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Pastors who Fall into Sin

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Date February 16, 2007

Paul says, “An overseer must be above reproach,” (1 Timothy 3:2) and yet we hear of pastors falling into sin all too frequently. How should such pastors (and I would add Ruling Elders and Deacons) be viewed by the church and how should they be disciplined?

Surely most evangelicals believe these pastors ought to be removed from their positions of leadership within the church. The sin is simply too damaging to one’s reputation and especially to the reputation of Christ and His church to allow such a man to remain in his pastoral position. Hardly any within the evangelical church would accept a mere apology and act of contrition and repentance and then immediately restore the man to his role as ordained church leader. Certainly we believe forgiveness is possible when sincere, God-centered repentance is evident. Certainly we agree that restoration to the body of Christ is possible and desirable, that such a fallen pastor can continue in some measure of usefulness within the body of Christ, especially after a period of time where fruitful, measurable repentance is evident. And we all ought to heed the admonition of the Apostle Paul in Galatians 6:1, “If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” The fall of pastors into grievous sin evokes fear and trembling in the hearts of every pastor I know, including myself, because we know how capable we are of such evil.

But the question I have in mind is this – should such a man ever be restored to the ordained office of Pastor or Teaching Elder? Some would argue that since we serve a God of grace – citing the examples of Moses, Solomon, David, and Paul as men who were useful to God in spite of murder, adultery, and polygamy – fallen pastors, upon serving some period of discipline and giving evidence of repentance, can and should be welcomed back to pastoral ministry.

Knowing that I am capable of great evil and perversion myself, with fear and trembling I still suggest strongly that pastors who admit to or are proven to have fallen into fornication, adultery, or who cannot break the hold of pornography on them are guilty of sin so heinous as to disqualify them from ordained ministry for life.

My major argument for this position is Paul’s general, overarching qualification for overseers (overseer – episcopos – and elder – presbuteros – are synonymous terms referring to different aspects of the same church office) in 1 Timothy 3:2. A pastor is to be above reproach. What does this mean? R. C .H. Lenski, the biblical commentator, has this to say,

Irreproachable, not to be taken hold of, i.e. of such a character that no one can rightfully take hold of the person with a charge of unfitness … in the case of the members of the congregation faults may be borne which cannot be tolerated in ministers, for they are to be examples to the flock.

Perhaps we could add to our list murder and extortion, but I am focusing here on sexual sin.

Perhaps you have known pastors who have fallen into sexual sin, repented, and been restored to pastoral office. Here’s my question to you – can you honestly say that you looked at the man with the same degree of confidence and holiness after his fall as you did before it? What is it about sexual sin in pastors which makes them from that day forward unfit for ministry?

It has to do with the very nature of ministry, that God has given us salvation through His covenant of grace and that ministers are to be prosecutors of the covenant; we are to remind the congregation of violations of the covenant due to disobedience, and are to urge our people to return to God through the mediator of that covenant, the Lord Jesus Christ. Ours is a ministry of covenant. Marriage, according to Paul in Ephesians 5:22ff, is a picture of God’s covenant through Christ and His bride, the church. To defile the marriage bed (Hebrews 13:4) is to violate the covenant of marriage and for a minister to violate his marriage covenant is to impugn the very Lord whom he serves. Paul says that sexual sin is especially perverse because it defiles the Lord Jesus who indwells every believer. See 1 Corinthians 6:18-20,

Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your body.

Then there is the practical issue of knowing how long he should be kept from ordained ministry after his fall. How does a church measure such repentance? Should he be suspended for one year, two years, five years? How many tears must he shed? How many hours of counselling should he and his wife undergo? How can a congregation be sure he will not fall again? How can he be trusted to counsel women in the church? Must a church which released its pastor due to sexual sin be obligated to share sordid details of his affair with a pulpit committee interviewing him for a pastoral position at their church? All of these practical questions and more make it exceedingly difficult to restore a man to a pastoral role after sexual sin.

This may seem harsh and unforgiving but I am not denying forgiveness. I am not denying that restoration to the church is possible. I am not denying that such a man can be useful in the life of the local church, for certainly all these things are possible and desirable.

Finally, if churches and denominations all held to this view, which by the way, most denominations in church history have done until the last fifty years or so, this would serve as a deterrent to men entering the gospel ministry. They would be more prone to think twice about sexual sin if they knew they could lose their livelihood from it.

Al Baker is pastor of Christ Community Presbyterian Church in West Hartford, Connecticut.

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