It doesn’t take long to hear about pastors who’ve been sexually abusive, used funds unethically, have acted or spoken in reprehensible ways, or lived in hidden addiction while acting like all is well. Recording more names and failings would be difficult, not because there aren’t more examples, but because of how much time it would actually take to type it all out.
I don’t think it’s an understatement to say that the evangelical church has something of a crises on its hands when it comes to the character of her pastors.
My Gut’s Response to Pastors’ Failures
Each time I hear of pastors who have disqualified themselves from ministry, I am overcome with two deep feelings. First, a deep pain for how these pastors have given the world reason to dismiss the gospel and the church. Pastors represent Christ and his gospel of salvation in an incredibly powerful way to both the world and the saints. When they fall, they take much down with them. The pastoral office is a high stakes calling and that is why not many should become teachers in the church (James 3:1). So, when I see men entrusted with such an important position fall in sin, hypocrisy, or duplicity, my heart breaks in ten-thousand pieces because I love the Savior and the saints they represent.
The second feeling I have is one of anger. I feel pain for the Savior and the people affected by unqualified pastors, but I feel anger at those who seek to lift themselves up even though it crushes others low. I resonate deeply with the woes Jesus charged against the religious leaders of his day:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, 2 “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, 3 so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice . . . 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by others . . . they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues 7 and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others . . . The greatest among you shall be your servant . . . Matthew 23:1-11
No one bears the responsibility to reflect Christ’s sacrificial, shepherd’s love for the church as much as pastors do. They are to be the best imitators of Christ among us. So, when they forsake their calling to benefit from the sheep instead of benefit the sheep, a deep well of anger rises up within me. And, if Jesus still feels the same about such men today as he did in the first century, then it angers him too.
Is there grace left for such men? Yes! Absolutely! If they repent. The parable of the lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7), the lost coin (Luke 15:8-10), and the lost son (Luke 15:11-32) are just as true for the fallen pastor as any other sinner. If any would acknowledge their sin, repent of it from their heart, and bear fruit in keeping with that repentance, they will find a gracious Savior to cleanse them and a gracious people ready to receive them back into fellowship (Romans 10:9; Galatians 6:1; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11). Their repentance doesn’t mean they should become pastors again (as this isn’t anyone’s right), but they should definitely (as long as their church is acting faithfully to Scripture) be joyfully welcomed back into membership with God’s people. The church of Jesus Christ is for repentant sinners! However, unfortunately, genuine repentance for such men seems to be the exception and not the rule.
What Can the Church Do About Failing Pastors?
There is a lot to say in answer to such a question, but one of the first things that must be said is simply: the church must take seriously Paul’s pastoral qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 more seriously. This won’t make it impossible for unqualified men to become a pastor, but by taking the qualifications given us in Scripture more seriously in calling men to the position or evaluating men already in the position will go a long way in helping the crises of falling pastors.
It’d be worth taking time to walk through each of the qualifications and I may do that (for my own sake) in the future. But for now, there is one summary qualification for pastors that will do any believer well to meditate on and take seriously. That is, a pastor must be “above reproach” or “blameless.”
Paul said it this way:
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— 6 if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. 7 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. Titus 1:5-7
If the church begins to demand their pastor(s) are men who are “above reproach,” then the church at large will begin making significant steps forward in decreasing the amount of unqualified, ungodly, and dangerous men who fill so many pulpits. The logic isn’t difficult. If a church’s pastor lives in such a way where it would be hard for folks to accuse him of any legitimate wrongdoing, then it’s likely he isn’t doing wrong at all. So, when a church is evaluating pastors either for hiring or keeping, it shouldn’t first look for humor, leadership abilities, vision casting, organizational skills, or inspirational charisma, but for blamelessness.
This prompts the question: what does “above reproach” or “blamelessness” mean?
What Does It Mean to Be Above Reproach?
Simply, it means that pastors should live such Christ-like, exemplary lives that they wouldn’t be charge with wrong doing often or legitimately. I say often and legitimately because even the best of men can be falsely accused every now and then, but the best of men are not accused often or with legitimate accusations. However, if a man is frequently accused of wrong doing by folks who seem to have something legitimate reputation and evidence for their accusation, then the church must start listening and praying hard for wisdom.
To help further color in the qualification of being “above reproach,” I offer two helpful voices. David Mathis says:
As low-bar as “above reproach” may sound in some ears, with just a little reflection we can discover some of the wisdom in it. This banner qualification is not merely “innocent” or “righteous” or “acquitted,” but “above reproach.” We are looking for men above being reasonably charged with wrong in the first place. The term means, writes commentator George Knight, “not open to attack or criticism” (The Pastoral Epistles, 155); “he is not objectively chargeable” (156). He’s not one who makes a practice of dancing around the fine line of righteous reproach.
Whether a man is technically innocent (or not) is not the entirety of the issue for church leadership. He might be unnecessarily controversial in a way that betrays immaturity or lack of wisdom. We want a pastor to be not only forensically righteous but also “the kind of man whom no one suspects of wrongdoing or immorality” (Anyabwile, 57).
John Stott further reflects:
As we approach the question of eligibility for the pastorate, we are struck at once by the requirement of blamelessness, which is repeated. An elder must he blameless (6a); an overseer … must be blameless (7a). This does not of course mean that candidates must be flawless or faultless, or we would all be disqualified. The Greek word used is anenklētos, not amōmos. Amōmos means ‘unblemished’. It occurs in the New Testament only in eschatological contexts; that is, it looks forward to our final perfection. Anenklētos, however, means not ‘without blemish’ but ‘without blame’, ‘unaccused’. So candidates for the pastorate must be people of ‘unquestioned integrity’ (JBP), of ‘unimpeachable’ (REB) or ‘irreproachable’ (JB) character. Paraphrasing the word, they should be ‘marred by no disgrace’; ‘they should offer no loophole for criticism’. All this recognizes that the pastorate is a public office, and that therefore the candidate’s public reputation is important. Hence the requirement in many churches today both of individual references and testimonials and of a si quis, that is, a public statement by the candidate, followed by a public opportunity for the congregation to challenge it.
Stott, John. The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (The Bible Speaks Today Series) . InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Pastors don’t need to be perfect. They can’t be. Even more, they don’t need to be “near perfect.” But they do, they absolutely do, need to be “above reproach.”
A Simple Plea: let’s Adopt God’s Standards for Our Pastors
John Stott, a man who pastored the same local church for over fifty years, taking his que from Paul’s list of pastoral qualifications, offered this challenge to make sure:
When there is a shortage of pastors, the temptation is to lower the standards of eligibility, and accept and appoint everybody who applies, even if they are not blameless in home life, behaviour and doctrine. Virtually all churches have selection procedures. But they do not always maintain apostolic standards. Instead, in some churches today it is no barrier to ordination (if) a candidate has a public reputation for a lack of Christian integrity and consistency; is married, divorced and remarried, even more than once; is a practising homosexual; has children who are both unbelieving and undisciplined; has a serious flaw in character or conduct; or holds liberal theological views with little respect for the authority of Scripture. It is something of a scandal that, in defiance of the apostle’s teaching, such persons are recommended and accepted for (pastoral ministry). So let us do what we can to copy Paul’s strategy and maintain Paul’s standards. The church would be in a far healthier condition if we did.
Stott, John. The Message of 1 Timothy and Titus (The Bible Speaks Today Series). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
The church is unimaginably harmed when unqualified men lead her. The only way to avoid that is by taking the apostles’ words seriously and putting them into practice. If our pastors are not “blameless,” they should not be pastors.
May the churches of Christ all over the world hold their pastors to the same standard that Christ does. If we do, I think some good will come.