In twenty years of serving and leading in the Church, one of the most painful and disappointing realities has been watching leaders I respect removed from ministry positions for patterns of sin in their own lives. At the first ministry conference I attended when I was 22 years old, a speaker recounted how he wrote down the names of 20 friends he started in ministry with, and each year he would need to scratch through a name as leader after leader was disqualified for some type of sin. According to the speaker, there were only two names left on the list. I was stunned. I remember thinking about those I was serving alongside, and being filled with an odd mix of concern and confidence—concern for our hearts yet confident that our story would be different.
The confidence part was naïve, prideful, and bad theology. Over the years I have learned more and more how we can really “put no confidence in the flesh,” as we are unable to stand strong in our own goodness. In fact, “whoever thinks he stands must be careful not to fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). “That will never happen to me” is loaded with confidence in self, not reliance on the Spirit. Pride always comes before the downfall.
But other thoughts entered my mind the first time I heard a message about “fallen spiritual leaders” directed towards ministry leaders. Were they scratched through with pen or was it with a pencil? In other words, can a fallen ministry leader be restored to a ministry position?
I have learned that churches and leaders typically hold to one of three different views about pastoral restoration. These views are not about being restored to Christ, receiving forgiveness, and being warmly embraced into Christian fellowship. All three of these views would advocate that people who repent should experience restoration into fellowship, but they differ on restoration to pastoral leadership.
1. No restoration
Some leaders believe that when a pastor disqualifies himself, that pastor is permanently disqualified. They point to the high standard of church leadership articulated in 1 Timothy 3—that the elder must be “blameless” or “above reproach,” and advocate that a fallen leader’s sin will prevent the leader from ever being above reproach again. They are not advocating the sin is any worse than other sins in terms of standing before God, but that the sin has ruined a blameless standing before people in terms of pastoral leadership.
2. Immediate restoration
Some leaders believe the leader should be restored to ministry as quickly as the leader repents and is restored to fellowship with the church. They point to leaders in the Scripture who were used immensely by God after committing disqualifying sins. Moses murdered an Egyptian before leading people to freedom. David committed adultery and murder after penning some of the psalms and before penning others.
3. Deliberate restoration
Some leaders believe that restoration can and should occur when the restoration is done deliberately, when there is ample time to observe the sweet fruit of repentance, and when credibility can be restored through a season of learning and counseling. They preach 1 Timothy 3 and believe that blamelessness can be restored.
Of course these are not neat and tidy buckets. Restoration is as complicated as our sin. Many leaders would place adultery in the category of “no restoration,” while placing leading with anger and other issues in the category of “deliberate restoration.” Most leaders believe the “immediate restoration” approach unwise and unloving. It is unwise as leaders are rushed back into leadership without time for new patterns and rhythms of life to be established. And it is unloving to both the leader and church, as people have been harmed and leaders are not ready.
I have had this conversation with several leaders I respect in recent days, wrestling with a longing for consistency in my own heart. While I agree that “immediate restoration” is unwise and unloving, one can, with consistency, hold to both the “no restoration” and the “deliberate restoration” category based on the offense. For example, a pastor is to be both faithful (a one-woman man) and hospitable. The apostle Paul does not advocate for a congregation to remove someone for lack of hospitality, but he does for sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5). The sins, while both deep violations of the character of God, have differing levels of consequences because they bring differing levels of reproach upon His Church. Thus leaders can view each case differently while still being consistent.
These are painful discussions. We want to be like Jesus, full of grace and truth. We want His Church to be led how He designed, while simultaneously loving people the way He loved us. Because we will wrestle with the brokenness of our world and our hearts until Jesus returns, it is wise to form your view on restoration.