A Commentary by John Stott
1 Timothy 5:19-20. b) Fairness.
Paul now turns from good pastors who deserve appreciation to bad ones who may deserve a rebuke. He addresses himself to what we call ‘grievance procedures’, for the situation envisaged is one in which a complaint or accusation is made to Timothy about an elder. Paul gives him two complementary directions, first when a presbyter is accused of something (19) and secondly when he is found guilty (20).
First *Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses* (19). That is, it must be substantiated by several people. In the Old Testament two or three witnesses were required to sustain a charge and secure a conviction (Dt.19:15) especially in regard to a capital charge (Dt.17:6). The same principle applies in New Testament times (E.g. 2 Cor.13:1; cf. Mt.18:16), in particular when Christian leaders are being accused. Indeed, two or three witnesses are to be required not only before an accusation is sustained, but before it is entertained at all.
This practical regulation is necessary for the protection of pastoral leaders, who are vulnerable to slander. ‘None are more exposed to slander and insults’, wrote Calvin, ‘than godly teachers.’ They may perform their duties correctly and conscientiously, yet ‘they never avoid a thousand criticisms’. 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.
Secondly, if an accusation against an elder is not only confirmed by two or three witnesses, but is ‘actually proved’ (JBP), and if (it is implied) the presbyters concerned, though admonished privately, refuse to repent but ‘persist in sin’ (as RSV renders the tense), then the sadness and the scandal of a public showdown cannot be avoided. The offenders *are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning* (20). Such a public rebuke, though an effective deterrent, must be the last resort, however. It is a safe rule that private sins should be dealt with privately, and only public sins publicly. It is neither right nor necessary to make what is private public, until all other possibilities have been exhausted (Mt.18:15ff.).
Verses 19 and 20, then, belong together. Timothy must neither listen to frivolous accusations nor refuse to take serious situations seriously. In the area of discipline he must be scrupulously fair, ‘cautious in accusing and bold in rebuking’, as the situation demands.
c) Impartiality (5:21).
Paul now issues a charge to Timothy couched in the most solemn possible terms. He backs up his own authority as an apostle (*I charge you*) with the combined authority of heaven, of those ‘who will judge the living and the dead’ (2 Tim.4:1). He speaks *in the sight of God*, who ‘does not show favouritism’ (Rom.2:11) and of *Christ Jesus*, ‘the future Judge of all earthly judges’, and of *the elect angels*, the faithful as opposed to the fallen.
And what is his charge? It is *to keep these instructions*, namely the principles governing the treatment of elders, which he has just outlined in verses 17-20, and to do so with absolute fairness and without any taint of injustice. Two negatives are emphasized. The first is *without partiality*, literally ‘apart from pre-judgment’ (*prokrima*), that is, without jumping to conclusions of either guilt or innocence. And the second negative injunction is *to do nothing out of favouritism* (21). In the work of a bishop, superintendent or other Christian leader one of the worst sins is favouritism, and one of the most vital virtues is impartiality. Yet church history has been stained by gross favouritism, as church dignitaries have granted special favours to their relatives (nepotism), to members of their own caste, class or tribe, to people they happen to like, irrespective of their gifts or godliness, or to those to whom for some reason or other (even bribery) they are indebted.
Tomorrow: 1 Timothy 5:22-23 d). Caution
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of 1 Timothy. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.