Do not listen to an accusation against an elder unless it is confirmed by two or three witnesses. Those who sin should be reprimanded in front of the whole church; this will serve as a strong warning to others.
-1 Timonthy 5:19-20, NLT
I am aware that these verses are sometimes abused in churches to protect predatory pastors. But I am also aware that these verses are often not followed when the elder–i.e. pastor–is a faithful spouse and his/her reputation is being tarnished in the church and/or denomination.
The church ought to know.
Plus, the denominational officials could show their support of pastors in these situations by not fearing public acknowledgment that the faithful spouse was a victim of adultery.*
That said, I am an ordained minister. My rule is the Bible. And the Bible is clear that we do not hide sin. These verses from I Timothy 5 make that clear as well as verses elsewhere (e.g. Ephesians 5:11).
Churches are often liken to a family. When the pastor’s marriage is in crisis, the anxiety from that crisis can spread through the spiritual family as well as his/her natural one. Good pastoral care would include alleviating such anxiety by being truthful and providing sound Biblical teaching on such matters.
I Timothy 5:19 is clear that pastors/elder ought to be protected from slanderous accusations and gossip. It needs to be credible charges verified by two witnesses and not just hearsay brought against a teaching elder is what this verse obviously says.
Part of that protection means communicating to the congregation the truth.
“Pastor John’s wife, Janet, has admitted in writing to committing adultery and has chosen to end their marriage despite our efforts to encourage her to repentance. As Scripture teaches on these matters, Pastor John is a victim of Janet’s sins and is in no way responsible for her choices to defy God’s will regarding their marriage covenant. Please join us in praying for Pastor John while he grieves the loss of his marriage and heals from this. Also, please pray for Janet that she might repent so that she might find herself restored to a living relationship with God. To be clear: we–the elders–stand in complete and unqualified support of Pastor John and expect all to treat Pastor John with the same kindness as we would treat a widower loosing a spouse due to circumstances outside of his control.”
A statement like this does three important things:
- It explains what happened reducing anxiety due to the unknown. The marriage is not dissolving due to “irreconcilable differences,” but due to sin–i.e. Janet’s. Plus, the statement makes it clear that the church will go forward under current leadership–i.e. Pastor John’s–as the elders are in complete support of him. Thus, it reduces anxieties about the church’s future as well.
- It protects Pastor John’s reputation. Rumor mills are squashed through such an official statement. The elders have taken a Biblical stance–re: I Timothy 5:20–in exposing the sin via a public reprimand of Janet. Plus, the fears about Pastor John having a pastoral disqualifying sin in his life are addressed by the clear statement of elder support. The elders are taking a stance to have Pastor John’s back in this matter, which is a courageous and godly thing to do in our over-litigious culture.
- It provides sound teaching regarding adultery, which includes a direct refutation of “The Shared Responsibility Lie.” This can be a “teaching moment” for churches. Elders can utilize such an awful situation for the redemptive purposes of reminding congregants that we alone are responsible for our own sins. This includes sins chosen that violate our marriages. This is the second part of protecting Pastor John’s reputation. It is am important to teaching to make as people will inevitably drift towards pop-psychology narratives “There’s Always Two Sides” or “It Takes Two To Tango.” Pastors and elders ought to take a stance in properly and Biblically teaching on these matters correcting the erroneous popular “wisdom” on such matters.
Too often, cowardice and inaction rule the day. Faithful pastors are pushed out of the pulpit due to the sins of their spouses. An opportunity to refute “The Shared Responsibility Lie” is missed. Congregants are left with rumors or insinuations that their pastor somehow deserved his/her divorce.
I believe the Bible tells us we need to do better than just take the easy route in such situations. Yes, it will take courage. And yes, it may result in discomfort from multiple angles. However, I suggest that following God often times requires both.
So, the question then becomes:
Are we really willing to follow Him in standing up for vulnerable victims of adultery?
* I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Certainly, the church will want to be mindful of obeying appropriate laws in their land and seeking qualified counsel on such matters to be wise.