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.