by James R. Baker, Scotland
The importance of the cleanliness of a local assembly has a close and integral link to its sanctity. Throughout the revelation of the Old Testament there is clear and definite emphasis placed upon the holiness of God, and of the place where He dwells in the midst of His gathered people in both the Tabernacle and later the Temple. Similarly in the New Testament, many references are made to the same truth, beginning with the words of the Lord Jesus recorded in the Gospels and further continued in the teaching of the Epistles. As with other New Testament doctrinal and practical matters it is important to identify relevant principles found in Old Testament Scripture that are supra-dispensational.
"Touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD" Isa.52.11. Although the prophet Isaiah used these words in a different context, they adequately express the revealed mind and will of God regarding the purity which was to mark those members of the tribe of Levi whose responsibility it was to carry the sacred vessels. To preserve the sanctity of the house of God the Priests and Levites were required to be morally and ceremonially clean. Leviticus chapter 8 Divinely prescribes the aspects and modes of cleansing which were to be applied to make and keep them clean. The term holy, in its varying forms, is used many times in Exodus, Numbers and Leviticus.
Jehovah judged the lack of such purity in differing ways and there are recorded instances of the punishment of God falling upon His people when impurity was discovered. The holiness of God was to be respected and preserved in the ongoing life of the nation of Israel. An outstanding example of this was seen early in the wilderness journey in the case of Achan whose covetousness was hidden from all but did not escape the eye of God, Josh. 7.10,11,25,26. The severity of the outcome in judgment revealed the standard by which God expected His people to live. The sin of Nadab and Abihu further revealed the Divine standard of holiness set for those who had priestly responsibility in the nation, Lev.10.1,2. The judgment which fell at that time reveals the severity with which God viewed deviation from the pattern which He had given for the Divine dwelling and man’s approach to it.
Thoughtful readers of the New Testament will be familiar with the fact that the present period of God’s dealings with His redeemed people is marked by two important features. The first is that of a living exalted Man: Jesus the Son of God Who has ascended, and is now seated at God’s right hand in heaven. The second fact is of the presence on earth of the Holy Spirit of God. There is clear New Testament teaching that each true believer, born of God in the present day of grace, is indwelt personally and bodily by the Holy Spirit, "What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own" 1 Cor.3.19. Again, it is taught that the Holy Spirit dwells within the local assembly, "Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you?" 1 Cor.3.16.
The personal presence of a Divine and holy Person demands that both the believer and the local company with which they are associated must be holy. Any deviation from the mind and will of God in either doctrine or manner of life in these spheres, will infringe upon the sanctity with which they are Divinely invested, "If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are" 1 Cor.3.17. This principle applies to the individual and corporate aspects of the temple of God and therefore underlines the importance of what the Bible teaches on the subject of moral and doctrinal standards desired by God in both spheres. It also highlights the reason why there must be self-discipline in the life of the believer, and assembly discipline within the companies of those who gather in and to the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The aim of Satan is to impair and destroy sanctity in the personal and collective life of the people of God. The Lord Jesus spoke about such matters in His earthly ministry to His disciples, and in one conversation with them He revealed that sin in any spiritual company is like leaven in a lump of dough because it will spread, "Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees … How is it that ye do not understand that I spake it not to you concerning bread, that ye should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees? … Then understood they how that He bade them not beware of the leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees" Matt.16.6,11,12. The Lord Jesus also spoke of the leaven of Herod. "And He charged them, saying, Take heed, beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, and of the leaven of Herod" Mk.8.15. It is clear from the foregoing Scriptures that the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees refers to the potential spread of evil doctrine, but the leaven of Herod refers to the potential spread of evil moral practice. It was well known in the days of John the Baptist that Herod had already divorced his own wife, and then had taken his brother’s wife. Of this John had said "It is not lawful for thee to have thy brother’s wife" Mk.6.18. John knew that Herod was living a life of perpetual adultery.
The significance of the Lord’s words on leaven and its spread is further developed in later references in the New Testament epistles. In the assembly at Corinth there was a man who had committed moral sin, and was continuing in his sin. The ministry of 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is devoted to this problem and part of the advice of the apostle to them was "Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven" vv.6,7 and, "put away from among yourselves that wicked person" v.13. Later, when writing to the Galatians the same apostle was aware of the strong winds of false doctrine that were blowing in that area. The Judaisers were teaching that the believers who had come from the Gentile world were not completely saved without circumcision and without the observance of, and obedience to, other aspects of the law. This was wrong doctrine and thus the apostle wrote "A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" v.8. It is vitally important for every New Testament assembly to remember the importance of the purity of its doctrine and also the moral purity of each saint in its fellowship. Moral and doctrinal impurity, if present, will soon spread and will detrimentally affect the whole company.
"These things write I unto thee, hoping to come unto thee shortly: But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth" 1 Tim.3.15. The importance of the holy atmosphere within the local assembly of the saints is stressed in many New Testament passages, and commensurate behaviour within such companies is also taught. As quoted above, Paul stated the reason for writing his first epistle to Timothy was so that proper behaviour in the assembly could be seen. In the following verse it is taught that this behaviour could be defined as "godliness", and this is a key truth throughout the epistle. Godliness was manifest in the Incarnation and subsequent life on earth of our Lord Jesus Christ. The clear implication is that all believers should manifest such behaviour both within and without the local assembly.
The Planting of Local Assemblies
The Book of Acts contains the record of the descent and baptism of the Holy Spirit and the subsequent progress of approximately the first thirty years of personal and collective Christian testimony in the present ‘Day of Grace’. A unique aspect of this period was the commencement or planting of New Testament churches. The distinction between the Church, the one body of Christ and the many New Testament assemblies is described in more detail in the first chapter of this book. It should be noted that the local churches described, were all the result of the preaching of the gospel in the widening geographical areas as the testimony progressed. There is no example of an assembly being commenced purely on the ground of geographical convenience, and certainly not because of conflicting views on doctrinal matters. Each new company was evidence that God was working through His servants in a particular area.
The Pattern of Local Assemblies
"Then they that gladly received his word were baptised: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" Acts 2.41,42. In the Book of Acts, Luke begins his historical record with this first New Testament assembly, which was in Jerusalem, and it was unique in that it was the result of the preaching of the Gospel by Peter when three thousand souls were saved in one day. The four aspects in which they continued are described clearly as apostles’ doctrine, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayers, and are as vital today as when they were first practised. In addition, there is described the practices and principles of the various assemblies that were planted later, and which have clearly laid down the basis for assembly testimony throughout the whole church period. Many of these matters are confirmed and consolidated by the apostolic writings that now form part of inspired Scripture and they are the subject of teaching and exposition in this present volume.
The Purity of Local Assemblies
"Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in Me" Jn.15.3,4. These important words, spoken by the Lord Jesus to His disciples, contain the secret of cleanliness in both the personal and public life of all who are the children of God. Although it is obvious that the first requisite for a person to be in fellowship in a local assembly is that they are "born again" and baptised, yet it is also vital that they are living in daily communion with God. The world in which we live is a sphere of constant defilement. Each day there is fresh temptation. The later subject of assembly discipline is only necessary when the believer’s life becomes lax in the daily spiritual exercises that can give victory over the varied temptations of the world the flesh and the devil. Spiritual purity is enabled by the regular habit of reading and feeding on the Word of God in conjunction with the twin spiritual exercise of spending daily times of thanksgiving, confession and regular prayer. This is abiding in Christ. The spiritual tone of any assembly depends upon the spiritual level of each individual believer’s personal life before God. In principle this is in accord with the words of the Psalmist, "Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee" Ps.119.11. The Word of God will keep the believer from sin or else sin will keep the believer from the Word of God.
In light of the holy atmosphere required in the assembly it is sadly possible that deviation from the will and ways of God will occur. The New Testament gives various examples of such waywardness and how to deal with it. As in the family sphere, all discipline that is administered is with a view to the continuing spiritual health and activity of both the assembly and the individuals involved.
Discipline Involving Putting Away
This form of discipline is often referred to as excommunication and is shown in Scripture to be applicable for moral, doctrinal and practical aspects of spiritual failure. It is required in all situations where the spiritual status of the assembly has been disturbed and cannot be recovered without repentance before God, and a return to former spiritual conditions. Three different aspects of such failure within New Testament Scripture will now be described.
Moral Failure. "In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus … But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat … Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person" 1 Cor.5.4,5,11,13. This sad situation had entered the assembly at Corinth which had originally been planted through the preaching of the apostle Paul. It was dear to his heart and he regarded the believers there as his "beloved children" 1 Cor.4.14. The Apostle had received the news of grievous moral failure and sin that had taken place in the life of a brother in the assembly and the facts were well known and quickly spreading. The Divinely inspired advice given in 1 Corinthians chapter 5 is unambiguous. It is taught that such sin and its effects cannot be allowed to continue or else the corruption would spread to the detriment of the whole assembly. It is also revealed that the attitude of the assembly to these circumstances had not been appropriate, and instead of humility and repentance before God there was a proud spirit and lack of grief. From the advice that is given there emerge some guiding principles which will inform and help any assembly in such circumstances.
Further to the principles already considered, it is important to observe that the apostle was disturbed that the assembly had not mourned nor been grieved over such sin having taken place. Indeed the language used appears to suggest that their mourning before God could have resulted in God taking the action that they were now instructed to take. It should also be noted that there are misdemeanours so grave and complicated, that all the saints cannot consider them in public discussion. In such cases the assembly will have confidence in the report given by their elders and follow and support their recommendations. This will still enable the whole assembly to fulfil its responsibility of receiving new saints into fellowship and also of putting saints away when necessary.
The different terms used in 1 Cor.5.11 describe intensely evil behaviour in the moral realm. They have become the subject of confusion in the minds of many and require careful consideration.
Fornication is a term that when used alone, refers to every kind of sexual uncleanness and deviance. The word in the original Greek language is porneia which is the basis of our English word "pornography". This includes all forms of harlotry, adultery, incest, homosexuality, lesbianism, bestiality, paedophilia etc. and is the meaning in this passage.
However, we ought to note that when it is used in the same context as the allied term "adultery" it is clearly seen to have the specific meaning of premarital physical intimacy. Adultery always refers to post marital physical intimacy with a partner to whom the participant is not married. A literal definition of adultery is given in Ezek.16.38, "And I will judge thee, as women that break wedlock." This clearly indicates its meaning and emphasises that it means unfaithfulness within the married state.
Covetous indicates the desire to have more than one has. In many instances it is very hard to identify and prove that this moral failure exists and yet its gravity is seen here in that it is listed as a sin that deserves such absolute assembly discipline. In the present day of lotteries and allied systems of getting gain it is important that the people of God give heed to the words of the apostle Paul, "But they that will be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and hurtful lusts, which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows. But thou, O man of God, flee these things; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness" 1Tim.6.9-11. From these verses can be seen the moral danger of strong appetites for riches. A person who has been proved to be guilty of theft must be included in this category and disciplined accordingly.
An idolater was one who practised the worship of idols made by the hands of men. Many in the assembly at Corinth had been saved and delivered from such practice and the apostle Paul had revealed to them in writing that the energy behind every idol was the power of Satan and his emissaries. To return to such would be turning back from, and in effect renouncing, the true and only God. Such action would deserve putting away from the assembly. In Western society such sin would not easily be possible although the New Age Movements do exhibit some similar conditions that may be comparable.
The railer is a category that can easily be misunderstood. The word indicates one who reviles and will easily use violent and even abusive language against others. Clearly this is completely foreign to the type of character a believer should display. Of the Lord Jesus we read, "Who, when He was reviled, reviled not again; when He suffered, He threatened not; but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously" 1 Pet.2.23. It behoves every believer to emulate the attitude of Christ in all such circumstances. Sadly, amongst saints attitudes of aggression and antipathy to each other can arise and it is from these conditions that the flesh within each child of God can produce the works that will bring grief to the heart of God. It is in conditions such as these that the sin of railing one against another can take place. In this context of a railer, the discipline of 1 Corinthians 5 would only be invoked if such railing continued after appropriate warning had been given. Slander against one another is another form of railing which must be judged when known and proven.
The term drunkard hardly requires definition and describes one who is habitually given to consuming strong drink. The balance of both Old and New Testament exhortations on this subject stands firmly in favour of total abstinence. Present day statistics reveal this as one of the outstanding social problems in the entire world. Drink has a strong connection with almost every form of moral evil known to man and should be strenuously avoided by all who name the Name of Christ.
The extortioner is one who will in essence steal from or deprive others of their possessions by various forms of deceit. This is often seen in the business world and the innocent who know little of the intricacies of modern financial systems are sometimes duped by those who have declared themselves bankrupt to prevent their creditors regaining what is their lawful money.
All these categories are named to Divinely advise those who are responsible to God for maintaining the purity of the local assembly in dealing with the possible errors that may arise.
Doctrinal Failure. "Ye did run well; who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth? … A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump. I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be … I would they were even cut off which trouble you" Gal. 5.7,9,10,12. Earlier in this chapter, it has been shown that the Lord Jesus used the spread of leaven within a lump of dough as an illustration of the ease with which evil can spread in an assembly. It is of great significance that the exact statement used in 1 Cor.5.6 concerning the leaven of moral evil, is here repeated in the Galatian epistle concerning doctrinal evil. This reveals the importance of the purity and power of true scriptural teaching in local assembly life.
It should also be stressed that this applies not only to what is taught but also to what is held by those who teach. Reference to this is found in the words of the Lord Jesus Christ to the church at Pergamos, "But I have a few things against thee, because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam, who taught Balac to cast a stumblingblock before the children of Israel, to eat things sacrificed unto idols, and to commit fornication. So hast thou also them that hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans, which thing I hate. Repent; or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" Rev.2.14-16. These words reveal a very important aspect of the danger associated with wrong doctrine in assembly life. Some have claimed that it is allowable to receive those who hold wrong teaching providing they promise not to teach it. This is dangerous in the extreme and contrary to the words of the Lord Jesus already quoted.
The reason for including doctrinal failure within the ‘putting away’ section may be questioned but it should be noted that in the passage referred to, the inspired advice of the Apostle emphasises the gravity of the evil effect of the teaching upon the assemblies in Galatia. The following statements should be carefully considered "who did hinder you that ye should not obey the truth … a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump … he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment … I would they were even cut off which trouble you" Gal.5.7-12. The failure of Hymenaeus and Alexander appeared to be of a doctrinal nature and the apostolic verdict was that they were "delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme" 1 Tim.1.20.
This, when compared with the same words in 1 Cor.5.5 suggests the act of putting away. Whilst the use of these apostolic words would not be used in our day when putting someone away from assembly fellowship, they are very descriptive of what does take place at such a time. To be in fellowship in the assembly is to be within a Divine sphere where the presence of Christ can be experienced and the blessing of God enjoyed by the power of the Holy Spirit. When any believer is put away from assembly fellowship they are effectively delivered into Satan’s sphere. For the genuine child of God there will be continual discomfort and unhappiness in such a sphere, this is the burden of the words that follow revealing that they should soon learn not to continue in the things which had necessitated such serious discipline.
Practical Failure. "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" Matt.18.17,18. There are but two instances given of the Lord Jesus speaking about the Church and each is distinct from the other. The first is in Matthew chapter 16 where He clearly referred to the Church or the one Body of this present dispensation. This great Body comprising of both Jew and Gentile began on the day of Pentecost and will be complete at the time of the Rapture, when He will come to the air to call and take to Himself the one Body, the Bride of the Lamb. The second is in Matthew chapter 18 and is the church or the local assembly that gathers in a given geographical location. This company is composed of saints who gather to and in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Within the compass of the Lord’s ministry on this subject in vv.15-20, He referred to a situation that could easily affect the local gathering. It concerned a trespass between two brethren.
The Lord Jesus outlined three steps to be taken in seeking the recovery of the erring brother. The final stage that the Lord outlined would be for the matter to be brought to the church. This immediately confirms the difference between this context and chapter 16. The local church is a tangible body composed of living men and women in contrast to the Church, which is the Body of Christ. If the offended brother failed to listen to the verdict of the assembly he was to be regarded as "an heathen man and a publican." This discipline has been interpreted by some as personal but a consistent treatment of the continuing pronouns used throughout the context and flowing on into v.18 will indicate that the corporate body of the assembly is, at this stage, also in view. The late William Rodgers has said "if the church has not put the man away at v.17, why should it be said in the following verse, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven?" Here then is the discipline of putting away for a failure in certain personal relationships within the assembly.
The general principles outlined in the section on ‘moral failure’ are applicable to all forms of discipline which involve ‘putting away’ and the further important matter of the attitude of saints to those who are disciplined should be borne in mind. It is not an unkindness to obey the words "no not to eat" 1 Cor.5.11. The Divine command to not keep company with those who have been disciplined is with a view to their eventual restoration. It is still the responsibility of the shepherds of the flock to take an interest in the person who has been put away to encourage repentance and eventual recovery.
Discipline involving Personal Warning
"And we beseech you, brethren, to know them which labour among you, and are over you in the Lord, and admonish you; And to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. And be at peace among yourselves. Now we exhort you, brethren, warn them that are unruly, comfort the feebleminded, support the weak, be patient toward all men" 1 Thess.5.12-14. It is good to appreciate that the aspect of discipline already considered should not be a common feature of assembly life. It is an extreme application of truth that generally will not be necessary. Other forms of discipline are required from time to time and there are various sections of New Testament teaching that cover such need. The first letter of Paul to the young assembly at Thessalonica contains advice on the matter of unruliness that can arise amongst the people of God. It seems that the assembly was so young that there were no formally identified individuals who ‘took the lead’ amongst them.
In 1 Thessalonians chapter 5 it can be seen that the apostle is giving advice to help these young believers to recognise those who were labouring amongst them and could be seen to be over them in the Lord. It is good when shepherds can be easily recognised "for their work’s sake". It is also helpful to note that in the same passage the apostle gives advice to the men who were emerging and being recognised as shepherds amongst the flock of God. The advice given to such men is brief but pertinent to every gathering of the people of God. It is evident that there was already a need for the warning note to be sounded although the particular aspect of unruliness is not named, but no doubt the assembly concerned would be well acquainted with the persons being spoken of.
The second epistle to the same assembly supplies the answer regarding the nature of the problem, "For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread", 2 Thess.3.11,12. The warnings advocated in the first epistle, if given, were unheeded and further action was required. If warnings were more readily given in assembly life, perhaps there would be less continuing difficulties. There is a very close link between the words used in the first and second epistles and from this it is evident that the same people are in view. The warnings given in the second epistle give good example of this type of discipline.
Discipline involving Personal Rejection
"Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple" Rom.16.17,18; "Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us" 2 Thess.3.6. The action recommended here is not easily followed, yet there are occasions when such severe measures are required. The advice to the believers in Rome refers to one who, amongst the saints, is given to causing the differences and divisions, which are so hateful to God. This kind of person is to be identified and then avoided. Friendship and companionship with such individuals will eventually promote a similar spirit in those who accompany them, and will also encourage them to continue in their nefarious activity. It is not the will of God that believers should promote any form of division amongst the Lord’s people. Separation is a Divine principle that should always be followed, but division is a satanic principle that should be avoided. Separation expresses God’s desire that His people, while living in the world, should not be of the world. The life of the believer is to be apart from the world and lived in fellowship with God. On the other hand division conveys the desire of Satan to cut the people of God off from each other. It was seen early in the kingdom of Israel when Jeroboam made Israel to sin. His sin was not only in making them idolaters but also in effectively cutting off the northern part of the kingdom known as Israel, from the southern part known as Judah.
Another aspect of rejection is referred to by the apostle Paul when writing to Titus, "Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers. For there are many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, specially they of the circumcision: Whose mouths must be stopped, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake" Tit.1.9-11. The assemblies in Crete had been invaded by the Judaistic teachers and the instruction here given by the apostle was for their mouths to be stopped. It should be noted that the recommendation for this action is preceded by the exhortation to the elders of the assembly not only to hold fast the faithful word in his own life, but also to exhort and convince the gainsayer by sound doctrine.
The great power against wrong doctrine in any assembly is the careful teaching of the Word of God. This must not depend upon teachers from outside the assembly. It is imperative that local brethren be able to teach the saints. But here the apostle does advise that "mouths must be stopped", thus there are those who must be silenced from public participation if they continue in the practice of unsound teaching. A continuation in such wrong behaviour would merit further advanced discipline as dealt with earlier in this present chapter.
Discipline involving Personal Preservation
"Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" Gal.6.1. "Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life. And of some have compassion, making a difference: And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire; hating even the garment spotted by the flesh" Jude vv.21-23. It is good that the New Testament gives advice regarding situations that are not necessarily deserving of retributive measures. The term used in Galatians chapter 5 is that of putting a dislocated bone back into its joint capsule. Spiritual men have ever acted with care and skill to help those with a fault. The passage in Jude’s letter stresses the need for compassion and help when saints have strayed from the correct pathway. It is good for assembly life when a brother or sister can be recovered and replaced into healthy spiritual condition.
Discipline involving Public Assembly Service
"Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" 1Tim.5.19,20. It is important to observe that all in local assembly fellowship are subject to the standards and demands of holiness that have been outlined in the former part of this chapter of the present book. These words of the apostle Paul to Timothy are part of a section that deals particularly with elders:
In the first section the emphasis is upon the value of the work in which Elders are engaged and the way in which they may need to be helped practically. The second section is the reason for the passage being introduced in the present chapter.
V.19 introduces the dangers that face those who take such onerous responsibility. The history of the nation of Israel is marked by the many times of murmurings and complaints that were raised against those who led them both in their wilderness pilgrimage and also when they reached the land of Canaan. Sadly, this same spirit is often seen in local assembly life. The Divinely provided protection for those who take the lead is that no charge should be laid against an Elder unless it is supported before two or three witnesses. This in itself is a spiritually provided guard for those who serve the Lord in such service. The following verse then refers to "them that sin". Contextually and grammatically it is normal to accept that the reference is still to the main subjects of the passage i.e. elders. Here then, is the gravity of the sin of a leader. The Old Testament gives reference to the failure of spiritual leaders and to the gravity with which God viewed them. The public rebuke or reproof given to such is with a view to the whole assembly being spiritually affected and chastened before God. It is not without significance that the charge given next on these matters is in the sight of three witnesses; namely "God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels" v.21.
The closing section is also concerning the care that should be exercised in recognising those who are fitted for the work of Shepherd care. Some are easily seen in advance with regard to good or bad features and others’ good or bad features are seen much later. This clearly supports the statement "Lay hands suddenly on no man."