I, more than most, understand and appreciate the forgiveness of the Lord and the tremendous grace that has been poured out in my direction. I am a sinner saved by grace and a repeat offender who has experienced the unmerited gift of forgiveness in my life where I continue to falter on the road to sanctification.
I also understand that scripture gives us standards and expectations for spiritual roles in the church. The roles of elder and deacon have similar high standards and it would follow that these requirements, if not even higher ones, would be true for any role of shepherd or pastor as well.
There have been seasons in my life when I would not have met the minimum requirements for elder/deacon as not all my children were following the Lord. That did not affect my salvation, but I believe it did disqualify me for certain roles in the church. I also believe that sins which occurred prior to a salvation experience, in some cases, should not count as disqualifiers. For example if someone had committed adultery or been divorced prior to salvation they might still aspire to the role of elder or deacon. But let’s be clear, I do not see someone’s current character as some magic formula that guarantees Godly character in the future based on their past “performance”, but there is a reason such high standards were given as a threshold for leadership in the church.
And it is for good reason those highest standards have been set. You need look no further than the highest office in our land, the presidency, to see how a lack of moral character there affects and changes the moral landscape for millions in the upcoming generations. How much more influential would the person in the role of elder, deacon or pastor be in modeling character, or the lack thereof, for you and your children.
So if I consider a few of the qualifications in 1 Tim. 3: vs12 “husband of one wife” (which I interpret to be only one ever and not one at a time), vs11 “trustworthy in every way”, vs13 “excellent reputation”. I would not consider someone who has had an affair or committed adultery as fulfilling those requirements. And it was with that interpretation of scripture I read with quite some confusion recently an article entitled “The Elephant in the Church”. It was an article about a conference attended by over 50 pastors, among them Ed Gungor, Ted Haggard, Ruth Graham and others who have similar stories of moral failings in their marriages while holding church leadership positions. The main point of the article covered the complaining as to how strict or limited the pathway to restoration was for them. And by restoration, they meant restoration to the same position of leadership they held before adultery and affairs. Keep in mind, many of these 50 pastors rejected the discipline their church elders gave them and went off and did their own thing anyway which for most resulted in significant monetary windfalls – and they are the ones complaining??? It would be like a bunch of college students who chose to get some degree that doesn’t serve them well in the real world and then sitting around complaining about having to pay the price of their burdensome school debt.
I want to be crystal clear here. I am an absolute believer in full forgiveness and restoration of all sinners. But my understanding of that restoration is a spiritual position in Christ and not necessarily restoration to some physical position of leadership at the top levels in the church. Where there is full forgiveness for sin, there are also consequences for sin. And for a pastor/elder/deacon to betray the trust put in them by a congregation by choosing some significant moral sin, I believe scripture is clear that one of those consequences is a disqualification to hold those positions in the church. Is it so radical that I want the upcoming generations to walk in such an awareness of the Holiness of God that they would have the Holy Spirit whispering in their ear (and if need be yelling) “there are consequences for sin”.
I look at it like this. Say you are a trusted public bus driver and you choose to get drunk and are involved in a serious accident. It doesn’t mean you are any less of a person, but you should NEVER again be allowed to hold that trusted position of public bus driver. It sends a terribly wrong message to other drivers not to mention the potential danger it would mean for those in your care. I see significant moral failing in the highest positions of leadership in the church the same way. It doesn’t mean you can’t be a SS teacher, missionary or evangelist. But you have forfeited that most honored role because of the huge mixed message it sends to everyone that holiness and excellent moral character is “only mostly” important.
Are we that lacking of people with stellar moral character to fill these crucial roles? Do we really want to send the message to our young people that character in leadership in the church is viewed the same way as in the secular society i.e. “wink wink, nod nod”? In reference to the article mentioned above, I basically agree with main premise of the entire article and the need for the church to learn how to be advocates for each other in the restoration process. But that agreement stops short of the part where restoration includes regaining the pastoral/elder leadership role once held. The article speaks about the fear they experienced surrounding the exposing of sin. Doesn’t this put the focus all on them and the struggles they are having? I suggest the removal of the adulterer from the pulpit places the focus on the fear of God, where it should and creates an atmosphere of sobriety for the next person who might aspire to one of the highest offices in the church of Jesus Christ.