Paul sets high standards for ministry leaders (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Titus 1:5-16). Once one has been in ministry and has a moral failure or other disqualification, can they be restored to a position of leadership in ministry?
This is a tricky question in that God is able to do anything He chooses, including to redeem and restore the worst of sinners, however, we need to be careful with giving too simplistic an answer. Yes, a minister who fails, either morally or in another area of life, can be restored to a position of leadership in ministry, but it is not a process to be taken lightly or quickly.
In order for a person to properly function in leadership, they need to fulfill the Biblical requirements as laid out in 1 Timothy and Titus. These requirements must be met when called to the position and throughout the time serving in leadership. If, at any time, one becomes disqualified, it is incumbent upon them to step down for the time required to return to a qualified position.
The process of restoration will vary depending on the failure or disqualifying action. There are two absolute requirements: repentance and spiritual renewal. Time will be necessary to show the lasting effect of the renewal before re-entering leadership.
Repentance and Spiritual Renewal
Repentance is much deeper than a simple confession of sin. Repentance involves a contrite heart and changing our thought patterns, as well as, our behaviors. In Psalm 51, David gives us an example of a fallen leader who responded to the Lord with a broken and contrite heart. There is no haughtiness or demand. David showed a willingness to submit every part of himself to the Lord’s correction and restoration.
While in sin, we tend to justify our actions, or at least minimize the seriousness of them. The feeling of remorse is important, but we must change our way of thinking about the sin. To turn from, renounce, and completely abandon the sinful behaviour is a requirement to be able to go back into leadership.
Spiritual renewal is the process of being restored to a right relationship with the Lord. As David cried out, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10), he was seeking spiritual renewal from the Lord. This process of renewal will likely look different for each person because we are all unique, and the Lord treats us uniquely. However, there will be some common elements.
Personal intimacy with the Lord is the core element of spiritual renewal. This requires that we spend time with Him. The time will include Scripture and prayer. It is important not to think that if we spend x hours a day reading the Bible and talking to God that we have accomplished what is needed. It is more about interacting with the Lord through His Word and conversation with Him. There will likely be time simply sitting with the Lord, not reading or speaking, just being present with Him.
It will take time to work through repentance and spiritual renewal. The amount of time will vary for each person. There will likely be spurts of great progress intermixed with times of seemingly little forward momentum. Don’t rush the process!
The goal is complete healing; not just enough to go back to ministry. We are always vulnerable to failure, but more so after a fall without full healing. Think about a broken bone. It may be ready for some use after a few weeks in a cast, however, it will be susceptible to fracture for many months until it is completely healed. The more significant the break, the longer the time required for healing.
Time will also be required for others to rebuild trust in us. Forgiveness can be given, but trust must be earned. We need to show through our words and actions that we can be trusted. Not just once, but a continual pattern of trustworthiness must be established.
It will also take time to establish the systems and accountability that we need to not fall back into failure. Safeguards and checkpoints are important to establish before we are in the thick of battle again.
One who is unwilling to submit themselves to the Lord and to the accountability of others is not qualified to be installed in ministry leadership. Every Christian needs to be willing to be upheld by others and accountability is vital in this process. The following are a few Scriptures about being accountable to each other:
Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. James 5:16
Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another. Proverbs 27:17
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Ecclesiastes 4:9-10
Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Galatians 6:1-3
Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Hebrews 13:17
Many look at accountability as a burden that is holding them back from doing whatever they choose to do. In reality, it is a safety net for us. Since we are prone to failure and misjudgement as human beings, we need the council and assistance of others to help us to be successful. After a failure, we should have a better understanding of the benefit of accountability.
We will continue to be vulnerable to future failures so we want to do all we can to minimize that risk. Some difficulties, such as addiction, may be more difficult and require more safeguards to be put into place.
A fallen leader may or may not be restored to the same position as previously held. In fact, some may never be restored in ministry or leadership. The level of restoration is up to God. King David remained as king of Israel but was not the same leader he was before his failure with Bathsheba.
The consequences of our sins are not always removed. David lost the son born out of his sin (2 Samuel 12:15-19), and he was publicly humiliated when Absolam set up the tent on the roof to sleep with David’s concubines (2 Samuel 16:22) as foretold by Nathan in 2 Samuel 12:11.
There may be legal ramifications to a leader’s failure. Regardless of the amount of remorse and repentance one shows, these legal consequences are likely to not be taken away. The Lord will provide the grace and strength to walk through the punishment even if He does not remove it.
Once a fallen leader has completed the process of repentance and spiritual renewal, as well as, established the systems and accountability needed to be healthy, they may be restored to a position in ministry.
Regardless of whether one is restored to a formal ministry position, all of God’s children are to be ministering where they are in life. Even our failures can be used for building the Lord’s Kingdom. Romans 8:28 tells us that “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose.”
We learn from our mistakes and failures, and God can use us in spite of our imperfections. As Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Go, and from now on sin no more” (John 8:11).
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