Should Adulterous Pastors Be Restored?

The Bible's teaching about returning fallen ministers to the pulpit.

Pastoral adultery, moreover, is an even greater sin. Why? Some sins are more damaging than others precisely because of who it is that commits them. As the Westminster Larger Catechism(Questions 150-51) reasons, persons who are eminent for their profession, gifts, and office are particularly serious offenders because of their influence upon others. This added seriousness is found in every case of a minister who commits adultery. Add to this James 3:1, which suggests that pastors will be held to stricter judgment, and we have a strong argument that pastoral adultery is an even graver sin than adultery in general.

 

“Genuine forgiveness does not necessarily imply restoration to leadership,” former CT editor Kenneth Kantzer once wrote after the moral failure of several prominent evangelical leaders. Yet the impulse to link forgiveness with restoration to ministry remains strong. Here two pastor-theologians argue for the importance of keeping separate the restoration to the body of Christ and restoration to pastoral leadership.

The North American church is seriously vexed by the question, “What shall we do with an adulterous pastor?” Over the past decade, the church has been repeatedly staggered by revelations of immoral conduct by some of its most respected leaders. How do we respond to those who have sexually fallen and disgraced themselves, shamed their families, and debased their office?

The typical pattern goes like this: The pastor is accused and convicted of sexual sin. He confesses his sin, often with profound sorrow. His church or denominational superiors prescribe a few months, or often one year, in which time he is encouraged to obtain professional counsel. Then he is restored to his former office, sometimes in another location. He is commonly regarded as a “wounded healer,” one who now knows what it means to fall, to experience the grace of God profoundly.

While each situation must be handled with pastoral wisdom, and some fallen pastors indeed might someday be restored to leadership, we believe this increasingly common scenario is both biblically incorrect and profoundly harmful to the well-being of the fallen pastor, his marriage, and the church of Jesus Christ. Our Lord Jesus was tempted in all points just as we are, yet it was his testing, not any failure, that made him strong. If we do not think clearly, we may be subtly encouraging people to grievous sin so they might experience more grace and thus minister more effectively. Incredibly, in the present context, some are saying things that imply just this notion.

The Forgiveness Approach

The commonly held view. reasons that a repentant and forgiven minister who was previously qualified for pastoral office remains qualified on the basis of God’s forgiveness. Was he qualified previously? Has he confessed his sin? Has God forgiven him? Then we must also.

This logic rests upon the unbiblical assumption that forgiveness of sin is equivalent to the “blamelessness” (or unimpeachable character) required of pastors in 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:6. If this thesis is accepted, all God requires is that a fallen pastor be forgiven.

But this confuses the basis of our fellowship with Christ with public leadership and office in church. No one argues that the fallen minister cannot be forgiven. No one should argue that he cannot be brought back into the fellowship of Christ’s visible church. But to forgive a fallen pastor and to restore him to membership in the church is much different than restoring him to the pastoral office.

The “forgiveness approach” is inadequate because it does not deal realistically with two facts: First, adultery is a great sin; and second, pastoral adultery is an even greater sin.

Oft-repeated fallacies sometimes achieve the status of received truth–such as the notion that there is no essential difference between mental adultery and the actual physical act (see Matt. 5:27-28; James 2:10). To the contrary, we believe, in concert with the historic interpretation of the church, that while lust, jealousy, pride, and hatred will send a person to hell as surely as their outward manifestations (adultery, fornication, and murder), the physical manifestations are greater sins became of the damage they do to both the person who sins and the ones sinned against.

Adultery is a great sin precisely because it breaks the covenant of marriage. It violates another’s body. It may prove to be grounds for divorce. Mental adultery does none of this. Jesus’ intention in Matthew 5:27-28 was not to reduce adultery to the level of lust, but to show that lust would destroy the soul as surely as adultery.

Likewise, compare the mental sin of hatred with the act of murder (see Matt. 5:21-22). In one the person who hates is harmed by the hatred, but in the other a life is taken. There is a difference!

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