Can Fallen Pastors be Restored? by John H. Armstrong

It is doubtful that the true church of Christ has ever had to deal with anything quite like the recent moral failures of its Christian leaders. Some studies seem to indicate that one in eight ministers (who are still in their leadership position) have committed adultery, and up to 37% of ministers “have been involved in inappropriate behavior with someone in the church” (p.19). With statistics like that, it should not surprise us that churches are looking for ways of dealing with this onslaught. And while many issues surface at such times, none has proven to be more thorny than what to do with these fallen pastors. Resolutions seem to fall into three categories, assuming the fallen pastor has repented: 1) immediate restoration to church office (within 12 months of sexual failure); 2) future restoration; 3) personal restoration but with no possibility for restoration to office. What is the biblical position? In this volume John Armstrong, Reformed theologian and director of Reformation and Revival Ministries, attempts to find the answer.

Armstrong, who is a supporter of the third approach to restoration, begins the polemical section of his book by explaining each approach and the rationale behind it. His summary of the first view is, “If God forgives all sin immediately, then we should forgive and restore to office the fallen pastor immediately. If not, we are refusing to do what God does, completely and totally forgive” (p.36).

The second approach seems to be the most common, in which a pastor may be restored to the ministry following counseling and evidence of repentance over an extended period of time.

Armstrong’s argument in favor of the third approach includes:

1) Adultery is a unique sin (I Cor 6:15-20). “Its uniqueness . . . is not in its degree of evil but rather in the direct way sexual sin strikes at the body, and through the body, at the whole human personality” (p.61).

2) Therefore immorality “has such serious and lasting consequences that its reproach never fully departs in this life (Prov 6:32,33)” (p.48). Thus adultery is a greater sin than most others because of its consequences, which include the destruction of trust, which is so important to Christian leadership (see pp. 52,53).

3) “Adultery by pastors . . . is an even greater sin than adultery in general. Why? . . . Their sin becomes a grievous public assault upon the nuptial image of Christ (the groom) and the church (His Bride), because the pastor is called upon to be a role model of purity as an under shepherd in service to the Bridegroom Himself” (pp.68,69).

4) A pastor who has committed sexual sin no longer meets the qualifications of an elder since he is no longer above reproach and blameless (I Tim 3:2).

5) “In general, men who fall sexually have followed a pattern of deception, misinformation, and outright lying for months, if not years. . . . All sin is deceitful, but sexual sin seems particularly able to deceive and to harden the human heart of those caught in its follies” (pp.105,6).

6) The early church held to complete disqualification from pastoral ministry when an elder had sinned sexually (chapter 7). (These arguments are repeated in chapter 9).

Armstrong admits that, “No sure biblical text supplies indisputable evidence for restoration to the pastorate after the fall into sexual sin. But by the same token, no text directly argues for permanent disqualification” (p.142). Nevertheless Armstrong takes a dogmatic view that the fallen minister should not be restored to his former position. He may, however, minister in any other capacity in which he is gifted (pp.132,154).

I find it a little curious that, after Armstrong so strongly states his position, he leaves a loophole. He claims, “For a variety of reasons. . . we can find permanent disqualification from pastoral ministry the norm (with a few exceptions) for the pastor who yields to sexual sin” (p.142). Again, “The general principle should be that men should not seek to reenter the office of pastor . . . . I believe we must conclude that the church should not make a general or procedural practice of restoring sexually fallen ministers, at least not for the foreseeable future. Any exception should be viewed as establishing the general principle” (pp.151,152). What?? After almost 200 pages of argument, establishing the “biblical” position, Armstrong backs off. We were not expecting this. If the teaching of Scripture is that sexual fallen pastors are disqualified permanently for office, then there are no loopholes. In my opinion, after proclaiming loud support for the third approach to dealing with fallen ministers, Armstrong ultimately takes a modified position, somewhere between the second and third approach.

The last three chapters deal well with the subjects of restoring the fallen leader and safeguards for both the church and the man to follow to avoid sexual sin. These are valuable and useful chapters.

Another book dealing with the same issue that is worth reading is Beyond Forgiveness by Don Baker. This gives the story of an assistant pastor who had been living immorally for 13 years and how he was restored to ministry by his church. Baker does not question the possibility of restoration (he clearly takes the second approach above), so he never deals with the Scriptures from which Armstrong argues. He does however, have a couple of chapters outlining the biblical teachings on church discipline. These are good chapters. Most of the book details the difficult journey taken in an effort to restore this fallen minister. It is an interesting and poignant story, even if you do not agree with Baker’s view.

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