Can a ‘Fallen Pastor’ Ever be Restored?

When a pastor has disqualified himself from his ministry, is he disqualified from ministry altogether? If so, for how long? Forever? Can he ever be restored? If so, how soon?

These sorts of questions are not new, but they do seem more relevant than ever. While there are lots of articles out there on “fallen pastors,” I’ve been surprised to discover few deal with these questions in an in-depth way. I won’t pretend to provide a comprehensive treatment of this difficult subject in this post, but I do want to share some biblical reflections and practical implications I’ve been ruminating on for a while. This subject hits fairly close to home, as I think it does for many. It behooves us to think carefully and biblically about these matters.

What Disqualifies a Pastor?

What I find interesting these days is not how many pastors have fallen into disqualification but how many have not. We live in a day and age where any guy with a speaking gift and an entrepreneurial, creative spirit can plant a church and even be successful with it. But gifting is not qualification. Some seem to discuss this subject as if we do not have clear biblical guidance on what qualifies a man for the office of elder/pastor. Except that we do. Here is a rough list, a composite from the three primary qualification passages (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5):

1. Sexually/maritally faithful
2. Good manager of household
3. Humble
4. Gentle
5. Sober
6. Peaceful
7. Financially responsible
8. Hospitable
9. Self-controlled
10. Upright in character
11. Committed to holiness
12. Able to teach
13. Spiritually mature (not a new convert)
14. Respectable (and respected by outsiders)
15. A good example to the flock

Evangelicals seem to most often discuss disqualification as it relates to adultery—which, to be clear, is disqualifying!—but we rarely bring in the disqualification conversation as it relates to short-tempered, argumentative or otherwise un-self-controlled pastors. The “fall” of Mark Driscoll is probably the closest my particular tribe has come to reckoning with the full-fledged (dis)qualifications for ministry, but it is still not a widely understood concept in the age of the celebrity minister. In fact, I think in many tribes and traditions, the “other biblical qualifications for ministry” have been neglected for a long time. How else to explain that it is typically only once a domineering, financially irresponsible, unsober pastor commits adultery that he is finally removed from his office?

The bottom line is that the bar for the pastoral office is set rather high. It is not open to anybody who “feels called.” Beyond giftedness and ambition, it requires maturity, testing and a long obedience in the same direction. Because of this, when a pastor has become disqualified, we are dealing with a problem at a different level than even the serious problem of discipline-worthy sins among the laity. It’s not because pastors are supposed to be super-Christians or have more favor with God than laypeople, but rather that the leadership office demands a higher standard.

Can Disqualified Pastors Be Restored?

The first thing we should say is that we are often talking about two different kinds of restoration without knowing it. Many of evangelicalism’s problems with the scandals of celebrity pastors who disqualify themselves stem from an inability—an unwillingness?—to distinguish between a restoration to vocational ministry from a restoration to the fellowship. In regards to the latter, the answer ought to be an unequivocal yes. Any believer who has fallen morally, pastor or not, ought to be fully restored to the Christian community, given their repentance and the restoration process of their church.

This is why we must be careful with our criticism, as well! Sometimes when we argue against the restoration of certain ministers to the pulpit, it sounds as though we are denying their ability to rejoin the fellowship of believers. And sometimes when we are upset about the high standard some set for the pulpit, we call others graceless when they are in fact ready to welcome any repentant sinner to the warmth of Christian fellowship.

What we are talking about here is more specifically this: Can a pastor who has disqualified himself in some way be restored to the pastoral office? In other words: Can a disqualified pastor become re-qualified? This is a rather controversial question in and of itself, as for many, the how and when are non-starters because they answer “no” to this first consideration. For instance, John MacArthur writes:

There are some sins that irreparably shatter a man’s reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever. Even Paul, man of God that he was, said he feared such a possibility. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”

When referring to his body, Paul obviously had sexual immorality in view. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 he describes it as a sin against one’s own body—sexual sin is in its own category. Certainly it disqualifies a man from church leadership since he permanently forfeits a blameless reputation as a one-woman man (Proverbs 6:331 Timothy 3:2).

I tread lightly here, but I’m going to disagree with Pastor MacArthur. First, if a previous sin forever disqualifies a man, Paul would have already been disqualified for his life of murderous persecution of Christians. Certainly sin committed after one is in union with Christ is in a certain way more serious than sin committed pre-conversion—not serious as in damnable, of course, but serious as in contrary to the new nature—but if any person could ever be deemed forever blameworthy, that would seem to preclude them even from the fellowship. Grace either covers all sin repented of, or it covers none.

I also do not find MacArthur’s exegetical case convincing. He puts 1 Corinthians 9:27 in the context of 1 Corinthians 6:18 to argue Paul has in mind sexual immorality. But that does not seem at all to be what Paul is talking about in the immediate context of chapter 9. Verse 27 caps off a long explanatory passage on Paul’s missional philosophy, teasing out his concern to be “all things to all people” (v. 22). He does of course mention “self-control” (v. 25), but it is in relation to training. This does not exclude any consideration of guarding against sexual immorality, of course, but the “disqualification” referred to in v. 27 doesn’t seem to be connected to a moral failing but a missional one. In other words, it appears from the trajectory of his reasoning throughout the chapter that the “qualification” in question is about commending himself to both Jew and Greek (vv. 19-23). He does not want to fall short of missional versatility. This is why he spills a lot of ink earlier in the passage on payment for ministry and the like. He then goes on to discuss his discipline in relation to the ceremonial law as a missional consideration. He is speaking largely to contextualization and personal usability. With this is mind—again—we do not take sexual propriety entirely out of the equation, but it would seem that the disqualification he has in mind is more to do with disqualifying himself from access to preaching to people groups (as he mentions in the verse in question) than disqualification from the ministry entirely. I take the immediate context to be of more guidance in understanding 9:27 than I do a verse three chapters previous.

All of that said, we obviously know sexual immorality is disqualifying for pastors because of the more direct references that give us the biblical qualifications for ministry. One of these is found, as MacArthur mentions, in 1 Timothy 3:2. But the question we’re really asking is if this disqualification is permanent. Even if we take 1 Corinthians 9:27 to refer to a moral failing, it says nothing about the permanence of such a disqualification. MacArthur adds the word “permanently” to his exposition, but it is not found in the text. What we can agree on, I assume, is that those who seek qualification for pastoral ministry—according to 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5—must have a well-established reputation for and widespread affirmation of the qualities listed therein. (I’m going to come back to that last sentence in a minute, so don’t forget it.)

On this subject, Pastor John Piper writes:

Is it possible to restore a pastor who sinned sexually but who is repentant? Or is such a pastor disqualified because he no longer meets the qualification of being “above reproach”?

I’m afraid if I answer this the way that I should, it will give so much license to restore pastors too quickly. But since I should, I should.

Ultimately, I think the answer is yes. A pastor who has sinned sexually can be a pastor again. And I say that just because of the grace of God and the fact that “above reproach” can be restored, probably.

I agree with Piper on this, and I think there is a lot entailed in the “probably” we should tease out. But first, do we have any biblical precedent for the restoration of a fallen pastor? Well, in fact, of a certain kind we do.

What Does the Restoration of Peter Tell Us About the Restoration of Disqualified Pastors?

Let’s be clear here that we are not discussing relational conflicts or a ministerial “falling-out.” Some speak this way about Peter’s denial of Christ and the subsequent reunion with his Lord, but this does not do justice to the terrible sin Peter has committed. On the other hand, we have a few examples in Acts and in some of Paul’s epistles referring to intramural debates and relational conflicts that prompt the parting of ways between ministers of the gospel, but Paul does not refer to those men as being disqualified from ministry. (He does speak that way about those one-time ministers who embraced heresy or otherwise “fell away” from the faith, of course.) So we have to put Peter’s denial of Jesus in the right category.

Jesus has warned, “But whoever denies me before others, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33). This makes the public denial of Jesus (by any believer) a denial of eternal impact. Compounding this, Peter was even told by Jesus he would do this, and Peter gave his word he would not (Matthew 26:35), so now we have a betrayed trust on top of a betrayed witness. Can we agree that any minister who denies even knowing Jesus when put on the spot has entered disqualification territory? With this in mind, let’s revisit the restoration scene found in John 21:15-19:

When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”

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SOURCE: Church Leaders, Jared Wilson