Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D. (retired), lives in Lincoln Hills, California.

Editorial Note: During the last year or more, Ministry has published extensively on the important topic of pastors and sexual wrongdoing. Predictably, at least two somewhat disparate schools of thought have emerged among our reader family. While we believe that too much further publication on this issue could prove counterproductive, we do believe it important to publish one further article that would give a somewhat different emphasis from the one given below (look for this further article in the near future). We further feel that it would be productive for the church to carefully reconsider and focus on the way it deals with such issues, designing a more intentional, consistent, and productive approach to these challenging situations.

How could it have happened? He was a well-known pastor, loved and respected not only by members of his own church but by those of other denominations. And yet, what a shock when he openly confessed to an affair with a parishioner. Not only was his family destroyed, and his career ruined, but his church and the faith of many members went through a severe crisis.

Yes, it happens, happens too often too. Why? And what can be done?

A history of infidelity

In a powerful book, The Stain That Stays (Chicago: Moody Press), author John H. Armstrong reviews the staggering revelations of moral failure in pastoral leadership that have recently rocked congregations, large and small.

Armstrong reviews how the Christian church through the centuries has dealt with pastoral infidelity. He highlights how the Protestant reformers awakened a towering view of marriage and sexual faithfulness. Moral purity was more than loving one's spouse; for the Christian,moral purity was a firsthand response to the gospel. Thus, for early Protestants, assigning pastoral leadership to an immoral man would be unthinkable. Further, the idea of restoring sexually immoral pastors was unknown.

Armstrong asks, "Is there any ungodly behavior, engaged in by a pastor, that may disqualify him from the pastorate?" He notes that most of the material dealing with disqualification focuses primarily on restoration. Proponents of restoration follow three lines of reasoning: (1) immediate restoration (within less than 12 months); (2) ultimate restoration after an absence up to three years; and (3) spiritual restoration but not to pastoral ministry.

The three alternatives

1. Forgive and restore immediately. Here, according to Armstrong, it seems that no matter what the reasons are for moral failure, a pastor should be forgiven and restored to office. In other words, to be forgiven is to be qualified. After all, God forgives repentant people.

2. Forgive and restore over time. This assumes that the pastor will be forgiven but it will take some time to heal the damage in his marital and in his pastoral world.

3. Nonreinstatement, including the development of an ethical approach. This alternative sees the New Testament not as a book of laws with neat summations of specific codes for all decisions. That approach only leads to hasty conclusions and theological debate without consideration for context and the principles behind a given issue. This view means that we need an informed sexual ethic that considers more than pat answers.

Such an ethic concerns itself with the implication of our approaches for the future of the church, for the future of the people directly affected by the fallen pastor's life, for the effect on the generation of future pastors, and for a genuine New Testament understanding of grace and forgiveness, especially when some seek to restore a fallen pastor to office.

Armstrong points to Paul's warning (1 Cor. 9:24-27) that a lack of diligent and persevering restraint of the flesh should lead to pastoral disqualification. Armstrong believes that Paul is suggesting not that our body is evil but that we must be prepared to deny our flesh continually or we may be led into serious sin with profound consequences.

Given the New Testament concern for purity in faith and practice, especially in the pastors of the church, the clear qualifications required for ministry imply the potential of subsequent disqualification.

Two objections against disqualification

Armstrong refers to contemporary instances in which these arguments have been used. Some strongly urge that "the church needs this gifted pastor." That is, if we disqualify an adulterous pastor, we are denying the church his unique gifts of leadership. At the same time, Armstrong believes that this kind of response takes gospel ministry too lightly and the importance of "gifted" pastors far too seriously.

Instead the church would be much stronger without its fallen leaders back in authority. The church suffers in many ways when it compromises its moral integrity.

Other arguments focus on the benefit congregations will gain from "wounded healers." In other words, men who have suffered deep pain through moral failure can more effectively minister out of their newly experienced agony. This point of view has been greatly urged in the present environment, which has confused biblical grace with what Dietrich Bonhoeffer labeled as "cheap grace."

Popular arguments for reinstatement

Armstrong reviews some common arguments for the reinstatement of pastors.

God forgives all sin after repentance, so should the church. Armstrong reviews the faulty exegesis and theology that lead to the forms of antinomianism rampant in the church today. Not many differentiate between confession and repentance. But God's forgiveness is not the point. God may forgive the repent ant pastor, but it does not follow that God necessarily wishes to reinstate the pastor to his former office.

Several biblical texts have been argued for restoration.

First, Galatians 6:1 "restore such a one" (NKJV). However, the larger con text concerns restoration to a former spiritual condition of health, not to pas toral leadership. Rehabilitating the sinner, not reinstating the pastor, was Paul's point. Further, Paul uses the generic term for "man" ( ), which argues for a general use and not a special text refer ring to pastoral restoration.

Second, 1 Timothy 5:22 "too hastily." Nothing in exegesis or in the writings of the church fathers supports the notion that the reinstatement of a fallen pastor is in view in this text. Rather it refers to one's original ordination to the pastorate a caution against a hasty initial ordination.

Third, John 21:15-22 speaks of the restoration of Peter. But Peter was not guilty of sexual immorality (1 Cor. 6:18); his was a character sin that did not "entail the willful hypocrisy, cavalier deception, and gross perpetual dis obedience that goes with adultery." Peter's failure was not thought out; not a "series of steps leading up to a colossal and planned sin."

Then there is 2 Samuel 11-12 David's adultery. True, David was not removed from office as king. He was a middle-eastern, polygamous potentate, not a priest serving God's people in sacred worship. It would be a stretch to com pare David's case with the New Testament standards for a Christian pas tor. David was forgiven, but his reign and reputation went downhill fast. Think of the rapid decline of stability and honor within his own family.

The heart of the matter

Armstrong pauses to rethink the argument that the church is in danger of creating a new kind of caregiver, the fallen brother who can now help adulterers and the sexually immoral because he has been there. But he asks, Does such a caregiver really understand sin better than a pastor who has never been personally involved? A pastor who has had to face similar temptations and yet found grace to help in time of need knows more than the pastor who succumbed when it comes to really helping his parishioners.

Armstrong summarizes his position as to why a fallen pastor should not be restored to his office:

1. The pastor's high calling. The pastoral office requires the qualities cited in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. The entire congregation should be above reproach, but the elder must be above reproach. The pastor must, through his consistent life and faithful teaching, provide the moral pattern for all.

2. The pastor as a public figure. When a pastor's public example and credibility is destroyed by sexual sin, his life will never again be the same as a public leader. The world judges the church by its ministers, whether we like it or not.

3. A possible relapse. In recent years, Armstrong observes, we have seen "an over-abundance of such cases." Patterns of sexual sin are not easily broken. Rarely does a fallen pastor confess his adultery; the exposure happens because he is exposed or caught. Sexual sins are accompanied by a host of other sins, such as lying, deceit, and hypocrisy. A stain exists that "sears" the conscience and remains imbedded forever.

4. The pastor as a model. Armstrong observes that those who have not consistently walked "in the paths of righteousness by the Holy Spirit cannot lead others in the paths he has not fol lowed."

5. A lack of judgment. Armstrong notes that sexual sins display a lack of discernment and judgment exactly what Paul was asking for from all church members (Phil. 1:9, 10). He asks how a pastor who lacks good judgment can shepherd the flock of God when his own life displays a lack of good sense, both morally and ethically?

6. A stricter judgment. In view of James 3:1, stricter demands rest on the one who leads and teaches in the church. Armstrong urges all to take seriously texts such as 1 Corinthians 5:12, 13; 11:27-33; and 1 Peter 4:1 7a. He points out that those who question the reinstatement of fallen pastors are not "generally 'legalists'" but the more conscientious church members concerned with the welfare of the church.

Our author reviews responses from Christian women who were willing to personally forgive a fallen pastor but would not want him to be their pastor. They would find it difficult to feel safe, or to feel their daughters were safe, under his ministry.

Any hope for restoration?

A long-term restoration process may restore the fallen man's marriage and family life, but even here it will be difficult, as it would be for the local church, to regain the trust that has been so abused.

In view of the nature of the fall from trust, evidence does not support the conclusion that simply changing churches would be a positive solution.

The local church can help in the adjustment. When a man's career has suddenly ended, his skills are not easily transferable to another occupation. The family will need some kind of financial help in the transition. Especially the spouse and children will need a great deal of thoughtful care, not to mention those who may have fallen victim to the fallen pastor.

Armstrong suggests that the pastor's church membership should be a matter of church discipline as it would or should be for any other member. The primary restoration hoped for would be the overseeing of the healing to the spouse and children nothing would be more indicative of the fallen pastor's genuine repentance.

After assuming that the pastor has put his life back in order, the integrity of the church may suggest some alternative ministry, no longer expecting to reconsider him as a pastor or even local elder.

Responsibility of the church to the fallen pastor

As Armstrong moves to the question of what "restoration" is, questions arise, such as how much restored? And restored to what? Can a fallen pastor ever be fully restored? That is, back to where he was before his fall with his church members, with his wife and his children? Armstrong notes that all of the forgiveness from all affected parties will not in fact remove the stain for the rest of his life.

All those affected should approach the pastor's healing with humility, aware of each one's sinfulness "take heed lest he too fall." Fallen pastors should not be treated as public lepers. How spiritual leaders as well as church members respond will have much to do with a broken man's spiritual healing (Gal. 6:1). Do not hurt but help. But the sole issue in the spiritual healing process is not recovery to ministry that makes an unwarranted leap. Restoring the fallen to practical holiness is the highest goal.

Forgive and forget? Armstrong notes the fallacy in the argument that remembering a past scandal is a "lack of forgiveness." Certain sins have inherent consequences that last throughout one's lifetime. The New Testament has examples of church leaders who turned back to the world from all that they had professed and became morally bankrupt. We are specifically talking about the pastor, not the ordinary church member.

Restoration with God. After a proper understanding of forgiveness, the fallen pastor needs to be restored to God. Confession is not repentance. If there is true remorse, the pastor realizes how completely hypocritical he has been. He realizes that he cannot trust himself. Quick healing is never desirable, lest the wound not be cleansed by God through the Word and the Spirit (2 Cor. 2:5-11).

Restored to the family. The sexually fallen pastor has sinned against his wife and children, whom he has hurt the most. However, the wife may accept his confession but choose not to reconcile to him as a marriage partner. The marriage has been broken or severely damaged. Glossing over a husband's sin too easily for whatever reason can only lead to more damage for all concerned.

Restoring church and community

The third step in the recovery process is the pastor's public confession to the extended church family. This need not require detail, but the pastor should apologize for the embarrassment he has brought to the church, expressing clearly that he accepts that he is not qualified for further pastoral duty. "His lack of cooperation with the process of restoration through honest confession and repentance conveys the deepest sort of pride and personal deception."

If the pastor's wrongdoing has become public knowledge, the pastor should not evade public confession on the basis of "right to privacy." In reviewing biblical examples, Armstrong notes that "God isn't concerned about the reputations of immoral pastors being exposed. . . . God is far more concerned with his own holiness and with the purity of the church . . . than with the cover-up of a pastor's scandalous behavior."

An important caution

Of course, a pastor charged with sexual impropriety may not be guilty! A clear process for handling such charges must be in place by the appropriate bodies so that all concerned are treated accurately and helpfully (1 Tim. 5:17-20).

Armstrong talks about how Christians in general and pastors specifically can take preventive steps regarding sexual misconduct. Each step should be care fully reviewed. Today, especially in view of potential legal problems, the church must be exceedingly clear as to the standards expected of their pastors. Further, "churches have a moral and legal obligation to disclose substantiated incidents of sexual misconduct when a prospective employer inquires about a former minister's employment record," says Armstrong.

How could it have happened? We don't know for sure. We do know that it did. The question is, Now what?


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Herbert E. Douglass, Th.D. (retired), lives in Lincoln Hills, California.

April 2005

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