What 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
Public exposure and rebuke is mandatory, and not optional, once leadership sins are confirmed by multiple witnesses. Timothy is commanded to do it.
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?
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
- Abusive Church Leaders (Part 1) – My Personal Angst.
- Abusive Church Leaders (Part 2) – How Should We React?
- Abusive Church Leaders (Part 4) – Civil and Criminal Law
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.