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Some years ago, I caused no little consternation when I was invited to speak at a church on the nature of ministry and started my lecture by declaring that it really did not matter if the pastor was an adulterer or not. As you may imagine, this was not something the congregation had heard before, and my guess is that more than a handful of those present probably thought the speaker had either gone mad or was simply ignorant of the most basic aspects of biblical teaching on the nature of church leadership.

In fact, I was making a serious point, and doing so in a way that I knew would cause people to sit up, take notice, and, crucially, reflect upon their own assumptions about ministry. My point was this: the power of the ministry lies in the truth of the Word, driven home by the Spirit, not in the moral qualities of the pastor.

I myself learned a lot of the theology that I still hold dear, and certainly ninety percent of everything I know about preaching, from a man who has since left his wife to live in a homosexual relationship, and the evidence suggests that he had embarked on this lifestyle while I was under his ministry. If it was the quality of his private life that made the difference, I would have to go back, unlearn and then relearn everything I imbibed during my years in his church.

Of course, even a moment’s reflection reveals the truth of this for all of us: if faith comes by hearing the Word, and the moral character of the one who speaks that word to us is that which makes the Word effective, then which of us could ever be sure of our salvation? And which of us would ever bother to speak the Word to another, knowing how morally crippled we ourselves are?

True as this is, however, it is probably the case that an over-emphasis on the moral quality of church leaders is not the problem we face in the contemporary church. Every year, the list of pastors who are caught in serious sin—sexual, financial and otherwise—is startling and depressing. Equally startling and depressing is the list of pastors who are restored to office after a perfunctory repentance and a short period of discipline.

I am probably a hardliner on such issues, but I am a firm believer that an adulterous or sexually profligate elder forfeits his office permanently and, frankly, the restoration to office of those involved in other public crimes should be the exception and not the rule. Restoration of the repentant to fellowship is an imperative; restoration to office is quite another matter, hard as this may be to swallow in an age when anybody can do anything with no long-term damage to their career as long as they appear on Oprah, cry a few tears and say the magic word sorry.

In the tenth century, the church produced one of the worst examples of an immoral church leader in the person of Pope John XII, who reigned from 955 to 964. During his tenure, the Vatican was referred to as being akin to a brothel. Such were his high crimes and misdemeanors that in November 963 a desperate attempt was made by church officials to oust him at a synod in St. Peter’s, where John was variously accused of sacrilege, simony (selling spiritual offices for money), perjury, murder, fornication and incest. John refused to recognize the synod and later took terrible revenge on those who had sought to replace him as pope, having various enemies scourged and physically mutilated. His victory was short-lived, however, as he was to die on May 14, 964, just over a week after having a stroke (at least according to the rumors) while in the act of committing fornication.

John XII is an extreme example of a sleazy church leader, as much for the range of his crimes as for anything else, though it is arguable that the greatness of his evil actions was simply the result of his greater power and opportunity for such immorality compared to many who have come after him. Now, if John had preached the gospel, there is no doubt that the gospel would still have been effective, for, as we noted above, the Word of God is powerful because of what it is, not because the person speaking is a moral superhero. Nevertheless, John was a disgrace to the church, and there is no doubt that, whatever their motives, those who sought to oust him from his position were doing the right thing.

Why is this? If the power of the gospel is not dependent upon moral behavior, why should bribery, adultery and even murder bar someone from being a church leader? Well, the simple answer is, of course, that Paul lists a whole set of characteristics, most of them relating to morals, character, and reputation, as being vital in an elder or a pastor.

Thus, in Titus 1, for example, the candidate for eldership is to be above reproach, happily married to one woman, with good children who behave as those in a Christian household should. He must not be arrogant, nor have what Americans call “anger-management issues.” He should not be greedy or ambitious but rather hospitable, self-controlled, upright and so on. It is important to note that Paul is not here demanding perfection, for then no one would qualify; what he is basically asking for is that an elder should be a decent, honorable person of good reputation within and without the church.

While Paul does not make this explicit, it should be clear that the reason for this is to make sure that the elders bring no public scandal to the name of Christ or lead astray those who have been placed under their pastoral oversight. This is why the behavior of pastors and elders is so important: it is not that this gives some kind of magic power to their preaching and teaching but because they are the most visible representatives, within and without the church, of what a Christian—a follower of Christ—looks like.

This has practical implications for us all. First, it is quite clear that Paul assumes that the typical elder or pastor will be an older person, someone who has already established himself in the church and in the wider community as someone whose life and character match those described by Paul. Of course, it is not vital that the elder be married or a father—it is doubtful that Paul was such—but for Paul to include those qualifications speaks of the kind of person who will normally take up the task: older, mature, with a proven record of competent domestic leadership.

That Paul has to tell Timothy to let no one despise him because of his age does, of course, indicate that the office is not restricted to older men. Yet that he has to issue such an instruction indicates quite clearly that such should be the standard expectation and that Timothy’s youth therefore makes him something of an exception. Most pastors should be men who have proved themselves in all public areas of their lives elsewhere before they are taken into positions of eldership.

Second, while we should not demand perfection of our leaders, we should set the bar pretty high. There are plenty of men around who have their heads full of theological knowledge, but knowledge is not the same as the kind of maturity and reputation that Paul sees as non-negotiable. Questions of theological knowledge are important, but this is no either-or situation but rather a both-and. Potential elders and pastors need to know their theology, but they also need to be of good reputation within and without the church, treat their wives with respect, have children who are not troublemakers and care for people. Eldership should be a joy, but it is also hard work and brings immense responsibility.

Ultimately, John XII’s problem was that he was interested in church leadership for what he could take out of it—money, power and sex. For all I know, his teaching may well have been good and sound. What is clear, however, is that one who seeks church office for personal advancement and gain is the very person who should never be allowed within a million miles of a pulpit or a session, for in trying to bring glory to himself he brings nothing but public disgrace upon the church and the name of Him who purchased her with His blood.



Dr. Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. He is author of The Real Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and The Creedal Imperative.

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Carlos Vasquez

commented on Jul 14, 2014

What about David's repentance? What about Rev Jimmy Swaggart?repentance?

Ronald Johnson

commented on Jul 14, 2014

Good point. The message is the gospel, and is not dependent on the minister. However, vision and leadership are very dependent on the character of the leader, and scandals give an excuse to those who are looking for an excuse to reject the gospel. I do believe in the restoration of truly penitent ministers. I have known a number of alcoholics who have been restored to ministry with good success. It required a good bit of treatment, and ongoing accountability. This seems to be the model throughout scripture. David was restored. Peter was restored. I will not list all of the examples. It is important to note that they paid a high price even though they were restored.

Doug Conley

commented on Jul 14, 2014

I agree that there are elders and evangelists who simply use the gospel to their personal gain and are not spirit-led. I also agree that the bar should be set higher since leadership should be accomplished by example. However, I do not agree that a penitent person, leader or not, should have to live with their past sins. I say that while asking: If God is willing to forgive and forget, how can we, mere humans, over-rule His judgement? I have yet to meet an elder or evangelist whose name is Jesus Christ. If we, the Church find ourselves unwilling to forgive, we no longer are the Church, and we have taken the lordship of it away from our (that means everyone) redeemer! Also, you spoke of the affect on the community. What of those within the congregation who are threatened by the minister's God-given authority, who go out into the community and spread vicious untruths or half-truths about him so they don't lose their own "power"? I'm afraid your article speaks to only one side of the problem. I look forward to your addressing the other issues which may cause negative emotional responses from the leadership. Those of us who are on the front lines could use that information.

Carlos Vasquez

commented on Jul 14, 2014

Amen!!!

Ronald Johnson

commented on Jul 14, 2014

I agree, as my comment below indicates. I do think care should be taken in readmitting a person who has fallen into a sin that has brought scandal to the church. I have seen both sides of this. I knew a pastor who had an affair, and was readmitted after a month off. There was no counseling, the person with whom had had the affair (a staff member) was fired. I do not think anyone can deal with the emotional and spiritual issues that arise from all of that in a month. I have also seen pastors who went through alcohol rehab, and had worked and continued to work in recovery programs who were barred for life. We have to forgive, and we have to look out for the well being of the pastor and the church.

Don Dutton

commented on Jul 15, 2014

Thank you for your comments. While I believe Dr. Trueman has some excellent points and observations, I can only believe that forgiveness lies with God and if He forgives, we cannot fail to do otherwise. I once heard the parable of the prodigal son preached as the parable of the angry brother. It put the parable in a totally different light when you see a father who is willing to forgive his son for some very serious discretions, and a brother who is not only not willing to forgive him, but refuses to come to the feast and is left standing outside when the festivities begin.

Minister Sanders

commented on Jul 14, 2014

Excellent article! We are not a perfect people and are able to fall that is why we aspreachers and teachers have to stay in the Word of God and have a relationship with God because we are set at a higher standard to not only preach God's Word but show the world that we practice what we preach through our conduct and our lifestyle. We must live a life that exemplies we have truly denied ourselves, have picked up our cross, and Is Following Christ! When we are leaders in the ministry we must be careful of what we say and do, the company we keep and the places we go because if not, we place ourselves in some situations that will trip us up.

John Kiahd

commented on Jul 22, 2014

I said,, AMEN.

Steve Malson

commented on Jul 14, 2014

I like the initial premise of your article ... we are surely impacted by the quality of the presenter in ways far beyond eloquence . . . but I am convinced we need to exercise caution in dealing with 'disqualification' issues. I've seen some restored and some not. I've seen some repentant and some not. I've seen some who should have been disqualified for running at the mouth, some for inability to distinguish truth from invention, and for emotions that leave others broken and bleeding ... but because they 'kept their pants on,' so to speak, they continued to be seen as qualified. If public scandal is a major consideration (as it should be), then above reproach goes way beyond sexual issues when it comes to disqualification. Maybe you were including this in the umbrella of 'public crimes' and I didn't catch it . . . but gossips and liars leave a wide swath of pain in their wake, bringing shame to Christ's message. Grace allows God to shine through some very imperfect vessels, and I'm hesitant to be a disqualifier as I recall the plank in my eye.

Alexander Drysdale Lay Preacher Uca Australia

commented on Jul 14, 2014

Good for you Steve. If we make a mistake we fall down. If we do not get up we fail. As a Lay Preacher I am terribly afraid of failing in my calling so what I have to say and what I have to do must be open at all times to scrutiny, evaluation and judgement. None of us are perfect. I have remarried. But I trust that my contribution to the lives of my various congregations in the Messages that I am empowered by the Holy Spirit to present has been all to the glory of God. We live in the present as God has forgiven our past, provided of course, we have repented. It is not for us to judge ... EVER. That is God's job. We must serve Him as best we can and then we will be seen to be doing His will.

commented on Jul 15, 2014

I agree fully with most of your sentiments expressed in this article. One, that the standard must be set high for leaders and that restoration to fellowship is paramount. However, I am not certain of the doctrine that a repentant leader cannot be restored to their leadership position. Firstly, Jesus didn't do that. Peter denied Jesus and yet Jesus still allowed Peter to preach the first message of the church 50 days after he sinned. Jesus Himself said if you deny me before men, I will deny you before my Father. Clearly this was no light sin according to Jesus. The other old testament equivalent of this is Jonah the rebellious prophet. A few days after his ordeal with the whale and the storm tossed sea, God restored to go preach to Nineveh.

commented on Jul 15, 2014

The second part is not a disagreement but rather a observation. EM bounds, in book "Power through prayer" says this: You cannot separate the message from the preacher. The life of a preacher enhances the message. A dead preacher brings forth a dead message -even if they read from the same bible.(Paraphrased) The response to the message preached is a matter of choice and a persons heart. That why Jesus, being the perfect sinless Son of God, could preach the Word and some would reject it. It doesn't get any better than our Lord and Saviour when it comes to upholding standards of purity and flowing in power.

Gale Dingwell

commented on Jul 15, 2014

Dr. Trueman, if those listening to the preacher were only inspired by the veracity of the preacher's proclamations I would agree with your article. In my experience, the average person is far more interested in the efficacy of the message than the veracity. In other words, if the pastor does not heed his own counsel, why would I? Christ Jesus not only proclaimed the truth with His message but lived the truth for all to see. Those who claim to be His followers, especially those who preach and teach, must endeavor to do the same or see their eloquent words fall upon deaf ears.

Suresh Manoharan

commented on Jul 16, 2014

The Preacher is a "pipeline" through which God's message flows. If the "pipeline" gets clogged with unholiness, then for the Preacher concerned it can be a very painful process, as the Lord in His mercy will restore him but only after "removal of all that is unclean" (Malachi 3:3). In ideal circumstances, our Lord Himself is our example who first "practiced" then only "preached" (Acts 1:1).

Jeff Warner

commented on Jul 17, 2014

I think your article has many good points which few could argue against Biblically. However, the area where I have struggled and still do, is the "One strike and you are out" attitude to a morally fallen Pastor. Obviously the examples of David and Peter (In the latter case this was not a moral failure but he did deny the Lord with oaths) come to mind as men who sinned and were later restored to useful service. The arguments for the zero tolerance approach are, in my opinion, lacking in any real Scriptural support and err more towards what some might feel ought to be the case. Without downgrading the seriousness of a moral failure on the part of a leader, I would have thought the Word would have been crystal clear if moral failure meant a permanent end to ministry. I believe on the basis of the examples of Peter and David, the repentant can be restored, and to use the case of high profile men who have so say repented should not encourage us to take a less gracious line than God. Many able and highly respected exegetes do, I know, take a zero tolerance line, but sadly the skill and Biblical support which underpins their excellent teaching can be lacking when trying to support a "One strike" approach to failure

Jeff Warner

commented on Jul 17, 2014

I think your article has many good points which few could argue against Biblically. However, the area where I have struggled and still do, is the "One strike and you are out" attitude to a morally fallen Pastor. Obviously the examples of David and Peter (In the latter case this was not a moral failure but he did deny the Lord with oaths) come to mind as men who sinned and were later restored to useful service. The arguments for the zero tolerance approach are, in my opinion, lacking in any real Scriptural support and err more towards what some might feel ought to be the case. Without downgrading the seriousness of a moral failure on the part of a leader, I would have thought the Word would have been crystal clear if moral failure meant a permanent end to ministry. I believe on the basis of the examples of Peter and David, the repentant can be restored, and to use the case of high profile men who have so say repented should not encourage us to take a less gracious line than God. Many able and highly respected exegetes do, I know, take a zero tolerance line, but sadly the skill and Biblical support which underpins their excellent teaching can be lacking when trying to support a "One strike" approach to failure

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