Reproving Persons Who Practice Sin
“Reprove before all onlookers persons who practice sin, that the rest also may have fear.”—1 Tim. 5:20.
1, 2. What instructions did Paul give Timothy while Timothy was in Ephesus, and what questions does this raise?
WHEN counseling his fellow worker Timothy as to how he should deal with problems in Ephesus, where some were stirring up fruitless discussions and contradictory teachings, the apostle Paul included these words: “Reprove before all onlookers persons who practice sin, that the rest also may have fear.”—1 Tim. 5:20; 1:3-7; 6:3-5.
2 What did the apostle mean by ‘practicing sin’? Would engaging in some wrong more than just once automatically make one a ‘practicer’ of sin?
DETERMINING WHO ARE ‘PRACTICERS’ OF SIN
3, 4. What is the meaning of the Greek expression that Paul here used, and how do certain translation therefore read?
3 Going back to the language (Greek) in which Paul wrote, we find that the expression “practice sin” is ha·mar·taʹnon·tas, the present active participle of the verb “to sin” in Greek. What does that tell us? Note what Bible commentaries say (italics added for emphasis):
The Expositors’ Greek Testament says: “ . . . the use of the present participle suggests that habitual sinners are under discussion. . . . Paul is speaking of persistent sinners.”
Schaff-Lange’s Critical Doctrinal and Homiletical Commentary states: “The sinful persons are represented as still at the time living in sin, whence the present [form of the verb] is used where otherwise the perfect [form] would be expected.”
4 Paul therefore used a form of the verb that describes present, not past, action, that relates to a course that is continuing, not one that has been abandoned. Recognizing this, various Bible translations contain renderings such as these:
Young: “Those sinning . . .”
Rotherham: “But them who are sinning . . .”
Knox: “ . . . those who are living amiss.”
Revised Standard Version: “As for those who persist in sin . . .”
New American Standard: “Those who continue in sin . . .”
5. (a) What results from repetition of sin? (b) Nevertheless, what is the most important factor in determining who are rightly described as “persons who practice sin”?
5 There can be no doubt that each time a sin is repeated, the gravity of the wrongdoing grows. And anyone who extends his sinning over a prolonged period certainly is making a practice of it. However, from the information earlier presented we can see why the sole fact that a person has committed a certain wrong more than once, perhaps two or three times, would not of itself place him among those whom Paul describes as “persons who practice sin.” The vital question is, Has the person turned away from the wrongdoing, abandoning it? Or is it a continuing thing, a persisting course? If the latter is the case, then the individual does fit the apostle’s description.
6, 7. How does Matthew 7:7 illustrate what is meant by ‘practicing’ something?
6 Other texts using the present form of the Greek verbs illustrate the point. At Matthew 7:7, for example, the present (imperative) form of the verb appears three times in Greek, and the New World Translation renders it in this way:
“Keep on asking, and it will be given you; keep on seeking, and you will find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you”
7 Jesus surely did not mean that just as long as we ask God for something more than once—perhaps a couple of times—that we thereby fulfill this exhortation. No, but we are to keep on, persist in asking, seeking and knocking.
8. Who, then, are referred to at 1 Timothy 5:20, and who are not?
8 So 1 Timothy 5:20 speaks of sinning that requires reproof before all onlookers for the very reason that it is being persisted in, not discontinued. From this it seems evident that the apostle is not describing persons who may have committed some wrong act one or more times but who thereafter have repented and truly abandoned such wrongdoing.
NOT HOLDING BACK IN SEEKING NEEDED HELP
9. What shows that a repentant wrongdoer should never hold back from seeking the aid of Christian elders?
9 Is there any reason, then, for a congregation member who has slipped into some wrongdoing, whether of a sexual or any other kind, and who has sincerely repented of such wrongdoing, to feel hesitant about seeking the aid of elders so as to be fortified against any future slipping back into the wrongdoing? In answer, note what the disciple James counsels at James 5:14-16:
“Is there anyone sick among you? Let him call the older men of the congregation to him, and let them pray over him, greasing him with oil in the name of Jehovah. And the prayer of faith will make the indisposed one well, and Jehovah will raise him up. Also, if he has committed sins [plural, hence showing that more than one instance of sinning could be involved], it will be forgiven him. Therefore openly confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may get healed.”—Compare Psalm 41:1-4.
10, 11. (a) Knowing that the elders’ desire is to bring healing should have what effect on the repentant wrongdoer? (b) Illustrate this.
10 How encouraging toward ‘openly confessing sins to one another’ if the sincerely repentant wrongdoer knows that those to whom he confesses are primarily interested in helping him “get healed” of his spiritual illness. On the other hand, if such a repentant one felt that they would automatically deal with him as meriting a reprimand before the whole congregation as a ‘practicer of sin,’ the effect might be quite different.
11 To illustrate: A man who occasionally drank to excess before becoming a Christian might be alone for a period of several days in his home. During that time, he might overindulge in wine or beer to the point of intoxication, perhaps doing it twice within a few days. Then he might feel very ashamed and sincerely regret what he had done. Realizing that he was starting to lapse back into his old ways, he might very much want the help of the elders so as to be strengthened in his resolve not to repeat the wrong. If he thought that, because the wrong was committed more than once, the elders would automatically find it necessary to publicize his wrongdoing to the congregation, he might be very hesitant to seek their aid.
12. What barrier should not exist, and what will keep it from arising?
12 Such an attitude could create a barrier between the congregational shepherds and those seriously needing their help to overcome a drift into continued wrongdoing. On the other hand, where confidence existed that the elders would take into account one’s sincerity in turning away from the wrong and being desirous of never going back to it, this would surely be an encouragement to go to the elders, responding to their help as would an ailing sheep to that of his shepherd.—Contrast Psalm 23:1-5 with Ezekiel 34:4.
13. Why may elders at times have to take the initiative as regards an erring one?
13 Perhaps the elders may hear of serious wrongdoing from a source other than the person involved. As shepherds, their concern for the spiritual health of this member of the flock would move them to talk with him about what they have heard. They may find that he appreciates their help but did not seek it because of shyness or due to feeling too ashamed or for similar reasons of a personal nature. They may even find that he has already repented of the wrong and has stopped the wrong course.
14. Where satisfied that the wrongdoer has been thoroughly reproved by his own heart, what will the elders still do?
14 Where the elders are satisfied that such a one has genuinely been reproved by his or her own heart and conscience and through the power of God’s Word, then their efforts can be directed toward building up that person to spiritual health. They would give sound Scriptural counsel designed to strengthen the repentant one against any repetition of the wrongdoing and would impress upon him the seriousness of the situation. They would help him to appreciate more fully the danger of ‘letting down his guard’ even momentarily, and the need to ‘keep working out his own salvation with fear and trembling.’—Phil. 2:12.
EXERCISING BALANCE AND JUDGMENT IN WEIGHING THE NEED
15. What, then determines the direction the elders’ efforts will take?
15 In any case of serious wrongdoing however, whether the repentant one seeks their help or they, instead, go to him, the congregational elders would want to be satisfied that there is sincere repentance and that he is earnestly endeavoring to hold to a right course. If the person’s own heart has not reproved him and moved him to abandon the wrong, then the elders have the duty to endeavor to help to bring about these needed things.
16. Can one who commits a sin just one time be a ‘practicer’ of that sin? If so, how?
16 Thus, while the number of times a wrong has been done is certainly a serious factor to be considered and weighed, it is not in every case the determining factor as to a person’s need for Scriptural reproof. A person may have committed fornication just one time. But if he has not sincerely repented of that wrong he is still a ‘practicer’ of fornication. How so? In that he has not rejected or repudiated that wrong way in his heart. Jesus said that a man looking at a woman with passion for her was committing adultery with her in his heart. (Matt. 5:28) So, if an individual still looks back on some sinful act with a measure of pleasure rather than with detestation and deep regret and a determination to avoid repeating it, he still has that sin in his heart. He has not been cleansed from sin by God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ and so is still unclean. (1 John 1:9; 2:1) He will likely engage in that wrong again if opportunity affords and he feels he can get away with it.
17. Toward whom in particular must elders exercise much caution as to claims of repentance?
17 There is therefore good reason for elders to weigh claims of repentance carefully where the individual has shown himself to be guilty of hypocrisy, lying and deliberate efforts to deceive, or where it is apparent that the wrong act was preceded by deliberate scheming, perhaps in a coldly calculating way. This is quite different from an individual’s ‘caving in’ due to human weakness under the unexpected pressure of certain tempting circumstances. A case in point is that of Ananias and his wife Sapphira, who schemed together to deceive, ‘purposing the wrong act in their hearts.’—Acts 5:1-11.
18. (a) Where wrongdoing is carried out in a flagrant, brazen manner, need elders hesitate in taking disfellowshiping action? What shows this? (b) If one who openly flouted righteous standards is later reinstated due to genuine repentance, what great caution should still be exercised?
18 Thus, if a married man secretly flirts with another woman, all the while putting on a pretense of being clean and perhaps even accepting sacred responsibilities within the congregation, and then actually abandons his wife and elopes with the other woman, should the elders hesitate in disfellowshiping such an individual from the congregation? Obviously not. When the apostle Paul learned of a man who was living with the woman who evidently still was the wife of his father, Paul recommended prompt action on the part of the congregation to “remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” (1 Cor. 5:1-5, 12, 13) Likewise, the elders would exercise real caution in accepting a plea for reinstatement from such an individual, since he has given them little basis for trusting his word as sincere and genuine. If, later, he is reinstated, they certainly should exercise great caution in the future as to giving him any responsibility in the congregation.
19. How could one who has not yet overcome a problem of wrongdoing still show a better heart desire than those described earlier?
19 By contrast with such ones, a congregation member may go to an elder for help and may inform him that he is still at that time struggling with a problem. Though he has not yet been able to conquer the wrong entirely, he may show a sincere heart desire to do so, and, unless there is other evidence to put this in doubt, the congregation shepherds will aid him accordingly. He is certainly much different from one who schemes to deceive or who tries to justify a wrong course.—Ps. 51:1-3, 10, 17.
20. What self-deception does the persister in sin engage in, and why is he a danger to the congregation?
20 The person who persists in wrongdoing generally excuses himself in his own mind, even convinces himself that God will condone what he is doing. (Compare Psalm 36:2; 50:17-21.) What is still worse, he may influence others toward such a course. Proverbs 10:17 says: “He that is holding to discipline is a path to life, but he that is leaving reproof is causing to wander.” For his own good and for the good of all, he needs to be brought to account and straightened out.
REPROVING WITH ALL LONG-SUFFERING AND ART OF TEACHING
21. When reproof is needed, what is the Scriptural way for elders to give this?
21 Where circumstances show that there is need for reproof, how do the congregational shepherds proceed? If the wrong is not acknowledged, the elders are obliged to present the wrongdoer with the “convincing evidence” of his wrong course. They cannot do this if all they have is mere hearsay. (Compare John 16:8; Isaiah 11:3.) They may find it necessary to ask questions in order to establish vital facts. Reproving, however, especially requires that they use Scriptural evidence and argument to refute any thinking on his part that such a sinful course could be excusable in God’s eyes. They should seek to help him to see the wrong in its true colors and why it merits his hate. (Heb. 1:9) Thereby they correct and help him to get “set straight.” Their aim as shepherds is to bring him to repentance and an abandoning of the wrong course, not only in deed but in mind and heart.—Titus 1:9; Jas. 1:25; 2:8, 9.
22. How will the ultimate objective of Christian reproof guide the elders in their efforts, and how can they fulfill the instruction to reprove “with all longsuffering and art of teaching”?
22 Keeping in focus the purpose of reproof, the elders will not view themselves merely as a fact-finding or guilt-establishing body. They do not simply rebuke a wrongdoer (though their reproof may include a rebuke). They have the noble and loving goal of ‘turning back a sinner from the error of his ways in order to save a soul from death.’ (Jas. 5:19, 20) Surely they should not feel rushed, as if their efforts to attain that goal must be limited to a single discussion on a certain date. If they feel that more time is needed, they may recommend that the person think and pray about what they have said, and then they could arrange to talk with him again. This may give their words of counsel and reproof opportunity to sink into his mind and heart. And even after they do arrive at some conclusion (after one or several talks with him), they will recognize that bringing him to restored spiritual health may require their further attention and aid for a period of time. But they will have the satisfaction of knowing that, as 2 Timothy 4:2 says, they have reproved and exhorted “with all long-suffering and art of teaching.” The time and effort spent are well worth it.*
23. (a) Will those who repent and turn from wrongdoing necessarily continue to exercise all the congregational functions that they did before? Why? (b) What factors will the elders weigh in all cases?
23 The fact that a person has reproved himself in his own heart does not necessarily mean that he would continue to exercise all the same functions in the congregation that he had been doing. Just as a person recovering from a physical ailment is not able to carry the same weight as others, so it may be with him. The elders may judge it advisable not to use such a one in matters of responsibility for a time, perhaps feeling that this restriction could contribute to the person’s becoming ‘readjusted.’ (Gal. 6:1) And in the case of one who repents only as a result of being reproved by others, that is, after being convinced of a sinful course in order to bring him to genuine repentance, then the removal of responsibility or privileges could follow as contributing to a “disciplining in righteousness.” (2 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 12:5, 6) In all cases, the elders must weigh such factors as the seriousness of the wrong committed, the length of time that has passed since it occurred, the circumstances that led up to it, and the extent to which a measure of willfulness was shown or there was failure to give heed to earlier warning counsel.
24, 25. (a) What do these Bible principles call on elders to exercise, and how? (b) What now remains to be considered?
24 Truly, all of this calls for balance and judgment, discernment and understanding. Elders must weigh carefully both the interests of the individual and of those of the congregation as a whole. On the one hand, they must feel keenly their obligation before God to prevent wrongdoing from infiltrating and spreading within the congregation. At the same time they must show just as deep concern that their manner of dealing with their brothers always reflects Jehovah God’s own wise and merciful ways.—Compare Acts 20:28-31; Jude 3, 4, 21-23.
25 What, then, of Paul’s instruction to reprove those persisting in sin “before all onlookers”? Let us examine how this instruction is to be carried out.
At Isaiah 1:18, where the Hebrew word corresponding to e·lengʹkho is used, Jehovah says to Israel: “‘Come, now, you people, and let us set matters straight [“let us talk this over,” Jerusalem Bible; “let us argue it out,” New English Bible] between us,’ says Jehovah. ‘Though the sins of you people should prove to be as scarlet, they will be made white just like snow.’”