Wednesday, February 6, 2013

When a Pastor Falls

I am a sinner. I sin every day. When I walk by the Spirit, I do not gratify the desires of the flesh. I do not always walk by the Spirit. For every believer this statement is true: My sin but our consequences (ask Achan’s family). This truth is particularly highlighted when the sinner is also the shepherd. Paul challenges Timothy to set an example for the believers in life, love, speech, faith, and purity. Even in the power of the Spirit, no pastor will be able to live this completely, but it does not mean we should not make it our aim. What happens, however, when the pastor is clearly not living this text? What happens when the pastor, rather than avoiding sin, aimed right at it . . . and hit it? What do the sheep then do with the shepherd? Here’s what some have done: fire them immediately. Throw them out. Don’t give them an opportunity to pack their office but instead pack it for them. Also, throw the spouse and children out with them. Especially don’t give them an opportunity to address the congregation, I mean who would want a sinner speaking to other sinners? Here’s what others have done: ask them to resign quietly. Don’t address the sin in the pastor’s life directly or, heaven forbid, mention it to the congregation. Yes, the “polite” and “respectable” way to deal with pastoral sin (and everyone else’s) is to handle the manner quietly and then whisper about it later in elders’ meetings or maybe even elders’ wives’ meetings. Here’s what I think should happen: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Gal. 6:1). How does a bone mend if it does not get reset? The word “restore” carries the idea of resetting a bone or in fishing terms: mending the nets. Sin in anyone’s life is certainly like a bone being broken in the local body of Christ. Without proper care, it will not be reset and will not heal as it should. When the pastor is the one who has caused the brokenness in the fellowship, why should he not be afforded the same grace every other sinner in that congregation has been afforded? Why is that some run away from him instead of to him? Why is there condemnation instead of restoration? If a pastor is not repentant, then Jesus and Paul are clear: put him out (Matt. 18 and 1 Cor. 5). The purpose of breaking our fellowship is in hopes of repentance, restoration, and reconciliation. Proper church discipline has been practiced in far too few congregations. But what if he is repentant? And by repentant, I don’t just mean remorseful. He’s not just sorry he got caught, but instead, he’s truly broken over his sin. He’s grieved because he’s grieved the Lord and in actuality had asserted his own kingship over Christ’s. By repentant, I mean, he’s striving in the power of the Spirit to turn from the sin and to never return to it again. He’s striving not to be the guy in Proverbs who is like a dog returning to its vomit. Is there a better picture of the reality of sin and its bondage? If we truly viewed sin this way, then who of us would actually want to redigest what we had recently released? Should the repentant pastor be removed from leadership? Absolutely. Should the repentant pastor be removed from leadership permanently? Maybe. Some will say yes and some will say no. Should the repentant pastor be removed from the fellowship? Absolutely not. If we cannot go to our faith community then to whom can we turn? It’s sorriest of all sorries (made this phrase up), if the pastor has walked through the mire, mess, and muck of all the people’s sins and no one is willing to run to him in his stench. Sometimes there will need to be a separation and perhaps the breaking free from the sin may require special treatment, but it’s far better for the pastor (and his family) to have the faith community walk through the mess with them than to have to walk through it alone. Why should he be extended less grace than he extended to you in your battles with sin? The only ones who should be excluded from membership/fellowship are those who still desire to walk in their sin and reject Christ’s rule, with all others we should be “kind, tenderhearted, and forgiving (them) as God in Christ forgave (us)” (Eph. 4:32). How long should a pastor remain in a congregation after he falls? I think only the Lord can answer this one. He certainly needs the accountability and love of the church in working toward reconciliation with the Lord, his family, and the faith family. Should he remain if a new pastor comes? Maybe. The presence and leadership of a new pastor alone should not determine whether the former pastor should stay or go. Perhaps the better question, is can the repentant pastor fully support the leadership of the new pastor and “strive to eagerly maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3)? If he would be divisive and distracting then he should go. If he can “stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” then he should feel freedom to stay (Phil. 1:27). Above all, he should seek to please Christ and follow His leadership. So why am I writing this? Have I sinned today? Yes. I’m breathing. Is there some major sin I’m fixing to disclose? No. All sins are major and I attempt to disclose those weekly to Christ, my wife, and my accountability partner. My job, however, is to shepherd the sheep and equip them “for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:12). My job is to prepare them in the Word so that they might be “competent (and) equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:17). I want them to walk in the Word, especially on the day, that they might need to run to me rather than away from me.