Part of what makes the issue of pastoral restoration so difficult is that every case is different. Making a blanket statement to cover all circumstances doesn’t seem possible. If we say, “A pastor who commits adultery can be restored to his pastoral position if he says he’s sorry,” then we are, at best, foolishly ignoring the need for genuine repentance. But if we say, “A pastor who commits adultery can never be restored to a pastoral position, anywhere or anytime,” then we seem to ignore the grace and forgiveness available to all believers in Christ (Galatians 6:1; 1 John 1:9). The middle ground is to say, “A pastor can be restored to his original position, under certain circumstances,” and that requires us to precisely identify the “certain circumstances.”
While 2 Corinthians 2:5–11 is not dealing with a pastor’s sin, that passage does give some insight into church discipline. Sin in the church causes pain (verse 5). The punishment that the church metes out has a limit (verse 6). The repentant person must show sorrow over his sin (verse 7). The church should respond to true repentance with comfort and forgiveness (verse 7) and reaffirmed love (verse 8). And a lack of forgiveness plays into Satan’s schemes (verse 11). In these verses, Paul emphasizes the restoration and unity that should follow discipline, based on the grace and mercy of God in Christ; the implicit warning is against man-made limits to forgiveness, personal vendettas, disunity, and excessive punishment.
Given God’s desire for the church to restore fallen believers, the question then becomes, is the pastor exempt from the possibility of forgiveness and restoration? Of course, the answer is, no; forgiveness is available to everyone in Christ (1 John 1:9).
However, the act of forgiveness does not automatically restore a former status. A drunk driver can be forgiven, but the car he wrecked stays wrecked. An embezzler can be forgiven, but it may be that no bank will ever hire her again. A pedophile can be forgiven, but, by law, he will never be allowed to work with children again. So, when we talk about the “restoration” of a pastor, we don’t necessarily mean that he gets his old life back again. Pastors involved in scandal can and should be restored to fellowship with God, with their families, and with fellow believers. But a restoration to the pastorate is another matter. Rather than seek to restore a fallen pastor to the pulpit, churches should seek to restore him to fellowship within the church, following the process of church discipline outlined in Scripture (Matthew 18:15–20). The former pastor should be amenable to the discipline the church enforces.
The Bible says that serving in a pastorate is a “noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Noble work requires noble character and noble behavior. Sexual sin is not noble behavior, and a pastor who falls into immorality has not shown noble character. Also, a pastor-teacher is held to a higher standard than the people he shepherds (James 3:1). The basic standard for all believers is that there “not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity” among us (Ephesians 5:3). If pastors will receive a stricter judgment, then they should exhibit less than “even a hint” of sexual misdeeds.
Unfortunately, the current climate in the church involves a high toleration for sexual misconduct. Christian couples live together before marriage, and no one confronts them. The lax treatment of sexual sin, in the name of “grace,” extends to pastors who fall. Some denominations simply transfer the sinning pastor to another district with no real discipline at all. Other churches welcome back an adulterous pastor after a short sabbatical and assurances that he won’t do it again. And, of course, some churches are ordaining openly homosexual pastors or priests and ignoring pedophilia among the clergy. All of this evinces a cavalier approach to sexual sin—a sin that has severe consequences in Scripture (Proverbs 6:27–29; 1 Corinthians 6:18; Hebrews 13:4).
A pastor who commits adultery is behaving like a false teacher (2 Peter 2:14). The outward performance of sexual sin is just the tip of the iceberg; there are serious character flaws that must be addressed. An adulterer, for example, has broken a trust; he has not been truthful; he has been hypocritical; he is no longer blameless; he no longer has a good reputation; he is not a man of good behavior; he is not self-controlled; his behavior is not holy; he has been self-willed; he has not been sober in his thinking—in other words, he has violated many of the qualifications listed in Titus 1:6–9 and 1 Timothy 3:2–7.
First Timothy 3:2 contains a salient detail impacting pastoral restoration. The very first pastoral qualification is “the overseer is to be above reproach.” Being “blameless” (as the KJV puts it) is an important part of being a pastor, and this requirement should not be glossed over. A pastor who commits immorality has made himself unfit for the “noble task” of pastoring (verse 1) by not being “above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable” (verse 2), and he no longer has “a good reputation with outsiders” (verse 7). Also, in verse 4, “he must manage his own family well.” This must speak of more than simply how he raises his children. A man who commits immorality and divorces his wife cannot be said to have managed his own family well.
In the context of preaching the gospel and winning others to Christ, Paul says, “I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize” (1 Corinthians 9:27). We know that he cannot be speaking of being “disqualified” for heaven, since nothing can separate him from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:39); the “disqualification” seems to be for preaching the gospel. Paul implies that, if he gave in to the fleshly appetites (of any kind), he would no longer be “qualified” and would be disapproved for ministry. Paul subdued his body so that he could continue ministering to others.
There remain many variations and complications of the basic issue:
- A man who was divorced and remarried before he was saved and now seeks ordination.
- A pastor whose wife renounces the faith and abandons him, providing grounds for a biblical divorce.
- A pastor who had a one-night stand and resigned the church but who never divorced, instead working to rebuild his relationship with his wife.
- A pastor who had a year-long adulterous affair thirty years ago and has since led a blameless life.
Faced with these complications, we ask questions like, how long does a “disqualification” last? When does church discipline become excessive? Does the “one-woman” requirement extend back to one’s pre-salvation life? Does being “above reproach” describe only one’s current condition, or does it suggest a lifetime of irreproachable behavior? The answer to these questions depends largely on one’s interpretation of Scripture, and a church considering pastoral restoration must seek wisdom from above (James 1:5) and godly counsel from trusted Christian leaders.
Christians live in grace and extend grace to others. However, the church has a responsibility to police itself and discipline erring believers (1 Corinthians 5:9–13). A pastor guilty of adultery should become a former pastor. His response to church discipline should be to humbly repent and then seek restoration of fellowship. Should he go beyond fellowship and seek to regain the office of pastor? In most cases, it seems, that would be unwise.
Again, we are not trying to set a hard-and-fast rule. Is it ever possible for a fallen pastor to be restored to the pastoral ministry? Yes, we believe so—we’re not going to presume to limit God’s grace and power. Do we have a New Testament example of a pastor being restored? No. Does the act of adultery reveal a deep character flaw? Yes. For these reasons, a church must be very careful about re-ordaining a man who has failed morally, post-salvation.
In cases where a fallen pastor is being restored to his former role, the local church body should work toward peace, unity, and understanding. If well-meaning, godly church leaders are behind the restoration, and if there is ample evidence of true repentance, then believers should be able to move forward in grace and faith and much prayer.