Abusive Church Leaders (Part 3) – Mandatory Public Warnings

PhoneyWhat if leader’s sin is public and brings reproach on the church, or is an abuse of his position of trust and power in the church? Then it must be addressed openly as a warning to all – no exceptions! 1 Timothy 5 teaches this.

Public Warning

1 Tim. 5:19-21 is part of a larger discourse on the duties and responsibilities of an elder. In it, Paul tells his protégé, Timothy:

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. Those who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favoritism. (NIV)

These verses, and their context, reveal several interesting points.

Outside Intervention

These instructions were directed at Timothy, whom Paul had sent on a trip to check on the health of various churches. Even though Timothy was not part of those local churches, he was still commanded – not requested, but commanded – by Paul to deal with sinful leaders within those churches.

From this, we see that leadership sins are not a private matter to be quietly handled within the hidden confines of a local church’s own leadership structure.

In my experience, it often is impossible to handle leadership sins totally within the local congregation. In most churches the pastors and other leaders are put on pedestals and have enough power and influence to thwart any meaningful and fair internal investigation into their own misconduct. When they realize that someone is about to confront their misconduct, they often launch a charm offensive built on lies, and use their charisma to manipulate and rally the church around them. As a result, if leadership sins are only internally addressed, there is a conflict of interest and real accountability is often thwarted.

Paul, therefore, wisely told Timothy – as an honest and impartial (although younger) man who was outside the local church leadership structure – to investigate and expose local leadership sins.

Mandatory Investigation and Judgment

Often, when confronted with allegations of leadership abuse, churches will seek to avoid any findings of guilt by insisting on mediation or that it be dealt with privately between the leader and those who he’s abused.

But that’s not what Scripture says to do. In fact, there is NO scriptural mandate for mediation when it comes to church leaders. Instead, Paul commands Timothy to hear the evidence and then reprimand any man – no exceptions! – who’s leadership sins have become significant enough to compel multiple witnesses to come forward.

Unlike 1 Tim. 5, mediation is a voluntary process where someone is brought in to help the parties discuss their differences and reach a compromise.

At first, I was puzzled by why Paul didn’t want mediation or private resolution. Isn’t peacemaking through voluntary discussion and mediation preferable to investigation and judgment? But as I have watched several of these cases unfold, I now see the wisdom of Paul’s approach.

Mediation and private resolution, and its results, are not binding on anyone. Where the local leadership itself is the problem, it typically is a farce.

Mediation and pleas for private resolution often are used by the church to wear down the victim and delay – if not outright avoid – accountability as the church manipulates the process. (For an excellent resource on common problems with mediation and related issues, see Responding to Clergy Misconduct by The FaithTrust Institute.)

Churches and abusive leaders who want to avoid meaningful and effective confession and repentance love the alternative of mediation and private resolution. It allows the wrongdoer to dictate the process, pick the mediator (or at least veto the mediator chosen by the victims) and set the rules – while continuing to publicly deny everything and thus continuing to traumatize the victim in the hope she will go away. It also drives up the costs by forcing the victim to pay for a mediator who, in reality, is powerless to act – thus allowing the church to fight a war of attrition that further abuses the victim.

Furthermore, mediation is not focused on determining who’s right and who’s wrong. It works, in my experience, between equals who are seeking help to resolve straightforward disagreements, like we see in Matt. 18 (for settling personal disputes).  But for someone struggling with an abuse of authority and trust, and where there has been unequal power, mediation and forcing them to keep it private can feel like even more abuse – especially if the abuser is using the process to deny any wrong, shift blame and stall while rallying the church.

The fact that there are no enforceable procedures or standards in mediation also makes it inappropriate where the focus needs to be on wrongdoing and the goal is justice.

Instead of such a nebulous process with such a nebulous outcome, Paul tells Timothy to deal with the problem, take evidence, stand between the victim and the abusive leader, and render judgment.

Frankly, it really didn’t seem to matter to Paul if the local church leaders wanted Timothy’s intervention or not. In the face of alleged leadership sins, Timothy was commanded (this is clear in the original Greek text) to intervene if multiple witnesses stepped forward – even if the local church and its leadership opposed it.

Unfortunately, few churches today would ever allow that happen.

Zero Tolerance

If the outside investigator confirms the sin through two or three witnesses, Paul says the local leader must be publicly reprimanded. Scripturally, therefore we must have a “zero tolerance policy” when it comes to leaders who abuse their positions of trust and power.

No Benefit of the Doubt

Paul also commands Timothy to show no deference or favoritism toward an offending leader where the sin has been confirmed by two or three witnesses.

This is very important, because Christians tend to give the benefit of the doubt to their church leaders, and to seek any excuse to discount or discredit an accuser. Accusations against a beloved pastor or other leader make us very, very uncomfortable and defensive because, after all, we trusted the man – and what does that say about us?

In addition, such accusations often strike at the bottom line financial health of the church – especially if the church is built around the offending leader and his charisma. Thus, rather than reaching out to the victim with love, care and support, and honestly confronting any abuse, the entire church structure typically circles the wagons around the abuser and shuns the victim, while always giving the benefit of the doubt to the abuser.

No Partiality

Given the affection most congregations feel for their leaders, and the financial dynamics, it is all the more important to bring in an outside investigator who takes it upon himself, whether the church wants it or not, to evaluate the evidence and render judgment.

This is a very, very important point. Most people view sexual predators as shadowy, fringe figures who wear trench coats and lurk in dark alleys. But that is NOT the case.

I’m a pastoring elder who has counseled literally hundreds of sex abuse victims, and around twenty sex offenders, as well as an attorney who’s helped investigate and bring legal actions against predatory church leaders.

The reality, in almost all cases, is that sexual predators are the most charming, polished, trusted men among us. In fact, they need to be charming, polished and trusted to succeed in exploiting victims and getting way with it time and time again.

Get the distorted vision of the creepy-looking offender out of your mind. Rather, realize that it is the most trusted, influential men who have the ability and the power to suck others into their web of exploitation and abuse.

As Paul says, don’t treat them with any deference when they use their position of trust and authority to sin!

Mandatory Reprimand

Public exposure and rebuke is mandatory, and not optional, once leadership sins are confirmed by multiple witnesses. Timothy is commanded to do it.

Public Exposure

If handled Biblically, one way or another leadership abuses must go public: Either the sinning leader will openly confess and repent by bringing the matter into the open and accepting appropriate sanctions, or he is to be exposed by an outside investigator and adjudicator through public judgment and justice.

But isn’t that the way God always works when confronting sin? The sinner is confronted with only two simple choices: confess and repent, or face judgment and justice.

Why do we seek to impose any other standard when addressing leadership sins, where the consequences of the sin are far reaching and potentially very damaging to others?

No Avoidance 

Paul does not provide any escape from the requirement of a public reprimand against a leader who abuses his position in the church, even if there’s been confession and repentance. If the sin is confirmed after deteriorating to the point where witnesses had to come forward to deal with it, Paul says it must be made public so others realize – and are warned – that abuses of power and position in the church will not be tolerated.

In my experience, this is not as harsh as it might seem. Where there is true confession and repentance, an abusive church leader will want public accountability and full restitution for his victims.

A truly repentant church leader knows that only when his sins are openly addressed, according to 1 Tim. 5, can others be protected (studies show, and my experience confirms, that exploitive church leaders are almost always serial predators with multiple victims).

Such an abuser also knows that only through public repentance can his victims find restoration, healing and closure from his abuse and from the scorn they likely faced within the church.

What If They Are Still Recalcitrant?

So what, then, can be done when a church or its leadership refuses to confess and repent, or to respond to a public reprimand as per 1 Tim. 5, and there is the likelihood that the pattern of abuse will continue and more innocent people will be hurt?

Is it ever appropriate to seek help from secular authorities, including investigation, litigation or criminal sanctions, to deal with pastoral abuses? After all, doesn’t 1 Cor. 6 say we should not sue another brother?

I’ll take that up next, in Part 4 of this series.

~ Jim Wright


Related articles

For an example of how a church properly responded to allegations of pastoral abuse, with open confession and repentance, check out Vienna Presbyterian Church Seeks Forgiveness, Redemption in Wake of Abuse Scandal, which was published as a front page story in the April 2, 2011, edition of the Washington Post. USA Today did an excellent follow up article.

20 responses

  1. Mandatory investigation and judgment, zero tolerance, no benefit of the doubt, mandatory reprimand, public exposure, no avoidance …

    Awesome article Jim.

    On behalf of victims of clergy sexual abuse everywhere, especially those with no voice. Thank you!


  2. I have been reading these and sobbing. Thank you. I am going to send your link to my Christian therapist. I think he would like the information. He has strong morals and ethics.

    Broken in Ga.


  3. I like this website, since we don’t have any protocol in our Church, I like reading it. Please publish some more info. Thank you and God Bless.


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  9. Jim, as a Pastor I want to thank you for doing the hard work and thinking and writing so clearly. I pray I never fall into this type of sin, but if I do these are the steps I know should be taken.


  10. I just read the Washington Post story. It makes me think the whole Pastoral system of church governance is sick! A twisted form of modern church tradition that has replaced the New Testament role of multiple elders in the life of the church. And yet folks continue on as if there isn’t even a problem with such a role where one man, the Head Pastor, has often become the life of the church with the result that the failures of the one man, when they happen, are hardly ever addressed in a godly manner until it is too late.



  11. Thanks for this insights. I can now understand better why mediation did not help in my case (which was an injustice, a kind of abuse, although not a sexual one). During those two years I often thought:

    * Why is it so difficult for leaders to say to another leader “you did wrong”?
    * Why they cannot see the evidences the mediation brought to light?
    * Why they let the church people think, it must have been a 50/50 blame?

    Now I am asking: How can church people find help to address any kind of real injustice when leaders are not able or willing to raise and investigate the issue? In such a case I could only see this solution: to go away and to let them bear the consequences of covered sin.


    • Why does all this happen?

      The longer I live the more convinced I become that there are many within the visible church that the Lord will say “I never knew you!” to.

      Not that Christians can’t sin but rather that the degree, severity, lack of humility, and overall resistance to the things of God within the visible church are more indicative of an organization filled with people living for themselves as religious unbelievers than a group of people living by true all consuming faith in Jesus as Lord.


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  13. Jim, please keep speaking the truth like this… may God amplify your voice and give you and Marianne increased strength, stamina, and boldness.

    This week on Facebook I saw an unrelated photo of an eagle swooping down upon a predator as it was about to capture its prey. It was a coyote and the eagle just snatched that coyote up in the air as if it were a no heavier than a mouse.

    The picture struck me hard. For I’ve been wounded, on the ground bleeding… and begged for mercy, begged for help… and there was no one to lift the predator off of me… a pastor. Everything you described in this article is exactly how it happens. You speak truth.

    As I meditated on this photo, this eagle… I thought to myself, we are supposed to be eagles (Isaiah 40). The process you describe above, of confronting and demanding public exposure seems to me, to be very much like this eagle grabbing the predator off the prey. I realize it’s not an exact parallel to the Biblical process…. but for some reason the picture just speaks to me of our position as Eagles in the spiritual realm.

    Isaiah 40:28-31

    New International Version (NIV)

    28 Do you not know?
    Have you not heard?
    The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
    He will not grow tired or weary,
    and his understanding no one can fathom.
    29 He gives strength to the weary
    and increases the power of the weak.
    30 Even youths grow tired and weary,
    and young men stumble and fall;
    31 but those who hope in the Lord
    will renew their strength.
    They will soar on wings like eagles;
    they will run and not grow weary,
    they will walk and not be faint.

    So I pray you and Marianne will soar as eagles, not growing weary, not fainting… but walking and running with strength and boldness. Please keep speaking like this and I hope many others will join you. Thanks 🙂


  14. Paul didn’t quite nail it. He essentially tells Timothy to ignore accusations by only one person. In your exegesis you remind us of the message: “If the outside investigator confirms the sin through two or three witnesses, Paul says the local leader must be publicly reprimanded.” This sounds fairer to us- that someone’s reputation would not be ruined solely based on one person’s testimony- but that’s not what Paul said. And I would therefore disagree with Paul and claim that even if only one person comes forward, and even if that one is a child- especially if that one is a child- he or she must be taken seriously and the allegations looked into. Because if I were abused by an elder and spoke up, I would then think that it makes perfect sense to convict someone solely based on one person’s word.


    • I’m not sure what you are referring to. I never in the blog or anywhere else say that one person coming forward is enough.

      It takes multiple witnesses – maybe not to the same narrow act, but to the same common problem witnessed in various ways by those who then come forward.


  15. That’s exactly my point- you don’t, and neither does Paul. I am saying that both you and Paul are wrong on this. My position is that It should only take one accuser to prompt an investigation, especially if that one is a child.

    Saying a church leader is wrong should not shock anyone; you said yourself that you have had to deal with pastors who are guilty of wrongdoing. Shrouding the pastor in a mantel of infallibility is a no-no. That would extend to you, presumably. By logical extension, Paul can also be wrong.

    The principle of fairness Paul incorporated was not incorrect, but based on what we know two thousand years later about child sexual abuse, we must weigh those scales a little differently. That means one parishioner- only one, any one- can get the ball rolling.


    • Thanks. I think I now understand your original point. I also think we likely agree on the proper process and end result, but I have a broad view of “two or three witnesses” so I don’t disagree with “Paul” (as you put it).

      Where a child or anyone alleges abuse, I AM NOT suggesting it only can be validated if others directly witnessed the act. Rather, it can be validated by related evidence offered by others.

      That can be the parents confirming the acting out and other common symptoms of an abused child. It can be a doctor or forensic investigator stating physical evidence of abuse. It can be those who watched the abuser exhibiting improper interest or taking the victim into situations where they could have isolated contact. It can be those who heard the abuser saying things that are pieces of the puzzle that help complete the whole picture.

      So again, I have a broad application of who a “witness” may be and what is relevant for them to say.

      There is always an element of judgement whenever a church or outside investigator looks at the totality of the situation and renders a determination – and when justified, a required public rebuke and warning to all.


    • I agree with even the accusation against an elder (Pastors today are not necessarily biblical elders – in fact there is no such thing as a Pastor biblically believe it or not!) not being something that one runs with UNLESS there are two or three witnesses that attest to the veracity of that accusation. Never mind an actual act of sin.

      I think to run with the accusation of a child is a bit much if there is no other evidence to corroborate that accusation of a child (evidence of the kind Jim stated). The US has gone all crazy paranoid when it comes to child abuse and people all over run all over the place with this or that child’s accusation when they should not.

      If we do otherwise we will end up devouring each other as brothers and sisters in Christ under an avalanche of suspicion, doubt, and accusation with everyone running around trying to find out if this or that accusation is true. God will out the sinner. We must be watchful and patient to let Him work out the witnesses without going on a witch hunt thinking the best in the absence of clear corroboration from more than one witness.



  16. I was so busy patting myself on the back for spelling infallibility right, I got mantle wrong! Thank you for your responses, your excellent blog, and your attention to this important issue. With all due respect, I do not think that you have addressed my point. I am not trying to be a “last-word” troll, but at the risk of coming across like one, here is what I am saying.

    Paul was coaching- commanding- Timothy on how to deal with thorny issues with the objective of building strong churches. (The “goals” being salvation, glory to God, etc.) When Jesus walked among them, the answer to the question of who had the authority was abundantly clear- Jesus. At that time (and now) people were used to putting all their eggs (and coins) in the basket of the church leaders. Christ’s message was that those same church leaders were equal in the Lord’s eyes to the lowest beggar in the street outside. We’re all sinners. So who’s in charge?

    This new church was being built from the ground up. Ordinary people were being called not just to serve, but sometimes to serve by leading. These leaders weren’t accountable to the Emporer, they were accountable to the Living God that dwelt within… and their congregation. Therefore every member of the church had a responsibility to hold those leaders to account as to their conduct. So far so good.

    There were a lot of principles to weigh and issues to consider. The overall point Paul (and you) were making I agree with- church leaders are to be accountable. That’s great. No problem. The nit-picky point I was making is that Paul had said that EVEN TO BE ENTERTAINED an accusation had to have two or three witnesses. (Sorry for the caps, no italics feature here.) So that’s my problem with Paul here. My disagreement with you is that you sidestepped this important point by talking about Paul’s the “two or three witnesses” recommendation as something that kicked in later: “If the outside investigator confirms the sin through two or three witnesses, Paul says the local leader must be publicly reprimanded.” Paul didn’t say to bring in an investigator AND THEN look for to or three witnesses, Paul said not to bother with an investigator UNLESS there are two or three witnesses.


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