Should a Fallen Pastor Ever be Restored to Ministry?

Should a Fallen Pastor Ever be Restored to Ministry? December 20, 2017

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.

Conclusion

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?

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  • Tianzhu

    Evangelicals are at somewhat of a disadvantage in this area. We expect our leaders to be ethical, including in the area of sexuality.
    The liberal churches, OTOH, will ordain a gay or lesbian – in fact, the Episcopalians and Lutherans go a step further and make them bishops. Hard to know what “caught in sin” would mean in those churches. Having no standards does make things easier, doesn’t it?

    • Gilsongraybert

      At some point though there is a standard they hold, albeit, it is inconsistent, but it is there. It is similar to the idea of tolerance and inclusivity. I highly doubt inclusive churches would allow an “unrepentant” traditionalist to teach, or perhaps even join for communion. But, the problem within Evangelicalism tends to take a strange route, especially as we give so many a free pass on aptitude for teaching and the moral qualifications, and then take men like Tullian, Driscoll, et. al, to climb back into ministry roles of prominence. These guys fell in HUGE ways and just bailed when it could have been a beautiful means of showing they truly believed in God’s grace and love – even in the midst of discipline.

  • pud

    You have to be deranged, unhinged, delusional and at least somewhat psychotic to be a religious liar to children about things you can’t possibly know. That pretty much covers you all.

    • Gilsongraybert

      I’m going to take your comments and put them into a simulator so it spits them out in Sméagol’s voice.

      • pud

        Lord of the rings and your fantasy are actually quite close so I’m not surprised you’re intimate with it

        • Gilsongraybert

          Actually, Lord of the Rings is a work nearly everyone should be intimate with. I mean, do you even English Lit, bro?

    • Guthrum

      Well, we are often described as fools.
      Fools for Christ!

      • pud

        A fool is a fool is a fool.

    • George

      And there he is. The ever-present, ultra-pathetic atheist troll.

      • pud

        And there you are…the idiot who’s incapable of any kind of rational argument

      • Tiny J

        “This user is blocked.”

      • Tiny J

        I kind of thought he got booted the last time he started saying “Christians need to be killed.”

  • Excellent Grayson.

    • Gilsongraybert

      Thank you, brother – I hope you’ve been doing well!

  • 8th amendment frrolfe

    At this stage, it is probably safe to assume that most evangelical pastors are non-christian. Maybe they should brand themselves as Republiiclicking Trumpists who wouldn’t be able to dicscern Christ if he fell under a truck rolling coal with truck nuts attached.

    • George
      • mirele

        Actually, Evangelicals are going to have to deal with Trump worshipers sooner, rather than later. The idolatry surrounding Trump coming from the so-called God-fearing evangelicals makes my heart run cold. Please don’t harp on the rest of us about moral issues, since over 80 percent of you supported a thrice-wedded guy who had his businesses go into bankruptcy at least four times, who ran casinos and who is on record believing he has the right to sexually assault women. If you all are willing to sell yourselves out to Trump, why on God’s green earth should we listen to you when you rant about LGBT people or tell us women to shut up and stay home. That’s right, we should not listen to you.

        • George

          “You”? You’re assuming I’m a Trump supporter/voter? And/or an evangelical?

          Herein lies one of the many problems with those of you that are obsessively hateful of Trump. You’ve created your own narrative, now exist in an echo chamber, and are simply repeating the same comments – regardless of their veracity, and absent any thoughtful research.

          Carry on.

          • mirele

            I’m not obsessively hateful of Trump, I’m merely pointing out that Evangelicals are Trump idolators. You may be a Never Trumper Evangelical, but you have to live with the fact that your fellow Evangelicals think Donald Trump was fit to be president, and he was not. Evangelicalism will pay in disrespect for the fact that it set up Trump as a golden calf and nobody spoke up. And if you think things have changed, I’d point you to the 81 percent of self-identified evangelicals who voted for Roy “teen molester” Moore.

          • George

            Moore assumptions on your part. And yes, you are clearly obsessively hateful of Trump. But, like a pig farmer, you’ve gotten used to the stench.

            Keep it up.

            Speaking of assumptions… Can I assume that you voted for Hillary – a corrupt career politician, who attacked the women her husband raped? How DARE you call yourself a Christian and support such banal evil?!?!?!?!?!

          • Tiny J

            “I’m not obsessively hateful of Trump.”
            *Proceeds to be obsessively hateful of Trump.

            “Evangelicals are Trump idolaters.”
            *The word “Evangelical” predates Trump

            “Your fellow evangelicals thing that Donald Trump was fit to be president.”
            *No one thinks Trump is fit to be president

            “Evangelicalism will pay in disrespect for the fact that it set up Trump as a golden calf and nobody spoke up.”
            *This is a coherent, thoughtful sentence (sarcasm)
            Lady, I think Trump is a living example of the worst humanity has to offer, but I would recommend not letting it impede your neural processes.

        • MKulnir

          Was Trump a candidate for pastor of an evangelical Christian church?

          Which president in the last 60 years would have met those criteria?

          • Lark62

            The president prior to Trump is a christian and a family man. He loves his wife and has raised good children. There is no hint of scandal. He cared about whether the poor had health care.

            Trump’s opponent during the election is a life long christian who taught Sunday school and stayed loyal to her husband despite the husband’s indiscretions, as christianity recommends.

            Both of those people are far more moral than trump will ever be. They were both despised by “good” evangelical christians, because christianity is about power not morality.

        • Lark62

          Exactly.

      • 8th amendment frrolfe

        You’re being a bit harsh on Charisma but I’d have to agree with you.

        • George

          Another comment that makes absolutely no sense.

          Dilly Dilly!

  • Jeb Barr

    Excellent article. Here’s a question to add – should Patheos Evangelical give a platform for one of these fallen pastors who has skirted the process of restoration?

    • mirele

      Look, if even picketing the guy weeks on end wouldn’t cause Mark Driscoll to give it up, then it’s useless. And I can testify to that, because I was out there most weekends in 2016 when he started his Scottsdale church.

      • Jeb Barr

        I agree, it wouldn’t stop him, but Patheos certainly doesn’t have to enable him.

    • George

      Astute observation. Honestly though, it speaks to the radically diminished quality of Patheos Evangelical. If it’s not a silly blog by Driscoll, it’s an even sillier rant by Jonathan Aigner.

      • Jack Wellman

        Great point my friend. Does it not come close to condoning a fallen pastor’s actions by allowing him to still remain in the pulpit, whether in print or at the church? Can we take their messages/teachings seriously anymore if they are teaching “Do this,” or teaching about abstaining from sexual immorality when they themselves have not mangaged to do that?

        • George

          It’s possible to do ministry outside of the pulpit. And there are men who used to “fill the pulpit” who should not do so again, despite repentance (whether genuine or for show). A repentant pedophile priest should never again be in a position of authority over children. A pastor who has embezzled from the church should not be placed in a position where he has access to the church money.

          Much of this is simply common sense – not punishment.

    • Lark62

      They did. What more do you need to know?

      Evangelicals voted for Roy Moore and vilified the women who spoke up.

      Evangelicals voted for a man who said he needs no forgiveness, cannot name a bible verse and bragged of grabbing women’s “pussies.”

      It is about obtaining power and keeping power.

  • MKulnir

    “Many then make teary-eyed announcements about finally recognizing the weight of their sin.”

    If only.

    • Raymond

      Jimmy Swaggart

      • Jack Wellman

        Yes. Twice wasn’t it?

  • CruisingTroll

    The utter failure of most churches, most pastors, and most Christians to understand and teach what repentance means is a massive problem, one that manifests itself in situations such as this, and so many others.

    Here’s a simple question for Mr. Gilbert:

    If a pastor has an affair, and his wife subsequently divorces him, followed by him marrying the woman he had the affair with, when can he be restored to ministry?

    • Tiny J

      If you fall completely out of shape, then turn your life around, when are you “in shape” again?

      • CruisingTroll

        Regarding my question specifically, what does “turning your life around” mean to YOU?

        • Tiny J

          I kinda think it’s a moot point. As far as I’m aware, if a person can’t keep his/her own marriage together, that person has no business being in a leadership position in a church.
          To answer your question directly: I personally think that “turning your life around” means a person was living incorrectly. Then they stopped doing that and instead are doing the other thing.
          My original point was that your question of “when” is different for everyone, just like being “in shape” is different for everyone. Therefore your question has no finite correct answer and can only lead to more questions. Calling it a “simple question for Mr. Gilbert” is either a mistake on your part or a deliberate lie.
          And I also just double checked your user name.

          • CruisingTroll

            I would venture that, while it may have no finite correct answer, any correct answer will certainly have certain minimum requirements. As an example, let’s say our miscreant embezzled from the church and bought a nice new truck with the money.

            Would you say “he’s turned his life around” if he’s still driving the truck, and claims that it’s his?

    • Gilsongraybert

      Even if it stopped at the affair, he repented, and his marriage survived – I still don’t believe Scripture teaches he should ever be restored to pastoral ministry. Hard to be a “one-woman” man and have had an affair. Others disagree with me, but that’s where I see the text at currently.

      • Jack Wellman

        Yes. You are exactly right about the pastor being disqualified..the text is more important that what others think or believe. What a person thinks or believes doens’t change what is true.

      • jamesparson

        And what process would keep him from having a ministry again?

        It is not like there is a central government agency that grants ministry licenses.

        • Gilsongraybert

          Next to nothing, unfortunately. The one wanting to evade the proper route has an easy time doing so. I’m not advocating a theocracy by any sense – but it would behoove the church to simply shun these men when they do it rather than welcome them with open arms as if they’ve done nothing worthy of being shunned.

          • jamesparson

            I was considering your comment, and from some reason I was thinking or Oral Roberts. This is a guy who claimed to see a 900ft Jesus and that God commissioned him to cure cancer. He raised money by telling people that God would kill him if they didn’t donate.

            Today he is honored by having a university named after him. Is he a positive example of what Christianity is supposed to be?

          • Gilsongraybert

            Not in the least. My point is simply that these men can evade any of the proper means of discipline if they desire to – at least here on earth.

    • Lark62

      The pastor will be restored to a position of authority. The wife will be shunned and driven from the church.

      Just like child molestation victims are shunned while the perps retain power.

      The powerful are protected. The weak are villified.

      This is christianity, as it alway has been and always will be.

    • Jack Wellman

      To say, as you have, “most churches” and “most pastors” and “most Christians” fail to understand what repentance means would be better stated as “many” (in place of “most”) because to say “most” means you have sufficient data to prove such a point. I do agree that many do not understand, but “most?” That statement would mean more if there were studies and reseach to prove such a statement.

  • Nimblewill

    Pastors fall from sexual sin but hardly ever do they fall because of greed and problems with power. Those become the most powerful pastors in America.

    • Tiny J

      Living in 2017 has a weird problem. The level of wealth and power a normal person can achieve has just never existed before. There’s no support structure to teach wealthy pastors how to not be corrupted. It’s like a free market version of the Vatican before the Reformation.

  • Paperboy_73

    They shouldn’t be permitted the same level of responsibility or leadership – they should be held to a higher standard, and they failed to meet that standard.

    “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

  • Jack Wellman

    What you said,”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” is spot on the mark. We are all broken but God will not use any man greatly who has not humbled himself deeply. I agree that sexual immorality disqualifies a pastor, not because of what I think, but as you have shown, because of what the Word says. Well done here my friend.

  • Dumb Theologian

    Hearing of Frank Page’s resignation has brought on a plethora of emotions and hurtful memories. I too am a fallen pastor. I did not commit adultery. I could not control my anger. Never physical, but emotional and verbal. I am divorced. I lost my ministry. I lost my family. It hurts. I hurt for Page. I empathize with him and have experienced the pit he is now in. I miss the ministry and family. Sometimes, I don’t know which one the most. Yes, I have struggled with the slippery slope of porn. I have longed for that “loving” feeling that I once had. Not physical driven, but emotional. I realize it is not in this world. I know that. Yet, it is still a struggle. I wonder. Could I have be allowed back into the ministry? It is where I feel most useful. I sense a calling. If my house were in order, could it happen? Do I have to live the rest of my life in this pain. I pray for Frank Page tonight. Really I do. Yes, his family is hurting. But the pain that he is feeling is far worst.