What we are talking about here is more specifically this: Can a pastor who has disqualified himself in some way be restored to the pastoral office? In other words: Can a disqualified pastor become re-qualified? This is a rather controversial question in and of itself, as for many, the how and when are non-starters because they answer “no” to this first consideration. For instance, John MacArthur writes:
There are some sins that irreparably shatter a man’s reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever. Even Paul, man of God that he was, said he feared such a possibility. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
When referring to his body, Paul obviously had sexual immorality in view. In 1 Corinthians 6:18).
I tread lightly here, but I’m going to disagree with Pastor MacArthur. First, if a previous sin forever disqualifies a man, Paul would have already been disqualified for his life of murderous persecution of Christians. Certainly sin committed after one is in union with Christ is in a certain way more serious than sin committed pre-conversion—not serious as in damnable, of course, but serious as in contrary to the new nature—but if any person could ever be deemed forever blameworthy, that would seem to preclude them even from the fellowship. Grace either covers all sin repented of, or it covers none.
I also do not find MacArthur’s exegetical case convincing. He puts 1 Corinthians 9:27 to argue Paul has in mind sexual immorality. But that does not seem at all to be what Paul is talking about in the immediate context of chapter 9. Verse 27 caps off a long explanatory passage on Paul’s missional philosophy, teasing out his concern to be “all things to all people” (v. 22). He does of course mention “self-control” (v. 25), but it is in relation to training. This does not exclude any consideration of guarding against sexual immorality, of course, but the “disqualification” referred to in v. 27 doesn’t seem to be connected to a moral failing but a missional one. In other words, it appears from the trajectory of his reasoning throughout the chapter that the “qualification” in question is about commending himself to both Jew and Greek (vv. 19-23). He does not want to fall short of missional versatility. This is why he spills a lot of ink earlier in the passage on payment for ministry and the like. He then goes on to discuss his discipline in relation to the ceremonial law as a missional consideration. He is speaking largely to contextualization and personal usability. With this is mind—again—we do not take sexual propriety entirely out of the equation, but it would seem that the disqualification he has in mind is more to do with disqualifying himself from access to preaching to people groups (as he mentions in the verse in question) than disqualification from the ministry entirely. I take the immediate context to be of more guidance in understanding 9:27 than I do a verse three chapters previous.
All of that said, we obviously know sexual immorality is disqualifying for pastors because of the more direct references that give us the biblical qualifications for ministry. One of these is found, as MacArthur mentions, in 1 Timothy 3:2 to refer to a moral failing, it says nothing about the permanence of such a disqualification. MacArthur adds the word “permanently” to his exposition, but it is not found in the text. What we can agree on, I assume, is that those who seek qualification for pastoral ministry—according to 1 Timothy 3, Titus 1 and 1 Peter 5—must have a well-established reputation for and widespread affirmation of the qualities listed therein. (I’m going to come back to that last sentence in a minute, so don’t forget it.)
On this subject, another Pastor John Piper writes:
Is it possible to restore a pastor who sinned sexually but who is repentant? Or is such a pastor disqualified because he no longer meets the qualification of being “above reproach”?
I’m afraid if I answer this the way that I should, it will give so much license to restore pastors too quickly. But since I should, I should.
Ultimately, I think the answer is yes. A pastor who has sinned sexually can be a pastor again. And I say that just because of the grace of God and the fact that “above reproach” can be restored, probably.
I agree with Piper on this, and I think there is a lot entailed in the “probably” we should tease out. But first, do we have any biblical precedent for the restoration of a fallen pastor? Well, in fact, of a certain kind we do.
What Does the Restoration of Peter Tell Us About the Restoration of Disqualified Pastors?
Let’s be clear here that we are not discussing relational conflicts or a ministerial “falling-out.” Some speak this way about Peter’s denial of Christ and the subsequent reunion with his Lord, but this does not do justice to the terrible sin Peter has committed. On the other hand, we have a few examples in Acts and in some of Paul’s epistles referring to intramural debates and relational conflicts that prompt the parting of ways between ministers of the gospel, but Paul does not refer to those men as being disqualified from ministry. (He does speak that way about those one-time ministers who embraced heresy or otherwise “fell away” from the faith, of course.) So we have to put Peter’s denial of Jesus in the right category.
Jesus has warned, “But whoever denies me before others, I will also deny him before my Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:33:
When they had eaten breakfast, Jesus asked Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?”