Accusing an elder

In preparing for a study on gossip and slander, I was looking at 1 Timothy 5:19. I noticed a discrepancy in the translations.

KJV 1 Timothy 5:19 Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses.

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

ESV 1 Timothy 5:19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

NKJV 1 Timothy 5:19 Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.

The translation of the old King James is that accusations against elders must be done in a lawful way, in front of the courts of the church. Two or three witnesses hearkens back to Deuteronomy 17:6.

But the rest of the English translations listed show something else entirely. It teaches that you cannot even HEAR an accusation against an elder unless there are 2 or 3 witnesses to back it up.

What that effectively does is make it impossible to ever accuse an elder of much of anything.

The scandal of child sexual abuse among both Roman Catholic and Protestant clergy would be impossible to prosecute, for rarely does a predator prey in the presence of witnesses.

Abusers don’t abuse in front of eye-witnesses.

Is this really what this verse says? Which one is correct?

The preposition in question is Ἐπὶ with the genitive case. Prepositions are tricky things and take some care in translating. One has to know how language works. If it is to be interpreted “on the evidence of”, which three of the translations above have it, then it is the ONLY place in all of scripture where it has this meaning.

However, in Acts 25:10, Paul answers and says, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal…” using Ἐπὶ and the genitive case. It seems impossible in this legal context that he would mean “on the evidence of Caesar’s tribunal”.

“Before” – meaning, to be judged and found either guilty or innocent by Caesar seems to make perfect sense.

I would suggest that it has the same meaning in 1 Timothy 5:19.

Do not receive an accusation except in front of two or three witnesses that can do something about it.

My denomination has a book of church order, as do many others. (If your church does not, I would suggest finding another church). The form of complaint or charge against an elder or pastor is spelled out.

“Here is what he did. Here is what the scripture says. Here is how you go about it.”

Or, to put it in Paul’s terms in his day, “before two or three witnesses”. Get it before the proper council. And then (verse 20) if they are in sin rebuke them before all.

There are two deadly viruses that destroy a congregation of believers. First, when the leadership is made up of wolves preying upon the sheep. When the leadership devours and destroys, abuses their congregants, using the weaker ones to satisfy their own lusts. Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23 both warn of this, as well as many, many other places.

And the other virus is when a wolf is a member of the congregation who spreads malicious slander against the leadership through twisting words, making up allegations, and whispering in the dark corners.

Paul, using the language of the Old Testament law, gives practical counsel for a real situation. Suppose that you – Walter Q. Churchmember – are having tea with Mr. and Mrs. Churchpeople. Mrs. Churchpeople starts to tell you about horrible things that one of the elders or the pastor has done.

The accusation could be something like “I heard Mrs. Jones say that her cousin had heard from a reliable source that Mrs. Wilson saw Pastor having lunch with a young woman…”

Or it could be more serious. “My daughter says he hurt her.”

There are many different things you could do.

The worst thing to do is simply talk about it, rejoice secretly in the “hidden knowledge” and go tell the next person, in confidence, of course – adding your own juicy tidbits to make it sound just a little better.

THAT is what Paul is forbidding. Don’t hear it, don’t receive it at all – unless it is for the purpose of lawfully dealing with it, exposing it and bringing redemption or justice.

So instead, do this:

If it is a crime, report it to the ones who have the tools to investigate it and the sword to prosecute it (This would be the proper authorities in the civil government).

If it is not a crime but a violation of a vow – teaching that which is contrary to the creeds, for example – encourage the one telling you about it to bring a charge or complaint to the proper church judicatory.

If it is not a crime, but a falling into sin of some sort – adultery, drunkenness, etc – encourage the one speaking to bring a charge or complaint to the proper church judicatory.

What this will do is give them hope and a direction to take if their intentions are honorable, and encourage them to quit spreading juicy rumors if their intentions are not. This is what Paul is speaking of.

Of course, you cannot deal with every single possible scenario with one Bible verse. That isn’t what the Bible is for. We have a letter from an apostle to a real pastor struggling with real issues. You can’t take one verse and try to make it fit every situation. Paul is dealing with one kind of scenario – very common in the church – where one or two people delight in whispering secrets in the dark. Don’t have any part of that.


In this day where we have tolerated false churches, wolves in sheep’s clothing, and abusive church courts far too long, there may also be a good reason for someone to flee the church that they are in.

If, for example, there is a history of protecting wolves and running out sheep. Or the theology is wrong. Or the sacraments are not being administered properly – perhaps Christians are being excommunicated while abusive and reviling men and women are tolerated.

Paul has lots of other counsel in those situations, and I might write on it in another post. Fleeing a false church filled with those who refuse to follow Jesus is a good option. But my point here is this:

If you are an elder or a pastor, or represent an elder or pastor on a church judicatory, do not refuse to give aid to the widow or the fatherless (that is, those without power) because they lack two or three eyewitnesses. That isn’t what this verse is about.

When they have come to you for justice, give them justice. Follow your rules of order. It is what they came to you for. When they came to you, they followed Paul’s command to bring the accusation before two or three witnesses.

Paul is forbidding empty gossip and spreading stories without taking any measures at all to bring peace.

But if it is true, lawfully shout it from the housetops. Don’t let evil fester in the dark. Bring a charge, bring a complaint, report to the police, help a child get the help they need.

But please, do not hide behind this verse to keep predators in places where they can get at the sheep.


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13 responses to “Accusing an elder

  1. Jennifer Bales

    Well said

  2. Laura Wood

    When I challenged the moderator of the Northwest Georgia Presbytery reguarding leadership NOT following the Book of Church Order in a properly filed complaint he said, “Yes, that’s true but that’s really not how we function.” Broken-hearted, I fled the abusive court after 3 years of trying to be heard. The church court dismissed the entire issue due to being out of order, even when I repeatedly pleaded for help navigating the “rules.” I never heard from anyone is leadership again while my family and I continued to suffer. The harm is generational and continues to this day. Praying daily for the Spirit to sweep over His people enabling them to rise up and represent Him faithfully. Thank you for your voice, Sam!

    • I am so sorry, Laura. It is far too common, and always has been. Machen suffered similar indignities in the 30s before he was excommunicated for upholding true Christianity. Martin Luther was unjustly excommunicated and sentenced to death as was Hus, illegally – Luther escaped. Hus did not.
      I don’t know why God allows these things to happen, but I will hold on to his goodness, even through pain and loneliness.
      The books of church order are covenants that we all make with one another. When a presbytery refuses to abide by their covenants and refuse to repent from violations, they are “covenant breakers” and you no longer have obligations to them. Heartbreaking, and lonely, I know.
      But you are not alone.
      Remember, Jesus himself was condemned by an illegal process. And God will hold all of them accountable.
      When a church or a presbytery becomes covenant breakers, they are not far away from having their candlestick taken away as God has promised.

    • Anu Riley

      Just wanted to say how sorry I am as well for what you experienced.

      The irony is beyond words. Generally, Christians are supposed to be law abiding citizens and frown upon rebelliousness.

      But I’ve seen what you described before: “Let’s just make it up as we go along. The rules are more like suggestions.” Are you kidding me?

      In a crisis situation, I know it’s hard to think straight. To keep a clear mind and bring to mind what the “church order” says, or most importantly, what the Bible says.

      It is a surefire sign that something is VERY wrong when professing Christians do not bring in the ONE thing they need the most in a time of need or crisis: God Himself.

      I try to do this now. I try to hear and listen to not only what is being said, but what is NOT being said. Is the Lord being “brought into” the discussion, or is He being told to stay out of it?

      I was going to add in that when strong and powerful feelings are at work, it can be hard to focus on doing right and not feelings be the driving force.

      But I deleted that. That can be true, by the way. But I think this might be more accurate:

      It’s commonly thought that emotional persons tend to be incapable of logic. Again, that can be true—-but when it comes to what you described—-I suggest that it takes “no emotion” to plan and carry out evil.

      Dehumanizing others requires a lack of empathy. When Christ was advocating for the rights of others, He spoke of their pain. And demanded that they be shown justice:

      Example: this is a daughter of Abraham. She was bound by Satan for years. Why would you ever deny her the chance to be free from that, just because I didn’t heal on the “right day?” (Luke 13:10)

      Something within bad church leadership tells them that they are no rules (none that apply to them at least), no empathy for others (for themselves is another matter), and no real accountability (that would be applicable to them)

    • Bev Sterk

      bless your heart Laura, so sorry for what you experienced from the church… I think of people that have gone through something like this as “spiritual refugees”, and sadly a growing group of those done with the institutional church… know that God will not be mocked, and He will remove the abusive shepherds that exploit the flock for the shepherds benefit…

      in case you are interested, here’s the article on spiritual refugees…

  3. sue

    Yet another reason, i prefer to stick with the regular King James Bible.

  4. Anu Riley

    In case anyone missed it, here is Pastor’s translation for 1 Timothy 5:19:

    “Do not receive an accusation except in front of two or three witnesses that can do something about it.”

    Confronting evil is a serious thing. It’s hard to know who to trust, and who can AND will do something about it to help you.

    The ones who can do something about it should be trustworthy. They have to be. Otherwise they are not worthy of hearing about it.

    (This is often why a victim doesn’t confront their abuser. They are not to be trusted. This is why she needs leadership she can depend on)

    Pastor beautifully touched upon the evil of gossip. Harmless chit chat is one thing (say, Walmart now has a gluten free food aisle). It is NOT harmless to even suggest that a serious crime or Biblical sin may or may not have been committed. You might ruin lives with a complete lack of discretion AND empathy for whoever you are “casually” condemning.

    You can never fully trust a gossiper, and you can never fully trust what you hear via gossip.

    Perhaps in other generations, it was acceptable within church circles for everyone to find things out through the grapevine. Or, the “rumor mill” churned out the latest news, and that was normal for them.

    It was wrong then, and it’s still wrong now. Just because it was acceptable then does not mean it is was Biblical.

    Even IF (and that’s a big if), whatever circulated was truthful, it’s still wrong. No one should ever find out anything of real substance and value through gossip. And it’s not justifiable to say: you found out so who cares how you got the info?

    I can speak from personal experience that it DOES matter. We’ve become so desensitized that nothing but a powerful whoosh of the Holy Spirit will bring the dead bones back to life.

  5. Pingback: Accusing An Elder - The Aquila Report

  6. Sam I recommend you look at Tyndale’s translation as well. The updated-spelling version by Daniells. AND the version by Ruth Magnusson Davis (the NMB).

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