Strange Fire: Holding Leaders Accountable

There is a strange dichotomy when it comes to respect and accountability.

There are those who see leaders as just one of the boys. They wish to get rid of as much hierarchicalism as possible. Leaders are just normal people given greater responsibility. They fail like the rest of us. Give them a break.

On the other hand, there are those who look to 1 Samuel 24:6 (or other passages) that say, “The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’S anointed.” They give great regard to leaders, considering them the “Lord’s anointed” and are careful to show due respect. Probably better just turn a blind eye to their failings.

Both recognize the need for church leaders and a need to follow and submit to them. There is no real disagreement there.

And Then There Were Bad Ones

The difficulty comes when you have a bad – really bad – leader. How does our theology meet this challenge? Do we give the benefit of the doubt? Do we turn a blind eye? Or, do we bring the hammer down?

Scripture is replete with the call to respect, honor, and submit to leaders (Eph. 6:5, Col. 3:22, Rom. 13, 1 Tim. 5:17). No organization, religious or political, would survive without this.

However, some may be surprised that the respect, honor, and submission to leaders in the home, workplace, nation, or church are not absolute according to Scripture.

Bad leaders are held to account by the Lord and His people are called to hold them accountable for their failures where they have that ability.

The Lord Holds Leaders Accountable

Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Among those who are near me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron held his peace.

Leviticus 10:1-3 (ESV)

Nadab and Abihu had been instructed clearly what kind of incense – the exact mixture of spices – was to be used in the worship of the Lord in the Old Testament tent of meeting (later Temple). For some reason they had taken this lightly and done their own thing.

The Lord struck them down.

We can surmise that the Lord was making a very clear example of them just as He did with Ananias and Saphira in New Testament times (Acts 5).

Another example of the Lord holding his leaders accountable is Eli’s family in the Old Testament.

Hophni and Phinehas, sons of Eli, were priests who led in the worship of the Lord when Israel was moving towards a monarchy. They were failing to follow the requirements of priests and they were sexually assaulting the women under their leadership who served the worship of God’s people (1 Sam. 2:22-25).

Like Nadab and Abihu, the Lord took them out (1 Sam. 4).

In each of these cases, the punishment was death and it came directly from the Lord. The LORD held them accountable for their leadership sins.

And His People Hold Leaders Accountable

It is important to note that the Lord also reprimanded Eli for his failure to hold Hophni and Phinehas accountable for their sin.

Why then do you scorn my sacrifices and my offerings that I commanded for my dwelling, and honor your sons above me . . .

1 Samuel 2:29 (ESV)

It is not just the Lord to Whom we look to bring accountability, but we, as His people, are also responsible for keeping church leaders accountable. Do note that Eli was both their father and the primary priest who was in authority over Hophni and Phinehas. It is not implied or stated that these men’s wives were expected in the narrative to hold their husbands accountable. It would not have been safe for them.

Paul effectively navigates the honor and accountability of leaders issue when he writes to Timothy, a young pastor he has mentored:

For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” 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 Timothy 5:18-21 (ESV)

After encouraging congregations to provide for elders (pastors), showing respect for their position, it says leaders can not only be challenged by congregant members for their sin but be publicly rebuked.

Leaders are not free from criticism or accountability by virtue of their high position. Church leaders should hear complaints and investigate in a timely way.

There is to be no “partiality” given to leaders. It was the cultural norm that leaders were given more leeway in their failures. They were very powerful and influential. Even in our time, social media may get blown up, but most leaders are given the benefit of the doubt. Only when things completely fall apart does accountability come.

However, we are to hold leaders accountable. Do not show partiality to them.

Matthew 18 vs. 1 Timothy 5

In addition, Matthew 18 takes us through the normal process of confronting a brother who has sinned against us. In Timothy, Paul raises those stakes when it comes to church leaders.

In this passage, the report (confrontation) is coming from two (or three) witnesses, apparently to the leaders in the church (Timothy). This is not the one-on-one confrontation Jesus teaches in Matthew’s Gospel where the individual is to confront a brother directly and do so by himself.

In Timothy, the witnesses (multiple) go directly to others (possibly other leaders), with no mention of the sinning leader being in the room, and the leader who is sinning is publicly rebuked.

It is at times unsafe to congregant members (or employees of the church) to go to a leader to confront just as it is in a work situation where the boss has the power to fire or make your life miserable. This is often a problem in confrontation ethics. Most naysayers will immediately quote Matthew 18 and complain about someone who is uncomfortable confronting a leader one-on-one. They will say, you must go to the sinning leader one-on-one to be biblical. That is the experience of hoards of people who have sought accountability for their leaders.

But, Paul’s words appear to provide a confrontation ethic for these situations specifically with leaders. In Timothy the Word is speaking about church hierarchy, unlike Jesus’s words in Matthew’s Gospel. And he does not suggest one-on-one confrontation, but rather two or three speaking on the side with other leaders. Again, there is no mention of the sinful leader being present.

The “whistleblowers” are given protection.

And there is more.

The abusive leader is held accountable.

Higher Standards

Yes, we honor and submit to leaders. But, Scripture also makes it evident that those same leaders are called to a higher standard of accountability.

As leaders they are responsible to be an example . . . and so their failure is also to be an example. These are Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 5:21. The public rebuke is “so that the rest may stand in fear.” Leaders are not given greater benefit of the doubt. A public statement is not kept under wraps indefinitely in order to show honor and respect.

It says in the ESV, those “who persist in sin” should be publicly rebuked. Note that the word “persist” is not in the Greek text. It is an interpretation by the translators that, after being challenged by the leaders following a report of misdeeds, the one who continues to sin is to be rebuked publicly. This interpretation seems to be saying that only the unrepentant leader is to be publicly rebuked.

But that may not be what Paul is saying. Paul may be saying that because there are multiple witnesses to the leader’s sin, the leader has a pattern of wrongdoing that is doing damage to God’s people (or others) and needs to be stopped now! It is evident that he is unrepentant.

In fact, it may help to look at other translations of that verse:

Them that sin reprove in the sight of all, that the rest also may be in fear. (ASV)

Publicly rebuke those who sin, so that the rest will also be afraid. (HCSB)

Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. (KJV)

But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. (NIV)

1 Timothy 5:21

There is no mention in other translations that there is a “persistence” of sin. Other translators did not read in unrepentance but have given us a more literal translation of Paul’s words of exhortation.

Is it possible that Paul is saying that the fact there are two or more witnesses means there is a pattern of sinful failure (or the sin affected multiple people) on the leader’s part and there needs to be a public response?

His failures are not isolated, but rather widespread or major enough and need to be stopped?

It is possible that he has been confronted . . . over and over. This has been my experience in interviews with those who have struggled with a toxic leader.

For the Good of the Church

Maybe the number of gross leadership failures in recent years will be prevented in the future by immediate and decisive action. Maybe Paul’s exhortation would provide an example for leaders who believe they are “above the law.”

Decisive action on the church’s part will bring an end to horrific leadership.

For the good of victims. For the good of future victims. For the good of all those under the leader’s authority. For the good of the church or organization.

And for the good of Jesus Christ.

Hold leaders accountable. Do not put up with their strange fire.

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