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Restoring The Fallen Leader
The Forgiveness and Reinstatement of Ministers
In Greek mythology, Achilles was the son of Peleus, king of the Myrmidons, and Thetis, a sea goddess. By far, Achilles was the greatest, most courageous and handsome warrior of Agamemnon’s army. The story is told of what his mother did in order to make her son invulnerable. Thetis grasped the young Achilles by the heel and dipped him in the river Styx thereby endowing him with divine strength through the water’s mythological power. Every part of his body that touched the water was made invulnerable except the heel by which he was grasped. From this story we draw the term “Achilles’ heel,” which describes every person’s area of vulnerability or point of weakness. It was at this very spot where a lone arrow pierced the near-invincible Achilles and killed him.
We all have our own “Achilles’ heels”—points of hidden weaknesses in our walk with God. For some, it’s money; for others, ambition. For many ministers, it happens to be sensuality.
Sooner or later, all our human idols totter and topple. And it is not uncommon for ministers to fall. Sadly though, the higher up they are, the harder they fall. Some of them realize their fallen state and are enabled to repent. Some of those who repent and seek help receive forgiveness. But the question is: Should fallen but forgiven ministers in positions of leadership be set back on their pedestals? Should we reinstate them to their former roles of responsibility and give them their old jobs back? As in every instance, the answer is: It is a case-to-case basis.
How should the church-at-large deal with the critical issue of the forgiveness and reinstatement of ministers—church leaders who have committed adultery or are charged with sexual misconduct? We will respond to this issue in light of the three questions put forward: (1) When a minister has fallen, how should the church respond? (2) Should the process of restoring the fallen minister be equivalent to reinstatement of his former leadership position? (3) Will a possible reunion lead to a harmful repercussion?
How Should The Church Respond?
Those in the church who are prone to readily forgive an offending minister do not easily distinguish the difference between forgiving someone and reinstating that person to the former job he or she held before committing whatever it was that needed forgiveness. According to Lewis B. Smedes, he says of these “easy forgivers” that their confusion grows out of the love and loyalty they had for the person before his or her fall from grace.[i] Their special attachment to the fallen person has caused them to feel that their fall has somehow diminished them, “that they need—for their own sakes as much as his—to see him back in his trusted slot again.”[ii]
In 2 Corinthians 2:5-11, Paul addresses the unfortunate episode regarding the issue of forgiveness for an offender. He readily discounts the personal pain it has caused him, but reminds the church of the corporate pain that they had to endure. When the repentant offender has willingly undergone sufficient disciplinary steps issued by the majority, then the church, as a whole, should forgive the offender and accept him or her back as a brother or sister in Christ. But if the offender is not repentant, not submitting to the “punishment by the majority” as stated in verse 6, then this individual’s restoration into the community of believers cannot possibly take place.
Confusion within the community of believers will certainly arise when you call a spade a spade. Sentimental Christian members do not readily respond to tough love and church discipline. In 1 Corinthians 5:1-8, Paul addresses the repercussions of tolerating a person’s sin. In the guise of well-meaning but misguided love and compassion we are in danger of leavening or contaminating the entire church. Christians must turn from blind loyalty or biased judgment toward a fallen brother or sister in order to discern and differentiate rightly between personal forgiveness and corporate restoration.
Is Restoration Tantamount To Reinstatement?
There is a great difference between welcoming the repentant offender back to the former fold and restoring him or her back to the former job. Indeed, love and compassion exercised by the community of believers allows the repentant offender to participate in Christ’s sacramental life of forgiveness and healing[iii] within the body. Yet this invitation does not necessitate one’s return to an old job. We must bear in mind that the primary concern of the church is not to rehire but to restore the individual in his or her life with Christ and the community. Did the person admit his or her struggle and seek help, or was the person caught? How serious was the offense and how genuine was the repentance? Is the sin a practice and does it involve other people? This brings us to focus on two critical levels: the personal and corporate level.
First, at the personal level, the repentant offender needs to realize in 1 John 1:5-10 that his severed fellowship with God needs to be reestablished. First things first, means having to admit one’s sin. We can see the truth of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s insight in that the power of sin is its secret life.[iv] Without a proper confession of sin before God and one another there can be no proper service from within the church (Jas 5:16; 1 Jn 1:9). Unless sin is properly dealt with the offender will continue to be deceived and his or her ministry to others becomes a deceptive danger.
Archibald Hart, dean of the school of psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary would “plead for a period of withdrawal from ministry and for that person to undergo evaluation to understand why it happened.”[v] It would be highly premature for the church to immediately grant absolution after one’s confession of sin without taking into account their God given responsibility in making certain that the effects of sin will not go unaddressed. Ray Anderson calls any hasty church pronouncement of forgiveness of sins without allowing room for honest evaluation and divine intervention, not merely a liturgical fraud, but spiritual malpractice.[vi] Without true repentance there is the possibility or growing risk involved in seeing the unaddressed sin[vii] of the sexual offender manifest itself in a remedial way. And worse, the repentant offender becomes a repeat offender.
Second, at the corporate level, we need to be clear that the community of believers can truly forgive a fallen minister but refuse to be reunited in their relationship as pastor and congregation. George McKinney, the founder and pastor of St. Stephen’s Church of God in San Diego, California, and bishop of his denomination comments that there should be “a structure for confession, repentance, and being subject to authority of the church, with the view of full reentry into the ministry.”[viii] The sin of adultery, according to McKinney, does not negate the call of God upon a minister’s life.[ix] Although the scars and pain of sin remained in the life of David till his dying day, God continued to use him. But McKinney adds that certain sins will disqualify a minister from certain positions. He cites the fact that “a youth minister who is molesting boys and girls should not be involved in youth ministry.”[x] Forgiveness, therefore, does not obligate a church to accept a fallen pastor back to his or her former designation. McKinney suggests, “we need to elevate the forgiven individual to other areas of ministry—administration, teaching, writing, evangelism, ministry to the homeless, jail ministry.”[xi]
Knute Larson, pastor of The Chapel in Akron, Ohio, makes it very clear that if the sexual sin causes the minister to stumble in a way affecting other parishioners, “we will forgive you and reinstate you into the kingdom, but you can never work here again.”[xii]
Will A Possible Reunion Lead To A Harmful Repercussion?
Smedes points out the difference in that “forgiving has no strings attached, reunion has several strings attached.”[xiii] These strings come in the form of the impossible, the harmful, and the counter-productive circumstances.
First, there are impossible circumstances that prevent us from realizing the reunion. The forgiven minister may not be ready to be received back into the church or the wounded church may not be ready to receive back his or her ministerial service. Are the wounds inflicted upon the church healed and are they healed properly? Was there sufficient time allotted for the healing process to take place in the life of the wounded church and the repentant minister? Is the church positively responsive to the repentant minister’s evaluation and reinstatement to the same position by the majority? Smedes adds, “forgiving happens regardless of circumstances, but for a reunion, the circumstances have to be right.”[xiv]
Second, there are harmful circumstances that promote repetition rather than reunion. The repentant minister we forgive may not be good for his or her congregation. A former pastor may still be a sexual offender. Jill Hudson, a recognized workshop leader on “Sexual Misconduct and the Ministry” and co-author of Beyond the Boundaries, defines the sexual boundary that makes a pastor unfit for ministry: “The boundary is intercourse or significant sexual activity that replaces intercourse.”[xv] Hudson lays emphasis on the greatest of difficulties involved in bringing some semblance of workable order in a pastor’s former ministry when he or she has crossed this boundary.[xvi] Her understanding of studies show that, once this sexual boundary has been violated, the person will still persist in his or her sexual sin, “maybe not with the same frequency or intensity, but once a perpetrator, almost always a perpetrator.”[xvii] Being forgiven does not qualify this person to be trusted or responsible in the ministry from which he or she had fallen.
Third, there are counter-productive circumstances that threaten division rather than reunion. We need be well aware of the designs of the enemy. In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul was alert to the divisive operations of Satan within the Christian community. Are there weaker members within the congregation who are prone to stumble at the pastor’s reinstatement be it in any position other than the pastorate? Is the governing body of the church unanimously supporting the decision of full reentry into the ministry? Is the repentant pastor walking in accountability? Are there telltale signs of dissension among the leaders or secession among the other churches? If these and other qualifications are not addressed then Satan can use them to create discord between the repentant minister and his or her fellow Christians or between the forgiving party of sentimental members and the wounded church at large.
To withhold forgiveness when a minister is genuinely repentant is to play into the hands of the enemy, who already gained ground in the person’s life when he or she sinned. In light of there being a dividing line between punishment and retribution, suffering a penalty can drive the repentant person to despair (2 Co 2:7; Col 3:21). Christian discipline is certainly inclusive of punishment administered in love and compassion, not revenge and castigation. So disciplining the repentant minister we will in lieu of the eschatological implications of judgment (1 Cor 6:1-6) and the absurdity of utilizing the civil courts today, pagan magistrates in Paul’s time, who are awarding huge settlements and sending a wake-up call to the church that if we are unable to discipline our own pastors, they most certainly will.
The aim of forgiveness should be toward the reinstatement of the repentant minister in the kingdom. Whatever form that ministerial office would take in God’s kingdom, it certainly cannot return to the shape of his or her former job. It is in the best interest of the church to elevate the repentant minister to other areas of ministry altogether. A church is obligated to forgive a repentant minister, but that does not mean they are now free to live under his or her leadership. They are to be reconciled to the repentant minister as a human being, but need not embrace the person as their pastor or leader once again. Smedes makes good sense when he said, “A wise judge may let mercy temper justice but may not let mercy undo it.”[xviii]
If we retain all three things—judgment and forgiveness and common sense—in their proper perspectives, then we can allow for Christ’s miraculous work of forgiveness and healing to transform our human lives through the struggle, sorrow, and shame that the sexual sin of a minister produces.
[i] R. S. Anderson, God So Loved: A Theology for Ministry Formation (Huntington Beach: Anderson, 1995), 201. This is in reference to the original sacramental relation of God to humanity through Jesus now represented through the enactment of the life of the church itself.
[ii] Ibid., 204. Bonhoeffer introduced mutual confession as a means of safeguarding against self-deception. He came to the conclusion that we think it is easier to confess solely to God because in doing so we may simply be confessing to ourselves and absolving our own sins. This practice promotes so many relapses and lack of growth through confession to God alone.
[iii] J. Hudson, A. Hart, G. McKinney, K. Larson and S. Smith, “How Sexually Healthy Must a Pastor Be?,” Leadership, vol. XVI, no. 3 (1995): 26.
[iv] Anderson, 203. Anderson puts forth this argument concerning spiritual malpractice in regards to liturgical absolution saying, “Suppose we went to a medical doctor for a diagnosis concerning a pain in some part of our body, and were told that we had a malignant tumor that left untreated would cause our death. But what if, before leaving the office, assurance that we were whole based upon his authority as a medical professional, only to die a few week later. Would not the doctor be liable for charges of malpractice? In the same manner, a sinful condition spiritually examined and left untreated will affect a person’s personal life and is tantamount to irresponsibility signing that individual’s death sentence (the wages of sins is death).” Would not the church, asks Anderson, that grants a quick absolution and releases this offender with a clean bill of health be guilty of spiritual malpractice?
[v] Hudson, Hart, McKinney, Larson and Smith, 26. Arch Hart reports, “a small percentage of pastors, an estimated 10%, who succumb to sexual temptation are clear-cut sexual seducers. They are predators who use the ministry as an opportunity to get to women.” This, Hart says, is clearly delineated in history and is grounds to disqualify a person from the pastoral ministry.
[xi] L. B. Smedes, The Art of Forgiving: When You Need to Forgive and Don’t Know How (Nashville: Moorings, 1996), 27.
[xii] Ibid., 28.
[xiii] Hudson, Hart, McKinney, Larson and Smith, 26.
[xiv] Smedes, 28.
[xv] Hudson, Hart, McKinney, Larson and Smith, 26.
[xviii] Smedes, 27.
© 2009, Gicky Soriano. All rights reserved.
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When a heinous act is committed, sometimes one wonders if forgiveness is even possible. Lewis B. Smedes would certainly advise it. "When we forgive," he says, "we set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner we set free is us." In an easy-to-read yet astute analysis of the meaning and value of forgiveness, Smedes teaches the reader that more than anything, forgiveness is a way of healing. He takes as his model the Judeo-Christian God and outlines the many subtleties involved in forgiveness, such as distinguishing anger from hate, and noting that we only forgive those we blame (including ourselves). Forgetting may be more difficult, but at least The Art of Forgiving can help us along the path toward release and healing.