Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all that others also may fear.
I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality. (1 Tim. 5:19-21)
Paul reminds Timothy not to so much as receive an accusation against an elder without at least a corroborating source. He is merely reminding Timothy of the requirement of the law. First mentioned in capital crimes (Dt. 17:6), it included "any sin" (19:15) and was quoted by Christ (Mt. 18:16) as applicable in the church.
Why would Paul specifically apply to the church a law requiring at least two witnesses when it already applied to all men and all sins? Several tendencies serve to necessitate a guard against false accusations against elders.
Godly men are especially susceptible to slander. Evil men will not hesitate to lie; we must, therefore, resist accepting an unsubstantiated accusation. In a sinful age, insults and put-downs are considered trivial and humorous. The godly, by setting a higher standard before men, are more susceptible to character assassination by mere rumor or slander. The charge alone harms the minister and the church. Certainly this, rather than justice, is often the goal. Prudence dictates we recognize this.
It is a strategy of Satan to lie. He is, we must remember, the father of lies. We all learned very early, whether as perpetrators, victims, or both, that lies can seemingly have lives of their own. An oft-repeated lie seems more plausible with each retelling. It has always been a device of Satan to bring the godly into contempt and ridicule. Nothing accomplishes this like the lie. The lie can cause those who should be a man's staunchest defenders to turn against him. When men, as they will, display normal faults and errors of innocence or judgment, the lie can distort it into a seemingly heinous offense. In so doing, the lie can render the minister of God ineffective and discouraged. Our Lord himself was accused of being a drunk, a demonic, a bastard, and a troublesome, irreligious, and seditious revolutionary. It was false accusations like these which led to Pilate and Calvary. We should perhaps not expect to receive better treatment by the world than our Lord, but Paul warns Timothy that we should expect better in the church.
Accusations must be substantiated because there is a natural jealousy of those in authority. It is a minister's duty to admonish and reprove. This can create resentment, especially in those who refuse to acknowledge their need for reproof. Such people are more likely to believe and, perhaps foster, false accusations. Otto Scott often recalls a proverb he learned from his grandmother—"If you give a beggar a horse, he'll ride you down every time." Many accusations stem from deep-seated resentments and animosities which are never honestly expressed.
The law was clear that two or three witnesses generally accepted to include corroborating evidence were required for conviction. Christ applied this to believers in the church. Paul goes beyond what is required for conviction and says not to "receive" such an accusation against an elder unless those witnesses are presented. Accusations are not to be accepted or pursued without prior corroboration. Adjudication in the church, even in cases where a vindication results, can do real damage. Elders are to be protected from such harm to their ministry by a prior examination of evidence.
Paul's purpose was not to protect wrongdoers in the church, however. Evildoers can use their position as a shield of privilege. It is an evil thing to allow any justice system to be used as a means of avoiding justice itself. If the harm to the church by false charges must be carefully prevented, so too must clerical privilege. Those who do sin must be rebuked publicly. Paul's purpose was to protect the innocent, the congregation, and the ministry, not evildoers.
It is difficult to follow Christ's admonition to "judge righteous judgment" (Jn. 7:24). Paul thus warns Timothy of the gravity of his responsibility and that of the church. He tells Timothy to remember his responsibility "before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ and the elect angels." Christ is at the right hand of the Father, the Head of the church, and the Judge of the quick and the dead before whom all men will one day stand. The angels also stand before the throne as part of the heavenly host. Elect of God for their eternal purpose as are believers, they minister to the saints, and are spectators of things in earth and in heaven. They stand as witnesses now who shall come with Christ at the end of time (Mt. 16:27). Paul's point is to impress on Timothy the fact that the judges of the earth are accountable before the throne of God for their judgments.
Justice is a human goal based on our fallen understanding of an attribute of God. It is God's justice, or righteousness, which must be our goal. Our inclination to protect the potentially innocent accused should come from both our understanding of God and human nature. Our understanding of God's justice must direct us to "judge righteous judgment," and our knowledge of human nature must cause us to realize that sin is as likely to be expressed by a lie as by the improper conduct in question. Even more importantly, we must look within ourselves and our own motives. Paul warns that our judgments must be without partiality or preference. Those who stand in judgment of men stand themselves before the throne of God.