It will first be important to observe the larger context in which this puzzling text is found.
Beginning in 1 Timothy 5:17, Paul provides instructions regarding certain matters relating to the elders of a local congregation. He states that they may be financially supported in their work. If necessary, they may be disciplined. But most of all, men are to be appointed to the role of elder with great care and caution.
It is within this concluding segment that the passage in question is found.
Within this context the apostle cautions:
“Lay hands hastily on no man, neither be partaker of other men’s sins: keep yourself pure” (1 Tim. 5:22).
In biblical times, the laying on of hands was employed in sacred settings with a variety of applications. Each case must be examined for its particular significance.
For example, sacrificial animals were dedicated by the laying on of hands (Lev. 1:4). Levites were set apart by this ritual (Num. 8:5-20). On occasion, Jesus blessed little children by laying his hands on them (Mk. 10:16).
Healing was frequently affected by this method (Lk. 4:40; 13:13). And the impartation of spiritual gifts was conveyed in this manner (Acts 6:6-8; 8:14-17; 19:6; 2 Tim. 1:6).
But the rite was also employed in setting apart men for specific and crucial roles of leadership. In this case, the important role in the eldership is under consideration (cf. Acts 13:3; 1 Tim. 4:14).
The emphasis of the passage seems to be, therefore: “Do not hastily appoint men to roles of leadership.”
The evangelist is urged to take his time in such matters. Study the character of these men in advance of such a serious matter. It is a general truism that it is much easier to place a man into an office than it is to remove him.
Paul then buttressed this word of caution with an appeal to a common principle—one that warrants rehearsal in both positive and negative applications.
The text lays down the same truth in two ways. The first application is in reference to the sins of some men. Then, the “good works” of others are brought into focus.
The thrust of the first half of the passage, therefore, seems to be this. Some men’s sins are so evident (open, unconcealed, obvious), that their possible appointment to a leadership role may be dismissed immediately. In such a situation, judgment (opinion, determination) can be made early-on. The decision is easy and will not have to be dealt with in a more open forum later. There is no need to proceed further in the case of well-known transgressors.
On the other hand, others may have problems that are not so apparent initially. A man may be appointed to an important role, only to have his serious character flaws revealed at a later time.
Therefore, be deliberate and cautious in the appointments made for leadership roles in the church.