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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Actual Sin (5:20)
Actual Sin (5:20)

Discipline must be meted out to those elders whose sin is properly confirmed. But what constitutes sin? First, Paul uses the present tense, which implies that some elders are presently sinning, perhaps refusing to acknowledge their sin and repent.

Second, primarily in view in this context would be the sin of participating in the false teaching, such as Hymenaeus, Alexander (1:20) and Philetus (2 Tim 2:17) were charged with. This would have included actual teaching (1:3; 4:1-3; 6:3) and more generally promoting the strife and dissension that went with the movement (1:4-5; 6:4-5).

Of course, these rules would apply in any case in which an elder willfully transgressed the revealed will of God in matters of faith and practice. But the standard for determining sin must be Scripture, and areas of faith and practice in which opinions differ because the teaching of Scripture is not clear or is capable of more than one reasonable interpretation ought not to be so categorized. The purpose of this process was to deal with actual, identifiable sin.

This raises a serious question for us: Granted that divergent views on certain issues (separation from the world, eschatology, gifts of the Spirit, the role of women in the church) may ill-suit one to ministry in one church or denomination or another, ought such divergence to be met with disciplinary measures? Or was Martin Luther, whom the Catholic Church branded a heretic, right to attribute to the devil Zwingli's interpretation of the Lord's Supper (that Christ meant that the bread and the wine are only symbols of his body and blood) and label the Swiss reformer a fanatic? To bring this kind of debate into the context of these instructions about discipline is a dangerous thing. It is equally dangerous to fail to discipline Christians known to be involved in actual sin: sexual immorality, marital infidelity, dishonesty, spreading rumors, promulgating false doctrine.

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