I have been deeply troubled over the past year as I have heard story after story of pastoral repentance. Many well-meaning articles have been written by respected leaders declaring fallen leaders repentant – only weeks after the initial exposure of sin. My concern is grounded in the fact that all too often, identifying an act of sorrow as repentance is premature, misleading and unbiblical.
It was one year ago that the website Ashley Madison was hacked, leading to their client list being published for all to see. On August 18, 2015, a group calling itself ‘The Impact Team’ leaked tens of thousands of Ashley Madison client profiles, a list that included many high profile leaders and well-known celebrities. The consequences were immediate. The outing included 1,200 Saudi Arabian clients, a region of the world where adultery is punishable by death. The list also included a number of pastors and spiritual leaders.
Not surprisingly, the past year has been filled with heartbreaking stories of well-known Christians and their moral failures. Like you, my heart hurt as I read story after story of those who have crossed lines, been caught in their sin and subsequently, according to those close to the situation, repented. It appears that every week brought (and continues to bring) new revelations. In the pastoral community, the outing of Ashley Madison client’s led to a steady stream of confessions, resignations and, in some cases, what seemed like repentance.
I have been deeply troubled over the past year as I have head story after story of pastoral repentance. Many well meaning articles have been written by respected leaders declaring fallen leaders repentant – only weeks after the initial exposure of sin. My concern is grounded in the fact that all too often, identifying an act of sorrow as repentance is premature, misleading and unbiblical.
While repentance can certainly happen in a moment, identifying repentance usually (not always) takes much longer. PastorServe is regularly asked to work with pastors in the aftermath of moral failure. We very rarely if ever use the word repentance during the first year. Why do we wait? Because, while a pastor may show every conceivable outward mark of repentance, we simply don’t know the heart. Only God knows the heart.
Expressed repentance and the hatred of the consequences of sin look exactly alike, for a time—and then the paths separate. Over and over again, PastorServe has been called into a church crisis where an overseeing board tells us, “Though the church is wounded, we are on the right path, because we know our pastor has repented of his sins.” Our response: “You have no idea if your pastor has repented of his sins, and you won’t for some time.” I could share a number of stories of superstar pastors and repentance. Here is one…
A well-known pastor, (I’ll call him Mike, not his real name) called me in the early evening. Through his tears, he informed me that his wife had just informed him she was leaving with no plans to return. He pleaded with me to immediately meet with the two of them. I reluctantly agreed. I had known Mike for close to five years. I knew him as a supremely gifted, intelligent, well-spoken, skilled communicator and master manipulator. I wasn’t surprised that his wife was permanently ready to walk out the door.
As we spoke that evening, the wife calmly, unemotionally explained that she could no longer live with her husband’s addiction to pornography and alcohol. She simply couldn’t take another day of lies, excuses and heartache. She was tired of the flirting with other women, his prolonged unexplained absences from the home and his propensity to ignore her. Furthermore, she was tired of Mike’s addiction to work and his need to seek the approval of others. She had pleaded with him over and over again to seek help, but he had refused. She saw no other options. She wanted a divorce.
Mike got down on his knees and literally began to beg. “Please sweetheart, please” he said over and over again through his tears, “I’ll change. I am so sorry. I repent. I’ll do whatever it takes.” I sat by silently watching the heartbreaking agony of a dissolving marriage. After nearly half an hour of begging, the wife relented. “All right,” she said. “I’ll give you one more chance. But if you aren’t sincere, we are done. Done!”
Mike immediately confessed his litany of sins to his board of elders. They acted with grace and did not immediately release him, instead placing him on probation while significantly reducing his pastoral duties. The elders committed to walk with Mike and his wife through the difficult months ahead. The couple immediately started weekly counseling. Mike began attending AA meetings. He installed accountability software on his computer and smartphone and began attending a weekly sexual addiction group. He regularly met with a small group of elders as well as fellow staff. His wife expressed cautious optimism. Mike frequently expressed repentance and gave glory to God for repairing his damaged marriage. Everyone who knew Mike marveled at his newfound commitment to sobriety, moral purity and marriage fidelity. Following the three-month probation, Mike was restored to full pastoral responsibilities. The elders openly spoke of Mike’s repentance and his rekindled commitment to his marriage and to Jesus.
Unquestionably, Mike did change. For about six months.