There have been a number of pastoral failures over the last several years, from both sides of the evangelical spectrum, each one a painful reminder that pastors are far from perfect. Moral weakness, shocking insensitivity and gross negligence have been prominently displayed.
As Christians we should be angry, we should demand better, we should ask questions, but we should not be shocked, for at least the following four reasons.
Because Pastors Are Sinners
A man is not called to the pastorate because he has achieved perfection with respect to personal character. In fact, the character requirements listed in 1 Timothy 3 seem remarkable in their unremarkableness:
“Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, 3 not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. 4 He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. 7 Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:2–7 ESV)
It is difficult to think of anything on this list that ought not to be expected of any genuinely saved person: Good reputation, stable marriage, self-control, able to communicate the Gospel. That’s pretty basic stuff, in fact, I’d be concerned about any 35 year old man in my congregation who wasn’t meeting that standard. The impression given by this passage, and its parallel in Titus, is that being an elder or a pastor requires authentic Christian character, as opposed to outstanding Christian character. If the bar was outstanding Christian character, then one wonders whether there would be 100 pastors in all of North America.
Because pastors are people and people are sinners.
“for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV)
Pastors are human beings – saved human beings ideally – and as such, they are capable of sinning and by the grace of God, capable of not sinning. Which means that over the course of a human life you are likely to get at least a little bit of both out of the people who exercise leadership in your church. Of course, pastors should be expected to sin less as they grow in Christ, and they should understand that some sins will cause them to be disqualified from leadership, but congregants should understand that all people – including pastors – will battle with remaining sin until they die and see Jesus face to face.
What a day, glorious day, that will be!
Because Polity Can Only Do So Much
Good polity is built upon the presumption of remaining sin. If people were perfect we probably wouldn’t need polity at all – rules and limitations are accommodations made for sinners! We have the separation of powers in secular government because power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely; the same principle applies to church government. Good polity has as its aim the task of releasing gifts and restraining sin.
Because there may be pride, there ought to be plurality:
“Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” (1 Corinthians 14:29 ESV)
Because there may be favouritism and prejudice, there ought to be inclusion and representation:
“and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.” (Acts 6:5 ESV)
Polity, however, has its limits. An unusually arrogant and forceful man will often find ways to modify or bypass the guardrails of polity, particularly if he is a person of means:
“I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church.” (3 John 1:9–10 ESV)
We mustn’t put our hopes in polity, as if a tweak here and a tweak there will rid us of sinful pastors and elders, but neither must we be naïve as to the necessity and potential benefit of good polity. Bad polity invites weak pastors to do sinful things. Good polity gives them pause.
Sometimes, in a fallen world, that’s as good as it gets.
Because God Zealously Guards His Glory
A now fallen pastor once said a very wise and true thing. He said:
“The Bible isn’t a story about good guys and bad guys, it is a story about bad guys who need Jesus.”
God often uses imperfect people to do good and Gospel things. That doesn’t excuse bad behaviour, rather, it just reminds us that if we are identifying anyone other than Jesus as the hero of our story we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.
Jesus is the only perfect person.
Jesus is the only perfect Pastor.
Jesus is the focus and the hero of it all.
Good pastors know that, and good preachers preach that. The Apostle Paul certainly did. He said:
“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (2 Corinthians 4:7 ESV)
Jesus is the Cornerstone, if you build on him you will be safe and secure, but if you put weight on pastors and elders that ought to be laid on Jesus, then your house will collapse and great will be the fallout on that day.
We should never think of pastors as the main dish, the appetizer, or the secret sauce; pastors are servants and waiters only. They bring the food. They shuttle back and forth from kitchen to table. But they’re not the meal, they’re not the chef, they’re not the show. Understanding that will help you survive the fall of a pastor without losing your delight in the grace and goodness of God. C.H. Spurgeon understood that very well, he said:
“Is the meat to lose its nourishment because the dish is a poor platter? Is divine grace to be overcome by our infirmity? No, but we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God and not of us.”
The Lord in his Providence delights to work through weak and frail human vessels. There is risk in this approach, but also opportunity. When pastors and people acknowledge natural human weakness and frailty and lean all the more into God’s grace and the guidance and strength of the Holy Spirit, then beautiful things tend to happen and Christ receives the glory he is due. But when pastors try to become the foundation of the movement – or when the congregation allows them to do this and even encourages them to do this, then help is withdrawn, weakness is exposed, lessons are learned, and ideally, trust and confidence are more accurately focused.
Because Some Pastors Are Not Truly Saved
Some pastoral abuses are due to failures of polity; all pastoral abuses are instances of sin; but some pastoral abuses suggest that the pastor in question is not a truly saved person. There is such a thing as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Jesus said:
“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits.” (Matthew 7:15–16 ESV)
The Apostle Paul was aware of the same unfortunate phenomenon:
“For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.” (2 Corinthians 11:13 ESV)
Some actions must legitimately call into question the status of an individual as a saved person. We are naïve to assume that everyone who graduates from seminary and gets a job at a church is a born again, Spirit-filled person. Good theology can be faked. Preaching is a skill that can be mimicked. But fruit tells the truth. If a man abuses a child or seduces congregants or has an obvious lust for power – we have every reason to suspect that he is not a truly saved individual and we are right to take steps to protect ourselves.
Churches should check references, they should take reports of misconduct seriously and if the fruit is there, the facts should be dealt with. A church that offers safe harbour to abusers and deceivers will have to answer for that on Judgment Day.
“Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come!” (Luke 17:1 ESV)
Don’t be the one who opened the door of your church to an abuser. Don’t be the one who refused to investigate credible reports about your pastor. Pastors can be replaced. Some pastors need to be replaced. It is the glory and honour of Jesus Christ that truly matters.
So How Should We Think Of Pastors?
Some churches esteem their pastors too little and some churches esteem them too much. As always, the Apostle Paul threads this needle precisely:
“This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful.” (1 Corinthians 4:1–2 ESV)
As servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.
That’s a unique description – one which has very few points of contact with worldly models of leadership and authority. In fact, Jesus told his disciples to look away from those models and to focus exclusively on him. He said:
“You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. 43 But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 44 and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. 45 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42–45 ESV)
If you are a pastor or an elder – lead like Jesus. Look away from the CEO, the sports star, the Instagram influencer and the politician – and look to Jesus. Be a servant. Be a waiter. Serve them good food from the Word of God. Carry them when they are weak. Teach them when they are ignorant. Correct them when they stray. Sacrifice for their health and well-being.
Do that, and your people will appreciate you and your Master will reward you.
That is more than you deserve and all that you should aspire to.
If you are a church that has a pastor, require him to be faithful.
Not god-like in power and authority.
Faithful to his wife, faithful in his faith, faithful in his work, faithful in his worship, faithful in his service.
If he is not, remove him – not from the Book of Life, obviously, but from his office and vocation. Mourn his fall, support his recovery, deal with any fallout – but don’t for a second lose faith or hope in the goodness and power of the Lord. Nothing eternal or essential has changed. The food is still good, the kitchen is still open, the banquet is still lavish – and Jesus is still reigning over it all.
Thanks be to God!
Pastor Paul Carter
To listen to the most recent episodes of Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast on the TGC Canada website see here. To access the entire library of available episodes see here. You can find his personal blog, Semper Reformanda, by clicking here.