Thursday, February 28, 2013


Can a fallen pastor be restored to ministry?

I have been pretty quiet these past five years about my views on this topic. But as I become more involved in ministry, I get asked what I think about the issue. Here's my view -- and an admission that it changed over time, I hope to be better aligned with God's Word.

The local church's leaders must be “above reproach” in reality and reputation, both within the church and among outsiders. This is not negotiable. God is at work in the lives of all His people leading them to blamelessness. Spiritual maturity is displayed by a life that demonstrates the power of that work. As the leaders in His church live blamelessly, they magnify the integrity and the authenticity of the gospel. (I Timothy 3; Titus 1)

But what of church leaders who destroy their integrity through sin? By all rights, they are “disqualified” from serving as leaders in the church. They are no longer above reproach; they have given cause for accusation and scandal.

Is this disqualification permanent? Or is restoration to leadership possible for one who has fallen? Opinions on this matter vary, as do the circumstances that call for some form of restoration. God has called spiritual people to restore brothers who are caught in sin (Galatians 6:1). Restoration is a part of His plan for the church. But restoration to what?

Some immediate observations:

  • The command to “restore” has no qualifiers. The idea of restoration includes a return to what once was. The Bible does not say, “This far and no farther.” There are no explicit limits set on the level of restoration. (Galatians 6:1)
  • The one passage that mentions “disqualification” gives no explicit time frame or indication that the status is permanent. Furthermore, the passage is Paul's discussion of his own ministry and practice of self-discipline. It is not a primer for dealing with potentially disqualifying sins. (I Corinthians 9:24-27)
  • The lists of qualifications for elders in the church involve character traits and reputations that have been developed over time. They do not indicate that leaders must be sinless; they teach that godly leaders maintain patterns of life that reveal moral, practical, and spiritual maturity. Furthermore, the Scriptures do not divide qualifications into categories as if some sins could disqualify while others do not. (I Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-9)
  • The Bible gives examples of men who experienced restoration to ministry, even men who sinned gravely (Peter, John Mark). Yes, there are also examples of God's people receiving serious and immediate discipline, and examples of the church confronting unrepentant leaders. Yet the Bible records men “after God's own heart” who have been restored to God and to ministry, men who turn and “teach transgressors ... so that sinners are converted” to God. (John 21; Acts 15:36-41 with II Timothy 4:11; Psalm 51)
  • A man may well build a reputation for godliness through the way he deals with public sin. Through public repentance and the process of living accountably, he may prove a heart of submission, brokenness, humility, and love for the Word. (II Corinthians 7:8-12)
  • It takes significant time to build a reputation, especially one that has been damaged by sin.

A guideline for restoration to ministry may well be developed from the elements of “calling” that are normally considered for any potential leader moving toward a public role in the church. Are these elements in place in the life of the man being restored?

1. The Desire

I Timothy 3:1 tells us that the desire to serve as an elder in the church is a good desire. Paul even uses in the original language a strong word for “desire” to indicate it is a heavy and compelling force in the life of the leader-to-be.

A man being restored will have that same burning desire to serve the church, though it costs him dearly to pursue it. He may sacrifice time, income, and convenience. He may thrive under burdens that are unbearable to other men. Yet he does this willingly, not under compulsion, and out of genuine love for the Lord and His people.

2. The Opportunity

God sovereignly places leaders in His church in order to equip the saints for service (Ephesians 4:11-14). If a man has no opportunity to fulfill this role, he must wait on the Lord to lead. God may providentially keep a man out of leadership. Indeed, some consequences for sin work against a man's freedom to serve. A convict is not free to accept a call to pastor a church outside the prison walls, though he may have a very effective ministry behind bars. A registered sex offender will never legally work with children again, but he may still witness and serve other “outcasts” in today's society.

God provides opportunity for varieties of service in His church. He may make a way for a man to shepherd His church who once was disqualified from such a role.

3. The Gifts

A man who serves in leadership ought to have certain spiritual gifts coupled with the burden to use them for God's glory (I Peter 4:10-11). The process for restoration may include a time of testing to see that a man is indeed gifted to serve as an elder. He must be apt to teach, able to refute false doctrine, able to shepherd and lead with gentleness and humility, and able to clearly proclaim God's word with power and full conviction. (I Timothy 3:2; I Thessalonians 1:5, 2:3-16)

4. The Reputation

It is possible for a man who has sinned to build a new reputation over time that proves the authenticity of his repentance, the genuineness of his love for God, the power of his passion for God's Word, and the effect of his love for people. The members of his community are best equipped to evaluate his reputation, and should do so with knowledge of his sin and repentance.

5. The Support of Godly Men

As a man is originally called to service by a team of elders, so a man is restored by a team of men who have examined the situation carefully and agreed together that God is leading the restoration process (II Timothy 1:6-7).

A Personal Note

My own view of restoration evolved over time. I initially embraced the view of my seminary without question: for fallen leaders, there was no place for restoration to leadership. It was a reactionary viewpoint. It stood against the permissive and immoral spirit of our day and placed the purity of the church on a high level of importance.

I witnessed the falling of several pastors and watched most of them self-destuct in the process: running from accountability, refusing to submit to authority in the church, and justifying or minimizing their sinful actions. If I was uneasy about restoring any of them to leadership, it was because I saw no evidence of humble repentance, no brokenness, and no submission to process. Yet though I was grieved by their sins, I was also grieved by the way their restorations became fodder in the pulpit. It was acceptable to decry another church’s choice of restoration as loudly—or even louder—than the cry over the leader’s original fall.

In 2001, I argued the following. It is an excerpt from a pamphlet I wrote about church discipline.

2) When people are restored to the fellowship of the church, are they allowed to serve in positions of leadership?

In I Corinthians 9:27, the Apostle Paul speaks about disciplining himself, “so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

Disqualification is a strong word, but an appropriate one. A person who has abused the trust of the church cannot freely serve without hindrance. He is no longer above reproach. Restoration to the fellowship does not mean restoration to leadership. Gross, continual sin disqualifies a man from serving in this way. He must find other ways to serve.

In 2004, I began teaching Pastoral Ministry courses at the Cornerstone Seminary. The subject of restoration came up and I realized my view made assumptions that were undefendable. I began to re-think my stand. As I tried to understand the Scriptures and rest solely on their authority, I was forced to ask:

Is it explicitly taught in the Bible that disqualification is permanent?

Are the qualifications found in I Tim. 3 and Titus 1 descriptions of character proven over time or a list of zones out of which a leader must never step?

Can a fall into sin actually validate a man’s godliness and build his reputation? In other words, is it possible that the way a man deals with sin proves he is above reproach?

By 2005, my view had evolved a bit. The following is an excerpt from the syllabus I wrote for the Cornerstone Seminary Leadership Class:

5b. The Question of Disqualification

When a pastor or elder sins in a dramatic fashion, is he permanently disqualified from holding office within the church?

The Apostle Paul uses the word “disqualified” to describe what would happen to him if did not discipline himself properly. What did his mean?

The Greek word adokimos can mean rejected, corrupted, lit. “Failing to meet the test.” Paul may have been speaking of the eternal reward he would forfeit by faltering in the race. He is most certainly not speaking of salvation. The question of permanent disqualification must be resolved with other verses of Scripture.

Paul’s fear is worth noting! He is not complacent in his God-given role, nor does he neglect his God-given responsibilities.

The following considerations are noteworthy:

1c. The elder who sins dramatically and continually ought to be rebuked publicly.

I Timothy 5:20

2c. Only men who are above reproach can serve as elders in the church. Where a stain of sin has severally damaged the public trust, the man is disqualified from office.

I Timothy 3:2

3c. A man may return to public ministry when his public reputation for faithfulness has overwhelmingly surpassed the memory of his sin. In some situations, that will never happen.

The change in my view is obvious. I had begun to believe it possible for a fallen leader to return to ministry. It all depended on his public reputation. Would believers trust him? Had his character been proven over time?

I came to the following answers to the questions I asked above:

Is it explicitly taught in the Bible that disqualification is permanent?

No. The Bible makes it clear that a man needs to be qualified in order to serve, but to teach that a disqualification is permanent goes beyond the text. Furthermore, extra-biblical examples do not resolve the issue. Modern stories and analogies of consequences abound, but they are not God-given precepts and carry no authority.

For example, a pastor used the story of a severed leg as an analogy related to disqualification. A leg cannot be regrown. Once it has been lost, say, in an accident, it cannot be regained. So it is, this pastor taught, with leadership. Once a pastor falls, he can never be restored. While this makes a point about consequences, it fails to describe spiritual realities. The soul can be restored by God and His Word, and believers grow in their faith and maturity. Old things become new, impure things become cleansed, hearts change, the Lord leads. With God, all things are possible.

Are the qualifications found in I Tim. 3 and Titus 1 descriptions of character proven over time or a list of zones out of which a leader must never step?

They are character traits proven over time. The speak of the quality of a man's life, and the pattern of his behavior. In the same way that I John recognizes a difference between a man who has sinned and a man who is sinning, so the list of character traits chronicle the reputation of a man who is living his life in a pattern of godliness. We all stumble in many ways (James 3:2). A step into sin or a struggle with a particular temptation—met with confession and repentance—does not necessarily negate a reputation of godliness.

Character is proven over time, and that includes the time necessary to reveal a genuine hatred of sin that flows from broken humility.

Can a fall into sin actually validate a man’s godliness and build his reputation? In other words, is it possible that the way a man deals with sin can prove he is above reproach?

Yes. The display of brokenness, contrition, humility, and repentance may do more to prove the leader is “a man after God’s own heart” than if he had never sinned, or more accurately, his sins had never become public knowledge. King David is a great example of this, and his repentance is recorded for all to read in Psalms 52 and 32.

Further food for thought: Each situation demands its own evaluation. Where the Scriptures do not speak, we must avoid blanket proclamations.

1 comment:

  1. Loved this post, Jim. The Word of the Lord is right; it restores the soul! Ps. 19:7.