Charles Hodge is somewhat famous for saying: “Familiar passages need to be read more carefully.” Evolution of an understanding because I want to keep growing.
I can remember as a very young preacher thinking this passage simply meant: “Don’t say bad things about elders.” It was a passage to protect the good guys: A passage to protect those good men who would give themselves in service to shepherd God’s People. After all, all elders and elderships have accusations hurled against them. There are people whose default position on “elder(s)” is “bad”. These people believe all elder(ships) are automatically: controlling, make stupid decisions, out to get them, are unapproachable, etc. It’s a sad place to be but if you’ve ever had to deal with a Diotrephes or an elder totally out of touch with his sheep, or one who only sees the sins of others and does not deal gentle with those who sin or, well, you know I could go on. But the truth is the MUCH larger percentage of elders are just men who do their very best to love the Lord and His church, His people and give untold hours to meetings, and shepherding, and prayer.
Then I read the passage more carefully: After working with churches that had elders for about fifteen years I began to read the passage more carefully and began to believe this was a way to deal with that occasionally bad elder. The elder who “reads the riot act to a young deacon, assuring him “who is really in charge around here.” The elder whose power has gone to his head. The elder who believes he is above the law. Or the elder who believes he is the law! Here was the way to deal with that guy because that guy always destroys the flock. He crushes the spirit of the church and stifles every good thing he can. I began to believe this was a passage that taught us how to get rid of a bad elder.
Then I read the passage more carefully: And I noticed that word “receive”. I’ve always thought this was about either the spreader of vicious rumors, malicious gossip or slander against God’s men. But, and track with me here: The person who goes around slandering God’s man isn’t going to hear that admonition anyway. They rarely are interested in doing right anyway. No, this is warning the human nature sign of us as humans to “hear” stuff. To listen. To try to understand. This verse says: should someone come to you with accusations against an elder - STOP them - tell them, bring two or three witnesses with you or I can’t listen. I won’t put up with the possibility of idle talk that chinks away the character of good men. The New Century Version says "do no listen to someone who accuses as elder", the NIV says "do not entertain an accusation against an elder", The Message paraphrases it "don't listen to a complaint against an leader". If he is not a good man, then there WILL be more than your word. If he is and you are saying something bad then it is no more than divisiveness or gossip. Yes, some have been hurt by an elder or an eldership. Yes, EVERY ONE of them are human and DO make mistakes. Yes, some are evil men who only want the control (3 John 9). So, I am not discounting anyone’s pain. What I am doing is seeing a strong warning in God’s Word to those who might “receive” accusations against an elder. I think, perhaps as a preacher, I needed to see that in the passage.
I also find that phrase “against an elder”, let me remind you, from what I read of what these men are to be like and made of, that is not a good place to be. "Against" is not where you ever need to be and it's a place you need to avoid as much as possible ever being. "Against" is about the only work that there is no variant translation of in any major translation.
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. (NASV)
Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (ESV)
Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. (NIV)
Do not listen to someone who accuses an elder, without two or three witnesses. (NCV)
Don't listen to a complaint against a leader that isn't backed up by two or three responsible witnesses. (The Message)
Oh yeah, one more thing: Don't say bad things about elders!
And, as always, a disclaimer. Nothing prompted this article that has happened in my life of late. I love our shepherds and so does the Spring Meadows church. This is result of years of considering this passage and watching people.