THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO MORAL FAILURE IN CHURCH LEADERS

by Jonathan Daugherty
Founder & President of Be Broken

When news stories break about the moral failure of yet another Christian leader (like Ravi Zacharias or Carl Lentz), it is shocking to some, sad to others, and paints an incongruous picture to the watching world of what it should look like to follow Jesus and lead His Church.

I don’t fall into the shocked camp anymore. I’ve been working in full-time ministry to sexually broken people for nearly 20 years. I’ve heard it all, even from pastors and church leaders.

But even if I’m not shocked by what I hear these leaders share, my heart breaks for what these stories of sexual brokenness mean for them, their families, and the many lives affected by their positions of leadership.

Ravi Zacharias

Leadership, by definition, has consequences.

When leadership is good, followers prosper.
When leadership is bad, followers suffer.
When leadership is deceitful about their sin and weaknesses, followers are devastated by such betrayal of trust.

No leader is perfect or without weaknesses. We must be careful of elevating anyone to such a status of “untouchable” in the church (or any institution). That is certainly a recipe for disappointment, or worse.

It is right, however, to have some expectations of what makes one a quality leader. After all, there should be a measurable difference between good and bad leadership, for the sake of both the followers and the leader.

The question I am trying to answer here is how are Christians, those who profess faith in Jesus Christ, to respond to the moral failure of church leaders? How do we understand and process such betrayal? And in our response, how do we care well for those hurt by such leaders while also upholding the sanctity of the gospel and the goodness of ecclesiastical authority?

Above Reproach: God’s Expectation of Church Leaders

The standard for pastoral leadership in the Church is spelled out plainly in Scripture:

Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.
1 Timothy 3:2-7 (see also Titus 1:5-9)

God’s standard for pastoral leadership is that he be someone “above reproach.” This can’t mean “perfect,” for then no one could be in pastoral leadership. But it can certainly mean a man whose life pattern reflects the morality and maturity of a faithful follower of Christ.

When we hear terrible news of the moral failure of a pastor or church leader, we should count such news as awful because of the disregard such a leader showed for God’s standard for them. Somewhere along the way compromises to integrity were made and deceit was employed to hide the truth.

At the same time, we must also remind our own local pastors and church leaders of the important and necessary standard God has for them. Let us be an encouragement to those who are living above reproach in their desire to honor Christ and serve His Church. Not all church leaders are living double lives.

Accountability: No Church Leader is Above Church Discipline

Because God does have a standard for leaders in His Church, and because such leaders are imperfect men, there is need for accountability of those in leadership. And when there are stumbles and missteps in their lives or leadership, discipline is necessary.

No church leader is above church discipline!

Where I believe most error occurs in these stories of leaders who end up being front page news for their moral failures is lack of accountability from peers and/or overseeing bodies of authority (i.e. elders, board of directors, etc.).

So much heartache and division could have been mitigated (but not eliminated) if these leaders had simply submitted to their fellow believers when they first started drifting toward sin. Or if the governing leaders pressed in and asked hard questions when they saw or heard things that gave them suspicion of hidden sin.

One of the most insidious lies of the enemy is convincing Church leaders that their position is more important than their character. When leaders stay silent about their sin, the Church suffers far more than if they confess and submit to redemptive discipline.

When a church leader does confess and repent, they need other leaders around them to support them and hold them accountable to a plan for reconciliation (and possibly restoration).

The Differences between Repentance, Reconciliation, and Restoration

In order to understand how to respond to the moral failure of church leaders, one must understand God’s desire to redeem all that is broken in creation, and how that redemptive process works in the life of a church leader struggling with immorality.

Biblically, there is a kind of “3-step process” for fallen church leaders to follow in order to participate in God’s redemptive plan: Repentance, Reconciliation, and Restoration.*

Repentance

For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death. (2 Cor. 7:10)

For I know my transgressions,

and my sin is ever before me.

Against you, you only, have I sinned

and done what is evil in your sight.

-Psalm 51:3-4

The only way that healing can occur in a church leader who has violated their office is through repentance. Unless there is true brokenness and “godly grief” over their sin, change cannot happen.

To repent is to “change one’s mind” about an action taken. It is more than simply confession. To confess is to “agree with truth,” but to repent is to respond to truth with a willful desire to change.

When those closest to the church leader who has fallen learn of his sin, they need to call him to personal repentance. There will be a time for dealing with the effects of his sin on other people and the consequences he must face as a result, but he first needs to know that without true repentance over his sin he cannot experience the cleansing forgiveness of God that leads to hope and joy. (Ps. 51:7-12)

This is no time for excuses from the fallen church leader. Excuses, blame shifting, or other attempts to minimize what happened are sure signs that the leader has not repented. Stand firm on this point. While those wounded by the leader can heal and move forward even if he doesn’t repent, God commands repentance from all who sin against Him.

One final note on repentance: it happens both in a moment and over time. There can be powerful moments of contrition and brokenness; the Holy Spirit can crush the pride and break open great floods of “godly grief” and remorse. But it also takes time to cultivate an “attitude of repentance,” a desire to keep one’s mind open to the instruction and correction of God and His Word.

Patience is required at every stage of this kind of healing.

Reconciliation

Only when there has been repentance can there be reconciliation (and eventually possibly restoration). So, if a fallen church leader remains unrepentant these next two stages of healing and transformation remain “on hold.” In such cases, instruction from Matthew 18 can provide guidance for how to handle the leader’s unrepentant heart.

There are several key relationships that need reconciliation once repentance is genuine:

Family Reconciliation

Whether the leader’s wife was aware of his indiscretions or not, there will be a need for reconciling. There is no such thing as a “righteous” marriage when one spouse (or both) is living a double life.

Professional counseling is highly recommended for this stage of healing.

There may also be other family relationships that need reconciling: kids, parents, in-laws, and others. Focus on the nuclear family first, working out to other layers of relatives as necessary.

Leadership Reconciliation

Those in leadership over or around the fallen church leader must implement appropriate church discipline. The repentant church leader then needs to pursue personal reconciliation with each leader to whom he broke trust.

This is about personal reconciliation between leaders, not restoration of the church leader’s former position. Whether or not the church leader ever holds another ministry leadership position, there are personal relationships that need to be healed.

Trust was violated. Betrayal was felt. Anger, confusion, hurt, and disappointment need to be processed. Eventually, forgiveness must be granted to the repentant church leader. This all takes time.

Friend Reconciliation

One can’t live a double life without hurting friends. The whole premise of keeping secrets is lying. At some point, everyone gets lied to by a person living a double life. This includes friends.

Most likely when the news of the church leader’s failure becomes public, everyone close to the church leader will take a few steps back. They are hurt, confused, and angry. It makes sense that they would want some space. And that’s ok.

In my view, it doesn’t matter who makes the first move to try and reconcile the broken friendship. Regardless, the church leader must still be repentant and allow his friends time to grieve.

Over time, as the leader grows in humility, friends can forgive and hopefully establish a new foundation for a friendship built on truth and grace. Again, all this takes time and good counsel, a lot of it.

Follower Reconciliation

Reconciliation with followers is often very difficult and very sticky. These are people who exhibited voluntary trust in the leader. They chose to follow him. They were under no real obligation; they freely submitted. Then the lid came off.

It’s hard to describe this kind of pain. In some ways, it can feel like the betrayal of a spouse (I’m not saying these are equivalent). And the closer the followers were to the leader (either in proximity or in relationship), the violation penetrates deeper.

Reconciliation with followers can take the longest and really isn’t the first priority for the fallen church leader. The main task of caring for the followers needs to fall to the elders or governing body of the organization. Counseling, support, and prayer with grieving individuals and families is critical during such a season.

After the church leader has exhibited true repentance and been working on healing family and leader relationships, there may be an opportunity for reconciliation with followers. This needs to be at the direction and wisdom of the elders or governing body (assuming there was no collusion by such individuals with the leader’s duplicity). Much gentleness, patience, and care is needed for this stage of healing.

Keep in mind, reconciliation is distinct from restoration. To be reconciled is to heal the personal damage done by the leader’s sin and deceit. This does not mean the leader will (or should be) restored to their ministry position.

Restoration

​Is it ever right for a fallen church leader to be restored to their ministry position? It depends.

​Each church has to determine what to do about restoring a church leader to their ministry position after living in secret sin. While there are not concrete biblical mandates on how to do this, there are some principles to guide our thinking.

Type of Offense (Legalities)

Not all sins are equal in their effect, even though all sin is a violation of God’s holy standards. Some sins cross legal lines and need to be dealt with accordingly. In cases of criminal offenses, it would not be possible or wise to restore a leader to his ministry position.

For “lesser” offenses there might be the possibility of a restored ministry position, but that needs to be at the discretion of a governing body and in light of how the leader engages all the other aspects of healing and growth we have highlighted in this article.

Of incredible importance is understanding that restoration to ministry is not the goal! Upholding the gospel of Jesus and working toward the healing of all parties affected by the leader’s sin is the primary concern. We are called to unity and holiness in the body of Christ; people are more important than positions.

Length and Severity of Deception

How long the leader has been living a double life is also a factor in determining if restoration to ministry is possible or prudent. The difference between a few months versus many years can play a huge factor in the kind of response the leader has to church discipline and the kind of damage done to the church and members.

Was the leader’s deception willful or avoidant? Did he actively orchestrate elaborate ways to ensure his sin remained secret or was he passively “keeping his mouth shut” hoping no one would notice. Neither case is right or good, but understanding the degree of deception can help in knowing how damaged or seared is the conscience of the leader.

A church leader who has devolved into patterns of serial narcissism is likely unfit for any future office of leadership in the Church.

Repentance and Attitude of Leader

A huge factor in determining whether a fallen church leader is able to be restored to ministry is their attitude and heart for repentance.

When King David was confronted by the prophet Nathan concerning his adulterous and murderous actions, David responded with contrition and repentance. (2 Sam. 12:13, Psalm 51) He didn’t deflect responsibility. He didn’t blame. His soul was crushed and he poured out his heart to God in hope of mercy.

But even if a leader is truly repentant of their sin, this doesn’t automatically mean they should be restored to church leadership. Remember, the goal is not reacquiring a position, the goal is unity and holiness in the body of Christ, the Church.

The Lord must ultimately be the one to determine if the repentant leader is once again fit for a ministry position, and the governing body must pray for wisdom to hear clearly the Lord’s instruction on the matter.

Safety and Wellness of Church Members

Finally, it is vital that the safety and well-being of the entire church membership be taken into account when considering the restoration of a fallen leader. Elders are charged with “shepherding the flock.” Many factors must be taken into account across the entire congregation before moving toward restoring a fallen leader to a position of church leadership.

Restoration requires lots of time, lots of prayer, lots of wisdom, lots of patience, and lots of faith. In the end, it is God’s call on whether a fallen leader can once again serve in church leadership.

When done well, these are typically the developing characteristics of restored leaders:

Humility; the wellness of the flock is more important than position or power.
Openness and transparency; there is accountability of time, money, and relationships.
Team leadership; there are no Lone Rangers in the family of God.
Teachability; listening outpaces talking.
Spiritual maturity; allegiance to Jesus and His Word guides everything.

Holding the Tension between Truth and Grace

Possibly the hardest thing to do when we learn of the moral failure of a Christian leader is to hold the tension between truth and grace, between justice and love. Only Jesus has ever held this tension perfectly.

What makes holding this tension so difficult is that both responses are correct from God’s vantage point. It is correct to respond to a church leader’s sin with righteous anger, a clear call for justice. He has violated the trust of his followers and sullied the Name and Word of God.

But love and mercy are also the correct response. Who of us can stand before another person as a sinless judge? In the same way that we cry out for mercy regarding our own sin, we must extend love to the sinful church leader.

This is what Jesus did for all of us on the cross: He displayed both justice and love. God’s justice was enacted by punishing our sins that were laid on Jesus’ back. God’s love was displayed by it being the sinless Jesus who bore that penalty on our behalf. Justice and love came together in the beaten, bloody Jesus who cried out: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

Sin demands justice. We cannot ignore potential charges when a church leader’s sin violates the law. We cannot ignore the pain inflicted on followers and the trust that has been broken. There are consequences to sin.

But God also desires mercy. When a church leader (or any fellow believer) is repentant, Christians are commanded to forgive. (Matt. 18:21-34)

Will any of us hold this tension between truth and grace, justice and love, perfectly? No. Does this release us before God from trying? No.

Jesus Christ was “full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) As His followers, we too must strive to walk in step with him, holding that same tension between grace and truth as we navigate responding to moral failures in church leaders (or any fellow Christians).

Proclaim the Gospel throughout the Aftermath

What often gets lost (or reframed) in the aftermath of the moral failure of a church leader is the gospel of Jesus Christ. After all, since church leaders are to be ambassadors of the gospel message, it makes sense that the gospel takes a hit when a church leader violates God’s standard for their position.

Enemies of Christ shout all the louder that the gospel isn’t true; that the so-called Savior can’t actually save and transform lives. After all, just look at the fallen church leader.

Some Christians will walk away from their faith, convinced that their trust in Jesus was in vain since the leader they followed has proven himself a fraud. Their pain and anger become the lens through which they view the gospel.

But Christians must not allow the failures of men to nullify or reshape the clear gospel message of Jesus Christ.

The Good News of Jesus stands on its own because it is God’s message of salvation for all who believe. No person can ultimately thwart the redemptive plan of God.

Therefore, never stop proclaiming God’s message of salvation during the aftermath of a church leader’s moral failure. When people are hurting and angry and confused and swimming in doubt, bring them back to the simple, pure message of Jesus Christ. He is the one they need to look to for hope and salvation, not the fallen church leader.

Sometimes when these devastating events take place it reveals where one’s true hope and confidence was placed. Was it in Christ alone or in the church leader? Did followers even understand the gospel, or were they just swept up in the charisma and “talent” of the leader?

With gentleness and wisdom, use this season of healing to clarify the gospel:

All have sinned and violated God’s righteous standards. (Rom. 3:23)
The just penalty for sin is death, separation from God. (Rom. 6:23)
No one can satisfy God’s justice on their own. (Gal. 2:16)
God loves us and does not want us to die apart from Him. (John 3:16)
God sent His only Son, Jesus Christ, to live the life we couldn’t, die the death we should’ve, rise from the grave in power over sin and death, and give us salvation and eternal life through childlike faith (trust) in Him.

When any church leader lives a double life of sin and deceit, it is painful and heartbreaking when the truth comes out. But the gospel of Jesus Christ is not reliant on whether or not human agents carry that message perfectly (none of us do). But we must all humble ourselves before God, repenting of our own sin before Him, and striving to live as faithful witnesses to a lost and dying world.

Of one thing we can be sure: Jesus Christ never fails; He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. (Heb. 13:8) Let us praise God for this truth and continue to call others to put their trust in Christ, not church leaders.

*See book Unpunishable by Danny Silk https://2.bebroken.com/be-broken-blog/the-christian-response-to-moral-failure-in-church-leaders