Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Timothy 5:19, ESV)
Recently, certain deeply flawed and overly broad interpretations of the above verse have come to my attention. At best, they enable ministerial misconduct. At worst, they are themselves literally criminal. This essay seeks first to set firmly in place some appropriate boundaries for the application of the verse. Second, it seeks to identify the proper biblical context of the verse. Third, it seeks to define exactly what constitutes a charge, and perhaps more importantly, what does not constitute a charge. Getting this verse right will preserve appropriate levels of pastoral accountability. Getting it wrong so erodes accountability that it amounts to something of a license for ministerial misconduct.
Criminally Broad Application
Suppose I am in a room with a fellow Pastor and a Deacon—just the three of us. The Pastor pulls out a gun and shoots the deacon, killing him. Conjuring up my inner Chuck Norris, I manage to wrestle the gun out of his hand and apprehend him. Now what? There is only one witness, and that witness is me. Does the Bible permit me to bring a charge against this elder if I am the lone witness? In such a case, there is surely not one Southern Baptist who would argue for the strictest, broadest and most literal interpretation of this verse. I am the witness to a felony and am morally obligated (though perhaps not legally obligated) to report it.
An even clearer case is the lone victim of sexual abuse by a clergyman. May this person press a charge even without a second or third witness? Because the accused is an elder, is he allowed a second offense in order for the victims to accumulate the appropriate number of firsthand witnesses? May it never be! In fact, because clergymen are mandatory reporters, in certain cases, it can actually be ILLEGAL for a person NOT to bring a charge against an elder despite the existence of a solitary witness only.
Clearly, the strictest and broadest interpretation of this verse cannot be extended to such felonies as murder and child abuse. You simply do not need two witnesses in order to press a charge. However, in the case of job fraud, a felony may or may not have been committed. An undocumented minister who lies about their citizenship in order to get a job has committed a felony. One wonders why two witnesses would be required for reporting this crime. We have already established that felonies may be reported by one.
Moving to less serious charges of job fraud by a U.S. citizen simply making false claims in the hiring process, claims which in some cases are not even criminal but merely involve civil proceedings and termination, solo reporting without two or three witnesses may actually be considered nothing more than a moral responsibility—as in the case of murder, rather than a legal responsibility—as in the case of child abuse. In any event, it is clearly evident that applying this verse in its broadest and most literal sense can be not only morally questionable but even in some cases legally prosecutable.
Doctrinally Related Context
Beginning with the first chapter and running throughout the entire letter, 1 Timothy is dealing with the subject of false teaching. Such concerns provide the backdrop for understanding the entire book. While the more immediate context of verse nineteen is the rightful honoring of the elders so as to protect them from the false charges of the congregation, it is worth noting that verse seventeen specifies that Paul especially has in mind here the “elders who labor in preaching and teaching.” We have already established in the previous section that the scope of this verse cannot be allowed to extend in its broadest sense. Moving then to the other end of the spectrum, one legitimate interpretation that significantly narrows the scope is that the kind of charge being addressed here relates to the work of the very elders who are “preaching and teaching.”
In light of the book’s overall interest in addressing false teachers, it is possible that the type of charge really being addressed here is a charge concerning the minister’s doctrine. Before a church member rises up and declares the Pastor a heretic, he or she should find one or two others with similar concerns about the content of the elder’s teaching. Perhaps they misunderstood what he said. Perhaps no one else feels the same way. This verse may be instructing us merely on the proper manner of addressing charges of false teaching within the church itself—in keeping with the primary emphasis and theme of 1 Timothy, which is preserving sound doctrine. Other matters—such as financial impropriety, sexual harassment, murder, manslaughter, various types of fraud, negligence and so on—may not really be in view at all.
Ask yourself the question: “If I was the ONLY one who saw my Pastor do _______, would I still call the authorities and bring a charge against him?” Personally, I can think of a significant number of items that could be legitimately placed in that blank, for which this requirement for two or three witnesses would simply not apply at all. However, if I heard him say something that sounded to me like modalism or a denial of substitutionary atonement or an awkward way of describing antinomianism, I would bring one or two people with me as I spoke with him about my concern for his doctrinal purity. Elders say a great many things. Being misunderstood is a common occupational hazard. Such misunderstandings should always be handled with the greatest of care.
Allegations or Conversations
Regardless of how broadly or narrowly one interprets the orbit of 1 Timothy 5:19, it is imperative that we clearly understand everything involved in the process of observing this verse, especially the critical distinction between a formal allegation on the one hand and an informal conversation on the other. Before exploring this critical distinction, it is helpful to review the step-by-step process a bit further:
- OFFENSE—the offender says or does something.
- RECOGNITION—the offended realizes a concern.
- CONVERSATION—the offended seeks witnesses.
- ALLEGATION—the offender is dually charged.
These final two stages of the process deserve further elaboration. Once a particular situation is deemed to be within the parameters of 1 Timothy 5:19, and once the offended experiences the RECOGNITION that they do indeed have a concern, they know that a charge is not to be admitted against the elder without two or three witnesses. How are they to find such witnesses? Should the witnesses be expected to divine in a dream or vision that the offended has a concern? Or is it not fully expected, if not absolutely required by the timeline intrinsic to the logic of the verse itself, that the offended will engage in CONVERSATION with others? These conversations do not represent formal charges, as will be clearly demonstrated below. Rather, they seek to determine if others also believe that a formal charge would be justified in this case.
In the conversation stage, believing that a charge against an offender would be completely warranted and legitimate if made is not at all the same thing as actually making the charge. The offended might talk with five people. Two might say, “I don’t believe this person is guilty of anything at all.” Three others might say, “I totally believe your instincts are correct about this, and that the person has done exactly what you say they have done.” At this stage in the process, even though people have opined as to their view of the guilt of the alleged offender, no one has charged the elder with anything at all—not the offended, not the three witnesses, not anybody.
In the allegation stage, the previous informal conversations in which the offended and the witnesses simply expressed their opinions of guilt or innocence, are finally and formally reduced to specific charges against a named individual in the company of that individual’s appropriate authority by two or three witnesses. When I say O.J. Simpson committed murder, I am expressing an opinion regarding his guilt. Opinions are like belly buttons–everybody has one. But it is simply untrue that I would be CHARGING Simpson with murder. Such an accusation would take place in a courtroom in front of the proper authorities.
Similarly, if I find myself merely in the conversation stage of this process and not standing before the appropriate authority of the accused, and I state that I fully believe the statements made by the offended are true, I may have given the offended another willing witness, but neither the offended nor I have charged anybody with anything at all. Furthermore, in every situation where a known person is specifically charged by someone else, the identity of that person is named. The first thing the police will ask when you report a crime is if you can identify the name and describe the appearance of the accused. On the other hand, in any sort of academic exercise where the accused is unnamed, where the offended is undecided about making a charge, and where the proper authority is nowhere to be found, you may have an interesting discussion about right and wrong, but you cannot charge anyone with charging anyone. When neither the offended nor the offender nor the court is named, you may have a case study, but you do not have a case. You may have conversations, but you do not have allegations. You may have opinions, but you do not have charges. And 1 Timothy 5:19 does not restrict opinions.
To conclude, in light of the incontrovertible illegality of certain extreme interpretations of 1 Timothy 5:19, it is unwise to interpret this verse so broadly that every manner of ministerial misconduct is immune from the prosecution of a solitary witness. We should humbly come to this verse, admitting the distinct possibility that its specific intent is actually so narrow as to include only the matter of false teaching comprising the theme of 1 Timothy itself. Regardless of your interpretation, it is simply not a charge at all for one to opine in the conversation stage that another person is guilty. Until the proper authority admits a formal allegation against a named individual, no one has been charged at all by anyone. Therefore, anyone charging an elder with charging an elder would be mistaken.