Should Fallen Pastors Be Restored?

by John MacArthur

It always saddens me to watch church leaders bring reproach on the church of Jesus Christ. What’s perhaps most shocking to me is how frequently Christian leaders sin grossly, then step back into leadership almost as soon as the publicity dies away. It seems like Christians don’t expect much of their leaders anymore.

Some time ago I received a tape of a recommissioning service for a pastor who had made national news by confessing to an adulterous affair. It disturbed me. After little more than a year of “counseling and rehabilitation,” this man was returning to public ministry with his church’s blessing.

It is happening everywhere. Restoration teams—equipped with manuals to instruct the church on how to reinstate its fallen pastor—wait like tow-truck drivers on the side of the highway, anticipating the next leadership “accident.” Grace Community Church has received inquiries wondering if it has written guidelines or a workbook to help in restoring fallen pastors to leadership. Many no doubt expect that a church the size of ours would have a systematic rehabilitation program for sinning leaders.

Gross sin among Christian leaders is an epidemic. That is a symptom that something is seriously wrong with the church. But an even greater problem is the lowering of standards to accommodate our leaders’ sin. That the church is so eager to bring these men back into leadership indicates a rotten understanding of what it means to be a pastor.

Some have claimed that a leader’s failure makes him more effective in shepherding fallen people. That is ludicrous. Should we drag the bottom of sin’s cesspool for the most heinous sinners to lead the church? Are they better able to understand the sinner? Certainly not! Our pattern for ministry is the sinless Son of God. The church is to be like Him and its leaders are to be models of Christlikeness for the sheep.

We must recognize that leadership in the church cannot be entered into lightly. The foremost requirement of a leader is that he be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:210Titus 1:7). That is a difficult prerequisite, and not everyone can meet it.

Some kinds of sin irreparably shatter a man’s reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever because he can no longer be above reproach. 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 the 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 its own category. Certainly it disqualifies a man from church leadership. First Timothy 3:2 demands that elders be one-woman men (cf. Proverbs 6:32–33).

Where did we get the idea that a year’s leave of absence can restore integrity to someone who has squandered his reputation and destroyed people’s trust? Certainly not from the Bible. Trust forfeited is not so easily regained. Once purity is sacrificed, the ability to lead by example is lost forever.

What about forgiveness? Shouldn’t we be eager to restore our fallen brethren? To fellowship, yes. But not to leadership. It is not an act of love to return a disqualified man to public ministry; it is an act of disobedience.

By all means we should be forgiving. But we cannot erase the consequences of sin. I am not advocating that we “shoot our own wounded.” I’m simply saying that we shouldn’t rush them back to the front lines—and we should not put them in charge of other soldiers. The church should do everything possible to minister to those who have sinned and repented. But that does not include restoring the mantle of leadership to a man who has disqualified himself and forfeited the right to lead. Doing so is unbiblical and lowers the standard God has set.

Why is the contemporary church so eager to be tolerant in restoring fallen leaders? I’m certain a major reason is the sin and unbelief that pervade the church. If casual Christians can lower the level of leadership, they will be much more comfortable with their own sin. With lower moral standards for its leaders, the church becomes more tolerant of sin and less interested in holiness. The “sin-tolerant” church is intolerable to God. And such a church reveals the precarious status of contemporary evangelicalism—a reality that should frighten all serious and obedient believers.

The man-centered focus of modern religion has spawned the erroneous notion that committing the worst kinds of sin makes a person more effective in ministering to sinners. The implications of such a philosophy are frightening. The calling of a pastor is not to be relevant as a sinner, but to imitate Christ by striving after holiness (1 Peter 1:14–16).

Conservative Christians have for most of this century focused on the battle for doctrinal purity. And that is good. But we are losing the battle for moral purity. Some of the worst defeats have occurred among our most visible leaders. The church cannot lower the standard to accommodate them. We should hold it higher so that purity can be regained. If we lose here, we have utterly failed, no matter how orthodox our confession of faith. We can’t win if we compromise the biblical standard.

Pray for your church’s leaders. Keep them accountable. Encourage them. Follow their godly example. Understand that they are not perfect. But continue to call them to the highest level of godliness and purity. The church must have leaders who are genuinely above reproach. Anything less is an abomination.

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