Ask Dr. Land: Should fallen Christian leaders be allowed to return to ministry?

Question: Should Christian leaders be restored to ministry after moral failures?

Richard Land
(Photo: The Christian Post/Katherine T. Phan)

Should Christian leaders be restored to a position of Christian ministry and trust once they have betrayed that trust? I have addressed aspects of that question in previous Christian Post columns (Feb. 7 and Feb. 14, 2020).

However, this is a somewhat different question that has entered the realm of public debate in a heightened way because of the tragic situation unfolding at Cedarville University. In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally acquainted with Thomas White, Cedarville’s president, who has been placed on “administrative leave” by his trustees pending an investigation of his having hired an admitted “sexual abuser” to serve at Cedarville.

My experience with Dr. White has been that he is a man of strong Christian integrity with a high sense of calling to serve his Lord, the Gospel, and our Savior’s Church, and I hope and pray that the independent investigation authorized by Cedarville trustees will find no wrong-doing other than poor judgment on Dr. White’s part. I further hope and pray that the investigation will find no breach of Dr. White’s trust in Dr. Anthony Moore, a theology professor and part-time basketball coach, who is the “sexual abuser” hired by Dr. White. (Dr. Moore has acknowledged surreptitiously video taping a male colleague in the shower and with having struggled with same-sex attraction while in a previous ministry.)

Even if these prayers are answered positively, however, I believe Dr. White made a terrible mistake in judgment. No matter how noble and “redemptive” his motives were in trying to “restore” a Christian brother and friend, his ultimate priority should have always been the safety and the physical and spiritual welfare of the young people entrusted to his care by their parents and the trustees. In a very real sense, Dr. White as president was the under-shepherd of these young people while they were students, and his number one priority should have been their well-being.

The Cedarville episode is illustrative and informative of an issue that is being played out on a weekly, if not daily, basis across North American Christianity in Christian schools, colleges, churches, and para-church ministries. When someone with effective, “de facto” pastoral oversight and responsibility (not only pastors and church staff, but also teachers in Christian schools and colleges, especially coaches and religion and Bible teachers, and para-church ministers who serve through Cru, InterVarsity, Ratio Christi, etc.) has betrayed their sacred trust, can they ever again be trusted with that kind of ministry role by Christian leaders who have the responsibility to protect God’s people from false shepherds? I believe that the answer must be a resounding, “no!”

Why? When people betray the sacred and holy trust bestowed upon them by Christian leaders, their potential restoration must be trumped by Christian leaders’ sacred duty to protect those ministered to and who have been betrayed. It should always be remembered that “the best predictor of future performance is past behavior.”

Can such fallen leaders be forgiven? Yes, they can if they confess their sins and ask for forgiveness (1 John 1:9). Can they be restored to full fellowship in the church as part of the body of Christ? Yes, the New Testament is clear that people who are repentant can be forgiven and restored to full fellowship in the local body of Christ. So, the vertical relationship with Jesus can be repaired, and then the horizontal relationship with fellow believers can be restored.

However, that is different from being elevated again to the sacred position of trust that they have betrayed. Being called and authorized to serve God’s people as an under-shepherd and minister is a sacred privilege and a holy trust, not a right, even when God has called and equipped someone for such ministry. Their moral failures can permanently disqualify them from fulfilling their divine calling.

For such men to abuse their sacred calling to minister the love and grace of Jesus by engaging in abuse of those to whom they are called to minster and who look to them for spiritual counsel and pastoral care is blasphemous. In truth, it is soul rape.

No less a hero of the Christian faith than the Apostle Paul was well aware that his potential moral failure could disqualify him from his Apostleship and evangelistic ministry. He writes to the Corinthian church, “I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control lest after preaching to others I myself will be disqualified (1 Cor. 9:27 ESV). The language here is graphic. Paul literally “pummels” his body into subjection lest he be stamped “disqualified” or disapproved (adakimos). This word was used frequently in the first century Roman Empire to refer to the common practice of periodically weighing coins that were represented as being worth their weight in silver or gold. After a certain period of usage, they could and would lose some of the weight through being worn down by friction as they were passed from one customer to another in commercial transactions. When they were weighed in the balance and found to be no longer of sufficient value, they were stamped “disapproved,” taken out of circulation and placed on the shelf. Corinth was a major center of commerce in the first century, and the Corinthians would have immediately understood what Paul was saying.

Based on numerous other teachings of the apostle, Paul is clearly not fearful of losing his eternal salvation (Rom. 8:28-39; Eph. 2:8-10; 2 Tim. 1:12). However, he is very cognizant of the fact that if he did not guard himself from moral failure, he would forfeit his right to be an apostle and a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I fear that too often the legitimate and admirable desire to help “restore” a fallen Christian brother dulls our sensitivity to the divine, sacred honor, and consequent responsibility that is involved with taking up the pastoral, ministerial responsibility.

After all, James tells us, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).

And what greater responsibility and trust can be placed on a Christian in ministry than the admonition, concerning Christian leaders, “they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will have to give an account” of that watch care as under-shepherds (Heb. 13:17). These are very sobering words for all who attempt to respond to God’s call to be under-shepherds. At some point in the future, each under-shepherd will give an account of his watch care to the Great Shepherd Himself.

I pray that all who are called to the sacred and holy calling of under-shepherds in Jesus’ name will continuously keep in kind to pummel their bodies into subjection, lest they forfeit the wonderful and sacred privilege of being one of God’s under-shepherds of God’s flock.

Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.

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