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When a leader errs, the rest of the leadership must discipline the offender. Given the situation that existed in Ephesus, it is easy to imagine that tempers would have run high. A purge mentality may have set in among those who had resisted the false teachers, leading them to make every effort to root out any elders even remotely associated with the opposition. Then again, pockets of adherents to the false teaching may have brought false accusations against the faithful leaders. In any case, while discipline of the leadership was not to be avoided, it was to be executed carefully and fairly.
In order to protect a person from false accusation, the law of Moses stipulated that the testimony of two or three witnesses was necessary to establish the matter (Deut 19:15). This became a part of the early church's procedure of discipline (Mt 18:16; 2 Cor 13:1). Paul's readers are probably already embroiled in controversy surrounding accused elders, and when he invokes the well-known regulation it is to protect the accused and instill some order into the process. Thus the protective device is not lacking; but in the church there continue to be strong-willed, self-seeking individuals who would use their influence and even underhanded means to shape others' opinions about one person or another. It falls to the leadership to ensure that as far as possible this injustice is avoided.
Discipline must be meted out to those elders whose sin is properly confirmed. But what constitutes sin? First, Paul uses the present tense, which implies that some elders are presently sinning, perhaps refusing to acknowledge their sin and repent.
Second, primarily in view in this context would be the sin of participating in the false teaching, such as Hymenaeus, Alexander (1:20) and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17) were charged with. This would have included actual teaching (1:3; 4:1-3; 6:3) and more generally promoting the strife and dissension that went with the movement (1:4-5; 6:4-5).
Of course, these rules would apply in any case in which an elder willfully transgressed the revealed will of God in matters of faith and practice. But the standard for determining sin must be Scripture, and areas of faith and practice in which opinions differ because the teaching of Scripture is not clear or is capable of more than one reasonable interpretation ought not to be so categorized. The purpose of this process was to deal with actual, identifiable sin.
This raises a serious question for us: Granted that divergent views on certain issues (separation from the world, eschatology, gifts of the Spirit, the role of women in the church) may ill-suit one to ministry in one church or denomination or another, ought such divergence to be met with disciplinary measures? Or was Martin Luther, whom the Catholic Church branded a heretic, right to attribute to the devil Zwingli's interpretation of the Lord's Supper (that Christ meant that the bread and the wine are only symbols of his body and blood) and label the Swiss reformer a fanatic? To bring this kind of debate into the context of these instructions about discipline is a dangerous thing. It is equally dangerous to fail to discipline Christians known to be involved in actual sin: sexual immorality, marital infidelity, dishonesty, spreading rumors, promulgating false doctrine.
Once sin is established, discipline by the leadership is to follow. The approved method is public rebuke. A look at Matthew 18:15-17 suggests that discipline of the elder here is comparatively harsh; but then the leader's sin affects the whole congregation. Yet it is not as harsh as it might be--a rebuke is not "excommunication" (compare 1:20), nor is it necessarily dismissal from office. Public rebuke is meant to produce repentance in the sinning elder (2 Tim 2:25). Another purpose (so that) is to remind the rest of the church's leadership, and indeed the whole congregation, of the gravity of sin and its consequences.
Finally, the matter must be judged and (if warranted) discipline must be administered with absolute impartiality. This is meant to ensure both a just evaluation and the consistent application of discipline in actual cases of sin. And this is no casual footnote to the guidelines Paul has already issued. First, he uses the strongest terms to bind Timothy and the church leadership to this principle: an apostolic command, with God, Christ Jesus and the elect angels acting as witnesses. An awareness of the presence of God in the believing community is a strong inducement to obedient Christian living (5:4; 6:13; 2 Tim 2:14; 4:1). It was precisely this awareness--of "the LORD your God, who is among you" (Deut 6:15)--that motivated the newborn community of Israel to obedience.
Second, the two phrases that command impartiality take up a dominant theme in Scripture. The judgment of God is said to be completely impartial (2 Chron 19:7; Rom 2:11; Eph 6:9; Col 3:25; Jas 2:1; 1 Pet 1:17; compare Sirach 35:12). So strong was this belief in God's impartiality that it became a requirement that God's people reflect it as they discharged leadership duties. This applied doubly to leaders of the community, such as the judges whom Jehoshaphat appointed (2 Chron 19:7), whose role was to represent God among the people. It is quite possible that Paul had this Old Testament story in mind, since the two verbs that appear in the Greek Old Testament, "keep" and "do," also occur here. In any case, impartiality is a requirement in the discharge of church leadership duties, because church leaders are God's representatives among the people.
The gravity of the situation addressed here certainly calls for immediate action. But Timothy is not to allow the pressures of the moment to force him to conclude that expediency alone is the objective. On the one hand, the reputations and feelings of people are at stake, and expediency, which might suggest the need to take shortcuts, often does not take them into account. On the other hand, sometimes expediency forces real problems to be swept under the carpet. The instructions envision a process designed to aid the church's leadership in making responsible decisions about discipline. The process emphasizes attention to the problem, justice and appropriate disciplinary measures. No matter how urgent the moment might seem, church unity and witness will be better served if the procedures outlined here are followed.