two things should happen. Number one – that elder should be moved to the point of repentance. Number two any elders who are watching will be shaking in their boots.

This will protect them from sinning v20b

“The rest also will be fearful of sinning”. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, fear is a great motivator.

Last year when it was revealed that Ted Haggard – the pastor of a large church was embedded in sin – he was publicly rebuked for his immorality. The results of that revelation was two fold – directly in line with this passage.

First, Pastor Haggard2 publicly repented – entered into an accountability and restoration relationship with other respected elders and resigned his post.

Second, pastors all across this country including myself were driven to our knees suddenly aware of our own weaknesses and begging God to keep us pure so as not to dishonor his name.

Biblical practice produced biblical result and the holiness of God’s servants was protected.


This passage has certainly had it’s effect on me. I am praying that God will keep me close to him and free of sin. Beyond that it’s time to apply some principles to your life.

God has called us to live in a community in holiness. If we know of a fellow Christian in sin it is our duty before the Lord to go privately to them and urge them to repent and return to Christ. I don’t think we’re supposed to make pointing the finger a full time job – but when we see a brother sinning and we do nothing at all to restore them gently, do you realize that we become a party to their sin? You are your brother’s keeper.

Second this is a call for personal life checks and if need be – repentance. Let me ask you each one to review your own heart for a moment. Are you hiding a secret sin? Are you disobeying the commandments of God? Are you keeping safe your own secret sins hoping even right now that nobody finds out?

Listen, God is quietly calling to you right now – today is the day now is the moment to seek him. If your sin is too strong for you to get out of on your own – than I want you to seek out some help and accountability. Don’t wait for someone else to confront you. Don’t wait for your sin to be discovered. And don’t work harder to conceal it so that it won’t happen. Now is the moment, now is the time to bring sin before the Lord and seek his forgiveness and healing. Let’s pray.

1William MacDonald and Arthur Farstad, Believer’s Bible Commentary : Old and New Testaments (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997, c1995), 1 Ti 5:19.

2Sadly, Ted Haggard has withdrawn early from his restoration program. I hope and pray that he will continue to grow in grace.