Moral Failure (Before a Watching World)
Dr. James Emery White
- 2012 May 24
There have been few things more damaging to the church’s witness than how it has handled moral failure among its leaders. Not simply that there has been moral failure – that is damaging enough – but how it is then handled by the church. Too many times it has simply added to the pain and disdain. Whether pedophiles, serial adulterers, or those who misuse church authority and discipline, headlines and blogs are filled with understood outrage and indignation over not simply the acts, but the church’s response.
So why do so many churches bungle moral failure among leaders? For some, it’s true ignorance. They honestly don’t know what is best to do, never received training or mentoring, and are having to make it up as they go. One of the most common “mentoring” phone calls I receive from younger pastors is how to deal with moral failure when it hits their leadership team.
But we have to be less generous to what may be the most common reason for mishandling a moral failure: churches and individuals are trying to self-protect, even at the expense of victims.
They are trying to protect giving, support, attendance, and reputation. But lost in that “protection” are those in the future who might be abused by a serial pedophile, spouses that will see their marriage ripped apart by a habitual adulterer, and an ever growing number of church attenders who will be hurt by the ongoing spiritual abuse of leaders who seem to be given over to pride and anger.
So how should a church handle moral failure?
Here is a 10-step strategy forged over 25 years of ministry that I have often shared with younger leaders that will protect the abused, both confront and, if they allow it, care for the offender, and ensure the church’s integrity:
1. Determine whether this is something that should be reported immediately to the authorities. For example, ANY situation where a child has been sexually or physically abused should be reported to the police at once. If it is a matter that does not involve the authorities, and they simply flee your church upon being revealed, do not in any way enable them to simply go to another church and continue their sin against others. You may be limited as to what you can do, but do what you can to prevent them from being one of those who go from church-to-church, fleeing discipline and accountability, leaving a trail of bodies in their wake.
2. Reflect on how the immorality surfaced. Were they discovered, or did they come forward on their own? This is your first sign as to whether there is true repentance at hand. A situation where someone confesses, and repents, because they were “caught” after months or years of “covering up” is very different than someone who comes forward on their own out of conviction.
3. Is their failure habitual, or a seeming one-time offense? There is a significant difference between, say, a serial adulterer as opposed to a “one-night-stand” affair. In other words, was the offense an anomaly in light of a steadfast track record over a long period of time, or is this a repeat offender?
4. Was this offense of a completely disqualifying nature for their ministry role, or are they restorable? In my judgment, someone who is unfaithful to their spouse one time in the context of years of commitment, can be restored. A serial offender cannot (or perhaps more to the point, should not). I would also argue that any offense against a child is grounds for permanent removal from any type of ministry with children. That is a “one-strike-and-you’re-out” offense.
5. If the person shows the kind of authentic repentance that seeks restoration, then resolve to have any and all discipline be restorative and not punitive. Too many churches have discipline that is meant to punish, not redeem and restore. The main purpose of church discipline is to drive the unrepentant toward repentance. If repentance is there, then move into restoration.
6. During restoration, it is usually wise to remove the person from any and all public platforms and leadership positions. If kept in employment, it should behind-the-scenes and free of spiritual responsibility.
7. The time of restoration depends on many things, including the kind of counseling that may be required. For matters of sexual immorality involving another person, I would suggest six months minimum, but perhaps one year maximum.
8. Communicate the situation to those who need to know. This is delicate, as there are many innocent parties involved who may not wish the details to be divulged (e.g., the family of the child so abused, the wife of the unfaithful spouse). There is also the family of the offender who, in most situations, are also victims (you do not want to unnecessarily embarrass the daughter of an adulterous man removed from ministry). I would advise to share details with the relevant circle of that person’s influence and ministry. This means that the wider the influence and ministry, the more people have to be told. If it was a small group leader, that person’s small group should know, and perhaps other small group leaders in that ministry, but not necessarily the church as a whole. Of course, there are certain individuals and offenses that warrant an announcement to the entire church body and, perhaps, to the rest of the watching world.
As far as the details of the offense itself, be direct and truthful, but not salacious. I certainly wouldn’t share anything that caters to the prurient. Also, in fairness to the person at hand, if it wasn’t sexual, don’t use language that suggests it was. The term “moral failure” will always intimate sexual matters to the average person, so if it was financial or some other matter, find other language that is more to the point. But the bottom line is appropriate disclosure to the appropriate people.
9. If they are able to be restored due to the nature of the offense and their repentance, then they should be fully restored with joy and celebration as a Kingdom victory. This is as important for the watching world as how we deal with the sin on the front-end. Grace is our secret weapon against the world’s value system, and it shouldn’t be cheapened in our giving any more than our receiving.
10. Those who have fallen, and then restored, should be received into the community as such. There should be no “scarlet letter” on their chest from that point forward. (*Again, matters related to child abuse are a different matter, as I would never suggest allowing them back into that particular ministry again, regardless of the restoration).
It goes without saying that not only is this list far from exhaustive, but every situation is unique and will require great prayer, counsel, wisdom and discernment. But hopefully this will serve as a helpful set of guidelines. And if you have some that are of value to add, please share those in the comments section of the blog. You may not need them now, but make no mistake – there will be moral failure in the church. It will happen within your leadership, and the world will be watching.
The key is what they will see.
James Emery White
For additional counsel on this and related matters, see James Emery White, What They Didn’t Teach You In Seminary (Baker).
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, N.C., and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is A Traveler's Guide to the Kingdom: Journeying through the Christian Life (InterVarsity Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.