This is not only a common concern, but also a sad reality we must wrestle with. We live in the already/not yet tension when believers are already justified and not yet fully sanctified. All who have been saved by God’s grace through faith do grow and mature in the faith, by the power of God the Holy Spirit, however we are not glorified until the return of Christ. This means we deal at times with the awful reality that some church leaders sin and become disqualified in their office of being an elder. What do we make of this? What should we think of pastors who have fallen beneath the standards of eldership?
This is not a hypothetical question for me, but it is one I’ve had to deal with very personally. I converted to Christianity in the early part of 2008 and chose to be a part of a church in Dayton. I loved the church I was a part of and remained there until the time I moved to Cleveland in 2013. The pastor of my church was not only my pastor, but also my professor at Cedarville, and he became a very important role model for me. I listened to his sermons intently, I sought out his wisdom frequently, and I even modeled my own preaching style after this man. A few years ago, I received a phone call from somebody telling me this pastor had been fired! Over the next few weeks there were rumors, and details that came out concerning the reason for his firing; some were true and some were false. What was clear was that this pastor had fallen extremely short of his position as lead pastor of a church; I was heartbroken. How could a man who was so passionate about the gospel, so exemplary (it appeared) in character, and such a role model for me in my early Christian life actually be such a fraud?
It has been a few years and I’ve sadly seen a few more notable pastors fall since I began asking these sorts of questions, but I have a few thoughts on what we can think of fallen pastors. With the firing of James Macdonald from Harvest now in the news I have found today to be an important day to consider at least a few of my thoughts on what to think of fallen pastors.
- I think the first thing we should think is just how somber a calling pastoral ministry truly is. Some people see a calling into ministry like they see a tough mudder competition. They are intrigued by the challenges of ministry, and they enter into it to see if they can do it and how successful they could be at it. We should not see our calling into pastoral ministry in this way, but we should see it as a very serious calling. Paul Tripp has written a book called “Dangerous Calling,” which I find helpful for those considering going into ministry to realize the decision to become a pastor or elder is not some flippant or half-hearted choice, but it is more like deciding to sign your life over than it is to compete in an event. You aren’t signing up for a marathon when you become a pastor, you are more or less signing up for war.
- We cannot look at fallen pastors with our own self-righteous lenses. We can’t look down our noses at fallen pastors, but we must realize that apart from God’s grace we could end up in the same mess they’re in. When we hurt we rightly have just anger against the injustices and sins of those whose actions have hurt us. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be angry about these things, but what I’m saying is we shouldn’t think our hearts are different than theirs. Our hearts are inherently deceptively wicked! We need to be on the lookout even more to guard against our own hearts becoming hardened or apathetic to the truth of the gospel lest we stray and be like those who have fallen. We should see fallen pastors as warning signs for ourselves to seek God more in prayer, and to be humbled by God’s mercy and grace more and more.
- Let these situations cause you and your church to check yourselves. Many of these situations occur when a personality or a trend is elevated above the word of God. The Church is not any one man’s church, but it is Christ’s church. The Church is not to be dominated by any one personality, or any one idea; it is to be ruled by the gospel and the Word of God alone. “In Christ alone my hope is found; he is my light, my strength….” and this is true of us personally and corporately as a local church… Christ is the cornerstone on which the Church is founded, built, and will thrive until the day He returns. Whenever there is a situation when a pastor has fallen we should allow that to cause us to check our own churches and make sure we have not mixed up who is in control of our church. Any idea, personality, or culture within the local church needs to be submitted to God’s Word. When a pastor falls it is an opportunity for other churches to check themselves.
- Take the time to not only think of the fallen pastor, but to pray for him. Regardless of whether or not you believe a removed pastor can ever be restored to office again you do surely believe said pastor can be restored spiritually to God. When a pastor falls and is removed from his position we want to pray that God would soften his heart and allow for true repentance. We want the pastor to turn from their own sinful desires and tendencies, and instead run into the arms of Jesus.
- We should let these situations lead us to question the definition of “success.” We need to be clear on what God views as success and not confuse it as what Americans value as success. It is possible to be “a successful leader,” according to American standards without being a spiritually pure leader. You can be a good speaker, grow numbers in the church, maintain a balanced budget, oversee building plans, but all the while your theology is unorthodox, you aren’t growing in Christlike character, and you are concerned about your own Kingdom rather than God’s. This is one of the great tragedies of the church today! We confuse talent level with fitness to be a pastor or elder! God wants leaders in the church who are committed to be shepherds, and who are committed to love His flock and care for them. God does not want leaders in the church who are very “Successful,” and talented who have a desire to prop themselves up rather than glorify God.
- We need to realize the message belongs to God. When my pastor from Dayton fell the question came up “Can we actually trust anything he has said to us? If he’s been lying about his personal life all this time then how can we trust all that he taught us?” This is a fair question, however, we need to realize that regardless of the condition of the man the message of the gospel is pure, holy, and good. I’m not excusing the sin of the man, but I’m concerned that we don’t let our emotions rule what is reasonable; and what is reasonable is to realize the Gospel belongs to God not any man. This is why Paul said in Philippians 1:18 “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. yes, and I will continue to rejoice.” If you’ve read 1 and 2 Timothy and Titus you know clearly Paul does not believe character is insignificant in the choosing of elders and deacons (it’s actually the opposite!), but what he is saying is the message of the gospel can be heard and received regardless of the motives of the preacher. Of course there are countless secondary issues that can be sorted through and thrown out, but when it comes to what a fallen pastor has said about the gospel-we need to realize that message is God’s message, and even though it came through a fallible and sinful messenger, it still is the “message of salvation for all.”
- Let the actions of the fallen pastor lead you in your own life to confess your sins. Uncontrolled leadership usually is a result of a leader not having an equal to confess his sins to. No pastor should be at the top of a pyramid, because every pastor needs accountability. There should always be somebody in the church who is there for the pastor all the time, so the pastor can pray with them, confess their sins to them, and think together. When we see a fallen pastor this should cause us to want to grow in confessing our own sins to whoever is our own accountability partner. If you don’t have an accountability partner then get one, and begin confessing your sins to God regularly less you have unchecked sin in your life.
- When a pastor falls a church needs healing not dissension. Maybe you have been a part of a church where the pastor was removed from office. When this happens the church needs to have a season of healing, but unfortunately it has been well documented that many churches have had splits and dissensions rather than healing. Healing requires prayer, patience, perseverance, and pain. The tendency for many is to run away from all of this, but I encourage you do not run; stay and commit yourself to helping the church heal and be amazed at what God might do through you in your church and for the church’s leadership.
- Re-fix your eyes on Jesus. Prior to grace there is always justice. At the cross, justice and love and grace meet perfectly. When a pastor falls there is justice that needs to be sought and brought about for the pastor; this could mean church discipline, removal, etc, etc. At the same time, when a pastor falls the church needs to see it as an opportunity to elevate the love and the grace of God, and to do so means fixing all eyes on Jesus in the Gospel.