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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28 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).

  7. anon

    I am about to write a letter that I am told will be read to the presbytery in the region I live in, per my request, about a spiritually abusive situation. I am told by the moderator: “In order to help us facilitate your report, you must offer clear and substantiated facts that can be corroborated by a third party. This is in accordance with 1 Timothy 5:19, where Paul instructed elders not to admit a charge against a fellow elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Do you think this is an attempt to further shut down my voice from being heard, or do you think they truly believe if someone steals from the treasury, for example, no one is allowed to tell them unless there was more than one witness in the room? This is a very prominent denomination. Do most denominations believe the way they do? I agree with your quote “Abusers don’t abuse in front of eye-witnesses.”

    • I would, under no circumstances, send that letter.
      I deleted your name, because I believe it would only hurt your cause.
      The fact that this is what you were advised means that they are gearing up to do nothing, and eventually find enough documentation to get rid of you. I am so sorry. This is not what shepherds do. This is what lawyers for the other party do.
      I would have nothing to do with it.
      If you would like to PM me, you can get me at

  8. Bev Sterk

    dear anon! bless your heart… so sorry for what you have experienced…

    here is a document I submitted to the denom (Reformed tradition) I’m in as I became increasingly aware of abuses of power going on by leadership… I went after the patterns instead of specifics (similar to the analogy of going up stream to see what the problem is that is causing people to end up in the stream and putting them in danger, needing to be rescued)… I was also directed by leaders to state specifics (that would have given the leaders an excuse to put the discussion into exec session and barred transparency in the discussion on the floor), but did not feel led to disclose those w/ one exception, even though I had permission of the victims to share several situations – the situations were all volatile…

    it’s kind of an dense and intense document, but maybe it will help you in what you are addressing in your denom…

    He is disciplining the institutional Church and consuming the dross and refining the gold, but it is a painful process.. Hebrews 12: 3-14 – keep pursuing holiness…

    stay strong in the Lord and in His mighty power…

  9. Bev Sterk

    sadly, I have experienced and witnessed due process getting corrupted and it’s far too common a response when the leadership is threatened in some way! So I concur with Sam to be super careful and discerning about the process! I heard over and over “trust the process”… sadly, these were EMPTY WORDS!

    here’s an excerpt related to Sam’s response to you: (from top of page 288; 7th page of link)
    The response of the church leadership must be safe. It’s difficult for
    “spiritual refugees” (15) to trust church leadership because the betrayal of
    the sacred trust was significant, and a place of trust turned into a place of
    hurt and pain. Violations of the due process increase the “spiritual refugees’” burden instead of relieving it. Mistakes in the process further destroy
    the trust, increasing the harm and damage done, and therefore hindering the
    healing process, causing the church to fail in her God-given calling to protect
    and minister to the oppressed EOQ

    • Anon

      “Trust the process” is such a horrible, dangerous, awful thing that is repeated to so many, over and over, until it backs them off of any self-preservation and healthy wariness.

      I don’t know that I can recall a single time in my life when I didn’t deeply regret doing just that. It’s always resulted in further harm to me. Always.

      It should be, “DON’T trust the process. Good for you for not trusting the process!”

      • Anu Riley

        I recall a situation I was in that horribly backfired when I attempted to trust those that were supposedly in charge.

        There wasn’t a mantra of “trust the process” but it was more along the lines of “trust the chain of command, and trust those IN command.”

        I remember praying and asking the Lord to defend me in my situation. At the same time, I trusted Him to use the ones in charge to do just that. Those in charge DO have authority. They DO have power, but the power of Christ in them would mandate them to use it responsibly.

        I was never sure how much of my “voice” to give them; to speak for the oppressed (me), which is how Christ would have spoken. How much do I trust that those that claim to be speaking in His power, are not just using His powerful name in order to increase their own power?

        I was berated by a person in full view of those in charge, so it mattered not that even though ““Abusers don’t abuse in front of eye-witnesses,” consider that even IF that rare instance occurs, it is likely to make little to no difference.

        Maybe I put my trust in man, not in the Lord, so I have no one but myself to blame?

        Perhaps. We CAN be guilty of trusting others in an unhealthy, non Biblical way—the fear of man only brings a snare, the Word says. Perhaps I should have seen that their “process” was more political than pastoral.

        But what was I supposed to do? Stage a “coup” and taken over the current leadership, and started doing things the “right” way? That’s not quite the Biblical way, IMO.

        I had very few options on the table. If I resisted (which I tried), the hammer came down even harder. If I relented (which I eventually did), the hammer didn’t come down AS hard, but the results were still disastrous. I lost nearly everything, and I almost lost my faith in Him for good.

        I was never vindicated and barely validated. I DID and still care, but I cared about something more: I backslid badly in Him, to the point where I looked in the mirror and did not see a born again child of God.

        When He says He will leave the 99 righteous and look for ONE lost sheep, most of us think they are one of the 99. Well, when you ARE that one lost sheep, and He DOES come looking for you—-now you know. Now you see. And now you believe.

        He won’t leave you behind, He won’t let you go and He won’t stop until He finds you again, carries you on His shoulders, and tells you that you were worth the time and trouble.

        The ones that said that you weren’t worth it will never know this joy.

      • Z

        Dear Anu,
        I am beyond elated to hear the blessed ending of your horrible story. Precious Jesus!! I’m so glad that when you look in the mirror NOW you see the one lost sheep that👆🏽HE deemed MORE than valued and worthy of His seeking and finding! Carrying you on His Holy shoulders and close to His heart filled with love for you. The ONLY one Whose attention and love we truly NEED. ♥️🙏🏽

      • Anu Riley

        Thanks so much for the kind words.

        I’m in a pretty difficult place in present day, but ironically looking back at that bittersweet time in my life is a bit encouraging. He’s never let me down, left me when I was down, and left me to drown. The Hands that hold the world are holding my heart.

        That last line courtesy of Phil Wickham song called “Safe”

  10. Sam,

    Thank you for this.

    I divorced my abusive husband against the advice of my SBC pastors. After leaving the church, I was excommunicated for gossip and slander after not attending the church for a year.

    I sent an email to the pastor asking for the details (who, what, when, etc.) of my alleged slander or gossip, and he replied, “If you would like to know the details, you are welcome to meet with the pastors.”

    I asked, “Shouldn’t that have happened before publicly shaming me in front of hundreds of people?”

    There was no reply.

    While justice would be nice, I fear for the women still left in abusive marriages who watched what happened to me. I welcome insight on any next steps, if any.

    • While it would be nice for you to reconcile and be vindicated, all outward indications are that this is not the Lord’s will at this time. The SBC is simply not interested in justice, but in protecting their own.
      This isn’t a reflection on you. The faithful have ALWAYS been subject to reproach, and being “cast out of the synagogue” for threatening the power base. They crucified Christ for threatening “their place and their nation” which is what we are seeing today.
      In SBC polity, there is no recourse and no way to appeal, other than go right back to those who abused you. So rejoice that you are now free from them.
      If there is a local congregation – faithful, obedient to Christ, compassionate – join with them, but don’t push yourself on it. Take your time to get to know them before committing.
      As for the women still left in abusive marriages, your example to them is a great testimony. Hold to the free and full salvation and deliverance provided by Christ, live joyfully in the midst of sorrow and pain, and walk in love and your life will shine like a beacon. But first you have to remove yourself from the trauma.
      Shake the dust off of your feet, hold to the love of Christ which passes understanding, and live your life.
      First, give yourself a break and time to heal. Then the Lord will open the doors for you to help lead others to freedom.

      And I am so, so sorry for what has happened to you. It should not have happened, but it still does. Over and over again.

      • SBC survivior

        Thank you for your kind response.

        I do not know if I believe in God, anymore. I can not find Him under any rock. If He is close to the broken-hearted, then either I’m not broken-hearted enough or He is not close.

        Divorce only moved the abuse from my home onto the public ball field. At 2.5 years post-divorce, my ex continues to file hundreds of pages of motions with photoshopped evidence, false child abuse reports (all unsubstantiated), and for his latest trick, a $10,000 custody evaluation. When professionals figure it out, he goes after their credentials and takes legal action using falsified evidence.

        I keep looking for God or one of His people, but I have not found them yet. The worst part about the abuse is not the abuse, it’s the loneliness of walking around town after your arms and legs were sawed off by the police and people suggesting I should report that.

      • I am so, so sorry.
        The cruelty of the things that people do moves me to tears.
        God is found on the cross, because he found no justice and no equity. (Isaiah 59)
        Sometimes all we can do is sit in the ashes and wait.
        I’ll wait and pray with you, if you want me to.
        You can reach me at if you want to.

      • Death and misery don’t ever have the last word.

  11. ACA

    Hi Sam,
    I realize this is an old post, but it was brought to my attention by a friend, and I thought it was an important enough issue to continue discussion. The situations you mention are very, very serious and are often handled in an unbiblical way. However, I don’t think the solution is in the nature of επι in 1 Tim 5:19. I think it’s in a Biblical theology of leadership and shepherding, divine judgment, and a reassessment of our church orders.

    Regarding επι, in 1 Tim 5:19, the preposition has to do with the charges, not the position of the defendant. In Acts 25:10, it is Paul who is επι του βηματος, before the judgment. In 1 Tim 5:19, it is hard to see how the elder could be the one who is said to be επι δυο η τριων μαρτυρων. This is particularly true considering the fact that NA28 marks Deuteromony 19:15 as the source of the quote. It reads:

    Deuteronomy 19:15 (ESV)
    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.

    But this is also where the issue begins to sort itself out.

    BDAG lists “on the basis of” as a meaning for επι under the 8th heading, p365, listing numerous passages in addition to 1 Tim 5:19, including Matthew 18:16. There, Jesus quotes the same text, Deuteronomy 19:15, but here’s what he says:

    Matthew 18:16 (ESV)
    16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

    So your position is partially warranted, but not because translators got it wrong. I think that it’s interpreters of those translations that have misunderstood (sadly, yourself included).

    A witness need not be a human who saw the specific crime committed. A witness is one whose testimony is for or against the vindication of a claimant. Thus, two or three witnesses against an elder need not be eyewitnesses of the crime itself. They may be witnesses of some related matter which circumstantially bolsters the claim, including witnesses to the charge itself. The fact that this same OT text is quoted by Jesus here and twice by Paul (see 2 Cor 13:1), and all in somewhat different circumstances, points to the fact that “upon the mouth of two or three witnesses” was used not as narrowly as possible, but with latitude according to the situation.

    A biblical theology of leadership and shepherding will help us – if we accept what the LORD has said about wicked shepherds, and their final end, and if we take seriously the requirement that leaders be gentle and above reproach, then we will take seriously every charge of serious weight, and rather than refusing to “hear” such an accusation if only one comes forward, we will then look to see if witnesses (of appropriate kinds) are forthcoming. You are right that sexual predators do not often offend in the presence of many witnesses. However, almost every sexual predator who is caught is caught on the basis of supplementary evidence (“witnesses”) which, like the blood of Abel, testify against them.

    I agree with you that every case of sexual assault or abuse of any kind should be reported immediately to law enforcement, and spiritual abuse which is not criminal should be treated as the kind of wicked shepherding condemned by the LORD, and absolutely disqualifying for church leadership.

  12. Pingback: Two Can Resist Him: Matthew 18 and the Power of Two

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