This article originally appeared in the November 20, 1987 issue of Christianity Today.
In recent months, nation and church have been stung by leaders who betrayed their trust and fell into grievous sins. The problem is not new. In the last century, Grover Cleveland was charged with immoral conduct while running for the presidency. He admitted the charge and took responsibility for a son born to a woman with whom he had had an illicit relationship. He repented of his sin, and made restitution by providing for the woman and the child. He also had no further relations with the woman. The American people forgave him, believed he had proved himself capable, acknowledged him now to be a man of moral integrity, and elected him President.
Recently, Gary Hart was accused of carrying on an affair with a model. He lashed out at his accusers, but was finally forced to admit adultery - though he would not say with whom. Frustrated, Hart noted that he was not running for sainthood but for the presidency. He was obviously not repentant, and many questioned both his honesty and his judgment. Instantly, his campaign self-destructed.
Scandals in the Church
Things are not all that different inside the church. When PTL host Jim Bakker betrayed the trust of his supporters by immoral conduct and extravagant living, he claimed that he had repented and that he should be restored immediately to his former role. God had forgiven him, he declared. How could Christian people do less? Some of his former followers indeed have forgiven him, but few observers are convinced that he should be restored to leadership.
The case of Gordon MacDonald presents a different scenario. MacDonald, then president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, also fell into an illicit relationship. He confessed his sin to his wife and made things right with her. When knowledge of the affair became public, he saw it was necessary to resign his post. MacDonald gives every sign of genuine repentance and has pulled back from all public ministry, though he expresses the hope that God will someday restore him to Christian leadership. Meanwhile, he is content to replenish his spiritual resources and to wait for clear direction from God and a call from the people of God before seeking another public ministry.
The church has always dealt more lightly with converted sinners than with backslidden saints. This is natural enough because the backslider has clearly sinned against the light and his fall seems like failure after a second chance.
We do not often hear about fallen ministers who have been restored to successful leadership. Perhaps this is because ministers do not get into serious scrapes as often as others. And when they are convinced that repentance is genuine, other Christian leaders do not want to gossip, for they know it would destroy any possibility for their fallen brother to renew his ministry.
I know of fallen leaders who long to return to the kind of spiritual ministry they previously enjoyed, but no evangelical congregation will accept them. Their gifts of leadership are permanently lost to the church.
Forgive and Forget?
Few problems trouble the Christian church more than what to do with its fallen leaders. Every church knows that a Christian should be willing to forgive a sinner and receive him or her back into the loving fellowship of the body of Christ. But responsible Christians know also that not every Christian is capable of exercising wise and effective leadership. Choosing leaders calls for hard-headed, spirit-guided discernment. Unfortunately, some Christians find it easy to forgive and forget, but extremely difficult not to restore leadership to anyone who has suffered grievously and seems to be truly repentant.
The problem has many facets: When should a faithful and conscientious deacon "blow the whistle" on a pastor who has fallen into sin? How can we be sure repentance is genuine? When we are convinced a fallen leader is truly repentant, are we not inconsistent if we do not restore him to leadership? When God forgives, does he not also "forget"? And what can we do to prevent such tragedies from happening?
The Bible does not give us a set of pat answers to these questions. But it does give us clear principles we need to understand in order to carry on church business in a way pleasing to God.
Here are biblical presuppositions that underlie any right answers to this question: How should the church treat those who have fallen?
1. The God we worship is both infinitely holy and infinitely loving. Therefore, he demands that humans made in his image be not only holy but also loving, gracious, and forgiving. This is perhaps the heart of the problem: Christians tend to lean toward one pole or the other. But the God of the Bible encompasses both, and so must we.
2. Christians are sinners-redeemed, but still sinners-tempted, capable of sin, and actually sinning. As a part of the church, I must remember that I, too, am a sinner, capable of sin, and actually sinning at the very deepest level, feeling rebellious against the will of the holy God. Daily, but especially when I judge a fallen leader, I must remind myself: "There, but for the grace of God, go I!"
3. God is disposed to restore the fallen. His goal is to restore every believer to perfect Christlikeness. The laws of the state will carry out God's vindictive judgment upon the wicked. But as am member of the body of believers, I am to forgive the repentant and join with others in seeking his reconciliation and restoration to an obedient life and fruitful ministry in the kingdom of God.
Paradoxically, God sometimes permits us to fall into sin for our own growth and sanctification and ministry. Executive placement officer Robert W. Dingman reminds us: "Before Bathsheba caught his attention, King David would have delighted the search committee, but later he was clearly 'damaged goods.' I submit that he was a much better candidate after Bathsheba, as was Peter after the agonizing over his denials of Christ. People who have experienced the penalties of error have often received an inoculation that gives a future immunity. Should these truths be ignored by those who choose our leaders?" Praise God that he can use our failings to further his will.
4. Yet genuine forgiveness does not necessarily imply restoration to leadership. It only implies we should seek to restore one who has fallen to usefulness and ministry in Christ's kingdom.
But we are not always able to achieve the goal we seek-certainly not immediately! Some object. They point out that when God forgives, Scripture says that he forgets our sins and does not hold them against us. True. But God also knows our hearts. Neither at too fast nor too slow a pace will God nudge us back into leadership. In one respect, those who have fallen are like new converts or babes in Christ. They are not to be received immediately into roles of responsible leadership, teaching, and governance in the church.
Moral lapses are specially important considerations because the church is in the business of moral instruction and leadership. Scripture, therefore, makes a higher requirement in doctrine and life for those who are entrusted with leadership, and thus serve as models in the church (1 Timothy 3:1-13, 1 Timothy 5:17-22).
5. The church of Jesus Christ is an interdependent body. Ultimately, we are all dependent upon God. But in the church each believer is dependent on and responsible to all other believers. And God holds the church responsible for selecting good and capable leaders with the qualifications necessary for high office. Moral qualifications are no small part of the biblical requirements. Not to vote for a person to hold office in the church does not mean that we do not love that person. It only means that we are not convinced that it is God's best for him and for the church.
What to Do?
The Bible does not teach any specific set of requirements for every situation in which we try to restore a fallen leader to renewed ministry. Each decision represents a personal judgment for which we need the special illumination and guidance of the Holy Spirit. Often our decision becomes a delicate balance between a judgment as to the genuineness of the person's repentance and a quite different judgment as to what the fallen leader has learned from this experience that will enable him or her to do a better job and to be preserved from falling into a similar error.
The body of Christ and each member in it needs a God-given love and a spirit of discernment to make decisions that will be best both for the individual and the church. The procedure for restoration must not be forced into a rigid pattern. Nevertheless, in the light of biblical teaching, the following guidelines are especially appropriate:
Remorse: A deep genuine sense of regret for sin and not just for the un-pleasant consequences that have accompanied the sin. Often it is very difficult to tell the difference, but the distinction is immensely important. With true remorse the guilty person will have learned from his fall and be the stronger for it. This was true of David, Peter, and Paul.
True confession: Acknowledgment of sin and guilt to all who have been specially hurt by the sin or who might suffer harm if they did not know. This does not require open confession to all. Here is a general rule: Open and publicly known sins require open confession; private sins, private confession.
However, in the case of private sins; we must ask if some people would not be hurt more by confession than if the sin is kept secret. At a revival meeting, a young fellow became convinced that he ought to confess his sin of lust against a young woman in the congregation. Certainly, the girl would have been better off not to have heard his confession.
Accountability: A recognition by the wrongdoer that sin is never a completely isolated act and that we are always accountable to fellow believers. For evangelists, missionaries, and leaders, this means they are always accountable to a board of responsible Christian peers not only in spiritual matters, but also in financial practices.
Sometimes leaders in parachurch organizations choose a board composed of friends or relatives. In all likelihood, they are not chosen because they are specially knowledgeable about current business practices. These handpicked boards do not effectively guard the resources of the kingdom.
Fruits that befit repentance: Evidence that clearly shows the person is moving in a right direction. The nature and circumstances of the wrong, as well as the kind of role to which a wrongdoer is to be restored, will dictate what kind of evidence and how long it must be displayed before the person can be safely entrusted with new responsibility. Demands laid on a President of the United States, for example, would necessarily be far more stringent than those required of a county commissioner. Similarly, we would be far more strict in restoring a senior pastor than a speaker for a Saturday-night youth rally.
Restitution: Setting right what has been done wrong. Where possible, restitution must be made, and the wrongdoer must recognize the importance of taking responsibility for his wrong. He must show his willingness-even eagerness-to right his wrong. When restitution is impossible or unwise, the wrongdoer must still show his willingness to bear the full responsibility.
Retreat: Withdrawing for a time from public responsibility and visibility. This is wise in the case of egregious wrongdoing, both to give the leader a time for healing and to protect others. The apostle Peter waited for two months after his fall before he began to exercise leadership in the church. And following his conversion, the apostle, Paul spent three years in Arabia before he took up his mission to the Gentiles.
Leadership in the church, like forgiveness, cannot be bestowed on oneself. If anyone insists too readily that he or she "ought" to be forgiven or "ought" to be restored immediately to leadership, that is a clear sign that godly sorrow for sin is lacking. It may be that important lessons remain unlearned and the person is not yet ready for a return to leadership.
A genuine call: God is free to lay his servant "on the shelf" permanently or to call him back. But the call must be accompanied by a clear message to those who are to accept leadership. Neither the repentant sinner nor the church can dictate to God, for he heals in his own time. Just as there is great diversity in the speed with which our physical bodies heal, there is much variation in the time needed for spiritual and emotional healing. We must wait patiently upon God for his guidance.
These guidelines, drawn generally from Holy Scripture, are not a rigid and invariable formula. Our task as a church is to recognize the loving plan of God for every believer, to forgive, and to seek to restore. The matchless grace of God being what it is, we know he will restore his fallen children. But how and when and to what, we do not know. We only wait expectantly upon him.
We are always to listen to the all-loving, all-wise Spirit of God. Calvin thought he was not ready to lead Geneva, but he was wrong. Jim Bakker thinks he is ready to move back into control of his former TV empire. Most of us think he too is wrong.
The sensitive Christian will seek to move toward reconciliation and restoration. But in doing so, he will take care not to devastate the moral and spiritual well-being of the one he seeks to restore. And he will be zealous for the health and safety of the church. The church will be stronger when we take more seriously what the Bible has to say about how we should treat those who have fallen.
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