It’s a rare week now when we do not learn of some new charge against a pastor. The world has gotten smaller than ever and information moves at a greater pace than at any other point in history. In such a world, news travels fast and furious. Especially bad news. And we do love our bad news, don’t we? In such a world, heroes rise and fall in hours or even moments. And we do love to raise up and tear down, don’t we?
The Bible gives us clear guidance when it comes to bad news about pastors. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs Timothy—and through him the church of all times at all ages—how to deal with accusations against them. “Do not admit a charge against an elder,” he says, “except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (9).
There are a couple of things we ought to notice here. The first is that in some ways, elders are held to the same standard as any other believer. The Old Testament burden of proof for accusations was two or three witnesses. Philip Ryken summarizes in this way: “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.” This level of proof stretches also into the New Testament. Jesus himself maintained this standard in his instruction about confronting sin in another believer (see Matthew 18:15-20).
The second thing we need to see is that in one way elders are given a slightly different standard than other believers in cases of accusations. The instruction for every Christian indicates that charges are established (or proven) on the evidence of two or three witnesses, whereas for elders the charges may not even be admitted (or considered) except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. It is clear: the testimony of a single witness cannot be the determining factor in charging a pastor with wrongdoing.
Why this difference? Presumably, because pastors are a special object of satanic attack. In general, much more damage can be done to a church by scandal involving a pastor than scandal involving a member. In general, the path to doing the greatest harm to a church is the path that leads through the leaders. Therefore, pastors need special protection. Calvin takes a pessimistic but not entirely unrealistic position when he says this: “… 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.”
So what path do we follow if we have a grievance against a pastor or believe we have witnessed him sinning in a grievous way? We follow the guidance of Matthew 18 by going to him on our own, to confront his sin and call him to repent. (Though if there has been criminal wrongdoing we ought to follow the laws of our lands which may involve immediately reporting him to the appropriate authorities.) If after that meeting we are still convinced that he has sinned and remains unrepentant, we take one or two others with us and confront him a second time. It is only now that we have gathered the necessary two or three witnesses that we are to make that sin known to the other leaders in the church. It is only now that those leaders should be willing to hear and evaluate the accusations.
From this little passage in Paul’s letter we come to two clear conclusions. First, as long as the church inhabits this sinful world, we must expect to encounter pastors who violate trust, prove their lack of godly character, and invalidate their ministry. When we have the evidence of two or three witnesses, we must carefully evaluate accusations and, if they are sustained, to move boldly to remove these men from their positions. To do that in a biblical manner, we simply need to follow the instruction in the very next verse: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Second, as long as the church inhabits this sinful world, we must also expect to encounter pastors who love their people, prove their godly character, carry out their ministry, and yet who are unfairly charged with the most egregious offenses. Until those accusations come from multiple witnesses, we must refuse to hear them and move boldly to affirm these men in their positions.
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