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One of the saddest experiences that a church ever faces is that of a fallen pastor. The sad reality is that pastors are sinners, too, and that some of them will fall into grievous sin. What should happen when a pastor falls?
Pastors have a dual role in the church. As shepherds, they provide pastoral care, but as sheep, they need pastoral care. When a pastor falls into sin, he needs the same restorative care afforded him that is due to any believer. Paul writes in Galatians 6:1, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him.”
Some churches have clear guidelines for addressing a fallen pastor. In my own denomination, pastors are subject to the oversight of their fellow elders and ministers. Jesus sets forth the basic steps of church discipline in Matthew 18:15–20. One of the objectives is the restoration of the erring brother or sister. This is the same when addressing a fallen pastor. Efforts must be made to determine whether there is evidence of genuine sorrow for the sin committed. If the sin is accompanied by serious consequences, as would be in the case of adultery, the road to repentance may require some intentional efforts at making amends. If it is determined that genuine repentance is evident, and forgiveness is sought from all parties, then forgiveness should be granted, and he should be aided in the pursuit of restoration. In 1 Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul rebukes the Corinthian church for neglecting to pursue an erring brother. After the discipline was administered and the brother in question repented of his sin, the Apostle Paul urged that the church forgive him and embrace him in love (2 Cor. 2).
But what should be done when a pastor commits a grievous sin such as adultery and then repents? While he most certainly can be and should be restored to fellowship, should he be restored to his office? This is a matter of discernment for the leaders of the church. One of the qualifications for the office of elder is that he must be above reproach. Titus 1:7 states, “For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach.” The Greek word that is translated as “above reproach” conveys the idea that there is nothing in one’s life that could be called into account or brought forth legitimately as an accusation against the person’s character. If a man is above reproach, there is nothing in his life that would disqualify him for service as an officer in the church. When a man commits adultery or some other serious sin, he becomes reproachable and thus is no longer qualified to serve. Marital fidelity is essential for a man who is serving as an overseer in the church. The Apostle Paul argues that household management is essential for the man who would seek to be a steward in God’s house (1 Tim. 3:5). A man who is not faithful to his own bride should not be given oversight of the bride of Christ. Some sins, while forgiven, carry with them some serious consequences. Some of the consequences cannot ever be removed, and others only after much time. When the Israelites rebelled against the Lord and embraced the reports of the ten unfaithful spies, the Lord was angry with them and threatened to destroy them (Num. 14:20–38). After Moses interceded, the Lord declared that He would forgive them but they would not be allowed to enter into the promised land. They were forgiven, but serious consequences remained.
While a fallen pastor may be restored to fellowship in the church, and while he may serve as a layman in a variety of ministries, it may not be wise to restore him to his pastoral office until sufficient time has elapsed to address the consequences of his sin, and it may not be wise to ever restore him to his office. Some have argued that a fallen pastor should never be restored to his pastoral office because some sins, such as adultery, render him reproachable in perpetuity. While I have sympathies for this view, I believe restoration should always be a possibility. Peter denied Jesus three times but then was restored to his Apostolic office.
While it may be inadvisable to restore a fallen pastor, that is not the same as saying that it is absolutely impossible. The Book of Church Order of the Presbyterian Church in America takes this position when it states:
A minister . . . deposed for scandalous conduct shall not be restored [to office], even on the deepest sorrow for his sin, until he shall exhibit for a considerable time such an eminently exemplary, humble and edifying life and testimony as shall heal the wound made by his scandal. A deposed minister shall in no case be restored until it shall appear that the general sentiment of the Church is strongly in his favor, and demands his restoration. (38.4)
The grace of God in Jesus is greater than our sin, and any sin of any person will be forgiven if confessed and repented of. God’s grace in Jesus not only forgives sinners, but it also restores them. However, office in the church is restricted to those who meet the qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. When a pastor’s life, due to some serious sin, becomes reproachable, he becomes at that moment disqualified to serve as an officer in the church, and he may not ever be able to resume his ministerial office. He may be forgiven, restored to fellowship, and participate in the ministry of the church, but his pastoral ministry may not be resumed except on the most rare of occasions, and only after a very careful process has been pursued.