Can restoration occur after a pastor has been caught in a scandal?

Question: “Can restoration occur after a pastor has been caught in a scandal?”

The answer to the question of pastoral restoration after a scandal is somewhat controversial. Biblically, whether or not a pastor caught in scandal can be restored to his office depends on two things—the nature of the scandal and the condition of the pastor. Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Scandals involving pastors generally fall into two categories—doctrinal and moral. In His Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus), Paul writes to his two young protégés about the particulars of starting and caring for churches. In these letters, Paul is very concerned about teaching sound doctrine and establishing sound leadership. He instructs Timothy to remain in Ephesus and command certain people to refrain from teaching false doctrine (1 Timothy 1:3). Paul tells Timothy that the law of God is the standard by which behavior should be judged and that to violate the law is to violate sound doctrine (1 Timothy 1:10). He explains to Timothy that the good servant of Jesus Christ is one who is trained in good doctrine (1 Timothy 4:6). He warns Timothy that false doctrine is anything contrary to the words of Christ (1 Timothy 6:3), and he instructs Titus that qualified elders must be able to teach sound doctrine and rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9). Finally, he exhorts Titus to teach that which accords with sound doctrine (Titus 2:1).

Doctrine is very important to the life of a church, and the pastor is charged with not only protecting the doctrinal purity of the church, but he is also entrusted with the faithful dissemination of pure doctrine. Jesus, before He ascended to His heavenly throne, charged Peter three times with the simple admonition “feed my sheep” (John 21:15-17). The seriousness of this charge is made manifest in James’ epistle when he says, “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). It is a serious charge to teach false doctrine. It is a scandal that can lead those under the pastor’s care into serious error or gross sin. Consider our Lord’s words of condemnation to the Pharisees: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (Matthew 23:13; cf. Matthew 18:7). The one who teaches false doctrine not only condemns himself, but also condemns those who follow his teaching. If a pastor is teaching false doctrine, he must be rebuked and, if necessary, removed (seeMatthew 18:15-18 and 1 Timothy 5:19-20 for the procedure to approach a sinning pastor).

The other aspect of pastoral scandal is the moral, or lifestyle of the pastor. Again 1 Timothy 3:1-7and Titus 1:5-9 provide the qualifications of elder (Paul uses the Greek word presbuteros in Titus andepiskopos in 1 Timothy. They translate into English as “Presbyter” and “Bishop/Overseer” respectively. They essentially describe the same office that we commonly refer to as “elder”). When looking at these qualifications, one is immediately struck by the fact that they describe an individual of impeccable moral character (almost to the point of disqualifying most individuals). The elder is not just one who protects and disseminates sound doctrine, but he also serves as a moral example to the church. This is an individual who has a proven track record of good, moral living and gentle, yet firm, leadership in the family setting. The reasons are obvious: How can a man whose moral character is questionable exhort and rebuke others into holy living? This doesn’t mean that an elder can never, ever commit a sin, but an elder should be the very model of a repentant sinner when the occasion calls for it.

How about those instances that we seem to see and hear about so often in the media about ‘famous’ pastors who are caught in horrible moral scandals—adultery, pornography, drug abuse, and homosexuality? When a pastor or elder succumbs to one of these sins, two things happen—the faith of the church is shaken and the gospel is ridiculed by unbelievers. In many cases of pastoral scandal, non-Christians seize upon the opportunities to criticize the Christian faith and charge Christians with hypocrisy. When this happens, we make the gospel unappealing (contra Titus 2:5, 8, 10). When a pastor is guilty of some serious moral failure, he must be removed in order to protect the moral integrity of the church.

Up to this point, we’ve looked at two types of scandals that are serious enough to warrant the removal of a pastor from his sacred office. The question that remains to be answered is whether a pastor guilty of such sin be restored. While these scandals are serious enough to warrant the removal of a pastor from his office, in and of themselves they don’t prohibit a pastor or elder from being restored to office. Restoration would depend on the second of the two things mentioned above: The spiritual condition of the pastor—whether or not the individual is truly repentant over his sin. Going back to Matthew 18, notice what Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15; cf. 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; 7:10-11). The goal of any rebuke is restoration, but restoration must only come after the guilty individual repents of his sin. From that point on, the truly restored pastor will continually live a life that is free from even the hint of immorality or doctrinal impurity. Such a restored and redeemed life will be obvious to all, both inside the church and out. 

As to how soon may a pastor caught in scandal can be restored, again, that would depend on the nature of the offense and the rules governing the individual church or denomination. In many denominations, there is what is called censure (everything from a formal rebuke to removal from office, all the way to ‘excommunication’) and restoration. The key to true pastoral restoration is that the pastor is truly repentant. Before any pastor who has been removed from his office can be restored to his former office, those in charge (the other ruling elders, denominational hierarchy, etc.) must take every means possible to ensure his genuine repentance and protect the message of the gospel from further damage by this individual. In some cases that might mean the pastor has to be re-ordained (or re-examined) before taking office again. In most cases, the individual must undergo personal examination to ensure as much as possible the true nature of his repentance. However, once the church has done the due diligence to ensure the fallen pastor is truly repentant and fit for office, however long that might take, he can (and should) be restored. The restoration of a repentant pastor to office shows the watching world the amazing grace of God in action.

Recommended Resource: Pastoral Ministry by John MacArthur.

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