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Leaders on the Business End of Discipline: Answers to Some Questions

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Preface: Consider this situation: A pastor of a medium-sized church falls into deep sin. Not the kind that the process of restoration can usually help out in.1 He gets caught. He is not, however, one among several elders but the lone pastor who has a deacon board. In such a situation, there has been up till now little accountability; this indeed is one of the key things that has contributed to the pastor’s moral failure. So, what does he do? His guilt is indisputable—and it is heinous. In his defense, the pastor constructs elaborate arguments about why the church cannot dismiss him for moral failure. Since the church has all along been under his leadership when it comes to biblical interpretation, they are poorly prepared to argue with him. The arguments presented against removing him from office are sophisticated and confusing. They have their desired effect, viz., to paralyze the church so that it cannot act. The church begins smarting over the process and the members’ consciences may not even be altogether clear. How, then, does the church respond to the notion that it would be harmful and even sinful to dismiss the pastor for moral failure?

* * *

The basic question we wish to address is: What right does a church have to dismiss its leader(s)? The answer from one side is that it virtually had no right. The basic argument, with a response, is as follows:

A. Nowhere does the New Testament state that a pastor/church leader can be dismissed from his office.

This is basically an argument from silence and must accordingly be given very little weight. In response, several points could be made:

(1)              No where does the New Testament explicitly command believers not to inject heroin into their veins or “read” pornographic literature, or create destructive computer viruses either. Does this mean that such things are permitted? Of course not! A little common sense and understanding of the fundamental principles taught in the Bible shows the utter nonsense of allowing such acts.

(2)              The argument could be reversed: no where does the New Testament state that a pastor should remain in office after gross, long-term moral failure. Specifically, can you even name one pastor who fits this description? (If not, then the argument is moot.)

(3)              There is no indication that the qualifications for elders listed in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1 (among which are “above reproach”) are to be met only at the front end—that is to say, that a man must meet these qualifications to become an elder, but does not need to meet them to remain an elder. Such indeed would be a ludicrous conclusion! As far as I am aware, no orthodox church for the first nineteen centuries of church history entertained such a notion.

(4)              Very few pastors are actually named in the New Testament. Why should we therefore expect the New Testament to address this issue explicitly?

It is interesting, however, that three names do come to mind—names of men who were most likely pastors: Hymenaeus, Alexander, and Diotrephes. The first two are mentioned in 1 Tim 1:20; the last in 3 John 9-10. (Timothy and Titus were apostolic delegates, not pastors.)

(a) Hymenaeus and Alexander, if leaders in the church, were certainly dismissed from their leadership positions2 and, in fact, kicked out of the church (which is what “I have delivered to Satan” must minimally mean.3)

(b) The situation with Diotrephes (3 John 9-10) is more difficult to construct. But it is likely that Diotrephes was one of the elders in the church and had asserted himself as the leader. This sin of arrogance manifested itself in various ways: the author had written a letter to the church which Diotrephes kept to himself; “not satisfied with that” Diotrephes was inhospitable to traveling missionaries and even threw some folks out of the church.

John’s response was that, whenever he comes, he will “remind [Diotrephes] of what he is doing” (3 John 10). The verb remind (hypomimnéskô, ὑπομιμνήσκω) typically involves the implication of a very strong warning. The cognate noun, reminder (hypomnêsis, ὑπομνήσις) often has the same connotation, viz. of a final warning before severe punishment/discipline is enacted. This is especially the case in contexts dealing with any kind of rebuke in hellenistic Greek literature. On the verb, cf. 2 Tim 2:14; Titus 3:1; on the noun, cf. Wisdom of Solomon 16:1; 2 Maccabees 6:17).4 In other words, the implication seems to be that if Diotrephes does not repent in John’s presence, John will most likely excommunicate him.

By way of application, there is something to be said for making sure that no one in the church is given too much power. As the aphorism goes, “If power corrupts, then absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Further, John intended to stop short of throwing Diotrephes out of the church because (1) John had not yet addressed him directly—a situation in which it was anticipated that Diotrephes would repent (cf. Matt 18:15-17), and (2) Diotrephes’ sin was not yet one of moral failure, nor yet of heresy, but of being power-hungry.

(5)              The situation that most scholars envision as the background to 1 Timothy is that many of the leaders of the church in Ephesus had used their positions to gain wealth and had taught false doctrine (these two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand).5 Paul had to return to Ephesus and dismiss these leaders from their duties. Timothy was then left behind and was instructed to appoint new leaders (cf. 1 Tim 3:1ff.; 5:17-22).

Thus, rather than the New Testament teaching that a pastor or teacher cannot be dismissed, such dismissal is the background of 1 Timothy. I would go so far as to say that 1 Timothy makes little sense unless this background is understood.6

(6)              1 Tim 5:19-20: “Never accept any charge against an elder except [on the evidence supplied] by two or three witnesses. Reprove those who sin7 in the presence of all, so that the rest [of the church] may stand in fear.”

On the one hand, this text does not say that an elder should immediately be dismissed because of sin. On the other hand, the gravity and nature of the sin is not stated. Minor sins certainly did not warrant dismissal. But the very fact that Paul had already dismissed and excommunicated some elders indicates that not all sins were considered minor.

Further, in v. 19 the word “charge” (κατηγορία, kategoria), as well as its verbal cognate (κατηγορέω, kategoreo), typically falls into one of two usages in the New Testament:

(a) It is used in the bringing of a charge against someone in authority because of heresy or hypocrisy. The intended result is to nullify the person’s credibility and following.

(b) A charge of moral or ethical failure which has as its intended result the punishment or discipline of the recipient.

Such punishment/discipline is not merely a rebuke or public censure so as to cause embarrassment, but involves concrete and severe action.8

(7)              Finally, this argument from silence presupposes a very faulty view of the role of leaders in the New Testament. Quite frankly, it is a view which more resembles Roman Catholicism than Protestantism.

One of the hallmarks of the Protestant faith is that we affirm that all believers are priests (1 Peter 2:5, 9; Rev 1:6; 5:10; 20:6). Some of the implications of this precious doctrine are that (a) we all have direct access to God and do not need to confess our sins to some supposed intermediary; (b) we all have the right and the responsibility to examine the scriptures for ourselves; and (c) there are not two classes of Christians, only one.

Among other things, this means that the leaders of a church must be held accountable for their actions just like anybody else for there is no partiality with God. In light of the contexts in which this expression occurs,9 the principle it embodies comes as close as it can to saying that church leaders are not exempt from the discipline that ordinary church members must submit to.

B. In light of texts like James 2:13 (“Mercy triumphs over judgment”) and Matthew 7:1 (“Judge not lest you be judged”),10 a church leader should not be dismissed for gross moral failure.

This argument, at bottom, is the use of an aphorism, given in a particular context, and then twisted to fit whatever context is convenient. Note the following points:

(1)              These texts cannot possibly mean, “Never judge.” If they did, then why does James pronounce judgments in his little letter? Notice, for example, the following judgments made by James:

God withholds his blessing from the double-minded man (Jas 1:7-8)

the value of the faith of the person whose speech is uncontrolled is worthless (Jas 1:26)

a non-productive faith indicates lack of salvation (Jas 2:14)

all teachers will be severely judged (Jas 3:1)

And Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel in particular, metes out scathing judgments (cf. especially chapter 23)!

(2)              The context of James 2:13 involves the judgment of showing partiality. James calls his audience “judges with evil motives” (2:4) because they distinguish classes of Christians (e.g., rich from poor). Thus, ironically, the mercy that is to be shown is the mercy of treating all believers alike! This is just the opposite of what the argument we are addressing supposes. Peter Davids, whose commentary on James is a standard, correctly argues that

The one who does not show mercy would be the person failing to care for any creature or other person … especially the failure to help the poor. …

Certainly the connection must be that in humiliating the poor … and in transgressing the law of love (thus breaking the law) they are also failing to show mercy. As such they could expect no mercy in the final judgment. Yet showing mercy reminds one primarily of helping the poor materially. This pulls the argument on to the next section [2:14-26].11

(3) If these verses involve such an all-encompassing principle—that is, that we should never judge—then Matt 18:15-17 could never be invoked for any church member, not just church leaders.

(4) Donald Guthrie, the British New Testament scholar, has some great insights on discipline in relation to mercy. In his commentary on The Pastoral Epistles,12 when discussing the fate of Hymenaeus and Alexander in 1 Tim 1:20, he points out:

The concluding clause that they may learn not to blaspheme shows clearly that the purpose was remedial and not punitive. However stringent the process the motive was mercy, and whenever ecclesiastical discipline has departed from this purpose of restoration, its harshness has proved a barrier to progress. But this is no reason for dispensing with discipline entirely, a failing which frequently characterizes our modern churches.13

Discipline, then, when exercised properly, is merciful.

We must not confuse mercy with the suspension of justice. That is not what mercy is. What the church should desire—and what the New Testament plainly teaches—is mercy through discipline, not mercy apart from discipline. It is not merciful to allow a person to continue sinning in the way he has; it is a great act of mercy to discipline such a person so that he will not sin in that manner again.

A final note: As one who has taught Greek and New Testament exegesis on a seminary-level now for more than fifteen years, I have become increasingly aware of two things: (1) the more Greek and Hebrew one knows the more dangerous he is if his life is not right with God; this is due to the fact that (2) virtually all false teaching can be purportedly found in scripture (even the devil, in tempting the Son of God, based his appeal on scripture!).14 That is to say, virtually every heresy is possible exegetically. But the real question is whether it is probable. And by far, on any probable exegesis, the New Testament is very clear that church leaders are not exempt from the discipline that other believers are subject to.


Having touched on some of the following points in our first footnote, we now wish to elevate that discussion to the level of the text.

In the last chapter of John’s Gospel, we read of Peter’s restoration not just to fellowship with Jesus, but to leadership in the fledgling church. Peter had denied the Lord three times. Consequently, Jesus reinstates Peter three times. The denial was in front of enemies; the reinstatement was in front of friends. We wish to make three points briefly.

(1)              Before we can be fully used of God, we must be broken. We must come to admit the depth of our own sin and inadequacy. Peter had thought of himself as nearly invincible in the service of his Lord. He would not be used until this attitude was destroyed. This is really the prerequisite of any leader. The church must not discard people in ministry simply because of sin in their lives. As the noted British scholar F. F. Bruce has pointed out, the history of western Christianity would be notably different if John 21 were not a part of our Bible.

(2)              Peter’s sin occurred in one night (Thursday, April 2, AD 33, by my reckoning.) The restoration therefore did not need to be prolonged. Peter was restored both to fellowship and leadership in one morning. At the same time, Jesus did not immediately restore Peter—that is, he did not rush to restore him immediately after his resurrection. He let Peter mull over what he had done for at least two weeks. In fact, Jesus even met with him on two separate occasions before he restored him.15

Nevertheless, the restoration of Peter, once it was commenced, was concluded quickly. This contrasts with 1 Cor 5:5 and 1 Tim 1:20 where believers whose sin is both grievous and prolonged are put out of the church for a lengthy period until they learn not to sin any more. It is in fact significant that no time limit is given in these passages for true repentance to be accomplished.

Thus the principle seems to be that the nature and duration of the sin informs the nature and duration of the repentance. Sinful acts can be dealt with by acts of repentance. Sinful lifestyles and sinful patterns of behavior require repentant lifestyles and repentant patterns of behavior.

(3)              Peter’s attitude after he had sinned was one of contrition and unconditional surrender to his Lord. Peter was by trade a fisherman. People who fish for a living certainly don’t take it up for leisure. The fact that Peter returned to this role (John 21:3) may well indicate his self-perception about his own unworthiness for the ministry. He made no assumptions and no pleas. Further, he knew of the cloud of suspicion that his fellow disciples now had of him. It would be the height of arrogance for him to assert his leadership role in the presence of the other disciples. The Lord initiated the restoration of Peter to fellowship and leadership—and he did so in the presence of the other disciples.

When a leader sins grievously he loses his right to assert himself as leader. If he reasserts his position of authority, it reveals an unrepentant attitude.

1 Although I am a restorationist in that I believe that a church should, as a principle, always strive to restore a sinning member to fellowship, the situation with leaders takes on a new twist. Restoration of leaders, as with any other Christians, must first be a restoration to fellowship. Restoration to leadership must always take second priority, never first. There are some sins that are so grievous that they betray a deep and profound trust, thereby removing the leader from any moral high ground that he might otherwise have had. If a leader, after his deep sin is clearly exposed, resists submitting to the moral authority of others (including waiting on their blessing and time-scale for his return to leadership), he is not ready to lead again. The very act of submission to others is in itself a test of the nature of an individual’s leadership style: if he won’t submit, the reason may well be that he is power-hungry rather than a true servant-leader. Yet we all know of pastors (and other public figures) who hardly lose stride after exposure of their sin, continuing on in their role of power as though nothing had happened. They should, instead, look at the example of Peter in John 21: he was ready to abandon all thought of leading this little band of disciples until the one against whom he sinned, the Lord Jesus himself, confronted him with the threefold question (corresponding to Peter’s threefold denial), “Peter, do you love me?” After each positive response to fellowship, Jesus then gives him the command to feed the flock, thus reinstating Peter to leadership.

2It is the standard view among commentators that these men were indeed leaders in the church. Further, it is the almost universal view that they were dismissed from their duties and excommunicated from the church. Note, for example, Gordon D. Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus in the New International Biblical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1984) 59—“the two men mentioned here are almost certainly leaders”; George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 110; W. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1957) 87-88); A. T. Hanson, The Pastoral Epistles in the New Century Bible Commentary (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1982) 66.

3As Fee argues in his commentary on the pastoral epistles: “‘hand over to Satan’ simply means ‘to put back out into Satan’s sphere,’ outside the church and the fellowship of God’s people…” (Fee, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, 59).

4Although 2 Maccabees is not scripture, it does reflect both the usage of Greek in the hellenistic period (of which the New Testament was a part) and an attitude toward God which was current among the Jews and Christians of the day. In this passage it is, therefore, instructive that the author is recounting how God disciplined his people in times past. He summarizes with the following principle in 2 Macc 6:12-17 (remember that although this text is not scripture, it is a reflection on scripture; I think it deals accurately with the theology of discipline):

Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. In fact, not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately, is a sign of great kindness. For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Though he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. Let what we have said serve as a reminder [hypomnêsis, ὑπομνήσις]; we must go on briefly with the story.

5On the problem of false doctrine, cf. 1 Tim 1:3, 19-20; 4:1-5; 2 Tim 2:14-20; 4:3-4. Some of these leaders had especially persuaded several of the women of the church to follow them (cf. 2 Tim 3:1-9; and perhaps 1 Tim 2:11-15 and 5:14-15). On the problem of using one’s office for financial gain, cf. especially 1 Tim 6:3-10 (it is in light of this temptation that Paul tells Timothy that the faithful teachers must be paid well [1 Tim 5:17-18], because although some of the teachers became ensnared with greed, to withhold from all teachers would itself be a sinful overreaction).

6For example, why would Paul instruct Timothy about appointing new elders otherwise? He gives no hint in this letter that any had died. Why also would Paul have had to return to Ephesus after his first Roman imprisonment, when he had explicitly said in an earlier letter that it was his intention to travel west (Rom 15:24, 28)? He was so firm in his resolve that he had even made his “final farewell” to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:25, 38). And most importantly, why is 1 Timothy (and 2 Timothy) laced with warnings about false teachers, not being too quick to ordain an elder, and moral qualifications of leaders?

7Some translations (notably, RSV, NASV) render the present participle iteratively as “persist in sin,” or “continue sinning.” This is most likely not the meaning, for otherwise the reproof does not come until the sin is repeated! As Knight points out (236), “One implication [of this errant interpretation] would be that a person who is found to have sinned but is not at the moment engaged in the sin should not be dealt with as this verse indicates.” The idea instead seems to be “reprove those who are guilty of sinning”—that is, those whose sin is revealed by the witnesses (so Knight, Pastoral Epistles, 236). Grammatically, this also makes the best sense: if the present tense of “those who sin” (ἁμαρτάνοντας, hamartanontas) is pressed, then the present tense of “reprove” (ἔλεγχε, elengche) must also be pressed: “Continue to reprove those who continually sin.” See the most recent scholarly treatment on Greek verb tenses by Dr. Buist M. Fanning III, Verbal Aspect in New Testament Greek (Oxford: Clarendon, 1990).

8On these two uses for the κατηγορ- (kategor-) word-group, cf. Matt 12:10; 27:12; Mark 3:2; 15:3, 4; Luke 6:7; Luke 23:2, 10, 14; John 5:45 (here, eternal damnation!); 18:29; Acts 22:30; 23:30, 35; 24:2, 8, 13, 19; 25:5, 11, 16, 18, 19; Rev 12:10. These two nuances are frequently found together in the same contexts. Note that Friedrich Büchsel, in his discussion of the word group in the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament 3.636-37, points out that almost every instance is judicial in nature. This is certainly more than a mere hand-slapping.

9The New Testament frequently uses the expression “show no partiality,” “there is no partiality with God,” etc. The contexts in which it occurs are most illuminating: between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:34; Rom 2:11), rich and poor (Jas 2:1, 9); masters and slaves (Eph 6:9); husbands and wives (Col 3:25); and, most significantly, between the apostles and other Christians (Gal 2:6). In this last text Paul indicates that God holds the apostles accountable just as he does anyone else, “for there is no partiality with God.” Paul then illustrates the point in the story of his rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy (Gal 2:11-14)—Peter, the first “pope”! Further, the term is used in 1 Tim 5:21 where Paul admonishes Timothy not to treat the elders differently from the rest of the congregation (“doing nothing from partiality”).

10 Often John 7:53-8:11 is used against those who would exercise any kind of discipline. In this pericope Jesus asks the woman caught in adultery, after her accusers had left, “Where are they? Is there no one left to accuse you?” When she responded, “No one, Lord,” Jesus then said, “Neither do I accuse you. Go, and sin no more” (8:10-11). This text fits in with the above kinds of passages, with one important difference: the evangelist almost certainly did not pen this story and, although parts of it are most likely historically accurate, the pericope in its present state is probably a conflation of two separate stories that were circulating in the second and third centuries AD.

11Peter H. Davids, The Epistle of James: A Commentary on the Greek Text in the New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) 119. It should be noted that regardless of how we deal with Jas 2:14-26 (the passage about faith without works being dead), commentators are agreed that this is the thrust of Jas 2:1-13.

12Donald Guthrie, The Pastoral Epistles in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957).

13Ibid., 69.

14I am convinced that one of the devil’s chief objectives today is to paralyze the church from acting when holiness is on the line. In Eph 4:26-27 we read, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, nor give a place to the devil.” Although v. 26 is often misunderstood, the idea of this text is “I command you to be angry about the sin that is in your midst. Do not sit idly by, but act quickly—do not let the sun go down on the cause of your anger. For if you do not exercise discipline, you will give a toehold to the devil.” (For documentation and a demonstration of this meaning, see my article, “ ᾿Οργίζεσθε [Orgizesthe] in Ephesians 4:26: Command or Condition?” Criswell Theological Review 3 (1989) 353-72.

15The date of the restoration was at least fourteen days later and probably no more than three weeks later. This is evident by a comparison of John 20:19 [the disciples met on the evening of Easter Sunday, April 5], John 20:26 [‘eight days later’ = Monday, April 13], and John 21:1 [“after this”—that is, after these first two meetings. Since this occasion took place in Galilee and the previous ones occurred in Jerusalem, it is unlikely that the disciples traveled the 40+ miles from Jerusalem to the Sea of Tiberias in less than 48 hours—and then fished all night. Thus, the morning of Thursday, April 16, is the earliest date possible for this encounter].

Related Topics: Church Discipline, Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry, Leadership