Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:19 (“Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses.”) should not be construed to mean that elders are to be protected from proper disciplinary action when such becomes necessary. Paul knew that elders, being in a position of authority, could easily become the objects of false or frivolous accusations. His command in this passage is simply a warning to watch for such abuses. Elders are church members just as all others, and are subject to church discipline according to the same biblical disciplinary measures as anyone else. For our statement regarding church discipline as it applies to every church member, including elders, please see, Restoring Those Who Fall.
In his next sentence (1 Timothy 5:20) Paul solemnly charged Timothy to “Rebuke those [elders] who are sinning in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” No mention is made in the passage as to whether a publicly rebuked elder should continue as an elder, but the consequences of the rebuke were obviously severe enough to restrain the others from sinning. If an elder with Christ Fellowship sins in such a manner that he becomes the object of public church discipline, he will be disqualified. An elder is to be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7). He must be a positive example to the flock, not someone who needs the disciplinary attention of the church (1 Peter 5:3). Restoration to eldership after removal through church discipline will never happen quickly, and will most likely not happen at all. The man may be able to serve the church in other ways, but any potential elder must consistently demonstrate, over a lengthy period of time, that he is above reproach.
Aside from disciplinary matters, there are other potential situations that would require an elder to step down from his position or make his administrative removal necessary. The purpose of this section is to explain the types of non-disciplinary circumstances that would necessitate the resignation or removal of an elder, and to describe the action we will take in such cases. In some cases, however, even these situations could escalate into disciplinary matters.
Non-disciplinary Causes for Resignation or Removal of an Elder
1. The Discovery of Biblical Disqualification(s) After Appointment as an Elder
If an elder who formerly was (or was thought to be) biblically qualified is found to be disqualified in any area, he must step down or be removed. For example:
- An elder who had obedient children (or no children) at the time of his appointment, now has children who are known publicly for dissipation (wild or extravagant behavior) or insubordination (rebelliousness, disrespect, or disobedience to parents or others in authority). Even if the elder has been diligent in the training and discipline of his children, their reputation in such a case would disqualify him (cf. 1 Timothy 3:4; Titus 1:6).
- An elder allows himself to become so involved in outside activities (i.e. sports, business, travel, etc.) that he is unable to faithfully and consistently participate in the meetings of the church, thereby setting a bad example for the flock (cf. 1 Peter 5:3).
2. Inability or Persistent Failure to Perform the Biblical Function(s) of an Elder
If it becomes clear that an elder is unable, unwilling, or persistently failing to perform any of the six necessary functions (see Duties of an Elder), even after warnings and counsel from the other elders, he must step down or be removed. For example:
- An elder becomes unable or unwilling to perform his necessary functions due to mental or physical illness or incapacitation.
- An elder, because of unavoidable circumstances (i.e. necessary care of an ill or injured family member, unavoidable financial struggles, etc.), no longer has the time and/or energy to perform his necessary functions.
- An elder becomes so distracted by life’s challenges (i.e. marital pressures, work-related stress, etc.) that he can no longer perform his necessary functions.
3. Unresolved Doctrinal Disharmony
If it becomes clear that an elder holds and insists on teaching doctrinal positions contrary to those in the statement of faith (Holding Fast the Word of Life), and if doctrinal harmony is unattainable through study and discussion with the other elders, the dissenting elder must step down or be removed (see: How We Use Our Statement of Faith). For example:
- An elder who was once baptistic in his beliefs now insists that infants should be baptized, or would permit them to be baptized.
- An elder begins to disbelieve or distort the doctrines of man’s utter depravity, effectual calling, unconditional election, justification by faith alone, etc., and either fails to teach them in accordance with the statement of faith, or teaches contrary to them. It goes without saying that heretical beliefs and teaching will be dealt with through church discipline.
4. Unresolved Philosophical Disharmony
No team of elders will be perfectly like-minded in all things. Far from this being a hindrance to effective team leadership, these minor differences often encourage helpful dialogue, inspire fresh thinking, or prompt necessary change. It is even profitable, at times, to discuss the possibility of radical change. Having said this, it is still true that if a team is to pull strongly, they must be generally like-minded and moving in the same direction. If a single elder insists on pulling in a substantially different and incompatible direction regarding a major matter, and if he remains unyielding despite all attempts to harmonize his vision with that of the elder team, he must step down or be removed. For example:
- An elder who was formerly committed to the principle of meeting primarily in homes (a Christ Fellowship distinctive) insists on shifting to the traditional, sanctuary-style setting for the gatherings of the church.
- An elder who was formerly in agreement that the main gatherings of the church are primarily for the purposes of worship and mutual edification, becomes convinced that the predominant focus of these regular gatherings should be to attract an unsaved audience for evangelism.
5. Personal Desire to Step Down
If an elder becomes personally convinced that he is no longer qualified to serve in that capacity, or if he no longer desires the position, he must be allowed to step down (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1). In such cases, before the elder steps down, diligent attempts should be made to encourage the man, who may simply be frustrated, discouraged, or excessively harsh in his self-examination (assuming the other elders and members of the church see him as qualified and effective).
6. A Need for Rest
If the elder team recognizes that an elder has become overburdened and needs rest from his duties for health reasons or the good of his family, etc., he may decide on his own, or be encouraged by the other elders, to step down for a time of recovery and rejuvenation.
The Process for Removing an Elder
Any member who perceives that there is a problem with an elder should be appropriately cautious before discussing it with anyone else in the church, even with another elder. Before revealing the matter, several factors must be considered:
- It must be remembered that the church was diligent in examining the man before appointing him as an elder, and that any perceived problem could possibly be due to wrong thinking on the part of those who see the problem.
- The removal of an elder, who undoubtedly has at least a small following of committed supporters in the church, could potentially cause great strife and division.
- The unnecessary investigation of an elder could cause him to lose credibility.
- Neither personal loyalty to an elder, fear of strife within the church, personal insecurity, fear of reprisal, nor any other concern should prevent a member from revealing a legitimate problem regarding an elder. Additionally, none of these concerns should dissuade the church from investigating and removing an elder if necessary.
If an elder recognizes a significant problem regarding his own leadership capabilities or sees himself as biblically unqualified and desires to voluntarily step down, no lengthy investigative process is necessary. Once the other elders have discussed the problem and are in agreement, the matter should simply be announced to the church, giving due credit to the man for placing the good of the church as a higher priority than his own desire to serve.
If an elder has fallen into one of the above categories, yet has not expressed the willingness to step down, the following investigative and administrative action will be taken:
Assuming the matter is well attested by multiple witnesses (cf. 1 Timothy 5:19), the elder team will discuss the details thoroughly. All perspectives will be heard, including that of the elder in question. Any members who have pertinent information regarding the situation will be asked for input. If the consensus among the elder team is that the elder in question is unyielding in his incompatible position or biblically disqualified for eldership in some other way, he will be asked to leave his position voluntarily. If he is unwilling to step down, he will be administratively removed by the elder team.
If it is determined that the elder is biblically qualified, philosophically and doctrinally compatible with the elder team, and/or innocent of charges brought against him, and if the matter was publicly known by the church, the general membership will be informed in order to affirm or reestablish his credibility.