In recent years it has become a rather common trend to hear about pastors being removed from leadership due to exposure of hidden sins. Scandals involving church leaders caught in sexual or financial misconduct have been making local, national, and even international news. All it takes is a quick internet search to read all about it. I spent a couple of hours the other night doing exactly that, and the results were appalling. I began with a limited search of incidents within the past five years, but soon learned that the time frame was too broad, yielding too many results. So, I narrowed my search to those within the past year. After a few hours of reading about pastors involved in adultery, rape, statutory rape, child molestation, sexual battery, sodomy, incest, child pornography, assault and battery, embezzlement, conspiracy to commit murder, and Reckless HIV… I had to stop reading. It was just too much… too disturbing, too sick, too sad. In only a few hours time, I had read through 26 separate accounts of horrendous pastoral abuses that had made news within the year. I couldn’t stomach any more; so I quit reading. I’m curious how many I would have found if I hadn’t quit. Using this research alone, one could conservatively say that pastors are falling at a rate of 2 per month. It has become epidemic.
As the church, what does this say about us? These are our leaders? Seriously? Are you kidding me? When our pastors are living secret double lives, it is a symptom of a much greater problem. We (the church) must be sick. There’s no other explanation. If these are our leaders, than we must be sick. After all, as Christians, we are all parts of the same body (Rom 12:5). We’re not removed from any of it. In saying this, I am not absolving the pastors of any blame or responsibility for their actions. They must be held accountable for what they have done; and those who have committed crimes should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The fact that these men were pastors should not grant them any leniency or special privileges (see 1 Tim 5:19-21). Pastors are to be held to a higher standard. They should be an example to the people they lead (1 Pet 5:1-4). When a pastor falls into sin of this magnitude, there are consequences for his actions. Removal from leadership is the most basic and obvious of consequences.
Oftentimes, when a beloved pastor is removed from leadership under these circumstances, the congregation doesn’t know how to handle it. They are stunned. They feel hurt, betrayed and confused. Their teacher, their counselor, the person who they were looking toward for spiritual guidance and advice has been exposed as a fraud. This is a deep violation of trust. Some become disillusioned and turn away from the faith, never to step through the doors of another church. Others leave and find another congregation to join. Some choose to stay and work through the remaining chaos, helping to rebuild what has been broken. Others stay in hopes that their pastor will return and soon be restored to the place of leadership he once held.
How does a pastor recover the trust of his congregation so that he can be restored to his former post? Bluntly put, he doesn’t. He has forfeited his position of leadership, and has been disqualified from his former post. Does that sound harsh? I don’t think so – especially when a pastor has engaged in criminal activity. But what if his crime was adultery? Two consenting adults? That’s not so bad, is it? Surely, the pastor guilty of infidelity, if he is repentant, should be able to return after taking some time off, right? Wrong. He, too, has been disqualified from his position of leadership. Do you think I’m being too hard on these pastors? After all, they’re only human. Well, let me ask you a question. Is it unreasonable to fire somebody from a job if he has shown himself to be unqualified for the position? I don’t think so. Do you think this is any different? You’re right. It is different. Being a pastor or church leader is much more than a job. It is more than just standing in front of a group of people and encouraging them weekly with cute stories and entertaining sermons. It is life or death. Peoples souls are at stake.
Church leaders are spiritual shepherds who tend to God’s flock. A shepherd is not just a guide. He is not only responsible for leading; but also for feeding, protecting, correcting, and nurturing the sheep in his care. He is entrusted with their spiritual growth and well-being. This isn’t a distant role like a king who is “above” the people he serves. No, a shepherd’s place is right in the middle of the sheep. He is supposed to take care of thier needs to the point of even laying down his own life. That is so much more than a job. When somebody is found unfit for the position, it is serious. It should not be taken lightly. The pastor and his family are not the only ones affected. An entire congregation has been betrayed – hurt by the person entrusted to nurture and heal. When church leaders have abused the people in this way, they are no longer fit for leadership. They should not be reinstated under any circumstance. They no longer meet the required qualifications for the job and they never will.
How can I say “never”? Because there are certain things that can never be reversed or taken back. Let’s look at the Biblical requirements for church leaders. The apostle Paul provides a list of guidelines in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 and again in Titus 1:5-9. Both passages have much in common. Notice that the first requirement in both passages is that they must be above reproach or blameless. This doesn’t mean that the church leader is sinless. It means that their lifestyle is marked with the kind of purity and holiness that results in a blameless reputation. It means they do not bring shame to the gospel of Christ by committing any actions deserving of reproach (see Phil 1:27). The second requirement in both passages is that he must be the husband of one wife. This isn’t simply forbidding polygamy, although it certainly applies. It’s about faithfulness and commitment. He is married to one woman, and faithfully stays married. He does not cheat on his wife, or divorce her in order to marry another. The fact that these two requirements are listed first shows their great importance. Also, notice that when Paul lists these qualifications he uses the word must – not can or should – but must. This indicates that the leadership requirements are unconditional. They are not up for debate.
What about forgiveness? Doesn’t the Bible say to “restore them gently” (Gal 6:1)? Doesn’t it also say “the gifts and call of God are irrevocable” (Rom 11:29)? Hold on… One question at a time please! 😉 Don’t misunderstand me. I am not proposing the public lynching of fallen pastors. They are in serious need of healing – the kind of healing that can take a lifetime. And yes, as Christians, we are called to forgive. What I am proposing is that forgiveness is not synonymous with placing them right back into the positions where they fell. I also propose that doing so is not even Biblical. Galatians 6:1 says, “Brothers, if someone is caught in any wrongdoing, you who are spiritual should restore such a person with a gentle spirit, watching out for yourselves so you also won’t be tempted.” This passage is often used in support of restoring fallen pastors back into positions of leadership, but is that what it’s saying? That seems to be a misinterpretation. It’s pretty clear that the restoration referred to in this scripture is about correction and not position. It is about restoring a person back to doing what is right. It is about restoring them to the faith and back to walking in righteousness.
Another scripture that has been widely misinterpreted and used to support reinstating fallen church leaders is Romans 11:29: “God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable.” This passage is commonly taken out of context, and many think that it means that once God calls you to be a church leader, you are always called to be a church leader regardless of your actions. In context, this passage is not about that at all. Romans 11 is all about the salvation of Israel. It describes how Israel turned away from the Lord and made it possible for the Gentiles to receive salvation. The point being made is that it is not too late for Israel to repent, to turn and be saved. Let’s look at the passage in context. “Regarding the gospel, they are enemies for your advantage, but regarding election, they are loved because of the patriarchs, since God’s gracious gifts and calling are irrevocable. As you once disobeyed God, but now have received mercy through their disobedience, so they too have now disobeyed, resulting in mercy to you, so that they also now may receive mercy.” (Rom 11:28-31) The word “calling” in verse 29 comes from the Greek word “klesis” which means “an invitation.” So, in context, what Romans 8:29 is saying is that when God extends the invitation of salvation, He will not take it back. He won’t revoke His offer.
What do we do with these fallen pastors if we’re not supposed to put them back into leadership? The truth is, I don’t really know. Honestly, I feel that this is usually handled very poorly. It may sounds naive, but I don’t think that forcing them to leave their churches is the answer. I understand that in many cases, particularly when there has been physical/sexual abuse of those under their care, that it is necessary for them to leave in order to facilitate healing in the congregation. I agree with this wholeheartedly. I just wonder about other cases… like the man who is caught with his hand in the collection plate, or the one who is trying to repair his marriage after being unfaithful to his wife. I wonder if healing could better be facilitated for all parties if the former leader was embraced, rather than shunned and sent away in disgrace. If the congregation would forgive and be willing to accept him as one of their own… If they would lovingly walk with him as he travels the road of humility and pain set before him while God works on his character… If he could find a home among those he once taught – not as a leader, but as a fellow brother and friend… If he would be willing to humbly do life with them, walking side by side without agenda or expectation of rising above into a position of leadership… If this were possible, wouldn’t healing come more swiftly? Instead of running away and avoiding each other, if they could face each other and work through the aftermath together… Wouldn’t that be beneficial for all involved? It’s bound to be messy. It certainly wouldn’t be easy. But wouldn’t it be worth it?