One of the most difficult things a church ever does is to discipline an elder. It is difficult enough to bring biblical discipline to church members, but it is even more difficult when elders are the ones in need of correction. There are so many conflicts and questions that are raised when an elder is caught in sin. When this happens, the church is in a very vulnerable situation. They are immediately subject to partiality, divisions, and even biting and devouring one another. Alexander Strauch has given me permission to post this from his book, Biblical Eldership. The quotation below is from chapter nine, following this citation is a link to the whole chapter.
Disciplining an Elder
How should an elder be treated if an accusation of sin is found to be true? Verse 20 provides the answer: “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all.” Some expositors think that verse 20 begins a new subject regarding the treatment of sinners in general, but this view is incorrect. Such a break in thought would be too abrupt and unexpected. Furthermore, it is clear that verses 19-25 deal with the topic of elders, particularly the sin of elders.
The clause, “those who continue in sin,” translates a present active participle (tous hamartanontas). The New American Standard Bible rendering stresses the persistent nature of the sinning. There is disagreement among commentators, however, as to what is implied by this present tense participle.
Some commentators believe that only those elders who stubbornly persist in sin after private warnings are to be publicly rebuked and that repentant elders need not be rebuked publicly. This interpretation, however, misconstrues the point of the passage. A more accurate interpretation recognizes that the contrast is made between elders who are innocent (v. 19) and elders who sin (v. 20). The elders to be publicly rebuked are those who are found guilty of sin as proven by witnesses (v. 19).
The elder’s disposition toward his sin is not the issue here. The issue is: an elder’s sin demands public exposure. Paul gives no consideration as to whether or not the elder is repentant. The present tense participle should be rendered “the ones who sin,” not “those who continue in sin.” The participle describes the “present guilt”xxxv which has been substantiated by witnesses (v. 19). To add the condition that a one-time-occurrence of sin or the sin of a repentant elder is not to be publicly rebuked is to distort Paul’s instruction. The passage teaches that a proven, public accusation against an elder who has sinned (or is still sinning) must be publicly exposed and rebuked.
Furthermore, 1 Timothy 5:20 is not simply an example of Matthew 18:15-17 (Christ’s teaching on discipline) in action. First Timothy 5:20 provides additional biblical instruction on church discipline, specifically the matter of a church leader’s sin. Of course, if an elder refuses to repent, he would be disfellowshiped from the congregation according to Matthew 18.
Paul’s instructions go on to add that an elder who has been proven to be guilty of sin by witnesses is to be rebuked before the church. The imperative verb “rebuke” translates the Greek word elencho, which is a rich term conveying the ideas of “exposing,” “proving guilt,” “correcting,” and “reproving.” In this context, “rebuke” includes the ideas of public exposure, correction, and reproof. After Timothy’s departure from Ephesus, the elders would be responsible to rebuke any sinning elders.
The context indicates that the sin to which Paul refers is serious. It is “sin” that is the problem, not merely a leadership blunder or minor shortcoming. Witnesses are required to verify the truth of the charges (vv. 19,20) and a public rebuke is demanded, which would not be required of minor offenses. Since verse 20 is written in very general terms, Paul’s instruction covers various degrees of sin, circumstances, and consequences. Godly wisdom, counsel, and prayer will guide the local church and its spiritual leaders in implementing this instruction in individual cases.
Paul specifically requires the guilty elder to be rebuked in “the presence of all.” This means public exposure before the entire congregation, not just the council of elders. The major point is that an elder’s sin must be publicly exposed, not hidden or swept under the carpet. A spiritual leader’s sin must be treated with great concern because it has grave ramifications; it can lead more people astray and can cause the unbelieving world to mock God, the church, and the gospel. If the world sees that local churches take sin seriously, especially in the discipline of sinful leaders, then it will believe that Christians mean what they preach. Furthermore, only when the discipline of an erring church leader is made public is there any chance of controlling one of the most divisive forces in a church: rumormongering, gossip, and misinformation.
Public rebuke of an elder who sins fulfills another important purpose: “that the rest also may be fearful of sinning.” Not only is the public discipline for the correction of the sinning elder, it is also for deterring others from sin. “The rest” seems to refer to the other elders, but the entire congregation would also experience some measure of fear (Acts 5:11). The phrase “of sinning” is not in the original text, which reads, “so that the rest also may have fear.” The fear the elders would experience includes not only the fear of sinning, but the shame of public exposure. To see the sin of a fellow elder publicly exposed before the church would produce a fear of sinning and of its shameful consequences (Deut. 13:11). God uses such fear as a powerful deterrent to keep people, especially church leaders, from sinning.
You can read the whole chapter here as I have posted the whole article on the NCFIC website.
The book, Biblical Eldership, is a fantastic resource for elders, can be purchased here at Lewis and Roth Publishers