In our first post we mentioned three very good reasons why a Christian might leave their local church: false gospels, moral failure in the leadership, and spiritual abuse. We then talked briefly about staying even when a leader preaches a false gospel.

In this second post we want to consider the issue of moral failure among leaders. We’ve written about removing fallen leaders previously with the hopes of giving Christians their job description in such cases. This post is a companion piece. When leaders fall morally, that’s not always a time to leave. It just may be the time to stay.

Let’s consider 1 Timothy 5:17-21.

17 Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. 18 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality.

As we did last time, let’s engage this text by asking some simple questions:

  • According to this text, how is a congregation to treat leaders who serve well?
  • According to this text, what’s one way a congregation is to protect their leaders (v. 19)?
  • According to this text, what is a congregation to do when a leader continues in sin?
  • What would such a “rebuke” include?
  • According to this text, what is the hoped for result of rebuking sinning leaders?

Local churches ought to be communities that place high value on honoring faithful leaders—“double honor” even. That honor should include adequate pay for their labors, something we do even for domestic cattle according to verse 18. And it should include protecting leaders from unsubstantiated accusations and gossip (v. 19).

But it’s no honor to a leader, to Christ, or to the church to leave in office men who fall morally. Nor is it love. Many congregations have failed to correct erring leaders because of an exploited or an inaccurate notion of grace, love, forgiveness, and honor. Some unprincipled men seeking their own advantage or security will act as if the church belongs to them. They will hold fast to the position even though they’ve disqualified themselves according to 1 Timothy 3. They may seek to “step down” temporarily, but they’re soon reclaiming “their” positions and exerting “their” authority.

We can understand if a Christian wishes to leave a situation like that. I think they’d have biblical ground to do so.

But I want to suggest that staying in obedience to 1 Timothy 5:19-20 might be another way forward. According to these verses, it seems God expects the congregation to rebuke sinning pastors. Once two or more witnesses confirm a persistent sin, that sin should be met with public correction. The aim is the congregation’s reverence before God. A good rebuke of pastors leads to godly fear in the people. Is it no wonder so many Christians act rebelliously when their shepherds go uncorrected?

For serious moral failure—adultery, embezzlement, drunkenness, and anything contrary to 1 Timothy 3—the congregation’s “rebuke” should include permanent removal from office. It may also include corrective church discipline. Whatever the case, the key thing to observe is that Christ lays this responsibility on the members of the body. For them to fulfill it, they have to remain in the congregation rather than leave. Some good people will have to take some risks in order to reclaim Christ’s bride from unfaithful men.

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Thabiti M Anyabwile

Thabiti M Anyabwile

Thabiti is one of the pastors of Anacostia River Church in Washington, DC and the president of The Crete Collective. He is the author of several books and as an introvert enjoys quiet things at home.

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