Question & Answer Forum: Elders and Responsibility

In our times, who has the responsibility to assure that “they teach no other doctrine” (1Ti 1:3)?

Guided by the Spirit, Paul intended Timothy to maintain the doctrinal purity of the Ephesian assembly. When Paul had labored to see the assembly planted (Acts 19:10; 20:18-21), he established the course of the assembly with sound doctrine. On his latest visit with the Ephesian elders (20:17-35) before writing this letter to Timothy, Paul had warned them of coming dangers. Men “speaking perverse things” would subvert the believers. The elders were to be alert (v 31, ESV) to such dangers. If they had this responsibility, why was Timothy involved? Were the elders not competent to accomplish this? Hadn’t Paul commended them to God and the word of His grace (v 32) as sufficient resources for their future needs?

Recognizing that “the word of His grace” was not yet a completed volume helps resolve these questions. Paul had a unique stewardship of divine truth (2Ti 1:10-12). What the Lord committed to Paul (v 12), he committed to the Lord to keep. In addition, he committed it to Timothy to keep (v 14). God gave Timothy a unique gift. Paul had publicly identified himself with Timothy and this gift (v 6). Timothy was a bridge between the revelations given to Paul (Eph 3:2-6) and the completion of God’s inspired Word. Timothy, therefore, had a unique responsibility in Ephesus to guard the purity of the doctrine against the “grievous wolves” (Acts 20:29).

Now that the Word of God has been completed, the responsibility to preserve the purity of divinely-given doctrine rests with the elders of an assembly. The assembly is “pillar (display) and ground (defense) of the truth” (1Ti 3:15). Elders lead the assembly in maintaining this responsibility before God.

David Oliver

How would any responsible individual “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” (1Ti 1:3)?

This word, “charge,” occurs five times in First Timothy. One time, Paul charges Timothy (6:13) to keep the faith “unstained and free from reproach” (v 14, ESV). Timothy was to charge either the legalists (1:3-7), the widows (5:7), or the rich (6:17). The other usage describes Timothy’s public responsibility to “command (charge) and teach” (4:11). In its New Testament usages, this word carries the thought of speaking with authority, particularly divine authority. Gathering the thought from these four times Timothy was to charge others (1:3; 4:11; 5:7; 6:17), we conclude that Timothy was to speak with divine authority in directly addressing specific matters among the believers. We would hardly expect Timothy to speak in a combative or confrontational manner to the widows or the rich or in the general tone of his ministry. Therefore, when he charged some not to teach doctrine that differed from the apostle’s, Timothy taught truth with authority and clarity. He emphasized that assembly teaching must edify (1Ti 1:4), promote spiritual health (“sound,” v 10), and produce loving, upright, and faithful believers (v 5).

David Oliver

To whom does “Them that sin” refer in 1 Timothy 5:20?

The expression describes either sinning elders or sinning accusers. If it is the latter, the verse protects elders from either false or unsubstantiated (v 19) accusations. If the passage describes sinning elders, the teaching emphasizes the higher accountability of those who lead the assembly.

The excellent commentary on this passage in What the Bible Teaches ably supports the sinning accusers view, as do other respected teachers. The obvious link between this passage and Moses’ teaching (Deu 19:15-21) suggests that “them that sin” would be any who bring false witness against another – in this case, against an elder. Further, if the motive of the false witness is to discredit the elder, then Moses taught that what the accuser intended to do to another should be done to him. A rebuke before others would certainly discredit the false witness. Also, “that others also may fear” (1Ti 5:20) is very like the words, “those who remain shall hear, and fear” (Deu 19:20). The other passage that requires two or three witnesses (17:6-13), however, speaks of “all the people,” who could commit the same sin, hearing and fearing (v 13), which could support the “sinning elders” view.

If the passage deals with sinning elders, then the qualifications of elders (1Ti 3:1-7) would help to define the possible sins involved. Continually violating standards (“those who persist in sin,” 1Ti 5:20, ESV) like “not given to wine” or “not a brawler” (3:3) would require excommunication as a drunkard or extortioner (1Co 5:11). Violating standards such as “of good behavior” (1Ti 3:2) or having “a good report of them which are without” (v 7) would not necessarily come under 1 Corinthians 5, but could be examples of sins meriting a rebuke. Mr. Darby’s translation, “Those that sin convict before all” is significant. To publicly convict an elder of violating the qualifications for his stewardship is a serious matter. The passage does not state that he is no longer an elder; however, regaining moral authority to continue his work would require great care and the passage of considerable time.

Taking either view can fit the flow of thought in the immediate context (1Ti 5:17-21). However, extending the context to the remaining verses of the chapter favors the “sinning elders” view. Paul advises Timothy against hastily identifying himself with others. In the passage, this appears to caution Timothy against being hasty in endorsing men for assembly leadership. If he did so hastily, he might eventually find himself linked with their sin (v 22). The sins of some are not apparent for some time (v 24b). Paul is addressing the possibility that those the assembly recognizes as leaders could prove to have faults (sins) not immediately obvious. With that in view, the impartiality required in the sight of divine Persons and the elect angels (v 21) could well refer to dealing with sinning elders.

Both views have strengths. Neither view is inconsistent with the rest of Scripture. Each merits careful consideration.

David Oliver