The pastor after a moral crisis

Is restoration to ministry possible after a pastor's moral lapse?

Roger R. Nixon is a pastor living in New South Wales, Australia.

Charlie,1 a credentialed minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, lost his right to function as a pastor because of a moral lapse. He is still a Seventh-day Adventist and demonstrates no animosity toward the church or those who found it necessary to remove his credentials. He freely acknowledges that the church administration had a responsibility to do what it did.

Nevertheless, what saddens this ex-minister, his family, and those near him is that no one directly connected with the case and consequent decision to remove his credentials has had any further personal contact with him.

"I haven't been ministered to," says Charlie, "in prayer or by the opening of the Word."

The high cost

Adultery is never a private sin, and pastoral infidelity has even more far-reaching effects. These include not only the pastor's calling and the church, but also the pastor's spouse and family, the other party in the episode and their family, and even some who are not church attenders.

Adultery is a sin that the Bible takes seriously. The Bible says that becoming "one flesh" with anyone other than one's spouse is a sin against the person's own body (1 Cor. 6:18). It's likely that any sincere minister of the gospel who falls can feel nothing but sorrow, humiliation, and devastation. Some believe that such a person should receive a double penalty for unfaithfulness.

If only they could witness the affected person, spouse, and children during their time of agony! If only they could see the grief that reduces a once-effective pastor to tears for days and weeks! This is the picture of one who recognizes that one's ministry is gone and that one's life will never again be the same.

It is also devastating for the pastor's spouse. The life is changed. The dreams are dashed. The costs are high for the marriage, children, congregation, and even some who do not belong to the church.

The current procedure

Knowing the best way to handle a pastor in such circumstances is never easy for administrators, work colleagues, and others affected. Usually some steps are taken to minimize the hurt for the church, the congregation, the pastor, and the family.

Presently our church follows a procedure that usually includes an investigation of the case, calling for the minister's resignation, negotiation of a financial severance package, assistance in relocating, pastoral care for the congregation, and ministry to the person who has been involved with the pastor, and the affected families.

Different views

Scripture does not clearly forbid or approve the restoration of a fallen minister to gospel ministry. Possibly this is why there is such a divergence of views on the issue among churches. Many reason that a person who betrays such a sacred trust has automatically lost the right to minister. They conclude that the ministry of a pastor found guilty of adultery is forever finished.

Another group holds that the Bible provides no such specific prohibition and that the only unpardonable sin is that of rejecting the Holy Spirit. They contend that the Bible cites several cases of people who fell into adultery, and yet God forgave them and used them mightily. Hence giving a second chance to the morally fallen minister is biblical.

Then there are others who argue that the circumstances of each case should be carefully investigated. They consider that certain "falls" require an appropriate recovery period and that each case should be prayerfully considered to determine whether the individual should be restored to ministry or not. For example: What is the minister's attitude? What was the timing of his/her repentance? How long did the affair last? How many people were involved?

Scriptural qualifications

The qualifications for pastors are dearly stated in Titus and 1 and 2 Timothy. The pastor should be a good example, serious in teaching, unworldly, temperate, gentle, a good manager of the family, above reproach, the spouse of one, a person of integrity, possessing a good reputation with the community at large.

Believers in restoration could well argue that God hates all sin (not only adultery). If God hates the sin of pride, and if ministers are puffed up with pride, should they not be disqualified just as much as the adulterous pastor?

Tim LaHaye raises the question: "If our Lord were to say to every minister who forbids restoration to a fallen colleague after due discipline 'He that is without sin cast the first stone,' who would be left to oppose it?" 2

Fallen people God used

The list of those with few shortcomings in the Bible is not long: Enoch, Isaiah, Daniel, and Joseph are among the more notable. But what of characters like Peter, John, Jonah, David, Samson, Moses, Abraham, and so on? Though they were guilty of many sins, God accepted them and used them. That does not mean that we are to justify adultery, fornication, murder, disobedience, or denying the Lord. The point is that God forgives the repentant sinner.

Some of the most productive ministry of David came after his his repentance for sins against Bathsheba and Uriah. It was after this tragic experience that David wrote some of his most moving psalms. The latter period of his life saw the consolidation of his kingdom and the preparation for the building of the Temple.

Restoring the fallen

Two points should be made:

1. As a denomination we need a well-laid policy or process to help rebuild the lives of erring ministers, their spouses, and their families. Some have seen themselves as having been dealt with kindly and fairly. But others are disillusioned, distressed, and in some instances have shipwrecked their faith.

2. Our church must establish a process wherein our position on discipline is maintained. But that discipline should, as far as possible, have a positive effect on the pastors' spiritual and moral life, perhaps to the point where, in some cases, they would be equipped once again for the ministry.

Without exception fallen pastors need forgiveness and spiritual rehabilitation. Galatians 6:1 reminds us that Christian believers and the church are responsible for the restoration process. God forgives sinners, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

Forgiveness is an instantaneous experience, but spiritual restoration is a process; it takes time. In practical terms it should start by helping the fallen pastors to rebuild their spiritual life, their marriage, and their families. It should also include their fellowship in the church family. Ultimately, depending on the circumstances of the case, it may well extend to restoration to pastoral ministry.

One church invited a "restored pastor" to be their minister. He was totally honest about his past. They responded, "If you're a broken person, then we've got a place for you, because we're a congregation of broken people."

Tim LaHaye recommends a small, carefully selected "restoration committee." 3 Committee members would need to be persons of integrity. They need to be objective, compassionate, and in no way antagonistic to the concept of restoration or to the pastor. They should be spiritually mature and qualified to:

1. Assess the genuineness of the pastor's repentance, confession, and recommitment to God.

2. Help rebuild the fallen pastor's spiritual life, marriage, and family.

3. Help the congregation to work through their hurt, disillusionment, disappointment, and anger.

4. Assess the pastor's progress and hold the pastor accountable.

5. Consider related concerns such as finding alternative work and the possible need to relocate.

6. Offer an ongoing, strictly confidential counseling and redemptive ministry.

7. Determine if and when the pastor might be able to resume pastoral responsibilities.

These suggestions are in no way complete. But we need to consider seriously the issue of restoring a "fallen" minister. The process suggested in this viewpoint article is fraught with some risks and failures. But I believe that the risks are well worth taking.

1 Not his real name.

2 Tim LaHaye. If Ministers Fall, Can They Be
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub.
House, 1990), p. 109.

3 Ibid., pp. 97,169.

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Roger R. Nixon is a pastor living in New South Wales, Australia.

August 1997

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