Evangelicalism has seen no shortage of men who have disqualified themselves from the office of elder/pastor. The niche market for building Christian brands and ministerial platforms often proves disastrous to the souls of the leaders behind them, yet sadly, even more disastrous for those whom they leave in their wake. The communities under their headship are far more than wounded – they are those whom were battered by the very same ones called to shepherd them and protect them. Some sought selfish gain through vain ambition whilst others have fleeced the flock through sexual infidelity.
Oftentimes, these are the same men who, upon being caught in flagrant sin, are called to step down and submit to the biblical process of discipline and restoration. Many then make teary-eyed announcements about finally recognizing the weight of their sin (now that it is in the open, of course) and how this [sic] tragedy has brought them to a greater depth and maturity, as the gospel is now shining more brightly than it ever has before. All the while, some of the bigger names in Evangelical circles assure the Christian world that they are on the path of repentance.
Sadly, past precedent has often revealed this to not be the case, as the leader in question eschews legitimate accountability and doubles down on cheap grace, as if to say sin has no lasting consequences. In other churches, there is no real, biblical process of restoration and repentance outlined, so they simply usher the fallen leader back into a position once the publicity dies down. In other cases still, the timeline of restoration is as quick as possible – and far too often I fear it is so their ministerial brand doesn’t lose its luster and they remain relevant.
The problems indicative of this are many, in that the office of pastor/elder has had the bar set so low by Evangelical Christians that the office has long been profaned. If some of these men were never qualified to hold this high office prior to being established as a leader, is it any wonder they go out with a thunderous bang?
A Call for Basic Discernment
It seems we have failed to draw a distinction between the biblical process of restoration into the covenant community and restoration to ministry. These are two drastically different things and the latter, in many cases, simply cannot be done if the church is to remain faithful to Christ and guard the sheep. We would not question whether or not a nursery worker should be restored to caring for infants if they were found to have shaken a baby. We would make exceptions for some forms of negligence, yet if the problem were persistent, it is doubtful that the nursery worker would be allowed to handle something of such value. Do we genuinely think souls are less precious in the sight of God than an infant is to her mother?
However, we must remain a people of forgiveness, in that we exercise and extend it to any who seek it because it reflects a genuine understanding of the gospel and how we’ve been forgiven. Yet this does not indicate we act as fools and do not exercise discernment. If a man stole from me, I would certainly forgive him – yet I do not leave him alone with my possessions unless the bond of trust has been re-established. If my wife cheated on me, I would be called to forgive her – yet I would not be wise if I raised no concerns if she were to get dressed up and tell me she just wanted to go grocery shopping at 11:00 PM.
So too, we do not extend blind trust to leaders who have proven themselves disqualified. In many cases, especially if we look at the actions of some of the men who have recently fallen in the pastoral office, we would be foolish to extend the office to someone who so willingly squandered his reputation and forsaken his calling. Contrary to the Biblical evidence, churches are far too willing to readmit a fallen leader to a position of authority. There is simply no Biblical evidence that some counseling and a small period of time away from the public eye is good practice for establishing the fallen pastor back to leadership.
To the contrary, there is ample evidence that suggests fallen leaders ought to be subject to a lengthy period of testing on all fronts to ensure he meets the criteria outlined in Scripture. On the basis of these qualifications, some will never be able to lead again. This is proper and right – as they should not have so cavalierly dismissed the seriousness of the task previously, but more importantly, they stood with the knowledge that their primary task is to make much of Christ and their life down for the sheep.
Is Disqualification from Ministry Permanent?
We ought to be extremely hesitant in this exercise, as Paul himself had no issues making his body his slave so that when he finished preaching, he would not be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27). The context from verse 24 on speaks to the nature of one who competes in a manner befitting the race so that they might win an imperishable crown, to which he uses himself as an example. Thus, Paul’s reference here are his own pastoral qualifications, both moral and doctrinal.
When he speaks of this disqualification, he presents it in language that marks a future, conditional event, which would seem to indicate a matter of permanence to that disqualification. This would indicate that what Paul has in mind here is an eschatological judgment, and this is also evidenced in other such Pauline metaphors within Scripture (1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim. 4:7; Gal. 2:2) with an eye toward endurance in these things (1 Tim. 6:11; 2 Tim. 3:10) so that they might receive the crown of life (1 Cor. 9:25; Ja. 1:12).
This would bolster the Apostle James’ conclusion that few should teach, for they incur stricter judgment (Ja. 3:1), Paul’s own conclusion that the elder/pastor is apt to teach (2 Tim. 2:24), as well as his commendation to young Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16) – so that in perseverance in these things, he will save himself and his hearers.
Can a man who has so flagrantly disobeyed these measures be placed back in the position of an overseer and shepherd of the church, for whom Christ shed His blood? This is particularly why Paul, when addressing the Ephesians, likewise tells them to keep watch – for savage wolves will rise up from among you and will not spare the flock (Acts 20:28-31). The idea here is that Paul is addressing these wolves at that very moment; they are already among them – they are simply waiting for the apostle’s departure to rise up.
These are men who do not battle their sin, but conceal the matter until it is brought to light before the eyes of all men. When caught, they demonstrate a worldly sorrow, meaning quite simply they are more concerned about the consequences to their actions than the actions themselves. This is the same exact thing a child does when caught disobeying their parents; the sadness is brought on by being grounded rather than the activity causing the grounding. For those with only worldly sorrow and no godly sorrow, which leads to repentance, their disqualification is permanent inasmuch as their sorrow is worldly. Yet depending on the nature of the disqualifying event, they may be indefinitely barred, no matter what level of repentance is sought.
Two Categories of Men: the Qualified and the Disqualified
For Paul, there are two categories of men seeking leadership: the qualified and the disqualified. I’m not arguing one ought never to be restored to a position of leadership, but rather, that we be as clear as humanly possible that these men are not wolves who will ravage the people of God. Depending on the nature of one’s disqualifying sin – they may very well never be above reproach again, thus, being permanently disqualified from ministry. God forbid a man who came in as a shepherd, left a wolf, and appointed himself as Truly Repentant™, gets heralded as a shepherd once again.
The Scriptures forbid such a procedure in discipline; as the church disciplines the unrepentant one, the church also re-establishes them once repentance is demonstrated (Matt. 18:15-20). However – what should be of note here is the permanence of the final stage of church discipline. The one remaining in unrepentance is effectively cut off from the covenant community and treated as an outsider. We must really come to grips with the striking language used in this passage, as it finds much harmony with practice from Old Testament Israel (Gen. 17:14; Ex. 12:19. 30:33; Lev. 23:29; Num. 9:13).
Within the passage itself, verse 18 dictates the decision itself is one bound in heaven, meaning quite simply – the person cut off from their covenant community is being handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20). Yet for those in charge of God’s people, swifter disciplinary action is brought so that they may be an example to the flock (1 Tim. 5:20).
The motivation of discipline is repentance and gaining the brother back, yet such a process takes ample time and is not to be treated lightly. Demonstrable proof of repentance, not worldly sorrow, must be evident in their lives and for a considerable time long before consideration is made to re-establishing them. Yet some may have disqualified themselves indefinitely and while it presents challenges regarding other employment opportunities, such consequences ought to be upon the minister’s mind long before such sins were entertained. I realize for many this may seem harsh, but forgiveness does not mean there are no lasting consequences.
It must be said that one evading such discipline has entirely side-skirted the process of restoration and thereby, forfeited that process. For the fallen pastor who has refused to submit himself to the church for discipline, he has successfully evaded, albeit only temporarily, the due consequences for his sin – including being disqualified from ministry. For such men, they ought not to be even remotely considered for public ministry.
The unfortunate reality, for the Western church at least, is that her desire for celebrity pastors continues to bring men to the forefront who have no business being there. The qualifications for pastoral ministry are not notoriously difficult qualifications. In fact, most of them are the same essential standards laid upon all Christians in general. The differences being that they are to be an example of such standards, meaning, they are those who consistently apply principles of godliness, are apt to teach, maintain order within their household, and are found obedient to the Lord’s commands.
The problem is that within much of modern Evangelicalism, many simply don’t have a clue to the seriousness of upholding these qualifications. They are not some arbitrary standard, but the very means by which God effectually calls men into leadership and ensures they actually guard, equip, and care for His people. When the church gives credentials to the type of man who disavows these standards, they bring shame upon the church and the reputation of the Lord.
There ought to be a high standard placed upon these men simply by virtue of what they are charged to do: care for the souls of God’s elect. For the one who has failed to do so, it goes without saying that they shouldn’t be in such a position – especially mere months after such failure. Far too often these men are lauded as example of true humility and grace. They are not a model of humility and grace. A model of humility and grace would be the man who endures through his discipline, accepting it as from the hand of God, as he happily serves his local church and steps out of the pulpit, leadership, and limelight, for one better equipped to the task.
In the end, some might be re-established to leadership after a prolonged time of repentance – yet the simple notion that elders are to be above reproach disqualifies many indefinitely. The idea is not one of perfection, but of a guarantee upon the local church. Elders are established for her care in all ways. The qualifications they have been given are quite clear – and furthermore, the several warnings in Scripture indicate the severity with which they ought to regard their roles as overseers. God is supremely jealous of His bride; He did not spare His Son for her. Do you genuinely think He shall spare an inept hireling who tramples upon the very ones Christ died for?