When an elder is accused

It’s the thing that any church dreads, someone coming and bringing an accusation against a pastor or elder. In fact, it is something that elders and pastors dread too. Elders, sadly make enemies as they seek to confront and challenge sin, so the possibility is real that someone might seek to get back at you with an accusation that circulates quickly and destroys your reputation. 

In recent years, we have heard sadly of several high profile cases where leading Christians have been accused and the issue has been ignored, covered up, swept under the carpet until one day the story breaks and the situation is far worse than if it had been dealt with at the time.  Meanwhile, we are also hearing of examples of pastors driven out of ministry by false accusation. So, how do we act beat in order to honour victims and ensure justice, safe-guard the reputation of the Gospel, protect leaders against slander?

Preventative Measures

The best thing we can do, is to have measures in place up front. The first step is to have plural leadership. So, what happens when a church is young and small or old and in need of revitalisation and it isn’t possible to identify a number of elders? My advice in that situation is that it should work with another church who will lend oversight to it.

Secondly have clarity up front about how your leaders will function and the forms of accountability and transparency that will be in place.  For example, I was always clear in my previous role that I would not handle the church’s money because I was dependent on the church for financial support.  We did not want to give an opening for accusation that I had my hands in the till

Another up front rule that many people have used is the so called “Billy Graham” rule.  Billy Graham determined that he would not be left alone in a room with a woman.  This was to avoid either temptation or suspicion of sexual immorality.  Now the absence of that rule has been used as an excuse for some recent failings and falls including with Ravi Zacharias but it has also come under serious attack too.  A lot of people today see it as sexist and implying that women are in effect temptresses, that men could not possibly see past their bodies to engage with what they have to think and say.  The rule would also have been useless in the Fletcher and Smyth cases where it was young men that were targeted. 

This article is helpful on the Billy Graham rule. We should neither become legalistic slaves to it nor become overly dismissive. To be sure, it is more important that I am not alone with my temptation than that I’m not alone with women but being alert to where temptation may come isn’t foolish.  Billy Graham determined the rule with others when considering the specific context of his ministry as an evangelist, potentially away from home life for weeks and months on end. His calling was not to offer individual counsel to people either.  The day to day work of a pastor is different and popping in on a 90 year old widow as part of your weekly visit plan is something different too.  The wisest thing to me seems to be that we should think very carefully about every pastoral context ahead of time both about what temptations might be presented in it and how it could be seen.

Churches would do well to have specific policies in place, agreed by church members about these kinds of matters including policies on financial processes and for safeguarding children and at risk adults.

When the accusation comes

In 1 Timothy 5:9, Paul says that an accusation should not even be entertained unless there are two witnesses.  Now, that can be difficult.  The person who comes in and says that they were bullied or abused will be coming and talking to you about things that happened one to one.  I believe that the important thing here is that the purpose of this OT principle is to protect against frivolous and malicious accusations.  A world where someone can just turn up and say anything they like against someone else and then it is for that person to prove that they are innocent is itself cruel and abusive. Yet, even when there isn’t another a second human witness, there are usually other witnesses.  These might include phone records, emails and circumstantial evidence. We will know things about he character of accused and accuser over a period of time, does what is being said fit with what we know historically?  Furthermore, we will know that some accusations had to be impossible given the specific context in which they were meant to have happened, for example, the accused could not have been at the place they were supposed to have been or things were meant to have happened somewhere that was public, visible and with others around.

If there are witnesses, either human or otherwise, then it is important that action is taken. If the accusation puts ministry in jeopardy, then the accused elder should step down whilst things are investigated. They should not be allowed to interfere with the investigation.  I’ve heard of situations where an accused person was able to stay in post, speak to some of the named witnesses and then the case thrown out because they denied it. It doesn’t take too much thinking to work out the problem with that.

There should then be opportunity for the other elders to investigate the evidence and listen to witnesses. They should also take time to interview the accused.  It may be wise in such a context to invite a third party organisation in to facilitate such an investigation. Where there is evidence of sin, the elder is to be publicly warned according to Paul (1 Timothy 5:20).  Depending upon the nature of the sin and evidence of repentance, church discipline processes should be followed, and even if an outside organisation or other church has been involved in the investigation, it is  for the church members and not an outside body to follow that process. Note the warning against hastiness in action.  We should not be hasty in appointing new elders by laying on of hands (5:22 but by implication I would suggest that we should not be hasty in our actions to either dimiss charges or to enact discipline. We should be careful, patient and loving.

Remember that this is where there is accusation of sin. Where there is an accusation of criminality or law breaking then the police or relevant authorities need to be informed.

What if the accusations are false

Well, the first thing that should happen is that this should be confirmed.  This needs to be addressed to as many people who have potentially heard about he accusations. Even if an investigation has not gone out to the wider church membership before the elders realising there was nothing in it people will still have picked up that there was something wrong.  Reputations will have been affected and we cannot assume that everyone will have been concerned for confidentiality. So, at that point, there may well be wisdom in sharing with the church what has happened but it must be accompanied by a clear vindication of the elder.  Those who have brought the accusation also need to retract as well.

Handle the latter point with care. Accusations that turn out not to be true may not necessarily be malicious and may be based in misunderstanding. Learn to distinguish the two.  Give a person space to retract an accusation in a way that does not lead to shaming.  Yet in other cases, there accusations  were wilful, even if the accuser convinced themselves they had good motives. Persisting in an accusation when it has been disproven or becoming the serial accuser who simply moves on to the next spurious charge you have to bring is wilful and sinful. 

The Bible takes false accusation seriously and it is itself a form of abuse and bullying, often referred to in modern parlance as “gaslighting.”  The OT Law takes false accusation very seriously:

16“If a malicious witness comes forward and accuses someone of a crime, 17then both the accuser and accused must appear before the LORD by coming to the priests and judges in office at that time. 18The judges must investigate the case thoroughly. If the accuser has brought false charges against his fellow Israelite, 19you must impose on the accuser the sentence he intended for the other person. In this way, you will purge such evil from among you. 20Then the rest of the people will hear about it and be afraid to do such an evil thing. 21You must show no pity for the guilty! Your rule should be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.[1]

In other words, in the church context, where someone seeks to falsely accuse a minister of the Gospel to bring them down, then there should be church discipline. I believe that this should involve a public retraction of the accusation, repentance and apology. Malicious false accusers should not themselves serve in the leadership of churches.

Conclusion

It is important that we act to provide for and protect the flock. Elders are sheep as well as under shepherds, so it is important that we protect them from temptation, false accusation and harm. But wolves can appear as shepherds too, so we need to do everything necessary to protect the flock. That should be our motivation in all such circumstances.


[1] Deuteronomy 19:16-21.

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