What To Do When a Pastor Falls

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This week another high-profile pastor was removed from ministry for immorality, this time a friend of mine. This is not the first time this has happened. I’ve seen it since I was a child, from preachers whose names virtually no one reading this would know to preachers most would recognize. Maybe you’ve experienced this, and like me you find yourself reeling in sadness, regret, and even anger. So what should we do?

One of the immediate reactions to a public fall of a respected pastor is a sense of betrayal. Those who have benefited from the pastor’s ministry feel as though they have been personally deceived. That’s even more true when it’s your own pastor—the one who baptized you or did your premarital counseling or was there with you in the hospital when your parent died. When we hear of these things, we feel as though we were personally lied to—and sometimes we were.

Our sense of shock is, in one sense, understandable. God has called leaders within the church to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2), aware of the stricter judgment he will undergo (Jas. 3:1). We should not be shocked, though, that our leaders are capable of falling to temptation. We are taught this explicitly in Scripture, with a warning not to be prideful lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:12-13). Why do we think the Bible so repeatedly warns against the whole litany of sins? This is because we are vulnerable, all of us.

We are sometimes shocked because we think a particular leader “ought to know better.” We assume that the strategy for fighting temptation is cerebral, as though a knowledgeable teacher would be exempt from falling because he knows the content of Scripture or because he has taught others so effectively. We are wrong.

Sometimes I find myself fuming after a leader has fallen at the stupidity of it. Why would he risk his family for this? Why would he jeopardize the witness of Christ? The reason I am so frustrated is because of my inadequate doctrine of sin. It doesn’t matter what I confess in creedal documents or teach from pulpits; when I am surprised by the irrationality of a particular sin, I am demonstrating that I’m a latent Pelagian of the heart. All sin is irrational and self-destructive. If we don’t get that, we don’t know what sin is. My reaction is a reminder to myself of how much I need the sanctifying presence of the Spirit.

The sins of others are always more shocking to us than our own sins. We are always able to “contextualize” our sins, to find justifications for them, to weigh them against alternative sins we aren’t committing. That’s part of the power of deception. This sort of public scandal can expose how much we are unaware of what it takes to fight against sin.

The Bible doesn’t have the gauzy view of human nature that we do. Leaders—even prophets and matriarchs and apostles—are presented with glaring flaws. Moses saw the glory of Israel’s God in the flaming bush, saw the fire of Sinai, and fell anyway. Simon Peter heard the Sermon on the Mount first-hand, washed his beard out in the streams of Judea alongside Jesus Christ himself—and still denied he ever knew him by the charcoal fire. The fact that we are shocked when our leaders fall is a demonstration that we are not nearly as realistic about human nature—and about spiritual warfare—as the Bible is.

This also shows up in the way that we often want to use a leader’s fall for our inter-tribal skirmishes. I’ve seen leaders more liberal than I am fall and have heard many say, “This is what happens when you try to accommodate to the culture.” I’ve seen leaders much more “legalistic” than I am fall, and have heard some say, “See, this is what happens when you try to pile up man-made rules.” In recent years, we’ve seen high-profile falls from Calvinist complementarians to peace-church Mennonites, from high-church sacramentalists to low-church entrepreneurs. Are there sometimes ecclesiology issues that cause an evasion of accountability? Of course. But the common issue in pastoral falls is human sin. No set of policies, and no set of creedal affirmations, will eliminate that.

One of the issues most difficult after a pastoral fall is a temptation to a loss of faith. That’s especially true if the fallen leader was your minister. There’s a spectrum of these kind of falls. Some of them are temporary stumbles. Like Peter, they are restored after discipline and care. Some of them are, by the nature of the sin, disqualifying permanently for ministry. Like Moses, they enter God’s kingdom but don’t carry on their vocation. Others reveal predatory false teachers, like those Paul warns about in 2 Timothy 3. The church must be wise and brave to know the difference between these scenarios and respond accordingly.

In all of those cases, though, the faith delivered to the saints can withstand the falls delivered by sinners. The church is not dependent on you or me or any pastor or leader but on the promises of Jesus, which he will keep with or without us.

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).