Reflections on Fallen Pastors (Timothy Raymond)
Well, it’s happened again. Another prominent, megachurch-leading, conference-speaking, book-authoring, Young-Restless-Reformed pastor has sinned in some grievous way and disqualified himself, at least temporarily, from pastoral ministry. I won’t recount the unfortunate details here, but if you’re the sort who regularly reads something like Christianity Today, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If memory serves me correctly, this is the fifth or sixth such pastor who has similarly fallen in the last couple years.
Maybe it’s just me but whenever I hear this kind of news, almost always through blogs, I’m deeply disturbed. I’m sort of spiritually messed-up for the next couple days. Specifically, I have reactions of confusion, sadness, and fear.
I’m confused: “How in the world did this happen? How could he do that? I thought he was a model of godliness. Has the Lord abandoned the church in America?”
I’m sad: “What will happen to his family? What will happen to his church? Will he have to sell burgers for the rest of his life?”
And I fear: “Who will be next? Will I be next? How will this hurt the church’s witness in our world?”
What makes it even more complicated is that some of these guys who have fallen once had a profound impact for good on my life through their preaching or writing.
What lessons should we learn from fallen pastors? What steps should we take to avoid following in their footsteps? Here are five reflections on processing the news that some prominent pastor has fallen into disqualifying sin:
1. Cultivate a healthy fear of the world, the flesh, and the devil lest you too disqualify yourself.
If King David, who knew the Lord far more intimately that any of us ever will (e.g., Psalm 27, etc.), could commit not only adultery but also murder (2 Samuel 11), how much more easily might we? Never assume that because you’re a pastor or a regular Bible reader or man of prayer that you’re somehow immunized against serious sin (1 Cor. 10:12). Remember that your spiritual enemies are relentless, essentially ubiquitous, stronger than you are (in the flesh), and set on your destruction (1 Pet. 5:8). Therefore, never let down your guard or make the slightest provision for the flesh (Rom. 13:14).
2. Never assume that an orthodox confession alone will protect you from grievous sin.
What has most struck me about these recent pastoral failures is that, unlike the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, those who have fallen lately have been theologically-conservative evangelicals. These were not prosperity gospel heretics but men who would have affirmed an orthodox understanding of Scripture, the Trinity, Christology, and soteriology. I think all of them were Calvinists. And yet, as wonderful and as true and as glorious as those doctrinal pillars are, they alone are insufficient to guard against grievous sin. Beware the presumption of equating orthodoxy with orthopraxy, of knowing systematic theology with knowing the Lord.
3. Prioritize your personal holiness over popularity.
There was a time when I wanted to be the guy invited to speak at the YRR conferences and write popular books. But having seen enough guys who have done just and yet bring disgrace on the name of Christ, I’d now much rather faithfully minister in obscurity than be a disqualified celebrity pastor. We must come to the place where we are content to simply watch our lives and doctrine closely (1 Tim. 4:16), to discharge all the duties of our ministry (1 Tim. 4:1-5), and to leave the fruit entirely up to the wisdom and sovereignty of God. To paraphrase Robert Murray M’Cheyne, as a pastor what people need from you most is not to be invited to headline pastors’ conferences but to model personal holiness.
4. Rest in the sovereignty of God.
If David’s horrific sins of adultery and murder did not derail the Davidic covenant (2 Sam. 12), neither will whatever sins we (or our heroes) commit. Let us trust that Jesus will continue to build his church and the gates of hell will not prevail over it (Matthew 16:18). Even what pastors mean for evil, God means for good (Gen. 50:20). While all sin is evil and destructive and inexcusable, and fallen pastors are rightly to be publicly rebuked so that the rest may stand in fear (1 Tim. 5:20), at the end of the day the kingdom of God is not dependent upon any of us but only on the wisdom and goodness and grace of our Lord. Confront your confusion, sadness, and fear with the sovereignty of God.
5. Remember that Jesus died for all men…even pastors.
As we discuss the sins of fallen pastors, let us be blunt that their behavior does damage to the church’s witness, does irreparable harm to their families, and brings shame on God’s name (Rom. 2:24). May we never ignore, minimize, or grow comfortable with pastoral failure. Yet, at the same time, let us never lose sight of the reality that the blood of Jesus cleanses from all sin (1 John 2:2), that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ (Rom. 8:38-39), that where sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more (Rom. 5:20), and that there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). As pastors, we stand before God not in our ministerial successes or failures, but only in the righteousness of Christ (Rom. 5:18). The gospel is the hope for all Christians, including pastors.
I pray that something said in these reflections helps you process pastoral failures and guards you against the same. May the Lord literally strike each of us dead before we’re able to disqualify ourselves from pastoral ministry.
Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.