Last week, Tim Challies, an evangelical pastor associated with the Gospel Coalition, wrote a blog post titled “Do Not Admit a Charge Against an Elder, Except.” In it he argued that pastors need protection because they are under satanic attack. What kind of protection? Protection against allegations of egregious offenses, of course.
It’s a rare week now when we do not learn of some new charge against a pastor. The world has gotten smaller than ever and information moves at a greater pace than at any other point in history. In such a world, news travels fast and furious. Especially bad news. And we do love our bad news, don’t we? In such a world, heroes rise and fall in hours or even moments. And we do love to raise up and tear down, don’t we?
The Bible gives us clear guidance when it comes to bad news about pastors. In 1 Timothy 5, Paul instructs Timothy—and through him the church of all times at all ages—how to deal with accusations against them. “Do not admit a charge against an elder,” he says, “except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (9).
I already have a problem with the framing here. Instead of recognizing, perhaps, that we are as a society (I hope) coming to take sexual abuse (and abuse in general) more seriously, Challies positions the issue as a combination of news that moves quickly and people who enjoy tearing others down. Challies is interested not in being a champion of the poor and downtrodden but rather in making sure that powerful (and often wealthy) pastors keep their platforms.
Challies continues as follows:
There are a couple of things we ought to notice here. The first is that in some ways, elders are held to the same standard as any other believer. The Old Testament burden of proof for accusations was two or three witnesses. Philip Ryken summarizes in this way: “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established.” This level of proof stretches also into the New Testament. Jesus himself maintained this standard in his instruction about confronting sin in another believer (see Matthew 18:15-20).
Yes, that’s right, Challies is in fact arguing that pastors ought to be held to lower standards than everyone else. Which is odd, because I thought they were supposed to be held to higher standards. Apparently not.
Oh and by the way, that whole “special object of satanic attack” thing is what led my mother to defend Michael and Debi Pearl after their child training materials were implicated in the deaths of three children. This is the sort of knee-jerk circle the wagons response that leads churches to turn on victims and offer prayers for abusers, because they are “under attack.”
If you’re only interested in the gist of Challies’ argument, you can stop here. The issues I’m going to turn to next are slightly more technical. Have a look at the next paragraph in Challies’ article:
So what path do we follow if we have a grievance against a pastor or believe we have witnessed him sinning in a grievous way? We follow the guidance of Matthew 18 by going to him on our own, to confront his sin and call him to repent. (Though if there has been criminal wrongdoing we ought to follow the laws of our lands which may involve immediately reporting him to the appropriate authorities.) If after that meeting we are still convinced that he has sinned and remains unrepentant, we take one or two others with us and confront him a second time. It is only now that we have gathered the necessary two or three witnesses that we are to make that sin known to the other leaders in the church. It is only now that those leaders should be willing to hear and evaluate the accusations.
But my second question is this: what, exactly, is a witness?
Deuteronomy 19:15 reads as follows:
“A single witness shall not rise up against a man on account of any iniquity or any sin which he has committed; on the evidence of two or three witnesses a matter shall be confirmed.
Matthew 18:15-17 reads thusly:
“If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
What, then, is a witness?
Just last week we saw Doug Wilson use Deuteronomy 19:15 to defend Roy Moore, suggesting that a “witness” is one who was actually there and saw the crime. But that is not how the term is used in Matthew 18:15-17, where those present when an accuser confronts a fellow believer become witnesses too (and Jesus quotes Deuteronomy 19:15 in making this statement).
This is why living your life by the dictates of a book written thousands of years ago by dozens of different authors each with their own agenda is probably a bad idea.
Challies finishes his article as follows:
From this little passage in Paul’s letter we come to two clear conclusions. First, as long as the church inhabits this sinful world, we must expect to encounter pastors who violate trust, prove their lack of godly character, and invalidate their ministry. When we have the evidence of two or three witnesses, we must carefully evaluate accusations and, if they are sustained, to move boldly to remove these men from their positions. To do that in a biblical manner, we simply need to follow the instruction in the very next verse: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” Second, as long as the church inhabits this sinful world, we must also expect to encounter pastors who love their people, prove their godly character, carry out their ministry, and yet who are unfairly charged with the most egregious offenses. Until those accusations come from multiple witnesses, we must refuse to hear them and move boldly to affirm these men in their positions.
In responding to comments on his Facebook posting of this article, Challies stated that he’s primarily talking about sins that are not criminal offenses. He repeated his admonition that allegations that rise to a criminal level should always be reported to the authorities. When a commenter asked about sexual harassment or other indiscretions that might not technically be criminal, Challies suggested that in a case like that the accuser should take a man with her when confronting the pastor a la Matthew 18.
There’s no way Challies can post something like this right now, in the cultural moment we are in, and not know that people will assume he’s talking about sexual indiscretions. If he actually meant other kinds of sins, he should have been clear about that upfront.
Challies’ argument is ultimately confounded by his own lack of clarity. What sorts of offenses is he talking about? In what way does following Matthew 18 when there is an allegation against a pastor amount to treating pastors differently from ordinary believers? And if it isn’t different, why does Challies directly state that pastors should be treated differently? And finally, what is a witness? Because many readers will assume that a witness is one who saw the crime or has direct knowledge of it, this should be clarified.
As a girl growing up in an evangelical home, I was taught that pastors are to be held to a higher standard than others, not a lower standard. We have already seen sexual scandal after sexual scandal beset pastors, churches, and ministries across the country. Suggesting that charges against pastors need a higher number of accusers than charges against other individuals to even be considered, at this moment in our society, is dangerous. Perhaps Challies meant something different; perhaps he simply wasn’t clear. If so, he needs to publish an addendum or a follow-up. Pastoral abuse is nothing to be unclear about.