Jimmy Swaggart. Jim Bakker. Tullian Tchividijian. Mark Connelly. David Loveless. Isaac Hunter. Sam Hinn. And the list goes on.
Pastors who have fallen to immorality. Disgraced. Lives forever changed. Shame and humiliation. Churches and lives reeling, shocked, wounded.
Christians paraded through the media, used as examples of the hypocrisy of the church. Names drug through the mud, reminded constantly they are no longer worthy to serve God. Disqualified from ministry forever.
Does falling to immorality disqualify one from ministry? Is there ever room for restoration? Can a fallen pastor ever have an effective ministry again?
I was raised in a conservative, Bible-believing denomination. I was taught from a very young age that divorce disqualifies one from ministry, that a divorced man/woman can no longer serve as a minister of the gospel. I clung to that narrow interpretation of scripture for many, many years.
And then divorce happened to me. I spent nearly 17 years serving as a pastor’s wife before my now ex-husband was caught in an affair with a married woman in our church. I offered forgiveness, sought reconciliation. However, it was not to be. He chose the excitement of an illicit relationship over me, over our children, over ministry. He chose to continue walking a path away from God rather than to repent and turn back.
I am frequently asked what my ex-husband is doing now, nearly six years after our divorce was finalized. The answer? He’s pastoring again. I often hear words of surprise, disdain. How can a church overlook his past? Shouldn’t he be forever banned from ministry? How can he be fit to lead a church?
As I have mulled over the situation and been forced to look at divorce from a vastly different angle, I have come to realize we live in a fallen world. Life happens. We make poor choices, choices that have extreme consequences for our lives and the lives of those around us. We allow our own free will to separate us from the God who loves us unconditionally.
We live in a gray world, not a black-and-white, one-size-fits all kind of place. There are many circumstances, nuances to every single situation. It’s not up to us to decide who is fit for ministry. That is God’s call. After all, God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable (Romans 11:29). If he calls us to ministry, he qualifies us. And only he can determine if and when—if ever—we are disqualified.
Can I just say I am so thankful for grace? Grace that restores me from my sin. Grace that gives me what I don’t deserve. Grace that sustains me through this life. Grace that is sufficient.
If it weren’t for grace, I wouldn’t be able to minister because I, too, am a sinner saved by grace. The closer I get to God, the more aware I am of my own failures, of my own sin. The more I walk with God, the more I realize it’s only the grace of God that saves me from being lumped into that same category. And, the more I allow God to search me and penetrate my heart with his word, the more I realize my sins of pride and greed are just as horrendous as the sin of adultery. Oh, what a wretch I am!
And, so, should my ex-husband—or any pastor/minister who has fallen to immorality—ever be allowed to minister again? By God’s grace, I say yes!
As Christians, God demands us to show love and grace, just as Christ did while he walked this earth. However, we must also be careful to temper that love and grace with holiness and discernment. It is not our responsibility to judge others, but it is our responsibility to lovingly guide them away from the error of their ways.
If a fallen pastor is to be restored, what should we look for?
Repentance and brokenness.
Wash me clean from my guilt. Purify me from my sin. For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night. Against you, and you alone, have I sinned; I have done what is evil in your sight. Psalm 51:2-4
David was caught in an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba. Instead of repenting, he had her husband murdered and then married her. He compounded one sin with another.
And then the prophet Nathan confronted him. He fell to his knees before God, broken over his sin. The agony of his heart, the reality of the evil present in his own heart, was more than he could handle. He repented and chose to return to God.
He suffered great consequences, but he was not removed from his position as king, God’s chosen leader of his people.
A pastor (or anyone) who has fallen to adultery should be restored to the fellowship fully and completely when he/she has truly repented, when his/her heart is broken over the sin. It will be evidenced by a change in that person’s attitudes and actions. There will be no blaming of others, no shifting of responsibility.
A repentant person will cry out, aware of his/her own sinfulness, haunted by his/her failures.
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. James 5:16
After my husband’s affair was revealed, a wise pastor friend of ours (who had fallen to adultery himself) told my then husband that he needed to confess his adultery to his children. To his family. To his friends. Even to our church. He said he needed to return to the pulpit, confess and seek forgiveness.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that advice at the time, but I now realize it is sound, biblical advice. Matthew 5 tells us if we are on our way to offer sacrifices and we remember our neighbor has something against us, we must first be reconciled to our neighbor. We must seek forgiveness before we can offer our gifts to God.
A pastor who falls to adultery hurts everyone around him: his wife (or husband), his children, his congregation. For a pastor to be restored, he should confess his sins and seek forgiveness. If he has not made an effort to be reconciled, there’s reason to doubt the sincerity of his commitment to God.
Time to heal.
Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect. Romans 12:2
For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. Hebrews 4:12-13
A pastor should never jump immediately back into ministry. He must take time to heal. He must strive to understand what deep wounds led him down this path in the first place. He must allow God and his word to penetrate every fiber of his being, revealing every sin and every darkness lurking within his life. He must fully and completely open his life to the Father, for only the Father can truly heal.
Healing cannot take place apart from the Word of God. It cannot take place without changing long held patterns of thinking. And often, perhaps usually, it cannot take place without the wisdom of a strong, Biblical counselor…over a long period of time. A counselor who lays it all on the line, not tickling the ears with sweet words. But a counselor who asks the tough questions, who delves into the deep recesses of a heart wounded by years of hurt and pain, insecurity and pride.
And accountability. Long after the counselor disappears from his life, a fallen pastor must surround himself with strong, wise, godly men who will never shy away from asking the tough questions: Have you looked at pornography? Have you lusted? Are you truly fleeing even the hint of sexual immorality? These men can never let him off the hook. And the fallen pastor must never feel above accountability.
Examine the fruit.
May you always be filled with the fruit of your salvation—the righteous character produced in your life by Jesus Christ—for this will bring much glory and praise to God. Philippians 1:11
As Christians, we all produce fruit. Our fruit should be the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Our lives should be characterized by the highest levels of honesty and integrity. We should live above the level of reproach.
If a fallen pastor wants to return to ministry, we must examine his life, the fruit he is producing. We must use a tremendous amount of discernment. No one will live a perfectly blameless life, but godly fruit will be obvious.
If the fallen pastor is divorced, is he faithfully supporting his children? Does he go above and beyond the minimum required of him, or he is doing everything he can to avoid paying child support? Is he actively involved in the lives of his children? Do his children look forward to visitations with him? Does he blame his ex-wife for the divorce or his lack of involvement in his children’s lives? Does he talk negatively about her, blame her for the divorce? Does he live a life characterized by integrity in every area? Is he willing to work hard, to spend the rest of his life doing whatever is necessary to prove he is a changed person, transformed by the grace of God? Does his life bear the marks of one who has been with Jesus, been touched by the grace and forgiveness of the one who loves us even when we are faithless?
Many pastors are elevated because of their ability to speak. Their gifts. They can say the right thing at just the right time. They can extol the value of scripture, give us sermons to tickle our ears. But we must not be taken in by words alone. We must measure their lives against the scripture, the very word of God they proclaim.
We’ve all seen lives truly transformed by God. We know one when we see it. Use discernment.
I am the first to stand before you and say that my ex-husband should be restored to ministry if and when he meets the above qualifications. He is an amazingly gifted man who could be used mightily in God’s kingdom! He knows scripture inside and out, has the ability to pick up the word and see truths that I would never find. He has a call on his life, a forever call that can never be revoked (Romans 11:29).
However, when a church is willing to look beyond the sin and restore a pastor (whether it be my ex-husband or any other), caution and discernment must be exercised. The leadership of the church will answer to God for their actions, whether it is restoring one who needs to be restored or allowing a wolf in sheep’s clothing into the sheepfold.
No one is beyond the grace of God. Just make sure they have fully accepted his grace over their life of sin.
Lord Jesus, we live in an ugly world characterized by sin and evil. And it seems this world just gets darker every day. We see pastors, ministers, prominent Christians falling each day. Give us wisdom and discernment to treat them as you would, holding them accountable for their sins while also extending a healthy dose of grace and love. For those who have fallen, may they find themselves drowning in your sea of mercy and forgiveness. May they grasp how wide and deep and high is the love of Christ Jesus. May they say with David, “Create in me a clean heart, O God. Renew a loyal spirit within me…Restore to me the joy of my salvation.” In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.
Dena Johnson is a busy single mom of three amazing kids. Her greatest desire is to use her darkest days—days marred by adultery and divorce—to encourage others to find the joy of a life restored by Jesus Christ.
Dena is the founder of Dena Johnson Ministries, a non-profit organization with a mission of bringing hope to lives broken by the pain of this world. Her first book, Picking Up the Pieces: Rebuilding Your Life After the Storms of Adultery and Divorce, will be released later this year.
In her spare time, Dena works as a Registered Nurse and is a regular contributor at Crosswalk.com. If you would like to contact Dena, please feel free to interact with her on her blog Dena Johnson Ministries or email her at Dena@denajohnson.com.
Publication date: February 9, 2016