Published: 17 April 2023

Holding Pastors Accountable

Holding Pastors Accountable

The church often seems to have a reluctance for holding pastors accountable. Yet, in 1 Timothy 5:19-21 we have a very clear command to rebuke pastors who persist in sin:

19 Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 20 As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. 21 In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules without prejudging, doing nothing from partiality. (1 Tim. 5:19–21 ESV)

This is perhaps one of the most neglected and disobeyed commands in the New Testament. There are many reasons why a congregation may be slow to rebuke their pastor. For one, rebuking anyone is a very unpleasant task. We hope that someone else in the church will take responsibility for this, but often no one will. We just hope the problem will resolve on its own.

Another issue that results in an unwillingness to rebuke a sinning pastor that “laypeople” are reluctant to hold overseers/elders/pastors accountable since the “clergy” are perceived to hold a special status in the church. Many people think the pastor has a connection to God that laypeople lack. In reality, the categories of clergy and laity are not a New Testament concept. The New Testament does not teach a clergy/laity distinction in the church!

Holding pastors accountable is not optional

When we fail to hold church leaders accountable, we allow untold damage to the church. When we fail to do so, we permit leaders who have a sense of entitlement to persist in their sin. Their public rebuke is meant to not only bring them to repentance, but also to serve as an example to everyone else as to what happens when sins are properly dealt with.

Of course, such a rebuke must follow Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 18:15-20. Like any other Christian in sin, we must confront an unrepentant pastor. Along with Jesus’s instructions in Matthew 18, 1 Timothy 5:19 tells us that there is a process to follow when it concerns pastors. If a pastor still fails to repent, the problem must go before the entire congregation where they must rebuke him “in the presence of all” (1 Tim 5:20). 

Being a pastor does not exempt a man from accountability; it makes him even more accountable (Jas 3:1). 

This obligation is not an option. If we are going to be obedient to the Lord, we cannot decide to not rebuke a man for his sins just because he is the pastor. If we fail at our obligation of holding pastors accountable, then we too are guilty of sinning.

No partiality in holding pastors accountable

We cannot miss the point in 1 Timothy 5:21 that there can be no partiality! Pastors do not get a “pass” because they are pastors. They MUST be held accountable when they sin and refuse to repent. Being a pastor does not exempt a man from accountability; it makes him even more accountable (Jas 3:1). 

This verse also reminds us that our hearing of the matter must be fair. We must not carry out church discipline based on assumptions and biases. A man is not guilty just because he is accused. We also must not assume he is innocent just because he is a pastor.

“The abuse of discipline has often led to a harsh and intolerant spirit, but neglect of it has proved a danger almost as great. When faced with sinning elders a spineless attitude is deplorable.”1  (emphasis added)

Our duty to follow a sinning pastor?

Bully pastors are frequently allowed to be abusive, autocratic tyrants because of a mistaken impression that, as Christians, it is our duty to submit to them. The New Testament is clear that we are indeed to submit to our leaders, but only those who meet the New Testament’s qualifications. We have NO OBLIGATION to submit to a man who does not meet the biblical criteria for the role of pastor. In fact, 1 Timothy 5:19-21 tells us our obligation is to rebuke such a man. 

Spinelessness, in the form of doing nothing, is a sure way of allowing a sinning pastor to destroy a congregation. To do nothing is to risk damaging or destroying people’s faith. People often remain silent because they fear that holding the pastor accountable will split the church. It may, or it may not; we can’t know for certain what may happen. If the church splits, it splits. 

A church split is not the desired outcome, and we must do everything we can to ensure unity. What we cannot do is preserve unity at the expense of disobeying a clear command of Scripture. We cannot disobey God in order to please men. If it is a certainty that the pastor is unrepentant, the church must rebuke him regardless of the outcome. We must trust God’s instructions. He knows better than we do.

Christian men and women who witness a pastor repeatedly sinning and do nothing about it are spineless and are acting in a cowardly manner. The reason for our reluctance to hold a pastor accountable is irrelevant. To stand by and do nothing while a pastor continues in sin reveals, at best, that we are ignorant of our biblical obligations. At worst, it shows we have a yellow streak a mile wide.

Holding pastors accountable requires intestinal fortitude

Disciplining anyone who refuses to repent is unpleasant in the extreme. It takes courage to step up and obey the New Testament’s commands in this regard. Regardless, it should be done sooner rather than later. Sin should not be allowed to fester in a congregation. Besides, correcting a problem while it is small is easier than waiting until it is a huge problem that will be difficult to deal with.

One thing is certain, if more churches obeyed 1 Timothy 5:19-21, we’d see a lot fewer news headlines about sinning pastors and church scandals. 


  1. Mounce, William D. Word Biblical Commentary, Pastoral Epistles, Vol 46, Nelson, 2000, 644.