Rebuking an Elder
The desire for me to explore the meaning of 1 Timothy 5:19-20 goes back forty years to a once prominent national ministry in which both my late wife Ruth and I served. Through the misapplication and incorrect interpretation of scripture resulting from the failure to use proven hermeneutical practices, the ministry led by Bill Gothard, fell from prominence after a devesting scandal that was the result of the covering and allowance of sin. Thus, allowing the “end to justify the means”. This fall continued in the decades that followed. I believe the words of Proverbs 16:18 speaks to what happened, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” Those of us who sought to follow the principles of Matthew 18:15-17 and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 in seeking a Godly resolution were fought on every front, from both inside and outside the organization. Sadly, this included some of the biggest names in Evangelical Christianity, those outsiders that were not vocal were heard loudly by their complete silence in reply to the cries of the afflicted.
We heard these leaders make false accusations of rebellion against us and that we were not submitting to our elders/leaders as directed by God regarding the “anointed”, the “elder”, or “pastor”. They seem to equate godliness to the size and following of the ministry with a blind eye to the sin. Not one of these prominent men sought the truth, they had tied their horse to this gold-plated hitching post and nothing, not even the truth was going to move them. It was as if they were afraid that this might expose their sins too. The attacks were vicious; calls, letters or visits to ex-staffer’s pastors and family to discredit their character and hide the truth.
In my quest for truth, repentance, and forgiveness I have taken several college level Biblical studies classes including the most recent on Biblical Interpretation. In my final paper I focused on this passage. What follows are the highlight of the exegesis of those verses.
1 Timothy 5:1-2
I believe it is important to provide the historical context for this quest of finding the truth in regard to just what “elder/older man” means in this context, along with its use in 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-25, Titus 1:5-16 and 1 Timothy 3:1-13. Even the word “anointed” is relevant to this conversation as it was thrown around like a hand grenade. Regarding the use of “elder” or “older man” in 1 Timothy 5:1-2, “Do not rebuke an older man but encourage him as you would a father, younger men as brothers, 2 older women as mothers, younger women as sisters, in all purity.” "Just who is an elder? The Greek word here is "presbýteros (4245)–meaning, a mature man with seasoned judgment (experience); an additional meaning though not used here because of its context (“elder") who provides general oversight in the church (Acts 14:23; 1 Tim 3:5; 1 Pet 5:2) – with the important responsibility of teaching the Scriptures comprehensively and accurately (Acts 20:27; cf. Gal 1:6-10)."1
We see the use of “older man” (ESV) and “elder” (KJV) comes from the same Greek word presbýteros it is clearly seen as “older man” in this passage because of the context it is used in and not as a church elder in a leadership position. In that context we find the answer found in the rest of verse 1 and in verse 2, where it puts the use of the word presbýteros in a “familial” setting, not in a leadership role like vs 19, but in a comparative relationship context of “older man” to father, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters. In fact, the first 16 verses of this chapter is in reference to these and other issues dealing with family relationships. Moody Bible Commentary classifies these first 16 verses as “Treatment of Various Age Groups”.2 It is not until verse 17 where the context changes to church elders.
Historically the Jewish culture was a Patriarchal society of male leadership of the family including the political and religious spectrum too. Yet it was also a respectful society where women and men were valued and praised in both the New and Old Testament, but the leadership roles fell to the men.
In the verses we are going to look at (19-20) Since this context is related to the previous verses in 1 Timothy 5:1-2, 17-18, describing elder in a leadership position, this would be interpreted in the same understanding as the elder described in the elder qualifications passages found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 along with the following ending verses 21-25. We also find the same Greek word of elder found in the New Testament related to church leadership position or the apostles or to a church in 1 Peter 5:5; Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2. Likewise we find in the Gospels and the early part of Acts the same Greek word is associated with Judaism’s leadership regarding the Temple, Jewish rulers, priests and Pharisees, examples can be found in Mark 11:27; 14:43 and Acts 4:23. In the Old Testament Hebrew, the primary word for elder is זָקֵן zaqen (2205); it is used 177 times in most cases referring to a leadership position (135x) and in the other referring to age or someone older (42x).3 Clearly it is evident that the context used in verses 1-2 is related to a familial relationship of an “older man” not a leadership position. There is no argument that can be made that this is an instruction regarding rebuking a church elder/teacher. This “older man” context would also be the classic understanding in the Hebrew culture of the time.
1 Timothy 5:19-20
The primary verse that is most often quoted is 1 Timothy 5:19, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” It seems pretty clear at first glance, until you understand that each of the different genre used in the Bible require a different approach to completely understand them in the context they are intended. A standard hermetical approach for epistles teaches to “Think Paragraphs” and what is “The Point” Paul is making in context of the whole paragraph. In verses 17-25 honoring elder/teachers seem to be a main focus but so is the dealing with an elder/teacher’s sin. The verses while dealing with elders/teachers can be divided in pairs, with the exception of verse 23 which stands alone.
v. 17-18 Honoring Elders/teachers
v. 19-20 Conditions for charging an elder and consequences if no repentance
v. 21-22 Not showing partiality to, or prejudge the elder/teacher
v. 23 It is OK to drink a little wine, (it does not exclude elders)
v. 24-25 Discussion of Sin and Good works being visible
Verse 20 follows the theme of Matthew 18:17 and here specifically includes elders/teachers. “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” This verse is rarely quoted with verse 19 when dealing with an elder. Another example would be Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Galatians 2:11-16. While it was between apostles, it was made quite public for all the world to know. I would add so is all the sin done by the heroes and villains of the Bible along with their blessings when repentant and judgement when not. Not one is exempt from our charge to rebuke or correct (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
As believers we are all anointed to be in service to the Lord our God, though each having differing gifts and responsibilities. In James 3 scripture is clear regarding the responsibilities and standard for teachers. This includes taming the tongue and seeking wisdom from above. The chapter starts with an imperative regarding teachers, in verse one, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” To ensure that that the “judgement of greater strictness” is righteous, safeguards are set in place requiring two or three witnesses as we have seen above. The primary purpose is to protect the purity and unity of the Gospel of the Church. This discipline must be rooted in love to stop sinful behavior of all, including leadership.
Exegetical and Theological Problems and Possible Solutions
Throughout the Old Testament and then reaffirmed in the New Testament we see from above that scripture consistently calls for two or three witnesses for various crimes including those of a capital nature and specifically charges against an elder. But there is a problem when the sin is not done in public where there can be two or three witnesses and is done in private, i.e., idolatry, murder, theft, adultery, rape, even spoken lies where the truth is hidden for various reasons. This is what I call the “Witness Paradox” (discussed later). While the Ten Commandments are reaffirmed or renewed in the New Testament (Matthew 5:21-48; 22:40) there are clear directions on how to administer the laws and execute punishment that are attached to those laws in various sections of the Torah. For example, in Leviticus 5:1 speaking of sin it commands, “If anyone sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify, and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter, yet does not speak, he shall bear his iniquity.” Here we are compelled to testify if we have “seen” or “come to know” the matter. In either case that person is a “witness”, even if he is just aware of the matter.
In Deut. 17:4, while speaking of the detestable capital “sin” of idolatry Moses instructs, ”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.” Here we see the clear command to “inquire diligently”, though related to a capital sin I believe you could make the case for rebuking elders also, since both are related to maintaining the purity of the worship of the one true God. Neither situations should be taken lightly. Then when considering Leviticus 19:15, where there is the imperative to not show partiality to the poor or defer to the great, (“You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor.”) We see that that impartial judgement should be done righteously along with the command to inquire diligently. This is the standard for establishing the parameters to rebuke an elder. Additionally, from what we saw above in 1 Tim. 5:21, Paul renews the Old Testament law of not showing partiality when judging an elder.
Speaking of punishment regarding a dispute taken to court in Deut. 25:1-3 “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, 2 then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense….” Clearly some form of discipline/punishment/consequence can be required for an offense. We see this Old Testament concept of discipline renewed under the New Covenant in Hebrews 12:1-14 with the writer’s quote in verses 5-6, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6 For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” In verse 10b the writer explains the reason for discipline, “but He (God) disciplines us for our good, that we may share His holiness.” He ends in verse 14 with a challenge and a chilling warning, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”
In many cases Old Testament law requires the death penalty for idolatry, murder, adultery, certain immoral acts, etc. For the death penalty to be administered it required two or three witnesses. This is clearly seen in Deut. 19:15 which deals with how the Old Testament law is administered, that same law that was reaffirmed in the New Covenant. 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." Verses 16-21 goes on to clearly warn against giving a false witness and how severely they are to be treated, “So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” This stands as a stark reminder to always proclaim truth, in every situation and not give a false report (Ex. 20:16).
In Deut. 22:23-24 a death penalty crime is mentioned regarding a betrothed virgin who “lies” with a man she is not betrothed to, in the city and she does not cry out, this is adultery and the punishment is death for both. Nothing is mention about witnesses, but it is assumed since they are in the “city” they must be present or could have heard her cries if she would have cried out.
The following verses 25-27 are what I consider the “Witness Paradox”. 25 “But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. 26 But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbor, 27 because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her.” This clearly describes rape, the previous passage it implies consensual sex since she was not seized or cried out. Since in verses 25-27 they are in the open country, it is implied no one was around to “witness” the act or hear her “cries for help” yet the man receives the punishment of death, the only obvious witness is just one person, the victim. Who is the second or third witness? I would argue that that it would be allowed base on Leviticus 5:1, “If anyone sins in that he hears a public adjuration to testify, and though he is a witness, whether he has seen or come to know the matter,…” and in Deut. 17:4, ”and it is told you and you hear of it, then you shall inquire diligently,….” Both of these verses give the option for the second or third witness to be one who has “come to know the matter” or “it is told to them and he hears it”. This could be a father, mother, brother or sister she reported it to, or the first person she encountered following the rape where they would have observed her distraught state. But what about another woman, who was raped by the same man, could she be the second or third witness? I would argue she could, by nature of the crime against her and showing a pattern of behavior of an act done in secret by the rapist with no one to hear her cries. Would this not also apply to other indecent liberties or questionable practices taken by an elder in a position of power over the victim? I would strongly argue it would by that abuse of power and rejection of a Godly standard.
Neither of the examples answered the third possibility, of a woman being seized in the city and raped, who was not able to cry out by threat or by force. I think we can find that spoken of in the rape of Tamar (2 Sam. 13:1-22)(who was not betrothed, so a different set of required punishment) by her half-brother Amnon then his murder by his half-brother Absalom, who was angry at his father King David for not punishing Amnon. This was a major contributing factor in his rebellion against the king resulting in Absalom’s death. Here we clearly see the witnesses to the rape are those who observed her mourning and distraught state (2 Sam. 13:17-22)4.
How does this relate to the possible solutions to the Exegetical and Theological Problems regarding witness qualifications and required number for confronting an Elder? I believe we can clearly see in the scripture above there is precedent in other verses that expand the requirement of who can qualify to be a witness. This is no different from our laws today where someone might not have directly observe the crime, but overheard a conversation, or saw the offender in the same location and time of the crime. While patterns of behavior can be limited in the courts today, they are useful in the investigation. In Scripture we find the word “inquire” use seventy-seven times almost exclusively regarding inquiring of the Lord or God. In Deuteronomy three times it is used in a judicial context of investigating a charge to prove guilt or innocence (Deut. 13:14; 17:4; 18:18). The sin of elders can be very public in their actions or words, but they can also be very private where the sin can only be determined by the multiple victims of the same crime by the elder and where the sin was done in private or by those who were made aware of the sin.
As we look at the verses in 1 Timothy 5 and from the Old Testament law it’s easy to see the safeguards that were put in place for confronting the sin of elders and the warning of giving a false report. I believe there are two more facets we need to look at in light of our application of these commands today.
In today’s world we often observe elders, pastors, teachers and evangelist seeing themselves as anointed by God and set apart from the common believer. This can be based on their scriptural interpretation, culture or historical understanding of past practices. We universally see these men as having all the scriptural knowledge and authority, with their charisma and leadership skills it causes people to mistakenly follow them. Our lives are complex, and it is easier than searching the matters ourselves by independent study. We become followers of man instead of the Christ who saved us, not following the words of 2 Timothy 2:14-26.
But just who are the anointed? In the Torah “anointed” is prominently used in reference to priest, the tabernacle, altar and its utensils. Beyond the Torah into the rest of the historical Narrative section including, Wisdom and Poetry, it is generally used in relationship with Kings and specific leaders with a few references to the Messiah. In the Major and Minor prophets, the primary reference shifts to the Messiah, with some references to prophets and angelic beings. In the Gospels and Revelation, we find Jesus being anointed or doing the anointing as part of His healing. In the epistles we see the anointing from the Holy Spirit being given to all believers.
Heb. 1:9, “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
2 Cor. 1:21,” And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us,”
1 Jn. 2:20, “But you have been anointed by the Holy One, and you all have knowledge.”
1 Jn. 2:27, “But the anointing that you received from him abides in you, and you have no need that anyone should teach you. But as his anointing teaches you about everything, and is true, and is no lie—just as it has taught you, abide in him.”
In 2 Peter the apostle exhorts us to remember who Jesus is, what He did and that He is coming back, and judgement awaits the ungodly. We are warned of false prophets and teachers (leadership) and their coming judgement too, they are not exempt. As believers we are called to pursue our faith in virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness brotherly affection and love, to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord so to be found without spot or blemish in the Day of the Lord. Taken in light of our Christian imperative to rebuke, our actions today should not be anchored in our western legal system but in the intent of God’s moral standard He has made clear in the Scriptures and in the two most important laws that all the other laws are based on, Matthew 22:36-40, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law? 37 Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. 38 This is the first and great commandment. 39 And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” We can also add Jesus’ teaching about being a servant to all, since a servant doesn’t take but gives, Mark 9:35, “And he sat down, and called the twelve, and saith unto them, If any man desire to be first, the same shall be last of all, and servant of all.” Our rebuke needs to be rooted in Love and with the mindset of a Servant’s heart.
To repeat what I said in the beginning, as believers we are all anointed to be in service to the Lord our God, though each having differing gifts and responsibilities. In James 3, scripture is clear regarding the responsibilities and standard for teachers. This includes taming the tongue and seeking wisdom from above. The chapter starts with an imperative regarding teachers, in verse one, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” To ensure that that the “judgement of greater strictness” is righteous, safeguards are set in place requiring two or three witnesses as we have seen above but leaves room for what qualifies a witness (Witness Paradox). The primary purpose is to protect the purity and unity of the Gospel of the Church. This discipline must be rooted in love to stop sinful behavior by all, including leadership.
We have to remember that in the Old Testament covenant there was no accountability for the character qualification for leadership positions, they were either appointed or received through heredity. The people had no covenantal rights to replace a leader. Rebellion against the King was severely dealt with. God was responsible for judgement and removal of those leaders, He could replace them or judge them to accomplish His perfect plan. We see this in the consequences of the sins of Korah, Samson, Saul, Eli and his sons, Absalom’s rebellion against David and others.
However, in the New Covenant all believers are anointed, but there are specific requirements to be an elder/teacher/overseer. In the verses we have just discussed the people (believers) have a covenantal obligation and imperative to rebuke or remove those leaders who continue in unrepentant sin. The Old Testament restrictions in this matter are no longer valid as they are not renewed in the New Testament. Even in Matthew 18:15-17 there is no restriction on who can inquire diligently and reprove/rebuke a brother, regardless of their position.
Those that don’t act to maintain the purity of the Church by reproving and rebuking sin need only to remember the example of David in what we discussed regarding the rape of Tamar. David’s failure to deal with Amnon’s sin resulted in him being murdered by his brother Absalom instead of being punished justly by his father David. Absalom’s anger at his father’s lack of justice for the rape, triggered his ultimate rebellion and death. Then David’s failure to properly anoint the next heir to the throne led to the death of his son Adonijah by his brother Solomon, the rightful heir. Three of David’s sons died because of his failures to deal with sin and a fourth had died because of his sin with Bathsheba. David a man after God’s own heart still had to suffer the consequences for his sins of not acting. These same failures and sins of subsequent Kings of Israel and Judah to remove the places of false god worship led to them being defeated and taken into captivity. This should be a vivid reminder to all of us.
In Rev. 3:14-22, Jesus speaking to John regarding the church in Laodicea, He calls them lukewarm, wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked, then says in verse 18, “I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. 19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. 20 Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. 22 He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” God’s love is shown through His redeemed who reprove, and discipline for the purpose of seeking repentance, so that all will dwell with Him in eternity. This is the purpose and promise for righteous discipline that is subject to all. For this discipline to change us, we should be compelled to welcome and accept it openly and repent (Prov. 12:1, 13:18, 15:31-32, 29:1; Heb. 12-13).
English Standard Bible (ESV) quoted unless noted
 The HELPS Discovery Bible; Version: 1.0.2. pre12; (1 Tim. 19)
 Moody Bible Commentary; 2014; Moody (p. 1896)
 The HELPS Discovery Bible; Version: 1.0.2. pre12; (Elder)
 Moody Bible Commentary; 2014; Moody (pp. 462-463)