This series was first published in April 2016. -ed.
It has always saddened me over the years as I’ve watched 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.
Some time ago I received a recording that disturbed me greatly. It was audio of the recommissioning service for a pastor who had made national news by confessing to an adulterous affair. 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, where I pastor, 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 a signal that something is seriously wrong within the contemporary church. But an even greater problem is the lowering of standards to accommodate a leader’s sin. That churches are so eager to bring these men back into leadership—and to do so relatively quickly—is a symptom of rottenness to the core.
Christians must not regard leadership in the church lightly. The foremost requirement of a leader is that he “must be above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2, 10; Titus 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: “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified” (1 Corinthians 9:27).
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, because he permanently forfeits a blameless reputation as a one-woman man (Proverbs 6:33; 1 Timothy 3:2).
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 a man sacrifices his purity, the ability to lead by example is lost forever. As my friend Chuck Swindoll once commented when referring to the issue—it takes only one pin to burst a balloon.
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 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 his 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 tolerant of holiness. The “sinner-friendly” church is intolerable to God. And such a church reveals the precarious status of contemporary Christendom—a reality that should frighten all serious and obedient believers.
Conservative Christians have a strong legacy of battling 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 the church can regain its purity. If we lose here, we have utterly failed, no matter how orthodox our confession of faith. We can’t be salt and light if we compromise the biblical standard of moral purity for our leaders.
In view of this crisis in leadership and morality, what should you do? Pray for your church’s leaders. Keep them accountable. Encourage them. Let them know you are following their godly example. Understand that they are not perfect. But continue nonetheless to call them to the highest standards of godliness and purity. The church must have leaders who are genuinely above reproach. Anything less is an abomination.
(Adapted from The Master’s Plan for the Church.)