“Genuine forgiveness does not necessarily imply restoration to leadership,” former CT editor Kenneth Kantzer once wrote after the moral failure of several prominent evangelical leaders. Yet the impulse to link forgiveness with restoration to ministry remains strong. Here two pastor-theologians argue for the importance of keeping separate the restoration to the body of Christ and restoration to pastoral leadership.
The North American church is seriously vexed by the question, “What shall we do with an adulterous pastor?” Over the past decade, the church has been repeatedly staggered by revelations of immoral conduct by some of its most respected leaders. How do we respond to those who have sexually fallen and disgraced themselves, shamed their families, and debased their office?
The typical pattern goes like this: The pastor is accused and convicted of sexual sin. He confesses his sin, often with profound sorrow. His church or denominational superiors prescribe a few months, or often one year, in which time he is encouraged to obtain professional counsel. Then he is restored to his former office, sometimes in another location. He is commonly regarded as a “wounded healer,” one who now knows what it means to fall, to experience the grace of God profoundly.
While each situation must be handled with pastoral wisdom, and some fallen pastors indeed might someday be restored to leadership, we believe this increasingly common scenario is both biblically incorrect and profoundly harmful to the well-being of the fallen pastor, his marriage, and the church of Jesus Christ. Our Lord Jesus was tempted in all points just as we are, yet it was his testing, not any failure, that made him strong. If we do not think clearly, we may be subtly encouraging people to grievous sin so they might experience more grace and thus minister more effectively. Incredibly, in the present context, some are saying things that imply just this notion.
The Forgiveness Approach
The commonly held view. reasons that a repentant and forgiven minister who was previously qualified for pastoral office remains qualified on the basis of God’s forgiveness. Was he qualified previously? Has he confessed his sin? Has God forgiven him? Then we must also.
This logic rests upon the unbiblical assumption that forgiveness of sin is equivalent to the “blamelessness” (or unimpeachable character) required of pastors in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6. If this thesis is accepted, all God requires is that a fallen pastor be forgiven.
But this confuses the basis of our fellowship with Christ with public leadership and office in church. No one argues that the fallen minister cannot be forgiven. No one should argue that he cannot be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s visible church. But to forgive a fallen pastor and to restore him to membership in the church is much different than restoring him to the pastoral office.
The “forgiveness approach” is inadequate because it does not deal realistically with two facts: First, adultery is a great sin; and second, pastoral adultery is an even greater sin.
Oft-repeated fallacies sometimes achieve the status of received truth--such as the notion that there is no essential difference between mental adultery and the actual physical act (see Matt. 5:27-28; James 2:10). To the contrary, we believe, in concert with the historic interpretation of the church, that while lust, jealousy, pride, and hatred will send a person to hell as surely as their outward manifestations (adultery, fornication, and murder), the physical manifestations are greater sins became of the damage they do to both the person who sins and the ones sinned against.
Adultery is a great sin precisely because it breaks the covenant of marriage. It violates another’s body. It may prove to be grounds for divorce. Mental adultery does none of this. Jesus’ intention in Matthew 5:27-28 was not to reduce adultery to the level of lust, but to show that lust would destroy the soul as surely as adultery.
Likewise, compare the mental sin of hatred with the act of murder (see Matt. 5:21-22). In one the person who hates is harmed by the hatred, but in the other a life is taken. There is a difference!
Further, the immensity of adultery is seen in 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, where the apostle Paul argues that sexual sin is “against one’s own body.” The context of this passage reveals that sexual sin is in a category of its own. Sexual relationships violate the union that exists between a man and woman wherein they become “one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). It is the depth of this union, recognized by God with a covenant, that shows how profound its violation is in the light of eternity.
Charles Hodge wrote in the last century that 1 Corinthians 6 teaches that fornication “is altogether peculiar in its effects upon the body; not so much in its physical as in its moral and spiritual effects.” Paul is telling the Corinthians that one’s entire body and soul, hence all that a person is as a human personality, is involved in sexual relationship. Hence, profound damage results from such sin.
Hodge further says that adultery is a sin against one’s own body because it is “incompatible … with the design of its creation, and with its immortal destiny.” Contemporary New Testament scholar Gordon Fee writes in the same vein, “The unique nature of sexual sin is not so much that one sins against one’s own self, but against one’s own body as viewed in terms of its place in redemptive history” (emphasis ours).
Pastoral adultery, moreover, is an even greater sin. Why? Some sins are more damaging than others precisely because of who it is that commits them. As the Westminster Larger Catechism (Questions 150-51) reasons, persons who are eminent for their profession, gifts, and office are particularly serious offenders because of their influence upon others. This added seriousness is found in every case of a minister who commits adultery. Add to this James 3:1, which suggests that pastors will be held to stricter judgment, and we have a strong argument that pastoral adultery is an even graver sin than adultery in general.
The forgiveness approach, though appealed to by many today as a compassionate response to sexually fallen ministers, actually lacks compassion: it does not deal with the depth of the issue itself.
But why does adultery disqualify a minister from office?
The Blameless Approach
Straightforward explanations of what it is that qualifies one for pastoral ministry are given in several places in the Pastoral Epistles. 1 Timothy 4:12 provides a summary statement: “… set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.” Titus 1:6 further adds, “An elder must be blameless…” The Greek word here means “not to be laid hold of,” or unassailable. William Hendriksen says of this blamelessness, “Enemies may bring all manner of accusations, but these charges are proved to be empty whenever fair methods of investigations are applied.”
Adultery is not the only sin that disqualifies a minister from office, but it is one of the more visible and confusing sins plaguing the church in our time.
What is particularly troublesome about this sin today is the abuse of power that often attends it. Deep pain is brought to the sexual partner in a clergy affair, and even deeper pain to the minister’s wife. The minister, given an honored office through which he is called to serve abused and vulnerable people, violates that very trust by becoming, himself, a violator.
Anglican Michael Peers, speaking at the Toronto Centre for the Family’s symposium on sexual abuse by clergy, explains, “[This] is a deep-rooted and dark” problem, and it is often protected by the twin demons of “denial and control.” Don Posterski writes, “When the power [of ministry] is used for sexual gratification it clearly constitutes the sexual abuse of power.”
It saddens us that so few “fallen” leaders recognize the abuse of power inherent to pastoral adultery. And even fewer are willing to discuss the destruction of trust that their sins have effected. Many borrow psychotherapeutic concepts such as healing and recovery as rationales for returning to pastoral ministry, but with no genuine recognition of the pathology that manifests itself in the abuse of power.
The consensus of church history argues strongly that pastoral adultery disqualifies the minister. Lutheran historian Carl A. Volz categorically states in Pastoral Life and Practice in the Early Church that the church debarred pastors from public ministry “through moral lapse” and “heresy.” He notes that ordination did not protect presbyters: what was conferred could be removed. The noted second-century presbyter, Hippolytus, powerfully assailed immorality among church leaders and insisted on their immediate removal from office. The early second-century document The Teaching of the Apostles states that the one who had been ordained but subsequently disobeyed God’s Word should be disqualified, because the man had lied in taking his vows of loyalty and purity before Christ and his church. Such a violation of ordination vows was seen as an egregious breach of the third commandment.
The same views were held by the Protestant Reformers. Calvin, in The Register of the Company of Pastors, prescribes: “In order to obviate all scandals of conduct it will be needful to have a form of discipline for ministers … to which all are to submit themselves. This will help ensure that the minister is treated with respect and the Word of God is not brought into dishonor and scorn by the evil fame of ministers. Moreover, as discipline will be imposed on him who merits it, so also there will be no need to suppress slanders and false reports that may unjustly be uttered against those who are innocent.”
As has been established, the office requires the minister to be “blameless.” There can be no doubt that 1 Timothy 3:1-7 requires, among other qualities, that the episkopos (or overseer of the church) be a “one-woman man,” that is, a man of moral purity whose wife is his only sexual partner. He is required to be a man who keeps the covenant of God and keeps his “marriage bed pure” (Heb. 13:4). Paul stressed to the church in Ephesus, where sexual sin was common among pagan unbelievers, there should not be “even a hint of sexual immorality” in the church (Eph. 5:3).
Tragically, covenant breaking of this type places a lasting reproach on the fallen minister, and this will have long-term consequences. Wise Solomon gave it wistful expression: “But a man who commits adultery lacks judgment; whoever does so destroys himself. Blows and disgrace are his lot, and his shame will never be wiped away” (Prov. 6:32-33, NIV).
One of the troubling questions often raised regarding this matter of being “blameless” is this: Is the public knowledge of the sin the issue in the minister being blameless, or is there something in the nature of the sin itself that makes blamelessness a deeper matter than public knowledge? To put it bluntly, can the man become blameless by moving to another community and church and starting over? Here, it is often argued, others will not know of his past failure.
But a change in geography will not diminish the blame, because the sin is so dynamically disintegrative. As such, it will likely come to light again, as John Chrysostom, the early church bishop (347-407) explained: “The minister’s shortcomings simply cannot be concealed. Even the most trivial soon get known.”
Perhaps some might eventually become qualified to return again to pastoral office, perhaps after being ordained again. And it cannot be exegetically proven that a fallen minister can never be restored to office. But this does not argue against the flow of our understanding, for the vital question the church faces in our time is not what might happen in exceptional cases, but rather, how can we protect and help the woman or women sinned against by the minister? How can we minister to the pastor’s wife and children, those most sinned against in this lapse? What can be done to preserve the church spiritually and morally? What are we to do to help this minister begin the long ordeal of sorting out his devastated life?
Adultery establishes that the fallen minister is not able to serve with integrity. The issue is not usefulness to the church or giftedness in the pulpit. To have stood before the flock, leading them in holy worship week after week, preaching the Word of God as his servant, and yet to have been committing adultery reveals a massively toxic character flaw that poisons all of life. One fallen minister, many years after his own failure, writes: “In my case, moral failure was the sin which was visible to the church. There were, much to my chagrin, other issues which were perhaps more heinous to God than that which was visible to man. It takes time to root these out and replace them with godly characteristics.”
Sober warning has been given in 1 Corinthians 9:25-27, where the apostle Paul argues that the lack of diligent restraint of the flesh may lead one into apostasy. This danger needs to be weighed carefully in dealing with pastors who have fallen. Consider how subtly sexual sin permeates the whole human personality--whether illicit sex is used to feed a person’s sense of power, need for affection, self-image, sense of desirability and attractiveness, hedonistic drive, or all of these--and you will sense the danger here. We sincerely believe that remaining in public ministry will in some cases foster deeper self-deception, leading men to eternal rain in the final day.
What Then Shall We Do?
The fallen minister who confesses sin, seeks God’s grace, and desires to remain in fellowship with the church of Christ, must be welcomed and received as any fallen Christian. He must be forgiven as Jesus commands (Matt. 18:22). But forgiveness and restoration to the fellowship of the church does not mean the former minister now meets the qualifications for holding the office of pastor/elder.
The church is not to punish the repenting man who has fallen. But refusing to return him to the role of pastoral ministry is not punishment. To remove a fallen minister is to honor Christ’s holy standards; it is to follow the wise counsel and pattern of leaders over the centuries; it is to protect the man himself and his family; and it is to guard the church body, loved so dearly by the Chief Shepherd.
The Bible tells of several prominent fallen leaders who had significant roles after their failure. Moses, David, and Peter immediately come to mind. But we must not rush to employ these three examples in discussing morally fallen pastors, Consider several important matters: (1) Moses’ sin of murder came 40 years before his leadership began, and he spent a virtual lifetime in the desert following this serious fall. (2) David’s sin would have brought the death penalty to anyone else. Further, he was a Middle Eastern, harem-keeping potentate, not a domestic role model for New Testament shepherds. Remember also that his kingdom and family never knew peace after his moral turpitude-his throne never regained its former stability. (3) Peter’s sin was serious, but it was not “against the body” (1 Cor. 6:18), and while it was a character sin, it was not the kind of volitional and cavalier deception that is characteristic of adultery. Neither was it premeditated, prolonged, or repeated in darkness.
We conclude with the wise plea and rationale of a fallen anonymous minister to his fellow servants who have fallen: “The question is character and integrity. Yours are shattered. I plead with you, face the issue now! God’s grace does restore. There is hope. However, that requires a process, much time, and even more grace. Confess, step down. Become accountable. Seek the cleansing and healing you need. Do it this day, do it now!”
R. Kent Hughes is pastor of College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Are Evangelicals Born Again? (Crossway). John H. Armstrong is director of Reformation & Revival Ministries and author of Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored? The Church’s Response to Sexual Misconduct (Moody), which expands on the ideas in this article.
Update (9/4/15): Hughes is now pastor emeritus at College Church. Armstrong's Reformation & Revival Ministries is now called ACT3 Network.
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