Is There a Different Process of Church Discipline for Elders?

Most people are aware of the process of church discipline outlined in Matthew 18 (vv. 15-18). In order to promote the purity of the church and the testimony of the gospel, Christians must ensure that the other members of their church are living in a way that reflects submission to Christ’s rule. If someone continues in serious and outward sin then they are to be put out of the church or removed from the membership by means of discipline.

But a question often arises, concerning elders. Is there a separate process for the discipline of elders outlined in 1 Timothy 5?

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:19–20)

Is this another process, distinct from Matthew 18 or the same process?

In 1 Timothy, we see instructions for the office of elder. In chapter 3 (vv. 1-7) we read of the qualifications for the office. In chapter 5 we learn of some other particulars that the church must consider when interacting with elders. In verses 17-18 we read the church should considering paying those who labor in preaching and teaching and in verse 22, we see that elder appointment should not be hasty but rather a careful and thorough process.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (1 Timothy 5:17–18)

Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, nor take part in the sins of others; keep yourself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)

Nestled between these verses is the verse I quoted earlier:

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:19–20)

It is followed by a sober warning: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality” (1 Timothy 5:21).

What is Paul saying in verses 19-20?

He is providing instruction for how to handle accusations of sin against the elders. He’s warning against accepting a charge against an elder unless supported by two or three witnesses.

I do not believe Paul is advocating a separate process for church discipline than already outlined by our Lord (Matthew 18:15ff). But I do believe he is “urging fair protection from capricious accusations.”[1] First Timothy 5 restates a biblical teaching from the law (Old Testament Scriptures). As one commentator observed,

It was of utmost importance to safeguard innocent men from false accusation, and as Jewish law required the agreement of two witnesses before a man might be called upon to answer a charge (cf. Deut. 19:15), so it must be in the church (cf. Matt. 18:16; 2 Cor. 13:1), especially when an elder is implicated. He must be protected against malicious intent; but if there are real grounds for accusation, then disciplinary action should be taken before the whole church (NIV has are to be rebuked publicly).[2]

In short, when elders are accused the apostle builds in an exhortation to remind the church “two or three witnesses are required not only before an accusation is sustained, but before it is entertained at all.”[3]

Why would Paul provide this exhortation?

It seems most natural here to understand this warning because pastoral leaders are so vulnerable to slander, attacks, and false charges. John Stott made this observation:

For the enemies of the gospel often take vengeance on the ministers of the gospel. A smear campaign can completely ruin a leader’s ministry. So Paul’s first word to Timothy is that he must never listen to gossip about leaders, or even to a serious accusation if it is made by only one person. Every charge must be endorsed by several responsible people before it is even listened to. Adherence to this biblical principle would have silenced many a malicious talebearer and saved many pastors from unjust criticism and unnecessary suffering.[4]

John Calvin voiced similar concerns when commenting on this verse:

. . . as soon as any charge is made against ministers of the Word, it is believed as surely and firmly as if it had been already proved. This happens not only because a higher standard of integrity is required from them, but because Satan makes most people, in fact nearly everyone, overcredulous so that without investigation, they eagerly condemn their pastors whose good name they ought to be defending.[5]

After commanding that pastors receive double honor, be fairly compensated for their work, and go through a detailed vetting process, God’s Word commands the church to be careful to protect the ministries and the ministers of the church. He does this not to command a blind loyalty that overlooks sin among the elders (verse 20 urges faithful discipline in the case of unrepentant sin), but rather an informed loyalty with eyes wide open to the persistent attacks levied against those in leadership. Why else could we conclude that the apostle takes a commandment that applies to all (the process of church discipline) and represents it in a way that seems peculiar to elders? He is underscoring the threat and the need for the church to exercise due care when receiving accusations while demonstrating the principle of double-honor to her elders.

In short, the process of church discipline is not different for elders, but the Bible underscores the need for churches to exercise great caution and care when hearing accusations.

[1] Thomas D. Lea and Hayne P. Griffin, 1, 2 Timothy, Titus, vol. 34, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1992), 156. niv New International Version, 1973, 1978, 1984.

[2] Donald Guthrie, Pastoral Epistles: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 14, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990), 120.

[3] John R. W. Stott, Guard the Truth: The Message of 1 Timothy & Titus, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 138.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Torrence and Torrence, eds., 1st and 2nd Timothy, Calvin’s Commentaries, Vol. 10, p. 263.