I’ve noticed a lot of Christians are confused about how to respond to the sin of pastors.
Christians who love their pastor, as they ought, are hurt when the pastor faces consequences for his sinful behavior. Especially when there is no “smoking gun,” they hear charges and think “that doesn’t sound so bad.” Sometimes this impulse is turned against other members of the church leadership, “Aren’t you a sinner too? Then why are you making a big deal about his sin?!” Basically, they think their pastor never sins, at least in any way that calls for real consequences.
On the other hand, some Christians hate authority of any kind, except their own. Any attempt to exhort or lead these Christians is met with accusations of “lording it over” and “pastoral abuse.” Basically, they think that all pastors only sin, unless they submit totally to the rule of the mob.
While these situations are among the most difficult and painful that any believer will face, they don’t have to be confusing. God’s word brings clarity into the mess. Here’s eight theses on responding to the sin of a pastor; I commend the passages mentioned for your further study.
1. The pastor/elder is first and foremost a Christian, and in important ways his fight with sin is the same as that of other believers:
He is a sinner who needs God’s grace through faith in Christ for salvation and forgiveness (John 3), and without this would be condemned (Rom 3:23).
Though saved, he is not without sin in this life (1 John 1:5-10), and the battle with sin must be fought (Rom 6:12) and rages onward (Rom 7:7-25).
Part of the battle with sin involves identifying patterns of sin, sometimes through self-examination (1 Cor 11:28; 2 Cor 13:5), or sometimes through the ministry of others (Mat 18:15; Heb 3:13) when self-deception has taken place (1 Cor 3:18; Heb 3:13; 1 John 1:8).
When sin is identified, however that happens, the correct response is complete and genuine repentance (Psa 51; Mat 4:17; Rev 2:5) from the sin as opposed to false, worldly grief (2 Cor 7:10).
When sin is followed by repentance, the sinner should be graciously restored by his brothers and sisters in Christ to spiritual fellowship (Gal 6:1), and forgiven as necessary (Eph 4:32).
When sin is followed by unrepentance, the sinner should be confronted in an increasingly public way and eventually the sin should be brought before the church (Mat 18:15-17).
2. The above points apply to the sin of any Christian. In addition to those similarities, a pastor/elder must be held to an even higher standard:
God is holy, and the one who serves him must emulate his holiness. To the extent a pastor/elder is holy, he is useful to God and ready for the work of the ministry (2 Tim 2:20-25).
Because of this, God’s word contains examples of spiritual leaders who were seriously punished for seemingly minor offenses, because of the power of their example of holiness or lack thereof (e.g. Moses not being able to enter Canaan, Deut 34; Jeroboam, 1 Kings 13).
The life of a pastor/elder is to be an example for other believers to emulate. He is to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim 4:12). His persistent sin is to be publically rebuked as a deterrent to others (1 Tim 5:20). Believers are called to consider the behavior of their leaders and “imitate their faith” (Heb 13:7). A pastor/elder’s spiritual growth and increasing maturity (as opposed to patterns of sin and decreasing maturity) are to be visible to the church (1 Tim 4:15). Faithful shepherding involves “being examples to the flock” (1 Pet 5:3; cf. 1 Cor 4:16; 11:1; Phil 3:17; 2 Thes 3:7, 9).
The effectiveness and fruitfulness of a pastor/elder’s ministry depend, in part, on the extent to which he will obey the command to “keep a close watch on yourself” (1 Tim 4:16-17, cf. Acts 20:28).
Living a life out of accord with his message is a characteristic of false teachers (Titus 1:16) and Pharisees (Mat 22:3).
The patterns of a pastor’s life, then, must meet high requirements of character in order to be qualified to hold the role of pastor/elder (1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-10). If his character does not match the biblical requirements, he is not qualified for the role of pastor/elder.
In particular, a pastor/elder should be a powerful example to the flock of pursuing moral excellence, complete trust in God, love for Christ and his people, and gentle strength (1 Tim 6:11).
As a summary, the office requires that he be “above reproach” (1 Tim 3:1), not meaning that he is without sin but meaning that his life as a whole is a credit to the church, that there is no valid accusation of wrongdoing that can be made against him.
A pastor/elder will one day “have to give an account” for his faithfulness in the ministry (Heb 13:17).
There is a special warning for pastor/elders who preach the Word: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).
3. Sin has relational consequences, but it also has vocational consequences.
No matter a person’s vocation, the response of the body of Christ to a person’s genuine repentance should be forgiveness and restoration of fellowship and relationship.
However, forgiveness and spiritual restoration do not automatically remove the consequences of sin. Example: if a person commits an armed robbery, even if repentant and forgiven, they will still stand trial and face the judicial consequences of their sin/crime.
Sometimes sins have consequences particular to a certain vocation. For example, drunkenness is always a sin. If a Major League Baseball player shows up to a game drunk, he has sinned but the vocational consequences would not be too severe. However, if an airline pilot arrived for a flight drunk, he has not only sinned but would be fired and never be able to practice his vocation again. These vocational consequences would still be in effect irrespective of whether repentance has taken place.
This is also true in the ministry. While all sin has relational and spiritual consequences, for a pastor/elder patterns of sin can also have vocational consequences – calling into question their effectiveness, faithfulness, and qualification in the ministry.
4. Not all sins are disqualifying sins.
Sin does not automatically disqualify a person from vocational ministry. If so, there would be no pastor/elders. All believers, including pastors, continue to sin.
The question is, do the Biblical qualifications for pastor/elder, listed in 1 Timothy 3:2-7 and Titus 1:5-9, still describe the pattern of the pastor/elder’s life?
For example, perhaps on a given day, a pastor/elder angrily rebukes his son for misbehavior. This anger is a sin and ought to be repented of. But as an isolated incident, it doesn’t necessarily mean the man is not above reproach, not self-controlled, not managing his own household well, and thereby disqualified for the office.
However, if this kind of behavior is a pattern in the man’s life, it very well could call those qualifications (and potentially others) into question.
5. There are different kinds of disqualifying sins that have differing degrees of visibility, clarity, and consequence.
In certain of the biblical qualifications for pastors/elders, if a person is not qualified it’s externally obvious.
For example, if a man takes a second wife (possible in some cultures), or has an affair with a woman who is not his wife, he is clearly no longer a “husband of one wife” (1 Tim 3:2). Or if a man has been known to physically assault congregants who disagree with him, he fails on the grounds of being “not violent” (1 Tim 3:2).
However, in other situations, the pattern of sin is more subtle and less visible, but no less disqualifying.
What if a pastor/elder has a blog devoted to petty fights with those who disagree with him on minor issues? For a while this could be overlooked, but at some point doesn’t this characterize him as “quarrelsome” (1 Tim 3:3)?
What if a pastor/elder is consistently missing scheduled morning meetings because he’s oversleeping? Once or twice perhaps could be excused, it happens to everybody, right? But isn’t there a point where this calls into question whether he possesses the qualification of “disciplined” (Titus (1:8).
More visible and clear qualifications are not more important than more subtle ones. God’s word demands them all.
6. In situations where the disqualifying nature of sin is clear, the pastor/elder should be swiftly removed from office.
For example, if a pastor/elder has been found to be having a sexual affair with a woman not his wife, he is clearly disqualified and ought to be promptly removed.
7. In situations where the disqualifying nature of sin is less clear, it is appropriate to take time to examine the situation and move slowly toward conclusions, yet there is a point at which action must be taken against these sins as well.
In the above examples about quarrelsome blogging or undisciplined oversleeping, these might not be cause for the pastor/elder’s immediate removal from office, but should be reason for those around the man to point out the inconsistency and call for self-evaluation and repentance.
If over time lasting change does not take place, even these “minor” issues should be seen as disqualifying, as there is a life pattern that falls short of the standard.
An accusation against a pastor/elder should not be considered based on the testimony of one witness. However, if there are multiple witnesses to the sin (if they are really witnesses and it is really sin), the charge must be addressed (1 Tim 5:19).
8. Dealing with the sin of one pastor/elder can often lead to much wider conflict in a church, but doesn’t have to. Wisdom involves, at a minimum, all parties:
Using God’s word as the standard for defining sin and its consequences, not the subjective standards of our culture or of what we prefer. Having a greater concern for being faithful to God’s word than for what the consequences of faithfulness might be. (2 Tim 4:2-4)
Keeping focus on responding in a godly way to the original main issue (the pastor’s sin), and not distracting the issue by critiquing the process or lumping in all kind of not directly related complaints about the church (Mat 18:15-17).
Refusing to slander, gossip, take up a concern not one’s own, make a judgment not yours to make, or make a conclusion without knowing all the facts (Eph 4:31; 1 Tim 6:4).
Submitting to the elders God has placed over the church even when you don’t understand all their actions (Heb 13:17).
Loving one another by our actual words and actions toward them and about them, as opposed to assuring them of our love with our mouths and hating them with our deeds (Joh 13:34).