Can an immoral pastor be restored?

Straight Talk

The Question:

If a Pastor sins due to immorality and then repents couldn’t he be restored back to the pulpit? I’ve heard both sides on this issue. 1 Timothy 3 says he must be above reproach or his public ministry would be compromised and a stumbling block among his flock. He may be restored in the body of Christ but not to the office of pastor. If I would bring up David as an example the reply would be that that was the Old Testament dispensation. I thought that the gifts and calling of God are without repentance?

– Joe from the United States

The Answer
Part 1: Repentance and Grace
Part 2: Steps in Restoration

Repentance and Grace (Part 1)

If a person – any person, pastor or not, cannot be restored to fullness within the church then what is so wonderful about this gospel of grace? Yes, a pastor can be restored and I believe it is God’s desire to restore every fallen person so their gifts and calling can be shared with the whole body.

You say that if you bring up David as an example, the reply is that was the Old Testament. I don’t buy that but let it pass. Suppose, then, you use a New Testament example? How about Peter? I think Peter’s sin of denying Christ was probably more serious than most cases of “immorality” in pastors today. Yet let’s look at how Jesus handled it.

Remember that Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even warned Peter that it was going to happen and still Peter went ahead and arrogantly asserted that; “Even if I have to die with You, I will not deny You!” (Matthew 26:35) Of course, Jesus was right and Peter experienced deep shame and grief that he publicly denied he even knew our Lord.

Now let’s look at the restoration as told in John 21. The disciples were out fishing through the night catching nothing. The risen Lord was on the shore, calling them to cast out one more time. When they did their nets were full. From the catch, Jesus cooked them breakfast of fish and bread. Note that Jesus cooked by a charcoal fire and it had been by a charcoal fire that Peter had said he did not know Jesus, much less follow him.

When they had eaten, Jesus singled Peter out. “Simon, son of Jonah, do you love Me more than these?” (John 21:15) Have you ever counted the number of times Jesus asked Peter this question in this passage? He asked him three times, the same number as Peter had denied him. I believe that was on purpose. The Lord restored him completely to ministry each time he told him:“Feed My sheep” (Verse 15, 16, 17)

This is a tender story of the heart of God regarding how he wants to restore any who fall through any sin. He not only forgives us, heals us emotionally, but challenges us to serve him anew – hopefully with greater humility because we see how easy it is to fall.

Next: What are the steps to restoration?

Steps in Restoration (Part 2)

The first step in restoration is true repentance. That is where many fall by the wayside right off the bat. True repentance is not being sorry you got caught; it is not going before a congregation with a show of crocodile tears and returning to the pulpit the next week. In fact, a sign of true repentance is a new transparency. Have you noticed how powerful are the testimonies of those who were saved and delivered from deep sin? They have no trouble telling their stories, including the sordid details.

When a person has repented deeply they feel so free that they are free to tell it and to give glory to God for the great grace that delivered them. The failure, even of a pastor, can be a strong testimony. Paul, for instance, often spoke of the fact that he arrested Christians and even held the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen. Paul did not hide his past and neither should the one who has taken a wrong turn during ministry.

Secondly, the restoration process should not be short-circuited. The pastor should always step down and then let God decide if and when he returns to full ministry. Many things may need to happen before that occurs. The pastor has not only sinned against God but against some individuals (probably family members) and against the church. We don’t just sweep all that under the rug. Everything needs to be made right.

Just like a broken arm which takes some time to mend and return to full use, a fallen ministry will need time. This should not be rushed. Spiritual wounds take longer than some physical wounds do and that’s just the way it is. Rather than the person chomping to get back in the reins, they should lay it all down at the feet of Jesus and let him be the Divine Physician who says when it is time to go back to work.

As a pastor is restored he/she needs strong accountability and a strong spiritual covering. Whatever needs to happen to make sure the root issues were dealt with must be in place. The pastor must have a strong commitment to the guidelines you mentioned from 1 Timothy 3. Is such a life possible now and for the future?

Lastly, the congregation needs to be ready to assist with healing and welcome back one who has gone astray like the Father did in the story of the prodigal son. They should be hoping and on the look out for that time when they can kill the fatted calf and celebrate the prodigal’s return home.