Moral failure of church leaders and Christian response

Question:  How should the body of Christ corporately and Christians individually respond to the moral and faith failures of church leaders?

In the wake of what appears to be a steady stream of moral failures, outright renunciation of an orthodox Trinitarian Christian faith and embrace of sexual life-styles condemned in Holy Scripture, how should Christians respond individually and corporately?

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

Fortunately, as Christian we can, and should, turn to Holy Scripture to find answers.

First, we should never let another Christian’s moral or theological failures shake our own personal Christian faith. All human beings, even Christian leaders, are sinners who are going to have moral failure in this life. Jesus, however, will never let us down, and He will never leave us (Heb. 13:8). He will keep all the promises He made to us once we have trusted Him as Savior and Lord and have been sealed by the Holy Spirit. The Apostle Paul himself set the example for us, declaring, “I know whom I have believed, and I am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto Him against that Day” (2 Tim. 1:12).

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Second, should we forgive those Christians who let us down either in leadership or not?

The Lord’s Prayer is very instructive at this point. Jesus gave His disciples a model prayer in which He instructs them to pray, “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:9). Jesus is instructing the disciples and us, to ask God to forgive us the way we forgive those who wrong us.

And Matthew also tells us that when Peter asked Jesus how many times should we forgive those who sins against us, “Is seven times enough?” Jesus replies, “Seventy-times seven” (Matt. 18:21-22), making the point that in Christ the spirit of forgiveness should be boundless.

We should forgive regardless of whether they repent or not or they request it or not. Many of us know from personal experience that an unforgiving spirit is a potion that poisons the receptacle that holds it.

Third, when the person confesses their sins and repents, then they should be welcomed back into the fellowship. The church is a corporate body of believers all of whom confessed their sin, repented, and accepted Jesus as their Savior. Each of us should say of a wayward Christian brother or sister, “There but for the grace of God go I.” The fellowship of Jesus followers should be suffused with the beating heart of a forgiving spirit while maintaining biblical standards of doctrinal orthodoxy and moral conduct.

Fourth, restoration to fellowship with the Body of Christ does not mean automatic elevation to the previous or a new position of leadership. The New Testament does make it quite clear that deacons are held to a higher standard of conduct than church members and that pastors are held to an even higher standard to be qualified for that position of enormous trust and responsibilities (1 Tim. 3:1-13).

The Bible gives us some guidance here, but it has to be “parsed” carefully. Two vivid, dramatic examples of such forgiveness and restoration are King David in the Old Testament and the Apostle Peter in the New Testament.

King David fell into the lust of the eye, which led to the lust of the flesh, which in turn led to conspiracy to commit the murder of Bathsheba’s husband.

God forgave King David, answering his penitential prayer (Psalm 51) affirmatively —      and he remained King. However, God refused David’s deep desire to build the Temple because thou “hast shed blood” (1 Chron. 28:2-3).

In the New Testament the Resurrected Jesus not only forgave the Apostle Peter, but restored his previous apostolic role. The dramatic scene is described by the Apostle John who was an eyewitness. It appears from Peter’s declaration, “I go a fishing” (John 21:3), that Peter thought his 3-time denial of Jesus disqualified him from ministry, and he was going back to being a fisherman. Jesus is waiting for them on the shore, having prepared breakfast. In the original Greek, the episode becomes even more alive with emotional tension. Jesus, using Peter’s pre-apostolic name, asks, “Simon . . . lovest thou me more than these?” (probably referring to the tools of the fishing trade).

Peter replies, “Lord, thou knowest that I love thee.” Jesus responds, “Feed my lambs.”

A second time Jesus asks the question, Peter replies affirmatively, and Jesus says, “Feed my sheep.”

Both times Jesus asks Peter if he agapes Him, the highest form of love, the love that is produced by the Holy Spirit in the yielded heart of followers of Christ. Each time Peter replies with the love of “high regard” (phileo), a strong word, but not even close to agape. (Agape is used for love in John 3:16).

Peter’s response shows evidence of a new-found humility, given his recent three time denial of Jesus. So, Peter was “grieved” when Jesus came down to his level with the third inquiry, do you even phileo me? Peter affirmed he did, and Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” Jesus is telling Peter that he is still an apostle and that He made him a fisher of men, not a fisher of fish. And of course, Peter fulfilled his divinely assigned role magnificently.

Of course, this example is available for us to follow with one caveat. Jesus knows the future omnisciently, so Jesus at least knew Peter was going to remain faithful.

We do not have God’s omniscience, so we have to make judgment calls. And we should always remember the Apostle Paul’s sobering warning that he struggled to the point of exhaustion to keep his body under subjection because if he fell into immorality, he could be a “castaway” or disapproved and put on the shelf — i.e., not losing his salvation but forfeiting his apostleship.

A last example from the New Testament also gives Christians today much to consider when responding to these issues. Paul and Barnabas composed a mission team evangelizing in Asia Minor. As they planned a new missionary tour, Barnabas wanted to take his kinsman John Mark, and Paul objected because John Mark had departed from the team and “returned” to Jerusalem. We are not given the reason for his leaving in the middle of the tour, and evidently Paul thought it not wise to trust Mark to follow through this time. Barnabas was insistent, so they “departed asunder,” Barnabas taking Mark and Paul choosing Silas and departed to different mission fields.           

Given John Mark’s subsequent service to the Lord and to His church (author of the Gospel of Mark, etc.), Barnabas did a great service to the church. I am sure the Apostle Paul was delighted to see how John Mark matured, but did not feel he could trust him so soon after leaving the missionary team in the midst of an evangelistic tour. And Paul, unlike Jesus with Peter, did not possess omniscience. And, of course, the immediate impact of the split was to double the number of missionary teams in the field.

Paul’s comments about being “disapproved” for a ministry certainly suggest that such an egregious breach of trust for a pastor as sexual immorality may very well permanently disqualify him from pastoral office, if not some other ministry.  I personally cannot think of a scenario where I would vote to call a man as pastor of a church after he had been found guilty of adultery while pastoring a previous church.

The Paul and Barnabas episode suggests that we must use our best judgment, depending on the Lord for guidance and direction concerning once again bestowing the divine gift of pastoral office on someone who previously violated that sacred trust.

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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