Can We Restore Pastors After Sexual Sin: A Longer Answer
When a pastor has disqualified himself from his ministry, is he disqualified from ministry altogether? If so, for how long? Forever? Can he ever be restored? If so, how soon?
These sorts of questions are not new, but they do seem more relevant than ever. While there are lots of articles out there on “fallen pastors,” I’ve been surprised to discover few deal with these questions in an in-depth way. I won’t pretend to provide a comprehensive treatment of this difficult subject in this post, but I do want to share some biblical reflections and practical implications I’ve been ruminating on for a while. This subject hits fairly close to home, as I think it does for many. It behooves us to think carefully and biblically about these matters.
What disqualifies a pastor?
What I find interesting these days is not how many pastors have fallen into disqualification but how many have not. We live in a day and age where any guy with a speaking gift and an entrepreneurial, creative spirit can plant a church and even be successful with it. But gifting is not qualification. Some seem to discuss this subject as if we do not have clear biblical guidance on what qualifies a man for the office of elder/pastor. Except we do. Here is a rough list, a composite from the three primary qualification passages (1 Tim 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5):
- Sexually/maritally faithful
- Good manager of household
- Financially responsible
- Upright in character
- Committed to holiness
- Able to teach
- Spiritually mature (not a new convert)
- Respectable (and respected by outsiders)
- A good example to the flock
Evangelicals seem to most often discuss disqualification as it relates to adultery—which, to be clear, is disqualifying—but we rarely bring in the disqualification conversation as it relates to short-tempered, argumentative, or otherwise un-self-controlled pastors. The “fall” of Mark Driscoll is probably the closest my particular tribe has come to reckoning with the full-fledged (dis)qualifications for ministry, but it is still not a widely understood concept in the age of the celebrity minister. In fact, I think in many tribes and traditions, the “other biblical qualifications for ministry” have been neglected for a long time. How else to explain that it is typically only once a domineering, financially irresponsible, unsober pastor commits adultery that he is finally removed from his office?
The bottom line is that the bar for the pastoral office is set rather high. It is not open to anybody who “feels called.” Beyond giftedness and ambition, it requires maturity, testing, and a long obedience in the same direction. Because of this, when a pastor has become disqualified, we are dealing with a problem at a different level than even the serious problem of discipline-worthy sins among the laity. It’s not because pastors are supposed to be super-Christians or have more favor with God than lay people, but rather that the leadership office demands a higher standard.
Can disqualified pastors be restored?
The first thing we should say is that we are often talking about two different kinds of restoration without knowing it. Many of evangelicalism’s problems with the scandals of celebrity pastors who disqualify themselves stem from an inability — or an unwillingness — to distinguish between a restoration to vocational ministry from a restoration to the fellowship. In regards to the latter, the answer ought to be an unequivocal yes. Any believer who has fallen morally, pastor or not, ought to be fully restored to the Christian community, given their repentance and the restoration process of their church.
This is why we must be careful with our criticism as well. Sometimes when we argue against the restoration of certain ministers to the pulpit, it sounds as though we are denying their ability to rejoin the fellowship of believers. And sometimes when we are upset about the high standard some set for the pulpit, we call others graceless when they are in fact ready to welcome any repentant sinner to the warmth of Christian fellowship.
What we are talking about here is more specifically this: Can a pastor who has disqualified himself in some way be restored to the pastoral office? In other words: Can a disqualified pastor become re-qualified? This is a rather controversial question. For many, the how and when are nonstarters because they answer “no” to this first consideration. For instance, John MacArthur wrote in a 1991 article:
There are some sins that irreparably shatter a man’s reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever. Even Paul, man of God that he was, said he feared such a possibility. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
When referring to his body, Paul obviously had sexual immorality in view. In 1 Corinthians 6:18, he describes it as a sin against one’s own body — sexual sin is in its own category. Certainly it disqualifies a man from church leadership since he permanently forfeits a blameless reputation as a one-woman man (Prov 6:33; 1 Tim 3:2).
I tread lightly here, but I’m going to disagree with Pastor MacArthur. First, if a previous sin forever disqualifies a man, Paul would have already been disqualified for his life of murderous persecution of Christians. Certainly sin committed after one is in union with Christ is in a certain way more serious than sin committed pre-conversion—not serious as in damnable, of course, but serious as in contrary to the new nature—but if any person could ever be deemed forever blameworthy, that would seem to preclude them even from the fellowship. Grace either covers all sin repented of, or it covers none.
I also do not find MacArthur’s exegetical case convincing. He puts 1 Corinthians 9:27 in the context of 1 Corinthians 6:18 to argue Paul has in mind sexual immorality. But that does not seem at all to be what Paul is talking about in the immediate context of chapter 9. Verse 27 caps off a long explanatory passage on Paul’s missional philosophy, teasing out his concern to be “all things to all people” (v. 22). He does of course mention “self-control” (v. 25), but it is in relation to training. This does not exclude any consideration of guarding against sexual immorality, of course, but the “disqualification” referred to in verse 27 doesn’t seem to be connected to a moral failing but a missional one.
In other words, it appears from the trajectory of his reasoning throughout the chapter that the “qualification” in question is about commending himself to both Jew and Greek (vv. 19–23). He does not want to fall short of missional versatility. This is why he spills a lot of ink earlier in the passage on payment for ministry and the like. He then goes on to discuss his discipline in relation to the ceremonial law as a missional consideration. He is speaking largely to contextualization and personal usability. With this in mind — again — we do not take sexual propriety entirely out of the equation, but it would seem that the disqualification he has in mind is more to do with disqualifying himself from access to preaching to people groups (as he mentions in the verse in question) than disqualification from the ministry entirely. I take the immediate context to be of more guidance in understanding 1 Corinthians 9:27 than I do a verse three chapters previous.
All of that said, we obviously know sexual immorality is disqualifying for pastors because of the more direct references that give us the biblical qualifications for ministry. One of these is found, as MacArthur mentions, in 1 Timothy 3:2. But the question we’re really asking is if this disqualification is permanent. Even if we take 1 Corinthians 9:27 to refer to a moral failing, it says nothing about the permanence of such a disqualification. MacArthur adds the word “permanently” to his exposition, but it is not found in the text. What we can agree on, I assume, is that those who seek qualification for pastoral ministry—according to 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5—must have a well established reputation for and widespread affirmation of the qualities listed therein. (I’m going to come back to that last sentence in a minute, so don’t forget it.) On this subject, another pastor, John Piper, said in a 2009 interview:
Is it possible to restore a pastor who sinned sexually but who is repentant? Or is such a pastor disqualified because he no longer meets the qualification of being “above reproach”?
I’m afraid if I answer this the way that I should, it will give so much license to restore pastors too quickly. But since I should, I should.
Ultimately, I think the answer is yes. A pastor who has sinned sexually can be a pastor again. And I say that just because of the grace of God and the fact that “above reproach” can be restored, probably.
I agree with Piper on this, and I think there is a lot entailed in the “probably” that we should tease out. But first, do we have any biblical precedent for the restoration of a fallen pastor? Well, in fact, of a certain kind we do.
What does the restoration of Peter tell us about the restoration of disqualified pastors?
Let’s be clear here that we are not discussing relational conflicts or a ministerial “falling-out.” Some speak this way about Peter’s denial of Christ and the subsequent reunion with his Lord, but this does not do justice to the terrible sin Peter has committed. On the other hand, we have a few examples in Acts and in some of Paul’s epistles referring to intramural debates and relational conflicts that prompt the parting of ways between ministers of the gospel, but Paul does not refer to those men as being disqualified from ministry. (He does speak that way about those one-time ministers who embraced heresy or otherwise “fell away” from the faith, of course.) So we have to put Peter’s denial of Jesus in the right category.
Jesus has warned, “But whoever denies me before others, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven” (Matt 10:33). This makes the public denial of Jesus (by any believer) a denial of eternal impact. Compounding this, Peter was even told by Jesus he would do this, and Peter gave his word he would not (Matt 26:35), so now we have a betrayed trust on top of a betrayed witness. Can we agree that any minister who denies even knowing Jesus when put on the spot has entered disqualification territory? With this in mind, let’s revisit the restoration scene found in John 21:15–19:
When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs,” he told him. A second time he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.” “Shepherd my sheep,” he told him.
He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” “Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. “Truly I tell you, when you were younger, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to indicate by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. After saying this, he told him, “Follow me.”
Is this scene instructive in any way for the consideration of pastoral restoration? Even though it is not a didactic passage but rather a narrative, I think so.
First, the larger point is that restoration for sinners is possible.
Glory! This is simply, for all believers, a wonderful picture of the gospel. Why did Jesus repeat the question three times? There is no significance in the linguistic difference in the “loves” (agape, phileo), as that appears to be a literary penchant of John’s, but rather Jesus is echoing and thereby covering Peter’s threefold denial. The gist? You cannot out-sin the grace of God. As far as your sin may go, the gospel goes further still.
Second, it seems obvious to me that the restoration in view here is not simply to the fellowship but also to leadership.
Some proponents of permanent disqualification miss the gravity of what is taking place in this beautiful moment. The interjection between each question and answer of “Feed/tend my lambs” would seem to indicate that Peter is not simply being restored to “good graces” with Jesus but also to the ministerial office. He is certainly not dismissed from his apostleship and of course goes on to preach and write authoritatively. This is after he has publicly denied knowing Jesus.
Third, beyond those two primary facts—restoration is graciously total, and re-qualification for ministry is possible—everything else we deduce about restoration from this passage must be an inference.
For instance, some argue from Peter’s restoration scene that restoration to ministry can be—dare we say, should be?—immediate. It is to this question that I turn next.
How soon can fallen pastors be restored?
If not never, when? Some say, citing Jesus’s restoration of Peter, immediately. I think not.
To discern from Peter’s restoration a “Jesus and me” approach to pastoral qualification is to miss the robust ecclesiology embedded in John 21 and provided throughout the rest of the Scriptures. There are two important elements in John 21 that are at the least necessary prerequisites for restoration of fallen pastors: (1) godly grief (John 21:7) and (2) the verdict of the congregation as representative of Christ on earth (Matt 16:19).
To put it bluntly, Jesus is not here in person to tell us, “Yeah, this guy’s ready.” So what do we have? We have his word (the Bible), and we have his body (the church). The answer to the question, “How soon can a fallen pastor be restored?” cannot really be answered definitively in terms of time frame. It may take some longer than others. Some may not ever be restored. The point is — it’s not really up to them. The restoration is performed, as in all discipline cases, by the church where the disqualification has taken place. There are too many factors that may be involved in different cases. But I think we can say “not immediately,” for these reasons:
Discerning godly grief is necessary.
Peter’s grief is especially noted. How can we know this grief is godly grief (2 Cor 7:10) and not simply grief over being found out (or “caught”), or worse, a feigned sincerity meant to fool? Well, Jesus himself cannot be fooled. He could look right into Peter’s heart and see his repentance. The church, as Christ’s representative in matters of church discipline today, is of course not omniscient. We determine repentance credible in a variety of ways and act accordingly. Typically, church discipline processes involve steps members must submit to in order to show their cooperation and demonstrate their grief over their sin. For repentant adulterers, this can entail things like opening up their phones and email to their hurt spouse, cutting off all contact with their affair partner, and so on. For habitual porn users, it can involve installing software. For members disciplined for all kinds of sins, it may involve regularly meeting with an accountability partner and/or a counselor. The stipulations vary, but steps toward restoration are taken.
Some may say that is not very gracious, but biblical church discipline is not punitive or condemnatory. It is, in fact, a grace applied. Most folks acknowledge we don’t restore unrepentant members to the fellowship. So once we make repentance a requirement, we’re necessarily asking, “How do you know if one is repentant?” Obviously there are ways to create an interminable succession of legalistic hoops for someone to jump through. That is graceless. We are simply discerning repentance. That is biblical, and it is gracious because there are more parties at stake than simply the sinner in question — there is the body, the reputation of the church, and the credibility of our witness for Christ. No single sinner is above all of these considerations, and to treat them so is to deny grace to others. No, properly administered, discipline is a grace (Heb 12:11).
Restoration to fellowship is not the same as restoration to the pastorate.
For any person who has fallen into discipline-worthy sin, restoration to the fellowship can be relatively immediate. I say “relatively” because of the considerations above. But paying penance is not a biblical virtue. Like the father in the parable, we seek with love the restoration of every wayward member, pastor or not, and run to receive them when they indicate interest in returning to the family. But, again, restoration to the fellowship is not the same as restoration to the pastorate. Remember those qualifications?
Peter did not restore himself.
The church, as Christ’s representative, must affirm the qualifications of any person to the office of pastor. Christ in person can qualify a man immediately or immediately restore that man once he’s fallen. Christ’s church, however, has further instruction on how it can make these determinations. To return to an earlier claim: Those who seek qualification for pastoral ministry—according to 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5—must have a well established reputation for and widespread affirmation of the qualities listed therein. And those qualifications are not things that can be determined in immediate fashion. They aren’t determined quickly when we establish a pastor in the first place, and they shouldn’t be jumped over when we consider the restoration of a pastor who’s disqualified himself.
You cannot tell if someone is a good manager of a household the first time you meet him. You see the witness of his family life over time. Similarly, when a guy cheats on his wife, you don’t determine he’s a good family man soon after the revelation. It will take more time, given the offense, to see him walk in repentance, to gain that reputation back. This is the case with any point of disqualification, although some levels of discernment can occur more quickly than others. It is not an immediate thing for a pastor who has been disqualified for a long pattern of verbal abuse or coarse jesting to gain a reputation as a gentle, peaceful man. It is probably less immediate still for a pastor who has been disqualified for a pattern of alcohol addiction or sexual immorality to gain a reputation as sober- minded or a “one-woman man.”
This is parallel to the biblical qualification of “not being a new convert.” Obviously we are speaking to a (presumably) Christian person who is newly repentant, but the underlying principle is the same. Repentance is an immediate re-entry to the fellowship, but re-entry to the pastorate takes the testing of time.
This is not graceless. It is how Christ protects his church and, incidentally, how he protects repentant sinners from rushing too soon back into the same pressures that revealed their undeveloped character to begin with.
Even if a pastor in light of restoration is planning to assume the pulpit of another church or plant a new church, his restoration to ministry should still be affirmed by his previous community. There are some extreme cases where this may not be possible, but it should be normative for disqualified leaders humbly submitting to discipline.
So, how soon? I don’t know. Not never. Not immediately. Somewhere in between, given the time by the church to discern and affirm one’s qualification. I track, again, with John Piper:
Forgiveness comes quickly, expensively, and immediately, on repentance. But trust doesn’t, cannot.
If a pastor has betrayed his people, and it has wounded a church grievously and wounded his wife grievously, he can be forgiven just like that. Wiped away. The blood of Jesus covers it. But as far as re-establishing trust, which is essential to a shepherd/sheep and wife/ husband relationship, how long does that take? A decade? It takes a long time, a long time, until memories are healed.
And very practically I think this is what I would say: A man who commits adultery, say, in the ministry, should immediately resign and look for other work. And he should make no claim on the church at all. He should get another kind of job and go about his life humbly receiving the discipline and sitting and receiving ministry, whether in that church or in another church. And then the church should turn that around if it believes it should, not him.
Let us remember, friends, that none of us who enjoys the privilege of ministering the gospel is greater than Christ’s church, locally or universally. We may have been given a platform, but we are of service to him and at his disposal. We are to be subject to the church.
The gospel is not expendable. But our ministries are. If you are a fallen pastor eager for restoration to ministry, I urge you not to see your time away or the discipline involved in the meantime as graceless. It may be your next lesson in just how big God’s grace really is. You may cheapen grace rushing back into that pulpit, assuming you can only be validated by a return to platform, if only because you remain unwilling to see just how greatly grace can sustain you and satisfy you outside of the spotlight. He is good enough to supply your every need.
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Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the e-book Porn and the Pastor.