I got a question from a reader during the week. It was about scandals. How should we respond when Christian pastors and leaders fall from grace, and more to the point, should they be restored to the ministry? It’s an infinitely complex issue, as it takes in all sorts of churches and all sorts of scandals (drugs, sex, money, abuse – that sort of sordid stuff. In fact, it seems to have been the same old culprits since the dawn of time when it comes to scandal-fodder). It wouldn’t surprise us if it was a rock star or an actor that fell into temptation. But when it is someone who is supposed to be a spiritual leader, leading us in the ways of righteousness, well what then?
Yikes! Good question (which has been paraphrased). I’m not sure I’m worthy to answer it, but I’ll give it a crack with the caveat that this is just little old me with a Bible, a heart for God and the church, but no theology qualifications!
The fact is that scandals have rocked the Christian world since one of Adam and Eve’s boys killed the other one. King David in the Bible would also have to rate among the most scandalous of characters. A quick rundown of this guy’s more colourful moments included:
- Dancing naked in the streets that one time
- His extremely close, and perhaps romantic relationship, with Jonathan. (If that made your hackles rise, then read this account and at least consider the possibility that we edited his sexuality out of our Bible in the last couple of hundred years because it made translators uncomfortable. Or read this one which has been on the interwebs since 2007 and is formatted TERRIBLY but very interesting if a little x rated at times)
- If if if the above is true, (which we will never know because both the “Just really close” argument and the “Totally lovers” argument can be strongly argued from various translations of the Bible), David’s subsequent marriage to his lover’s sister is extremely cringey.
- The Bathsheba affair
- The bit where he put Bathsheba’s husband on the frontline of the battle where, surprise, surprise, he died, freeing up David to marry the widow.
- There was also the bit where one of his sons raped his sister (David’s daughter, Tamar) and David’s reaction to it was…unimpressive. ANYWAY!
So David was pretty colourful, pretty out there and incredibly imperfect. Yet he goes down on record as being a man after God’s own heart and was chosen by God to occupy the throne of Israel. I believe, from this account, that God believes in the restoration of people to their call. I believe He is more than okay with people being restored to their vocation after a scandal or a fall from grace, as the Bible is littered with accounts of imperfect people doing great things.
With that said, God has a unique perspective in that He can see into the soul of man and know the difference between genuine repentance and reparation, and the mere appearance of it so that a person can regain the position of influence and power that they once occupied. We lack that ability. Therefore, we need to step more carefully to make sure that grace and second chances are not squandered. So I guess my perspective on restoration to office post-scandal has a few “if’s” attached. They are as follows:
- IF there has been genuine repentance and a process of restoration. Twenty or thirty years ago when I was practically an infant, a couple of scandals happened in my little world (or that of my parents as I was pretty young). One involved Clarke Taylor, the pioneer of Christian Outreach Centre and Australia’s first televangelist. He was a giant of the faith, with a stage presence that could just about rattle hell out of an unbeliever. Before long though, the denomination he founded with a goal to “reach our world for Christ” was rocked by the news that Clarke had an affair with his secretary. He was removed from leadership, went itinerant for some time but found genuine repentance and won back Anne, the love of his life whom he had erred against years earlier. The other involved a local pastor in my local area who did a similar thing. Only he left town with the object of his affections (I am a little fuzzy on the details) and passed his church to a young up and comer. The former showed clear repentance, a process of rebuilding, and time between him and restoration to the ministry. The latter, well, we never heard.
- Now, I know not every shattered marriage can be put back together. Not every story of repentance will have a Clark and Anne Taylor ending. But let’s be clear: Clarke showed outward signs of repentance and the passage of time revealed this to be genuine. Last I heard, he and his wife were pioneering another family-based ministry.
- I have heard of cases where there is clearly no repentance. So in those cases, I can’t see a way for the person in question to resume serving God, in a position where they are supposed to guide their flock in the ways of truth if they themselves are not willing to change anything if their life doesn’t live up to it. I’ve heard of cases like Clarke’s where there has been time, good counsel, genuine repentance and restoration – albeit to a different ministry but a ministry none-the-less. I’ve also heard of cases where a leader simply “heard from God” that a person was ready for the ministry again, or when it all happened a little too fast and a little too smoothly. I’m sorry, but that’s a little thin in my mind. In God’s timeline, a day is as a thousand years, so why rush the process of restoration and risk both the minister and the congregation by rushing them back to a similar position as the one that first lead them to fall?
- In my book, the saddest cases are when human, flawed leaders were not given the opportunity to serve God again because of something that could have been remedied. Conversely, the other saddest cases are when people with questionable motives have been returned to the ministry too fast and have abused, taken advantage of or wronged against people again. Thus the process and genuineness of repentance matters.
- IF there are safeguards put in place for the protection of the clergy member and the congregants. I guess it is in line with the conclusion of this last point that I raise this: If a person has been caught stealing from the church, don’t put them in charge of the money. If they have been caught in infidelity, perhaps being alone with vulnerable congregants is questionable. The cases and causes of scandals are vast and varied, and the scripture accurately states that there is safety in the multitude of counselors. Like I said, pastors, leaders, and ministers have a special role in guiding Christians in the ways of truth and righteousness. Thus, a higher level of morality is required of them. Once a scandal has broken and a person has been restored to the ministry, accountability and safeguards are good protection – both for the person in question and the congregation they lead. A congregation going through the aftermath of a scandal is a tough place to be as this article spells out. Unsurprisingly it can rock a person’s faith, which is sad indeed. The church should be a place people come to be built up, not a place where they grow to question their faith in God when His apparent representative gets caught in the crosshairs of a scandal.
- IF leadership has considered that restoration to ‘ministry’ doesn’t have to mean restoration to their original position, and considered what is best in the individual instance. I like the Clark Taylor example. He was restored to a ministry, it just wasn’t his original. To me, and to any pastor who is truly motivated by serving God and His people, the specifics shouldn’t matter. The overarching motivation should mean that they would be happy serving God in any way. They also have to respect the damage their indiscretion inflicted upon the old congregation so finding a new way to serve God is fairer to all. Clark built a new work with his wife, post-reunion. Others have founded new ministries together, even focusing on the very weakness that first caused the scandal. There are ways through this. I have always found that if we offer our weaknesses to God and go on a journey that goes deep, to the heart of things, beautiful strength can come out of it. Who knows what God could do with this should he call people back to ministry?
- IF the transgression was found to be a moment of weakness and not a pattern of wrongdoing. If it is the latter, we need to consider that the person’s motivation for seeking out ministry may not be altruistic in the first place. The vast majority of pastors I have met (which is a lot considering I am a pastors daughter) have been kind-hearted souls who genuinely want to serve God. I also read a survey that showed the top vocations likely to be occupied by psychopaths. Ironically, the clergy was one of the top ten. I have to admit, I *think* I have met some of these types. But I could never say for sure because I don’t have a psychology degree (yet…)The fact is that there are a lot of reasons people are attracted to positions of influence and authority, with varying levels of access to vulnerable people and the likelihood that these people would see them as somewhat elevated or closer to God.
- If the person in the scandal is a kind-hearted genuine person who messed up, then I believe we should do all we can to restore them if repentance is genuine and they are willing to not rush. If the person is the second type, motivated by self with little regard for others, then there is no way they won’t do more damage to people. These are the wolves in sheep’s clothing and they seek out the pulpit for their own gain so they can exploit the people who look up to them and put them on a pedestal. How do we discern if all of these conditions have been met? I don’t know. That’s why I’m not in the ministry. That’s why I’m just a member of a church, who holds voting rights (but admittedly skipped the last AGM because I wanted a nap). But the reader, “Josh” asked the question so here is my answer!
I guess I do have one form of scandal in which I do not believe the perpetrator should ever return to ministry: If the scandal is child abuse, sexual abuse or abuse of a vulnerable person – no. Just no. The children of God are far too precious to risk a relapse – each and every one of them. Thus, it is too much of a risk to return the perp to the pulpit. But hey – that doesn’t mean they can’t preach in prison. *shrug*
I hope it was at least a little bit enlightening! The over-arching theme here is grace for those who want it and who are willing to go deep when it comes to turning things around.
Also, I put a video below for those of you who want the juicy gossip on the top ten Christian scandals. You know gossip is a sin, right?