When Paul wrote his first epistle to his faithful protege and apostolic delegate, Timothy, he had much to instruct Timothy on who not only qualifies to be a pastor (1 Tim. 3:1-8), but how they are to be treated while holding such a sacred office. We find this specified in 1 Timothy 5:17-21. Nestled within this passage is a divine imperative which, I dare say, is little known to the vast majority of professing Christians (at least those I’ve known for thirty years, and especially those I have served as pastor). It’s frankly one of those texts that would be skimmed over. It’s 1 Timothy 5:19, where Paul directs Timothy as it concerns the pastoral leadership: “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
The “charge” which Paul is referring to is a public charge in the form of an accusation. And the command which the apostle is setting forth is that no public accusation brought against a pastor or elder should ever be entertained, unless it can be corroborated on the “evidence” of two or three witnesses. Note the qualifiers. There must be evidence, not hearsay or conjecture or fabrication. You have to have facts. This is another way of repeating the ninth commandment, but in application to how pastors must be treated in the local church: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Exod. 20:16). But in addition to facts, there must be witnesses who can give credibility to the charge. This mandate is simply an echo of Old Testament law in Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be established.” The point in this principle is that more than one person is required to sustain a charge and secure a conviction. Thus, when it comes to pastors, there cannot be any indictment brought against them unless there are others in the church who can affirm the charge that is made. However, even the witnesses themselves must have proof which backs up the allegation! It is possible to round up so-called “witnesses” to affirm a charge but without the concrete verification of what’s being said. Just recall how our Lord Himself was falsely accused by more than one witness (see Matt. 26:59-61).
But one might ask in the light of 1 Timothy 5:19 – Why? Why would pastors be given by God what appears to be a special hedge of protection like this? Well, for one thing, there’s nothing unique about this mandate for pastors than what God has always laid down for any of His people when it comes to allegations made against them. Remember Deuteronomy 19:15. And yet, while this imperative holds true for all in the church, it is important to recognize why the Holy Spirit would inspire Paul to set this hedge up in particular for His undershepherds. It’s as if 1 Timothy 5:19 is taking a highlight marker and making it clear for a local church, that when it comes to how their pastors are treated, special care must be given that their reputations are not mercilessly assaulted and destroyed due to factious reports.
John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote and expounded much on the instruction of 1 Timothy 5:19. I have personally found both his understanding and application insightful, encouraging, and sobering. In his commentary on this passage, he said: “[1 Timothy 5:19] is a necessary remedy against the malice of men; for none are more liable to slanders and calumnies than godly teachers. Not only does it arise from the difficulty of their office, that sometimes they either sink under it, or stagger, or halt, or blunder, in consequence of which wicked men seize many occasions for finding fault with them; but there is this additional vexation, that, although they perform their duty correctly…they never escape a thousand censures.”
But what is ultimately behind such “censures” against the man of God? Let’s consider further from Calvin. Here, he pulls back the veil, as it were, to help us see who and what is at the bottom of this and what is really going on: “Who is behind all this if not Satan, who cooks up every kind of mischief in his shop? The best way he has of making us tire of God’s word is to find fault with ministers…When rumors begin to fly and when they are believed, they put people off the word of God which loses the authority and respect it ought to have for us. Thus Paul was justified in forbidding us, by way of privilege, to accept any hasty charge brought against ministers of God’s word.” So as Calvin reasons, what is chiefly behind the mandate of 1 Timothy 5:19 has as much to do with preserving the authority of God’s Word as it does with protecting God’s man. For when the man of God is discredited by false accusations, so does the Word of God suffer as well – which His undershepherds had preached so faithfully. As Calvin put it, “The whole of God’s church, then, should be concerned when men speak ill of ministers and are critical of the lives they lead. Why? Because God’s word no longer has the majesty it ought to have.”
Let’s think about this. Since it is the calling of God to send forth men to proclaim His Word, then no weapon could do greater damage to the preached Word than to slander the one preaching it. For if the rumors are believed, then the weight and solemnity of what the pastor taught from Scripture loses it’s heavenly splendor. This is Calvin’s point. And it is deeply insightful. For it is helping us to see that more is at stake for the church when credible pastors are discredited.
But to add one more layer to the mandate of 1 Timothy 5:19, Calvin digs a little deeper from the angle of those who do the discrediting. He writes: “Not only is this the devil’s stratagem, we see also that we are much too credulous and sensitive to the merest whiff of rumor. When something bad is said about ministers of God’s Word we are quick too credit it. We itch, or so it seems, to hear them slandered. Seeing how prevalent this fault is, we need to apply the right and effective remedy, not in order to excuse the individual but to defend the truth whose servants and ministers we are. To be sure envy and ill-will are ingrained in human nature. Men are always disposed if they can to apportion blame and snap and snarl at those whose task is to correct them…As it is, God’s ministers open their mouths to condemn offences, to issue warnings and to tell of God’s threats. Those who are reproved and who are stung where it hurts are provoked and inflamed, and will not rest until they have a chance to get their own back on those who have rebuked them. And although they are without excuse they do not cease to plot and scheme.”
What Calvin describes here is the all too common trial which every pastor faces who preaches the whole counsel of God. There are always those in the congregation who are so chafed by God’s Word due to their own sin and rebellion, that rather than repent they retaliate. And their retaliation is to vilify and defame the man of God. It is to bear false witness against him in as many ways as they can conjure up in order to trample the Word of God. I have seen this in the experiences of fellow pastors, and I myself have been on the receiving end of such brutal denigration. Yet, what every pastor who faces such tribulation must remember, is that those who make it their aim to blacken the name of God’s man, are only doing this out of their contempt and anger at God Himself. They are tired of hearing one more sermon from Holy Scripture calling them to flee sin and pursue holiness. They’re incensed over the constant reminder that all they do is to be done for God’s glory. They don’t want the Word of God holding them accountable for the way they live their lives. They just want God to turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to their worldliness. But since God will never concede to such carnal fancies, these rebels take out their malice on God’s man – which in truth, is their malice against God.
It is for these reasons then, that God has hedged in His undershepherds with 1 Timothy 5:19. When John Calvin closed his exposition of this text, he left his congregation in 1555 with relevant words for us in 2018. He declared: “Whenever there are unsavory rumors about preachers, we should suspect the devil, for slander is his stock-in-trade. We should make careful inquiry. I do not say that we should shut our eyes when some wrong is made known to us, or that we should stop our ears so that we hear nothing. Nor, on the other hand, supposing something bad is said about ministers, should we immediately poke about to see if it is true. No, we should always take careful thought…remembering that the devil loves to make us weary of ministers so that we turn from God’s word and hate it, or else give it less importance than it deserves. Armed with this thought may we always be cautious, taking care not to rush to judgment; and if we find that ministers are being unfairly accused, we should detest those who spread such false reports. Why? Because they are Satan’s lackeys, tools he uses to sow tares so that God’s seed does not grow or bear fruit in us.”