Timothy faced a monumental task in working to remove the false teachers in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3) precisely because many of these teachers were also church elders there. So pervasive were the errors that he would have likely been tempted to get rid of all of the leaders and start afresh. Yet to do this would have been the wrong move, for not every elder there was doing a bad job. Some fulfilled their tasks so admirably that they were worthy of “double honor” (5:17–18).
All of this explains why Paul cautions Timothy against defrocking elders too quickly, telling him not to countenance charges against an elder without two or three witnesses (v. 19). In cleaning house at Ephesus there was the danger that people, seeing elders being removed from office, would falsely accuse others whom they disliked in order to see them defrocked. The apostle’s application of Deuteronomy 19:15–20 to the discipline of elders in 1 Timothy 5:19 served to prevent such things from happening in his day, and it ought to continue to ensure that church leaders receive due process today.
But when the testimony of several witnesses reveals the accused elder to be in violation of God’s law, he must be publicly rebuked (v. 20). This does not apply to each and every sin but, as John Calvin writes, to “crimes or glaring transgressions, which are attended by public scandal; for, if any of the elders shall have committed a fault, not of a public nature, it is certain that he ought to be privately admonished and not openly reproved.” Minor faults should be overlooked (1 Peter 4:8) as well as personal offenses over which the elder has expressed repentance (Matt. 18:15–20). When the normal process of church discipline fails to produce contrition, however, the elder must be admonished before all “so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20). The apostle applies Deuteronomy 13:11 here, knowing that people will be less likely to indulge in sins for which even their leaders can be disciplined, making the church more holy.
Elders are not subject to different standards by virtue of being leaders. No person is above the law, not even the king (17:14–20), and to be partial to any sinner is to deny the Lord who judges impartially (2 Chron. 19:7; 1 Tim. 5:21).
John Chrysostom says, “As it is wrong to condemn hastily and rashly, so not to punish manifest offenses is to open the way to others, and embolden them to offend. …The threatenings of hell show the care of God for us no less than the promises of heaven” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, NT vol. 9, p. 205; hereafter, ACCNT). To excuse anyone’s sin is neither loving nor gracious but falsely implies that Jesus can be Savior without being Lord.