When a pastor has disqualified himself from his ministry, is he disqualified from ministry altogether? If so, for how long? Forever? Can he ever be restored? If so, how soon?
These sorts of questions are not new, but they do seem more relevant than ever. While there are lots of articles out there on “fallen pastors,” I’ve been surprised to discover few deal with these questions in an in-depth way. I won’t pretend to provide a comprehensive treatment of this difficult subject in this post, but I do want to share some biblical reflections and practical implications I’ve been ruminating on for a while. This subject hits fairly close to home, as I think it does for many. It behooves us to think carefully and biblically about these matters.
What Disqualifies a Pastor?
What I find interesting these days is not how many pastors have fallen into disqualification but how many have not. We live in a day and age where any guy with a speaking gift and an entrepreneurial, creative spirit can plant a church and even be successful with it. But gifting is not qualification. Some seem to discuss this subject as if we do not have clear biblical guidance on what qualifies a man for the office of elder/pastor. Except that we do. Here is a rough list, a composite from the three primary qualification passages (1 Timothy 3, Titus 1, and 1 Peter 5):
1. Sexually/maritally faithful
2. Good manager of household
7. Financially responsible
10. Upright in character
11. Committed to holiness
12. Able to teach
13. Spiritually mature (not a new convert)
14. Respectable (and respected by outsiders)
15. A good example to the flock
Evangelicals seem to most often discuss disqualification as it relates to adultery—which, to be clear, is disqualifying!—but we rarely bring in the disqualification conversation as it relates to short-tempered, argumentative or otherwise un-self-controlled pastors. The “fall” of Mark Driscoll is probably the closest my particular tribe has come to reckoning with the full-fledged (dis)qualifications for ministry, but it is still not a widely understood concept in the age of the celebrity minister. In fact, I think in many tribes and traditions, the “other biblical qualifications for ministry” have been neglected for a long time. How else to explain that it is typically only once a domineering, financially irresponsible, unsober pastor commits adultery that he is finally removed from his office?
The bottom line is that the bar for the pastoral office is set rather high. It is not open to anybody who “feels called.” Beyond giftedness and ambition, it requires maturity, testing and a long obedience in the same direction. Because of this, when a pastor has become disqualified, we are dealing with a problem at a different level than even the serious problem of discipline-worthy sins among the laity. It’s not because pastors are supposed to be super-Christians or have more favor with God than laypeople, but rather that the leadership office demands a higher standard.
Can Disqualified Pastors Be Restored?
The first thing we should say is that we are often talking about two different kinds of restoration without knowing it. Many of evangelicalism’s problems with the scandals of celebrity pastors who disqualify themselves stem from an inability—an unwillingness?—to distinguish between a restoration to vocational ministry from a restoration to the fellowship. In regards to the latter, the answer ought to be an unequivocal yes. Any believer who has fallen morally, pastor or not, ought to be fully restored to the Christian community, given their repentance and the restoration process of their church.
This is why we must be careful with our criticism, as well! Sometimes when we argue against the restoration of certain ministers to the pulpit, it sounds as though we are denying their ability to rejoin the fellowship of believers. And sometimes when we are upset about the high standard some set for the pulpit, we call others graceless when they are in fact ready to welcome any repentant sinner to the warmth of Christian fellowship.