How Should Christians Respond to Fallen Pastors?
I want to begin by giving you a list of names. And let’s see if you can notice the common thread that goes through this list.
Here they are.
Josh Harris, Mark Driscoll, James MacDonald, Bill Hybels, Ravi Zacharias.
I can keep going with more names. You’ve just read the names of very different kinds of men with very different kinds of ministries. But if you’ve been paying attention over the last several years, you know that the common thread that runs through each of those names is that these are men who did not make it in ministry.
They are men whose lives and testimonies gave the lie to how they presented themselves. Some of these men ended their ministry in disgrace. Some of these men don’t know that their ministries have been fatally compromised. One of the names of the people on the list is a man who actually died before he was exposed as a fallen pastor and a fallen minister.
So there are a lot of differences, but the common thread is that these are men who have disgraced themselves, their reputations, their ministries, and even the name of Jesus in its own way. These fallen pastors do great damage to the Church of Jesus Christ, and they do great damage to you. I realize that some of you reading this may be people who have been influenced by some of these men, and I realize some of you may have been influenced by other men in ministry who don’t have names as famous as these.
But when their ministry was compromised when they fell and disgraced themselves, they didn’t just bring reproach on Jesus and on their name, but they brought reproach on you, and they’ve caused great difficulty to you and great damage in your life. And what I want to address is how we can respond when we encounter the failure of fallen pastors.
What do we do when people that we have loved, that we have trusted, that we have respected, that we have followed, what do we do when they demonstrate that they are no longer worthy of that trust or that respect of our following them?
Our Response as Ministers of the Gospel
One of the ways that we need to respond is as pastors. I’m writing to you as a minister of the gospel myself, and I’m writing to other men and women who serve in Jesus’ name in various roles. And there are lessons to be learned from the fall of ministers of the gospel.
One of my commitments in my life is every time this happens, I’m going to stop, I’m going to find out what I can about it, and I’m going to learn the lessons that are possible for me to learn from it.
I want to learn from the mistakes of others before they become my own mistakes, so there are a lot of individual lessons from a lot of individual cases. But for those of us in ministry, there are several very general lessons that we can learn from any fall of any pastor.
Lesson One: Commitment to Honesty and Transparency
And one of those lessons is the lesson that as ministers of the gospel, we must have a commitment to honesty and transparency. This is, of course, a biblical idea. In Ephesians 5:11, the Bible says, “Do not participate in the unfruitful deeds of darkness, but instead expose them.” We’re not supposed to be involved in cover-ups as ministers of the gospel. We are supposed to be people who expose the darkness to the light.
To be in ministry means that you’re going to be wrongly accused. That means you’re going to be victimized. It means people are going to slander, gossip, lie, and murmur about you. But to be in ministry means those things cannot be true about you. You have to be committed to honesty and transparency. And one of the best ways to do that is to be a minister who also is committed to accountability. And when I say accountability, I mean having people who have real access to our lives, and when we grant them that real access to our lives, we really listen to them.
We have to be people who listen to what those we invite into our lives say. It’s possible to have shadow accountability where you don’t really care what they say. But in real biblical accountability, we care what other different voices have to say.
In my own ministry context, I have three lay people in our church on my accountability team. They work outside the church. They are godly, responsible, wise men. I meet with them regularly. I talk to them about what I’m struggling with, and they talk to me and raise questions. They let me know when they’re concerned; they place limits on some of the things that I am allowed to do and not allowed to do. They have access to my wife. My wife knows that she can call them at any point, and they know they can call her at any point. At least once a year, we all get together for a meeting and just talk.
That’s also the case for the staff who report to me. At least once a year, I bring this accountability team into a room with the members of the senior staff of my church, and I walk out of the room. And I let them talk about whatever they want to talk about. And that is accountability that is important. That’s accountability that I need, and you need accountability if you are leading other people in ministry.
Lesson Two: Radical Commitment to Personal Holiness
For those of us who are in ministry, the last thing we need to learn about fallen pastors and fallen ministers is that we must have a radical commitment to putting our holiness ahead of our ministry. One significant issue that’s always on the radar when these pastors fall is when there is this disgrace that is brought into the ministry. Sooner or later, you have somebody that starts to care more about their ministry, more about the reputation, more about what people think about them more, about how much money they are making than they actually care about their own holiness than they actually care about bringing honor and glory to Jesus Christ above any other consideration.
This is a tricky thing. We have to really watch our hearts on this. Because it’s so easy to equate our ministry with the ministry of Jesus. But we just always have to remember that our job is to serve Jesus; it’s to put the interests of Jesus and his flock first. We’re supposed to serve, we’re supposed to give of ourselves, and then ultimately, we’re supposed to die and be forgotten.
It is not about us; it is about Jesus. And as soon as our ministry becomes about our ministry, then our own holiness is going to take a backseat, the good of the flock is going to take a backseat, and the honor of Jesus is going to take a backseat. And it’s just a matter of time until we are exposed as fallen pastors.
Our Response as Church Members
We also need to respond with lessons from fallen pastors to people who are following these fallen ministers of the gospel. I know I’m writing to people who are heartbroken and who have been burned by the fall of a minister of the gospel again. Maybe the person who burned you wasn’t a really famous well-known pastor or preacher. But it was your pastor. It was your preacher. It was your minister. It was your counselor. It was someone who had helped lead you into a deeper relationship with the Lord.
And the first thing I want to say to anyone who’s struggling in that regard, from the bottom of my heart that I am so sorry. I really hate that you had to go through an experience like that. I hate it. Because I have been through that, and I have terrible stories of two ministers of the gospel, in particular, who befriended me and betrayed me, and that pain was terrible. It was excruciating. I know that that is a painful and horrible experience to go through, but I want you to be encouraged. I want you to be encouraged because the failure of a fallen pastor actually emphasizes the character and the integrity of God.
Now how can that be? How do we know what the character of ministers of the gospel is supposed to be? How do we know it? We know it because God told us in the Bible. In places like 1 Timothy 3 and in Titus 1, we learn that men of God, ministers of the gospel, are supposed to be above reproach. They’re supposed to have good and godly character. They are supposed to reflect Christ. So even when a pastor falls, they fell from a divine standard. And so even their fall points to the purity and integrity of God, who holds the standard out of ministry, to begin with.
There’s another way that we can be encouraged by the failure of a fallen pastor. The failure does not undermine the good things you learned from that person. In Philippians 1, the Apostle Paul is talking about people who were preaching the gospel, and some of the people he knew who were preaching the gospel, were preaching from pure motives to honor Christ, and some people who were preaching the gospel were preaching the gospel from impure motives, actually, to do damage to Paul. And what the Apostle Paul said at the end of the day is none of that is what matters. He says in Philippians 1:18, “that only in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed. And in this, I rejoice.”
Paul’s concern first isn’t the character or the intentions or the motivations of the people who are preaching the gospel. His first concern is what they preached. And there’s a lesson for you in this that matters a lot. Some of you are reading this, and you feel betrayed by men who taught you the truth. They taught you the Scriptures, they taught you the grace of Jesus, they led you into a deeper relationship with the Lord, and you feel betrayed by their fall from grace.
Well, the good news is that, though they might not have lived up to what they taught you, everything they taught you and every good thing they said from the Scriptures is still true. And you can believe it and embrace it, and that growth that you experienced, that encouragement that you experienced, is real and true and right and good. And you don’t have to abandon it just because they did.
One last thing, as we conclude, is that it’s possible for good and godly men to make it to the end of their ministry. When you look around and you see so many people fall, you see so many people not make it; you may say, “oh my goodness, can anybody do this?” And the answer is yes, of course, it’s true.
There are countless examples of this. There are more examples of this than there are of the fallen pastors. But the example that’s nearest and dearest to my heart is the example of the man in my life who had a greater influence on me than anybody else. He discipled me for years. He was the supervisor of my Ph.D. He was a Christian leader and statesman, and his name was David Powlison. He was and remains one of the godliest men I ever knew.
When he died, he died full of years. He died, loved by his family, friends, and colleagues. He died loved by me. He loved without bringing any reproach on the name of Christ on the gospel of Christ, and he made it to the end.
There are other examples. You know, people like that. And I pray that this is the life that I will live. I pray it’s the life that you will live. But even when we die, and we make it to the end, and we haven’t really blown it, we always have to remember that God will only ever use flawed men. There’s no single minister of the gospel who’s perfect. There’s no single minister of the gospel who’s arrived. We will all disappoint. We will all be flawed, and we will all fail.
We don’t have to do that in a way that destroys ministry, but we will all do it because God only ever uses flawed men in the ministry, but there’s one exception.
The exception is Jesus Christ himself.
So even in the fall of a pastor, there is the glory of Jesus Christ, the one man in the universe, the one man in history, who made it to the end without any blemish on his record, so even fallen pastors point to the glory of Jesus Christ, and in that, we can rejoice.