An old story tells about a train preparing to depart a large railroad station. Looking at the ticket of the first passenger, the conductor remarked, “Sir, I think you’re on the wrong train.” Surprised, the passenger replied, “But the ticket agent assured me this was my train.” After a polite argument, the conductor decided to settle the issue and check with the ticket agent. Before long, it became clear the conductor was on the wrong train and, as a result, also on the wrong track!
Let’s spring from that story to the apostle Paul’s words to Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:17-25. The passage gives several directives which, if obeyed, will keep the church’s elders and members on the right track. First, verse 18 acknowledges an elder / elders can “rule well” or as the NIV says, “direct the affairs of the church well.” The Greek word for “well” includes the idea of “excellence.” Elders can, and some elders do, faithfully discharge their sobering and demanding duties at a high level of excellence (something every Christian should strive to do – see Colossians 3:23 * Ephesians 6:6, etc.). Then in verse 19, the apostle acknowledges that legitimate “accusations” against an elder are in the realm of possibility, but he forbids thoughtless and baseless “accusations” against an elder “except from two or three witnesses.” Taking “pot shots” at an elder or the elders is forbidden by the Holy Spirit in this verse. That being said, Paul admits in vs 20 that elders can be guilty of error – that is, “sin.” Here, the Bible pulls no punches – “Those who are sinning” (that is, engaged in a clear and present sin) “rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” No specific protocol is revealed, but all should be done in love and sensitivity, of course (Rev.3:19). But like it or not, the Bible teaches that “rebuke” is in order when there is clear, ongoing, and / or un-repented of sin on the part of ANY member of the church, especially a leader! Public rebuke at that, “in the presence of all.” It is not clear if the “all” here is be the rest of the elders or the whole church (compare Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-17). Regardless, Paul asserts the express purpose for such a rebuke is “that the rest may also fear.” The Bible is never comfortable with a careless and fear-less posture toward sin in the church even if some elders and members sometimes are. So, in the short space of these nine verses in 1 Timothy 5:17-25, the apostle acknowledges that concerning the elders (and in reality all Christians) there can be excellence, but also accusations (bogus or bona-fide ones), and errors, that is sin.
So how do we stay on track? It will help if elders and members alike remember that all of us, including the elders, are flawed. Neither “E-L-D-E-R” or “C-H-R-I-S-T-I-A-N” means “perfect.” Beginning with the elders themselves, every member of the church needs to remember the elders are human. Trying to “fix” problems, mend hurt feelings, heal broken relationships, and help souls recover after sin has borne its bitter fruit in their lives is a Goliath-sized challenge. There is no guarantee the elders’ judgments in such matters will always be the best. Throw in the fact only rarely will the elders’ decisions please everybody, and it is easy to see why elders desperately need the patience and continual prayers of the congregations they seek to guide and guard. Excellence, accusations, errors and sins will all at one time or another show up at church. Being a shepherd is a tough job. Being a sheep is, too. But the church stays on track if elders and members love enough to bear with each other. How could we do less in the church Jesus shed His blood to redeem?