Published: 10 April 2023

Accusations Against Pastors


How should the church handle accusations against elders (pastors)? Paul wrote the following to Timothy: 

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 ESV)

Seems clear enough, right? Obviously this verse is meant to protect pastors from baseless accusations and it follows the Old Testament precept of requiring multiple witnesses to bring a charge (Deut 17:6, 19:15). This seems cut and dry, but it leaves us with some serious questions.

What are we supposed to do when someone accuses a pastor of a serious offense, or even a crime, and there was only one witness? If we apply 1 Timothy 5:19 literally, not only could a church take no action, but they also wouldn’t even be able to hear the accusation. Paul seems to be saying that the charge cannot even be leveled against an elder unless there are multiple witnesses. 

What about accusations when there aren’t multiple witnesses?

Every week there is a new and credible accusation that a pastor somewhere has sexually abused someone. The problem is real, serious, and it’s happening way too frequently. 

People who perpetrate sexual abuse don’t commit their sins in front of multiple witnesses. Unless two or three people just happen to catch an abusive pastor in the act there will never be witnesses to a sin of this nature. So, how do we abide by Paul’s instructions in 1 Timothy 5:19 when it comes to dealing with accusations of sexual abuse (or any other secret sin) against a pastor? 

Has the New Testament come up short?

If a pastor has abused someone and the victim is the only witness, how is a church to handle this situation scripturally? Is the New Testament letting a so-called pastor off the hook on a technicality?

I do not believe the New Testament has left a loophole which provides sinning pastors with a way to escape accountability. The Bible is God’s message to us and I do not accept for one minute that He has failed to instruct us about how to deal with such a serious problem. Nevertheless, what are we to make of 1 Timothy 5:19?

Accusations and 1 Timothy 5:19

In researching this verse, I became aware of differences in the English translations as compared with the KJV.

Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 NASB)

Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 NIV)

Don’t accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported by two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 CSB)

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 ESV)

Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 KJV)

The NASB, NIV, CSB, and ESV (and other modern translations) read similarly to each other, but different from the KJV. What I soon realized is that the words in bold letters in the modern translations are not in the original Greek text of 1 Timothy 5:19. The translation team added these words in an attempt to clarify the meaning for us. They made an interpretive decision based on what they thought Paul meant. What if Paul wasn’t implying these words?

Accusations “before”

The word the KJV translates “before” is the Greek preposition epi (ἐπί). Epi has a range of meanings which includes (but not limited to): “upon, over, on, at the time of, at, to.”

I know just enough about Koine Greek to get myself in trouble. Regardless, I am aware that Greek prepositions are quirky. “In Greek, the meaning of a preposition depends upon the case of its object.”1 In other words, a Greek preposition can change meaning depending on what kind of word follows it. In 1 Timothy 5:19, epi is a preposition in the genitive case. Knowing this, the question we must ask is how do our English Bibles translate epi in the genitive case in other New Testament passages?

The New Testament uses epi more than 200 times in the genitive case. In the vast majority of these instances, it appears as the English word “on.” It is noteworthy that, in a number of verses, our English Bibles translate epi as “before” just like the KJV translates it in 1 Timothy 5:19. A remarkable picture emerges when we examine each verse where our Bibles translate epi as “before.”

New Testament verses which translate epi as “before:”

But be on your guard. For they will deliver you over to councils, and you will be beaten in synagogues, and you will stand before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them. (Mark 13:9 ESV)

And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once, ordering his accusers also to state before you what they have against him.” (Acts 23:30 ESV)

19 they ought to be here before you and to make an accusation, should they have anything against me. 20 Or else let these men themselves say what wrongdoing they found when I stood before the council, 21 other than this one thing that I cried out while standing among them: ‘It is with respect to the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial before you this day.’” (Acts 24:19–21 ESV)

9 But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favor, said to Paul, “Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and there be tried on these charges before me?” 10 But Paul said, “I am standing before Caesar’s tribunal, where I ought to be tried. To the Jews I have done no wrong, as you yourself know very well. (Acts 25:9–10 ESV)

But I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him. Therefore I have brought him before you all, and especially before you, King Agrippa, so that, after we have examined him, I may have something to write. (Acts 25:26 ESV)

I consider myself fortunate that it is before you, King Agrippa, I am going to make my defense today against all the accusations of the Jews, (Acts 26:2 ESV)

When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? (1 Cor. 6:1 ESV)

but brother goes to law against brother, and that before unbelievers? (1 Cor. 6:6 ESV)

For whatever boasts I made to him about you, I was not put to shame. But just as everything we said to you was true, so also our boasting before Titus has proved true. (2 Cor. 7:14 ESV)

I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, (1 Tim. 6:13 ESV)

Accusations are the common thread

It is hard to miss that (with the exception of 2 Corinthians 7:14) someone was accused of something in every verse. In every verse testimony was being offered in front of (before) someone. Our English Bibles do not translate epi as “on the evidence of” in any of these verses. It would seem odd that epi should be translated this way in 1 Timothy 5:19 while it is not translated this way anywhere else in the New Testament.

1 Timothy 5:19 is not about establishing the fact that a pastor committed sin, it is about the process of lodging a formal accusation!

There are two other verses where epi (genitive) appears in English as “before.” They are Matthew 18:16 and 2 Corinthians 13:1. They read very similarly to 1 Timothy 5:19 but there is a significant difference. In both of these verses the word “evidence” is present in the Greek. As I mentioned above, in 1 Timothy 5:19 the translators supplied the word evidence. Based on the comparison passages, it would seem the translators have made a mistake by supplying the additional wording.

It’s hard to fault them because the connection to Deuteronomy 17:6 & 19:15 seems obvious. Nevertheless, they are putting words in Paul’s mouth. While Paul may have used the Torah principle of having witnesses, his application of it is different. In Deuteronomy, the point was to establish the truth of the accusations. In 1 Timothy 5:19, there is a nuanced difference.

Accusations made as the New Testament intended

It is better to go with the wording of the KJV in this verse since it does not add words in English that are absent in Greek.

Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. (1 Tim. 5:19 KJV)

With this in mind, and in relation to the “accusation verses” listed above, a new picture emerges about 1 Timothy 5:19. Paul is simply saying that accusations against an elder must be made before witnesses. In other words, the church cannot hear accusations against a pastor from an anonymous or secret source. An accuser must bring formal charges against a pastor before two or three witnesses in the church who will hear the accusation. It seems reasonable to assume this is a prelude to Matthew 18:16 where one who has a charge against another takes a couple of witnesses with him. 

In the case of a pastor accused of abuse, one would not expect the victim to confront their abuser alone. After all, being alone with the accused is what facilitated the alleged abuse in the first place.

Leveling a charge – not establishing truth

Taking the New Testament context into account, Paul is not telling Timothy that witnesses of the elder’s sin are under consideration. Rather, the witnesses are those who are to hear the accusation being made against him. 1 Timothy 5:19 is not about establishing the fact that a pastor committed sin, it is about the process of lodging a formal accusation!

Why would the New Testament require this level of due process? 1 Timothy 3 has already established that elders are men whose reputation have made them above reproach. Therefore, an accusation against such a man demands a higher level of scrutiny. A man who truly meets the qualifications of 1 Timothy 3 is quite likely not guilty of the accusation in the first place.

However, then as now, men became pastors who should never have been. It is also possible that a man was scripturally qualified in the past but has since fallen into sin. In any case, an accusation against a shepherd is a serious matter and the church must handle it with care and diligence.

In addition, this process would tend to weed out false accusations. It’s easy to spread lies about a pastor by whispering them in someone’s ear. It’s not so easy to level false charges against him in front of several people. People who will bear witness to the claims and the accuser’s identity. An accuser with a credible story who is willing to make a charge against a pastor before witnesses would make for a compelling case.


It would seem our modern Bible translations have created difficulty for us. It is a fact that many bona fide victims encounter problems when reporting their pastors for abuse. Critics often sharply criticize them for not having multiple witnesses to verify the truth of their claim. How can they do this when the crime had no witnesses? 

1 Timothy 5:19 is not a loophole which allows sinning, unrepentant pastors to keep getting away with it. It is a process which enables their victims to bring a formal charge against them with the church.


  1. Mounce, William D.. Basics of Biblical Greek Grammar (Zondervan Language Basics Series) (p. 166). Zondervan Academic. Kindle Edition.