Bible Reading: 1 Timothy 5:19-21
Before we consider what Paul says about handling the problem of an elder falling into sin, we must address the issue of gossip. Paul makes it clear that we should not receive an accusation against an elder unless confirmed by two or three witnesses [verse 19]. The dangerous combination of Satan as the accuser of the brethren, and people gossiping and spreading rumours is very destructive and has caused some godly leaders to resign unnecessarily.
Paul gives three cautions to Timothy. The first is to be sure of the facts. The principle of witnesses is also stated in Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1. A person who makes an accusation against a Christian leader must support it with witnesses. Warren Wiersbe makes the comment, “‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ may be a good slogan for a volunteer fire department, but it does not apply to local churches. ‘Where there’s smoke, there’s fire’ could possibly mean that somebody’s tongue has been “set on fire of hell’! [James 3:6]” [Quoted from “Be Faithful,” p.82].
Paul’s second caution is to be open with the other elders if an elder has fallen into sin [verse 20]. Because Paul is writing about an eldership issue it is fair to assume that the word “all” refers to the other elders, and not to the whole body of believers. It is very sad when a believer falls into sin, but when an elder falls it is not only very sad but can seriously affect the faith of other believers. Issues of sin must not be covered up. The person who has done wrong should be given opportunity to repent, and if he does so he should be forgiven [2 Corinthians 2:6-11]. I often think of a well-known pastor who fell into immorality. He was deeply repentant. The elders were able to keep the issue to themselves, and other party’s involved, including the man’s wife, chose to remain quiet. He stepped down from ministry for a year, with the understanding that he was taking a sabbatical. At the end of the year he was restored as an elder in a most gracious way. Because someone has sinned does not mean it is the end of his or her ministry. If you think that is the case, then just read the story of David and his prayer of repentance in Psalm 51.
Paul’s third caution is to be impartial and without prejudice [verse 21]. However hard it may be, personal feelings or relationships must not cloud issues that have to be dealt with.
Finally, we must realise that the purpose of discipline is always restorative and not punitive. When seeking to restore someone it should be in a spirit of gentleness, and also with the realisation that we ourselves could fall into the same trap [Galatians 6:1-2]. Be as kind to others as you would be to yourself.
If you discovered that an elder in your church was living a double-life and committing sin what would you do about it?
Why is it most important that in restoring someone who has sinned we are gentle and guard our own hearts?