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Thoughts on Restoration for Fallen Pastors

2. Restoration to the fellowship is not the same as restoration to the pastorate.

For any person who has fallen into discipline-worthy sin, restoration to the fellowship can be relatively immediate. I say “relatively” because of the considerations above. But paying penance is not a biblical virtue. Like the father in the parable, we seek with love the restoration of every wayward member, pastor or not, and run to receive them when they indicate interest in returning to the family. But, again, restoration to the fellowship is not the same as restoration to the pastorate. Remember those qualifications?

3. Peter did not restore himself.

The church, as Christ’s representative, must affirm the qualifications of any person to the office of pastor. Christ in person can qualify a man immediately or immediately restore that man once he’s fallen. Christ’s church, however, has further instruction on how we can make these determinations. To return to an earlier claim: 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. And those qualifications are not things that can be determined in immediate fashion. They aren’t determined quickly when we establish a pastor in the first place, and they shouldn’t be jumped over when we consider the restoration of a pastor who’s disqualified himself.

You cannot tell if someone is a good manager of a household the first time you meet him. You see the witness of his family life over time. Similarly, when a guy cheats on his wife, you don’t determine he’s a good family man soon after the revelation. It will take more time, given the offense, to see him walk in repentance, to gain that reputation back. This is the case with any point of disqualification, although of course some levels of discernment can occur more quickly than others. It is not an immediate thing for a pastor disqualified for a long pattern of verbal abuse or coarse jesting to gain a reputation as a gentle, peaceful man. It is probably less still for a pastor disqualified for a pattern of alcohol addiction or sexual immorality to gain a reputation as sober-minded or a “one-woman man.”

This is parallel to the biblical qualification of “not being a new convert.” Obviously we are speaking to a (presumably) Christian person who is newly repentant, but the underlying principle is the same. Repentance is an immediate reentry to the fellowship, but re-entry to the pastorate takes the testing of time.

This is not graceless. It is how Christ protects his church and, incidentally, how he protects repentant sinners from rushing too soon back into the same pressures that revealed their undeveloped character to begin with.

Even if a pastor in view of restoration is planning to assume the pulpit of another church or plant a new church, his restoration to ministry should still be affirmed by his previous community. There are some extreme cases where this may not be possible, but it should be normative for disqualified leaders humbly submitting to discipline.

So, how soon? I don’t know. Not never. Not immediately. Somewhere in between, given the time by the church to discern and affirm one’s qualification. I track, again, with John Piper:

Forgiveness comes quickly, expensively, and immediately, on repentance. But trust doesn’t, cannot.

If a pastor has betrayed his people, and it has wounded a church grievously and wounded his wife grievously, he can be forgiven just like that. Wiped away. The blood of Jesus covers it. But as far as reestablishing trust, which is essential to a shepherd/sheep and wife/husband relationship, how long does that take? A decade? It takes a long time, a long time, until memories are healed.

And very practically I think this is what I would say: A man who commits adultery, say, in the ministry, should immediately resign and look for other work. And he should make no claim on the church at all. He should get another kind of job and go about his life humbly receiving the discipline and sitting and receiving ministry, whether in that church or in another church. And then the church should turn that around if it believes it should, not him.

Let us remember, friends, that none of us who enjoys the privilege of ministering the gospel is greater than Christ’s church, locally or universally. We may have been given a platform, but we are of service to him and at his disposal. We are to be subject to the church.

The gospel is not expendable. But our ministries are. If you are a fallen pastor eager for restoration to ministry, I urge you not to see your time away or the discipline involved in the meantime as graceless. It in fact may be your next lesson in just how big God’s grace really is. You may cheapen grace rushing back into that pulpit, assuming you can only be validated by a return to platform, if only because you remain unwilling to see just how greatly grace can sustain you and satisfy you outside of the spotlight. He is good enough to supply your every need.

This article originally appeared here.