In order to answer these questions, let’s take your example of “a leader committing fornication” and see what the Bible says about what should be done. In 1st Timothy 5:19-20 we read, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except from two or three witnesses. Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear” (NKJV). If an “elder” (a man who is shepherding a local church) is indeed guilty of fornication it should be revealed to the church by “two or three witnesses.” This means that his sin has been clearly manifested to at least two other credible witnesses who are then responsible to bring this charge before the church. The principle of having “two or three witnesses” was in force in Old Testament times as we see in verses like Deuteronomy 17:6, “Whoever is deserving of death shall be put to death on the testimony of two or three witnesses; he shall not be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” The Lord Jesus also emphasized the importance of this in church discipline in Matthew 18:16, “But if he will not hear, take with your one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” After the “witnesses” testify of his sin he is to be “rebuked in the presence of all”; that is, in the presence of everyone in the local church. I believe this is done “publicly” because the elder was “serving publicly before all.” It is a tremendous responsibility to represent the Lord publicly and when an elder sins, his sin affects the testimony of the whole church in that community, calling for a “public rebuke.”

The word “rebuke” (ELENCHO) means to “convict” and hopefully this public rebuke would result in the elder being “convicted of his sin” and “brought to repentance.” It is good to remember that one of the main purposes of church discipline is the RESTORATION OF THE ONE WHO SINNED. We see this principle confirmed in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual RESTORE SUCH A ONE in a spirit of gentleness.” If the elder does indeed repent (by confessing his sin) he will be forgiven and restored to fellowship with the Lord. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1st John 1:9). This does NOT necessarily mean he will go on serving the church as an elder, for there may be some time needed to give evidence that he has truly repented before he resumes his duties as a shepherd of God’s flock.

What happens if the elder refuses to repent? There are two passages teach us the next step in church discipline. We quoted earlier Matthew 18:16 and now we will read verse 17, “And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” The unrepentant elder would be looked upon as if he were a heathen, which simply means he is to be looked upon as one who is “outside of the church,” even though he is a true believer. He is living like an unsaved sinner so he should be treated like one! We have an actual case of a believer living in fornication who refused to repent and Paul told the church at Corinth, “Therefore ‘put way from yourselves the evil person’” (1st Corinthians 5:13).

In closing, I trust you have seen that a leader may sin but if he confesses his sin he will be forgiven by God and restored to fellowship and possibly restored to his role of an elder as well. If he refuses to repent he should be “put out of the fellowship of the local church,” which, of necessity, results in him being “stripped from his leadership” in the church. (335.3) (DO)