Lay hands suddenly on no man, neither be partakers of other men's sins: Keep thyself pure. (1 Timothy 5:22)
The church is often judged, fairly or unfairly, by its leaders. Ministers and elders, by whatever title, are most visible to the world and the church. Fingers tend to point at them from every side. Paul had thus warned the church to compensate their elders generously ("double honor," (v. 17) to protect them from unfounded accusations (v. 19), and yet to rebuke elders' sin if real (v. 20). But if the position of elder was so important that it must be protected from miserliness and slander, so too must it be protected from unqualified applicants.
To "lay hands" on a man was to ordain him to the ministry. Paul here addresses the need for judicious caution. In some areas of life, such as business, quick decisions can be critical. The short-term consequences of an arrangement may outweigh all others. In business, however, such decisions can be reversed as necessity dictates. This is not the case with ministers. They are the caretakers of God's flock and must be carefully selected.
Anyone who has cared for sheep understands the nature of Christ's description of himself as the Good Shepherd and us as his sheep. Sheep are helpless and stupid creatures which have an amazing ability to do themselves harm. I well remember one of my first direct encounters with sheep. My wife's grandfather had a small flock. One Easter vacation we visited his Indiana farm. A mature ewe walked up a leaning board fence and stepped off into the next pasture. The fence sprang back up and the lamb could not re-cross. Separated from the rest of the flock for one mild spring night, this lamb lay down and died. Panic, without any injury, had killed it. My own children's experience with lambs has taught us that any small injury or change in their routine can set them "off their feed" for days. It is always a great relief when the last of them goes safely to auction at the county fair.
When Christ told Peter to feed his sheep, he asked him to assume a difficult role. Being a shepherd was a difficult responsibility. It involved the need constantly to monitor, guard, and doctor the flock. The shepherd was often alone in remote areas for long periods as the helpless flock's only protection. Any laziness, negligence, or carelessness may have meant the loss of the flock. Many men could not handle what seemed like a simple job. It was a job one needed to be trained for in youth because it involved disciplined patience that had to be part of a man's character, not merely his habit. Cowboys in the American West were notorious for blowing a month's pay on one night of riotous living. Sheepherders were famous for their character and thrift and often bought up large ranches with years of accumulated wages.
Paul urged Timothy to avoid any impetuous decision regarding ordination. Those who do not consider the helplessness of the flock may not see the danger in ordaining a man who is not up to the task. We must acknowledge men to be sinners and therefore recognize self-promoters and boasters as flawed in character and unsuitable for ordination. Ministers must be men characterized by sound faith, strength of character, personal faithfulness, and humility. Charismatic self-promoters tend to care too little about the commands of the Good Shepherd or the needs of the flock to be entrusted with its care.
Paul reminds Timothy not to be "partaker of other men's sins." Of course, this refers to sins in general; but it also applied to church leaders who fail to properly examine men before ordination. To assent to the wishes of others in ordaining a man to the ministry does not absolve one of responsibility. Reservations are never a substitute for a firm stand. A shepherd has grave responsibilities; a hireling does not. To ordain an unworthy man is to place an undependable man in charge of the sheep.
Timothy was warned that to ordain a man was an awesome responsibility. To be carried away by the folly of others was still to be carried away; he should not take part in their sin.
"Keep thyself pure," Paul warned. Again, this can be taken as a general admonition; but it is here associated with going along with the folly of others in choosing leaders for the church. But Paul is not urging us to avoid guilt by abandoning our roles every time we see folly in our church leadership. If we did this, we would be in a constant mode of retreat, because folly is in every heart. It does mean that we are to take a stand for what is right. There comes a time when a fight is lost no matter how well fought. To struggle past that point is useless. But if we abandon the field of conflict because a battle is looming, we abandon the cause. The counsel of a man who leaves the field of conflict will be dismissed; but a man who takes a stand is a man who must be reckoned with now and, if he is proven right, down the road. It takes wisdom to see if the battle you are fighting in your church is lost or yet raging.