What sins disqualify a pastor for life? Are there any? It’s a great question I’ve wondered about for a long time, and it’s today’s question from a young woman who writes us. “Hello, Pastor John! My church is currently discussing hiring a man to join our church staff full time. However, this man recently left another church because of adultery. He was caught, repented, and asked for forgiveness. I certainly believe Christ forgives adultery. But from reading the passages on church leaders in the Pastoral Epistles, I don’t see how it could be God’s will for him to continue pastoring. What are your thoughts? Is repentance enough to make this man a leader in another church? And, more generally, what sins — if any — disqualify a pastor for life?”
What I can give here is my considered opinion, informed — I hope, I believe — by fifty years of watching ministry and being in ministry, and fifty years of soaking in the Bible. But I can’t give you a word that I think has the absolute backing of God’s authority behind it with regard to any specified amount of time that might need to elapse before somebody could prove himself a new person, and thus able after adultery to serve again — because I don’t think the Bible gives a clear instruction about how a disqualified pastor can become qualified again. And I’ll try to unpack that as we go.
Protect the Flock, Forgive the Fallen
I don’t think this is the kind of issue where the church as a whole will ever have agreement. And that’s not simply owing to the fact that the Bible doesn’t give pointers. It does, I think, and I’ll try to share those. It’s owing to how incredibly diverse our minds and hearts are when it comes to prioritizing (1) the protection of the flock and the honor of the gospel on the one hand, and (2) on the other hand, acknowledging the preciousness of God’s patience and compassion and forgiveness.
People assess the relationship between these two differently. Some say, “You will never touch this flock again. This flock is too precious and the gospel is too precious for the way you have dishonored it.” That’s one mindset. And the other says, “No, no, we must exult in God’s patience and compassion and forgiveness. And even this restored pastor can model that.” You hear the two poles that we feel, and both are real. They’re both biblically rooted and genuine. And the question is this: How do you bring them together in making decisions like this?
I don’t think that means that each local church or each denomination shouldn’t come to one mind about how they will function in the calling and the keeping — or not — of elders and pastors. I think every local church should pray and think and study their way through the Scriptures into a position from which the elders can work in unity with regard to these kinds of things. The fact that it may be different from some other churches, I think, is almost inevitable. But I think a church has to function, and so there needs to be a biblical effort to say, “Well, here’s where we stand, and we’re not going to elevate this to absolute law for all churches, but we must function. Here’s what we see in the Bible.”
So, having said all that, let me give you my opinion and a few biblical pointers.
1. Fortify your emotional backbone.
The very fact that in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 there are criteria for eldership, the pastorate, shows that churches are put in a necessary and difficult position — necessary because of those texts and difficult regarding the fact that some men are suitable and others are not for the role of pastor. That’s what qualifications mean. This necessarily means that you can be a completely forgiven sinner, walking in a way that is pleasing to the Lord, and not be qualified to be an elder, and not just because you don’t have the gift of teaching or the wisdom of governance or leadership.
So, the first thing to say is that churches, and Christian leaders in particular, need to have the emotional backbone to live with the blowback of making difficult decisions like these. Because there will be, especially in our day, when we don’t like the idea of saying that some Christians qualify for this and some don’t. That’s the first thing to say: emotional backbone is going to be essential.
2. Understand the key difference between forgiveness and restoration.
The second thing to say is that there is a vast difference between being forgiven and being trusted. Forgiveness is based on the blood of Christ and can be granted and received instantaneously upon genuine repentance. But being trusted is based not merely on the blood of Christ; it is based also on proven trustworthiness in life. Adultery committed against one’s wife is just about as bad a blow against a man’s trustworthiness as could be delivered. She may — I pray she would — have the grace to forgive him if he is repentant. But the restoration of trust — with her, with others, with a church — may take years. And he should be in no hurry to expect it or demand it.
His whole bent should be toward winning it by an absolutely trustworthy behavior that goes the extra mile to demonstrate his self-control; his radical devotion to Jesus; his willingness to gouge out his eye rather than lust; and his deep, heartfelt commitment to his marriage vows and his wife — no matter what.
3. Grasp the depth of the offense on Christ’s gospel and his church.
Here’s the third thing I would say: adultery, and other sins committed after one’s conversion and well into one’s Christian life, are more serious indications of unfitness for ministry than our sins prior to the new birth and the new creation in Christ. Adultery committed after conversion is a sin not only against a wife and against God, but against our new nature and against the indwelling Holy Spirit and against the whole drift of Scripture in describing the new person as a new creation in Christ. Adultery after conversion is sinning against the glory of the light of Christ.
Before conversion, we were all in spiritual darkness; we were acting according to our nature. And when a pastor commits adultery — a pastor now, not just a believer — he’s sinning not only against God, not only against his wife, not only against the light of the biblical witness of the new creation in Christ; he is also sinning against the glory of the gospel ministry, and he is sinning against the trust of a people of God, and against the reputation of the gospel in the community. And for these reasons, the issue of restoration is not an issue of forgiveness. That’s a given. That’s just not the issue.
The issue is that the offense has been compounded by its deeply multilayered betrayal of God, wife, Christian newness, the Holy Spirit, the people of God, the gospel, the reputation of the gospel in the Christian ministry. I find, in talking to some fallen pastors, that they’re just oblivious of how serious this is. The fact that these things did not suffice to keep this man out of bed is evidence of such profound unfitness for gospel ministry, that the time and process by which he might prove himself a radically different man is long and painful.
4. Step away and humbly receive discipline.
The final thing I would say is what I wrote on this question ten years ago. It was in response to how quickly some men have been put back in ministry, and really how quickly some men put themselves forward. It’s unbelievable how quickly they put themselves forward to be back in ministry after adultery. What I wrote down is still valid. I was looking at it just the other day.
What I’ve seen is this: men who have lived in deception and immorality and hypocrisy for a significant time, and then are caught, have hardened their hearts and dulled their capacities to repent for so long, that their ability to see things for what they really are is profoundly impaired. They’re calling themselves repentant, but they can’t see. They don’t have the sensibilities; they’ve been deadened for so long. And so, they are in no position — now mark this; this is really important — they are in no position, soon after their discovery, to make any good judgments about their fitness for ministry and what is good for the flock and the glory of Christ.
So, here’s what I wrote, and I’ll end with this. I said, “A man who commits adultery in the ministry should immediately resign and look for other work. And he should make no claim on the church at all. He should get another kind of job and go about his life, humbly receiving the discipline and the regular ministries of the church, whether in his former church or in another church.”
If he returns to ministry, it should be after a long time of humble, contented acceptance of a new way of life outside the official ministry of the church.