“Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.”
“Feed my lambs,” he told him. A second time he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said to him, “you know that I love you.”
“Shepherd my sheep,” he told him.
He asked him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was grieved that he asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus said. “Truly I tell you, when you were younger, you would tie your belt and walk wherever you wanted. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will tie you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” He said this to indicate by what kind of death Peter would glorify God. After saying this, he told him, “Follow me.” (vv.15-19)
Is this scene instructive in any way for the consideration of pastoral restoration? Even though it is not a didactic passage but rather a narrative, I think so.
First, the larger point is that restoration for sinners is possible! Glory! This is simply, for all believers, a wonderful picture of the gospel. Why did Jesus repeat the question three times? There is no significance in the linguistic difference in the “loves” (agape, phileo), as that appears to be a literary penchant of John’s, but rather Jesus is echoing and thereby covering Peter’s threefold denial. The gist? You cannot out-sin the grace of God. As far as your sin may go, the gospel goes further still.
Second, it seems obvious to me that the restoration in view here is not simply to the fellowship but also to leadership. Some proponents of permanent disqualification miss the gravity of what is taking place in this beautiful moment. The interjection between each question and answer of “Feed/tend my lambs” would seem to indicate that Peter is not simply being restored to “good graces” with Jesus but also to the ministerial office. He is certainly not dismissed from his apostleship and of course goes on to preach and write authoritatively. This is after he has publicly denied knowing Jesus.
Third, beyond those two primary facts—restoration is graciously total and re-qualification for ministry is possible—everything else we deduce about restoration from this passage must be an inference. For instance, some argue from Peter’s restoration scene that restoration to ministry can be—dare we say, should be?—immediate. It is to this question that I turn next.
How Soon Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored?
If not never, when? Some say, citing Jesus’s restoration of Peter, immediately. I think not.
To discern from Peter’s restoration a “Jesus and me” approach to pastoral qualification is to miss the robust ecclesiology embedded in John 21 and provided throughout the rest of the Scriptures. There are two important elements in John 21 that are at the least necessary prerequisites for restoration of fallen pastors: (a) godly grief (21:7) and (b) the verdict of the congregation as representative of Christ on earth (Matthew 16:19).
To put it bluntly, Jesus is not here in person to tell us, “Yeah, this guy’s ready.” So what do we have? We have his word (the Bible), and we have his body (the church). The answer to the question, “How soon can a fallen pastor be restored?” cannot really be answered definitively in terms of time-frame. It may take some longer than others. Some may not ever be restored. The point is—it’s not really up to them. The restoration is performed, as in all discipline cases, by the church where the disqualification has taken place. There are too many factors that may be involved in different cases. But I think we can say “not immediately,” for these reasons:
1. Discerning godly grief is necessary.
Peter’s grief is especially noted. How can we know this grief is godly grief (2 Corinthians 7:10) and not simply grief over being found out (or “caught”), or worse, a feigned sincerity meant to fool? Well, Jesus himself cannot be fooled. He could look right into Peter’s heart and see his repentance. The church, as Christ’s representative in matters of church discipline today, is of course not omniscient. We determine repentance credible in a variety of ways and act accordingly. Typically, church discipline processes involve steps members must submit to in order to show their cooperation and demonstrate their grief over their sin. For repentant adulterers, this can entail things like opening up their phones and email to their hurt spouse, cutting of all contact with their affair partner, and so on. For habitual porn users, it can involve installing software. For members disciplined for all kinds of sins, it may involve regular meeting with an accountability partner and/or a counselor. The stipulations vary, but steps toward restoration are held out.
Some may say that is not very gracious, but biblical church discipline is not punitive or condemnatory. It is in fact a grace applied. Most folks acknowledge we don’t restore unrepentant members to the fellowship. So once we make repentance a requirement, we’re necessarily asking, “How do you know if one is repentant?” Obviously there are ways to create an interminable succession of legalistic hoops for someone to jump through. That is graceless. We are simply discerning repentance. That is biblical, and it is gracious because there are more parties at stake than simply the sinner in question—there is the body, the reputation of the church, and the credibility of our witness for Christ. No single sinner is above all of these considerations and to treat them so is to deny grace to others. No, properly administered, discipline is a grace (Hebrews 12:11).