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Is it Biblical for a Layperson to Rebuke an Elder?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Scripture tells us that there are circumstances in which such a rebuke is the Christian's duty before God.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

Our recent series on dealing with apostasy generated a number of questions from readers. One asked: "In Galatians 2:11-14 we see that Peter was publicly corrected by Paul for his public error. Both men were church leaders. Is it Biblical for a layperson to publicly correct or rebuke an elder for his public teaching of error?" Scripture tells us that there are circumstances in which such a rebuke is the Christian's duty before God.

"Rebuke Not An Elder"

A passage that is often erroneously used to support the view that a so-called layperson cannot rebuke an elder for doctrinal error is 1 Timothy 5:1. In the Authorized King James Version it reads, "Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father..." We need to note three things about this passage:

  1. As always, a single phrase cannot be interpreted out of context. It must be interpreted with regard to the surrounding text, as well as consistently with the rest of Scripture. So we must look at the context of 1 Timothy chapters four and five. The section from 4:12 through 5:16 is, in the main, devoted to instructions on relationships between younger and older people in the church.
  2. While the word used for "elder" in 1 Timothy 5:1 is the Greek presbuteros - the same word that is used to denote the office of elder in other passages - the context makes it clear that the usage of presbuteros here does not refer to the office of elder, but to age relationships between younger and older people. Paul uses the feminine form presbuteras in the very next verse, and the two verses are parallel statements: "Rebuke not a [male] elder (presbuteros), but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; the elder women (presbuteras) as mothers; the younger [women] as sisters, with all purity."
  3. The word translated "rebuke" is epiplesso, which means "to chastise with words." It is used only in this verse in the New Testament. The contrasting word translated "intreat" is parakaleo, which means, literally, "to take someone aside and admonish him with all due respect."

First Timothy 5:1 is not a prohibition against rebuking someone who holds the office of elder. In context, the sum of the phrase, "rebuke not an elder," is this: Respect for age must govern the way in which a younger person approaches an older person when it is apparent that the older person has sinned. Take him aside, and first attempt to deal with the matter privately, but always with the respect that an older person is due from a younger.

Also, the context shows that the offenses that are in view are principally the private offenses of private people. The wording echoes the pattern of Matthew 18 beginning at verse 15: Confront someone privately first; if he will not listen to you, take witnesses with you and confront him again; if he still will not listen, take him before the church; if he will not listen to the church, treat him as an unbeliever.

"Rebuke in the Presence of All"

In contrast to this we have the case of a "public man" - a man who holds the office of elder in the church. First Timothy 5:19-20 instructs us in dealing with the sin or doctrinal error of such an office-bearer: "Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning [i.e., are subsequently proved to be sinning, and persist in that sin] rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear." We need to note several things in this passage:

  1. It clearly deals with "the elders who rule" (proestotes presbuteroi, verse 17), not simply older men.
  2. The word translated "accusation" is kategoria, which means "a formal accusation before a tribunal." If a ruling elder is to be accused of wrongdoing or false teaching, it is to be done in a formal way, because it is a serious matter for the church.
  3. An accusation of wrongdoing or doctrinal error against an elder is to be established "from two or three witnesses." This echoes a precept found throughout Scripture for the establishment of a charge against someone, and the adjudication of guilt or innocence (cf. Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1, Hebrews 10:28).
  4. The word translated "rebuke" in verse 20 is elegcho, which, unlike epiplesso in the verses we considered above, has both an investigative and an adjudicative sense. This is in keeping with the formality of the handling of the accusation indicated in point two above. Elegcho means both "to call to account and demand an explanation" and also "to convict and refute if found culpable, and thus put to shame."

In other words, the unrepented public offense or doctrinal error of a ruling elder becomes a matter for public hearing and public rebuke, involving proper investigation and judgment. Also, it is logical to conclude that one or more of the "witnesses" of doctrinal error may not necessarily be a human being, but could be something that the man has written, or has said or done that is on record in some other form (e.g., an audio or video recording). But always, some individual must first bring the accusation.

Private Versus Public Sins

As our reader rightly indicated in his question, Scripture makes a distinction between a ruling elder's private sin, and public sins such as doctrinal error. The private sins of a ruling elder against individuals should first be dealt with in the spirit of Matthew 18. If the office-bearer is an older man who has sinned against a younger person, the younger person should first approach him in the spirit of entreaty spoken of in First Timothy 5:1. But in keeping with Matthew 18, such a private offense becomes an increasingly public matter if the elder refuses to repent.

The public offense of an elder - violation of one of his basic qualifications to hold the office (1 Timothy 3:1-13) - is clearly not a private matter. This is most emphatically true of doctrinal error. The accusation of error, the adjudication of guilt or innocence, and the rebuke for unrepented error, are all public matters; they must follow the pattern of 1 Timothy 5:19-20. And ultimately, the public rebuke is to come from the church as a body and from its elders - from those who were not partakers in the doctrinal error, or from those who may have at one time been involved in it but have previously repented of it.

What About Unrepentant Elders and Churches?

What, then, are the governing principles when an elder who is clearly in doctrinal error is unrepentant, and the church and its elders are complicit in the error by refusing to deal with it? In other words, what if the church refuses to do its duty before God according to 1 Timothy 5:19-20? Scripture gives us the answer.

Ephesians 5:1-21 deals primarily with issues of immorality in the church. But the verses in middle of this passage state principles that apply to the dealings of the church, including its rank-and-file membership, with any unrepentant sinner, including a ruling elder who persists in doctrinal error:

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not be partakers with them. For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. (Ephesians 5:6-11)

The word translated "fellowship" in verse eleven is sugkoinoneo, meaning "to partake together." The word translated "darkness" in verse eleven is skotos, which in context speaks of spiritual darkness. The word that is translated "expose" at the end of verse eleven is elegcho - the same word translated "rebuke" in 1 Timothy 5:20. Any church member who remains true to the Word has a duty "to call to account and demand an explanation" of those who persist in doctrinal error, when the church fails in its duty according to 1 Timothy 5:19-20, and they are also "to convict and refute if found culpable, and thus put to shame" those who remain in their sin.

Not the Easy Thing, But the Right Thing

It was on this basis that I wrote two of my books, Christianity and Neo-Liberalism and A Denomination in Denial. I wrote them in order to elegcho the unrepentant leadership of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church regarding its deep doctrinal errors on Scripture and the Gospel. I did this - and left the OPC - after the courts of the OPC had made a mockery of 1 Timothy 5:19-20, both in study committees on the doctrines of creation and justification, and in judicial decisions that gave legal standing to the teaching of justification by faith plus works.

It is on this same Biblical basis that other elders and rank-and-file church members have also publicly rebuked, verbally and in writing, the unrepentant, judicially-shielded errorists of the OPC and other churches. We are simply doing what God commands us to do. It is not the easy thing, but it is the right thing - God commands it.

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