There has been a plethora of posts and articles opining on the life, ministry and travails of Mark Driscoll. As a part of that discussion, the issue of restoration comes to the forefront. When a minister falls, in whatever way he falls, can he be restored to ministry? Can an adulterous pastor, who repents and is spiritual renewed, eventually become a leader in a church? What about someone who is divorced? Someone who got mired in financial malfeasance? Can a biblically qualified elder (or deacon) who strays from the path and disqualifies himself ever get re-qualified? Or is disqualification permanent?
I seldom get my way in the comment section, unless I ride roughshod over them (which somehow seems to offend!), but it is my fondest desire that this NOT be a discussion of Mark Driscoll. Please? Pretty please? With sugar on it? The question of the day is not whether Mark Driscoll can ever be restored, but whether ANY church leader – pastor, elder, deacon – can be restored.
First, a few background perspectives, then I’ll deal with what I believe on the topic.
1) There is NO primary biblical evidence on the subject and so we must use biblical reasoning to make a decision.
“The Bible clearly says…” It’s nice when you can say that, but so often, the Bible does not clearly address issues that we would like it to address. This is one of those times. There is no verse that says, “When someone fails in their leadership, they can be restored to leadership again,” nor does it say, “Once failed, always disqualified.” We look at hints here and there and bits and pieces of biblical evidence and we piece together a philosophy of leadership from that. Some emphasize the high standards of biblical leadership, others emphasize the forgiveness and renewal inherent in the gospel. Both are biblical principles. Which takes priority in answering this question? That, of course, is the issue.
Those who speak with absolute assurance on this issue are probably picking some biblical evidence and ignoring the rest. There are pieces of scriptural evidence that lean to both sides of this debate.
2) Ultimately, as Baptists, we see this an issue of autonomy.
In a previous ministry, our association had three key leaders who had all been divorced. They served well, but there were some in our association that were uncomfortable with divorced men serving in ministry. It became an issue when we formed a search committee to find an associational missionary. The three pastors were all on the committee, along with at least one man who thought divorce was a disqualifier. We somehow made it through, but my point is that ultimately, among Baptists, this is a decision left to each local church. Southern Baptists do not have a national registry or database of approved pastors. Such would be a violation of the autonomy of the local church. Each church must make its own decision on whether a man is qualified to serve in a ministry role in their church.
3) Christian leadership has four key facets.
A Christian leader must have passion, ability, character and a good reputation.
a) Passion tends to come and go. There are a lot of Mondays in which I have no passion for Christ, for the church, or for life in general. Sometimes, my passion for Christ fans into flame! A leader ought to consistently seek and and “fan into flame the gift that is in you,” but leadership is not just about passion. In fact, there are seldom people any more passionate than young Christians. Dr. Hendricks used to say that babies mess their pants – that’s what they do. Baby Christians, passionate, joyful and energetic, also tend to mess their pants a lot. Passion is important, but it is not the basis for biblical leadership.
b) Ability is also important, but not perhaps as important as we make it. One of the problems with our pastoral selection system is that it tends to judge external abilities – how well a man preaches, his good looks (key to all my jobs!), his charisma, his gifts and talents. We tend to choose pastors for the same reason that Israel wanted Saul as king. Abilities are important, and they should be developed through the years, but ability and godliness do not necessarily go hand in hand.
I know of a church that hired a pastor who was everything a congregation could want. He came highly recommended from big name preachers. He was (I’m told by women) stunningly handsome and charismatic. Everyone thought that he would be a megachurch pastor one day – he had it all. Except character. He was both immoral and dishonest and it finally caught up to him. He had all the ability in the world, but he lacked integrity and character, which crashed his ministry to the ground. Ability is not enough.
c) Character is key in Christian leadership. Character is who you are on the inside, who you are when no one is watching you. All of the qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 go to character, with a couple of possible exceptions (an elder must be “able to teach”). Character is the mixture of godliness and time; spiritual maturity, Christlikeness.
I have been a distance runner for most of my life – never being blessed with speed, I focused on endurance. Even when I get out of shape now my legs have an inherent endurance. At about 320 pounds, I completed two desert marathons in 2008 and 2009 because of this endurance. Training my muscles over time built a character in them that endures. That’s what happens in the Christian life. As we endure in Christ through hard times, we tend to develop a strong character.
It is not by accident that the Bible describes leaders as “elders.” It takes time to build the character necessary. I was a pastor at age 24. I had some skills and a desire to serve Christ, but I did not have the character I needed. It took me another decade, maybe 15 years, as the hardships of ministry exercised my soul, to develop the character I needed (if I ever did – some would probably want to debate that question).
d) Reputation is necessary. Reputation follows character. It takes time to build a solid reputation and sometimes, when our character is crumbling, we can maintain our reputation for a time. But part of leadership is having the respect and honor of those you lead. Paul said, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.” This is the sine qua non of godly leadership – being able to look people in the eye and say, “I’m not perfect, but you can follow me toward Christ.”
So, here’s the point. Passion comes and goes. Ability can be built, but can also be divorced from character. Character and reputation are what leadership is all about. It is godly character and a sterling reputation in the church and community that qualify one for leadership in the church. If a man’s character devolves (for lack of a better term) and he is found in sin, his reputation is sullied and he is disqualified from ministry. We know, beyond a doubt, that God can rebuild character. It takes repentance, humility, accountability and time, but a man who makes a mess can be cleansed. No doubt about it. The question is whether he can rebuild his reputation such that he can become a spiritual example in the church. Having fallen, can he rebuild his character and reputation to the point that he says, “Imitate me as I imitate Christ.”
5) There can be no doubt that restoration of fellowship is both possible and desired, regardless of the severity of the sin. No matter how despicable, how awful, how gross one’s sin is, when there is repentance there must be restoration. Church discipline is not about shunning or ostracizing, but about restoring.
That is not the point of this discussion. Of course we are to, as Galatians 6 admonishes, restore gently those who fall into sin. The question is whether we must also allow them to
6) The idea that one becomes a better leader through sin is unbiblical nonsense. I’ve heard that way too many times. “Before my fall I was arrogant and uncaring, now I am more understanding and compassionate with people.” Well, praise God that you grew through the process of restoration, but the idea that somehow spiritual and moral failure makes a better leader is not biblical. Godliness, Christlikeness – those make you a better leader. Being open and transparent about your sinfulness and imperfections – that is good. But acting as if sin makes you MORE qualified for leadership is nonsense (in my humble, but correct, opinion).
7) Forgiveness of sin does not abrogate consequences of that sin. David sinned deeply and repented. Yes, he remained king, but I’m not sure how that applies to being a pastor, or whether it does. Best not to draw too many conclusions from David remaining king – it has little to do with being a leader in a church. But one thing we can see, though David’s sin was forgiven completely by God, the consequences of that sin followed him, and his family, for a long time. In fact, that is the structure of 2 Samuel. Chapters 1-10 regale David’s victories. Chapter 11 tells us his sin with Bathsheba. The rest of the book tells of one tragedy after another in his family, that seem to stem from his lost moral authority in his family.
Withholding leadership in the church is a consequence of sin, and repentance, forgiveness and spiritual restoration do not immediately abrogate that consequence. Can restoration happen over time? That is the question. But a church can fully forgive a fallen leader while still asking for his resignation and refusing to restore him to leadership.
8) Maintaining the highest of spiritual standards for leaders is healthy for the church. A church needs moral examples it can respect and follow. The question, then, is what approach sets the highest model of leadership. that leads us to the core issue of the discussion.
9) The Core Issue: Does refusing to restore fallen leaders to positions of responsibility in the church best reflect the high standards of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, or does a process of restoration best reflect the power of the Gospel of Christ to rebuild lives. That is the decision we must make. What message do we want to send to our people? That leadership in the church is so important that if you fail, it is irreversible and permanently disqualifying? Or that the transforming power of the Holy Spirit is so great that even those who have failed miserably in the past can be restored to leadership in the future?
Both sides on this debate are trying to reflect biblical principles – just different ones. Obviously, there are both judgmental, self-righteous and condemnatory people who shun failures and ostracize the fallen. And there are those who care more about ability and charisma than character and are willing to follow leaders regardless of how often they sully the name of Christ. But within those extremes are groups of people who are looking at different parts of biblical leadership. One side emphasizes the importance of standards and the other side focuses on restoration and the power of the Spirit to renew.
It would be best if we did not paint those who disagree with our position on this by the extremes. One can believe in high standards of leadership and still believe that restoration is possible. One can love the gospel and still believe that moral sin is a permanent disqualifier for ministry. We ought to deal with the other side with charity, because we realize that this is one of those topics on which Christians of good will can disagree.
I agree that anyone in leadership in a church should be held to high standards of accountability in regard to the biblical qualifications for leaders in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. If we elect leaders based on their wealth, their human abilities, their status or anything else, the church will suffer. Leadership must be character based and those standards must not be compromised. However, I believe that biblical character is based on what you ARE, not what you once were. Jesus changes lives. The Spirit works in us to make us like Christ. Certainly, if a man falls into heinous sin, he has neither the character or the reputation to be an elder or deacon. The biblical standard must be upheld. But by repentance and the power of the Spirit, he can be changed and conformed to Christ. Will it take 2 years? Ten? Twenty? I don’t know. But I believe that failure is not a permanent barrier to leadership positions in the church of Jesus Christ.
Biblical Perspectives on the Restoration of Leadership
1) The New Testament standard seems to be “flawed but transformed” leadership.
Many of the best leaders of the Bible had serious flaws. It is shaky to infer too much from the fact that David, Abraham, Moses, Elijah and other great OT leaders had moments of failure and weakness. But the fact is that God’s leaders led on the basis of the power within them, not their own. So, a flawed leader (frankly, we all are that, aren’t we) can still be an effective leader. The NT does not specifically address our question, but there are some examples I’d point out that demonstrate that even failed leaders can lead.
- Mark is the most notable example. He seems to have failed in fear during the first missionary journey. Barnabas wanted to give him a second chance but Paul was not having it. Acts 15 says that their disagreement on this issue became so heated that they went their separate ways. But later, in 2 Timothy 4, Paul asks that Mark be brought to him in his time of crisis, because “he is useful to me.” Obviously, Mark had not stolen money or committed adultery, but he had failed in his ministry assignment and he was restored.
- Paul directly confronted Peter in Galatians 2:11 for his behavior in Antioch. Peter continued to be an apostolic leader in the church in spite of this misstep. Again, his sin was serious, but was not one of the sins that we consider disqualifying today.
- Some would point out the utter failure of all of the disciples, especially Peter, at the time of Christ’s death. Jesus personally restored Peter and sent him to feed the sheep. Again, how much weight to give this is debatable, but the fact is that the disciples failed and Jesus restored them and built his church on their labors.
- Paul referred to himself as “the chief of sinners” right up until his dying days.
I’m not arguing that any of this will convince those who hold a different position. But I will say the fact that leaders were flawed, sinful men who were transformed by the gospel and by the Spirit does give me reason to lean to the side of restoration in this debate.
2) Biblical Character is present tense, not past tense.
The qualities defined in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are about what we are, not what we used to be. Every one of those qualities is developed over time by the inner work of the Holy Spirit. So, if we recognize that the Spirit can build the godly character necessary to lead over time (a process that happened in every one of us), why would we not believe that he can REBUILD it?
3) The Gospel is about forgiveness, reconciliation and transformation.
Let me be clear. I am not saying that those who believe in permanent disqualification of leaders are opposed to the gospel. But I do believe that the hope of restoration is a better expression of the meaning and intent of the gospel than denying the possibility of restoration to ministry and leadership. Both sides value the gospel, but the restoration view seems more “gospely” to me.
4) Those who believe in permanent disqualification have to decide which sins do that.
I need to confess to you that last week I participated in some gossip. And as I was clicking through the internet I saw a picture of a bikini-clad actress that drew my attention. Plus…well, you get the idea. I am a sinner. I sin. We realize that not all sin disqualifies us from ministry. As I struggle through my life, seeking Christ’s power over sin to become more of a reality in my life, I am still qualified to be a leader. Perfection is not required.
But those who maintain that there are sins that permanently disqualify one from ministry have to decide what those sins are.
- I doubt anyone thinks that taking note of a bikini-clad actress on an internet page disqualifies me.
- What if I clicked on the page and perused “Hottest Beach Bodies in Hollywood?”
- What if I gave into temptation and looked at porn?
- What if I made an inappropriate joke to female friend?
- What if I carried on an internet flirtation with a female friend?
- What if I kissed a female friend?
Obviously, if I commit adultery, I’m out of a job. But if someone is going to say that certain sins disqualify me permanently, then I need to see some biblical reasoning for what sins are included in the ban. Divorce? Even divorce before I was saved? Adultery? Adultery of the heart? Porn? An inappropriate friendship with a woman? Where is the line of permanent disqualification?
It seems clear to me what disqualifies a man from ministry immediately. If he does anything that sullies his reputation and reveals that his character is not worth following on the journey to Christlikeness, he should step down or be removed. But which sins permanently disqualify him? How do you decide that? Do some sins only bring temporary disqualification which others bring permanent?
That kind of differentiation required by the permanent disqualification view turns me off.
So, I believe that the church’s leaders should be held to high standards, but failure to meet those standards can be overcome in time. Godly leadership and maturity is built over time, and it can be rebuilt over time.
If you disagree with me, you are likely a communist, probably hate puppies, and may very well be a Democrat!