Many Christians struggle with what it means to forgive a pastor who has committed a grievous act. Recently, a Memphis megachurch pastor admitted to a “sexual incident” with a high school student 20 years ago in Texas. I’m not in a place to render judgment over another church’s matters. Yet how should we think about forgiveness of a pastor?
Christians struggle with this question because Christianity centers on the idea of forgiveness. Step one in becoming a Christian is acknowledging that you are a sinner in need of forgiveness.
When the pastor is exposed, some push the message of forgiveness. “Who of us is without sin?” they might say, drawing from Jesus in John 8. Meanwhile, others object: “But how can we trust this guy?”
I side with the second group.
A pastor occupies two offices, or roles: the “office” of pastor and the “office” of church member. The requirements for these offices are different. To be a pastor, you at least need to meet the qualifications Paul gave to his disciple Timothy: “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.” (1 Tim. 3:2-3).
“Above reproach” doesn’t mean a pastor is sinless. It means that if everything about his life is brought into the light, people would still trust him and follow him in the way of godliness.
Typically there are two requirements of holding the “office” of church member: that one be baptized and repentant.
Forgiveness ordinarily (not always) involves two things: forswearing resentment (subjectively) and restoring a person to their previous office or role (objectively).
To “forgive” a pastor means we don’t personally hold his sin against him and that we restore him to his office of church member. If he is repentant, he meets the qualification of membership.
That doesn’t mean we should restore him to the office of pastor. Our forgiveness does not mean he magically meets those qualifications. His life, quite simply, is not above reproach.
By analogy, new-installed President Gerald Ford pardoned Richard Nixon for crimes he might have committed against the United States while president. Ford didn’t explicitly make a distinction between Nixon as president and Nixon as citizen. But the pardon effectively pardoned Nixon as citizen. It prevented him from being indicted and sent to jail. It did not restore him to the presidency.
Or think of the church members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. — remarkably, amazingly — forgiving Dylann Roof after he killed nine of their members. That act of forgiveness did not release Roof from the state’s claim on him in his “office” or role as a citizen.
Or think of a battered wife. She can forgive the man, but that doesn’t mean she must continue to affirm the abuser as her husband.
In all these examples, two or more offices or roles are at play. And both need to be considered.
It’s important to forgive repentant pastors, but not to restore them to pastoral office for years or perhaps ever (depending on the nature of the sin) because Paul’s qualifications pertain to the character. A pastor is an extraordinary ordinary Christian.
A pastor is a teacher and a pattern setter. An example. Therefore, he must be above reproach and trustworthy. Paul even tells Timothy that his salvation and the salvation of his hearers depends upon Timothy keeping a close watch on his life and his teaching (1 Tim. 4:16).
Teaching and life must go together.
So yes, forgive the repentant pastor. Who of us is without sin? But to love him, love those he has hurt, love the church, love our watching neighbors and love God, please don’t rush to restore him. Some just shouldn’t be restored.
Jonathan Leeman, editorial director at 9Marks, has served as an elder at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington and author of books on the church, including the forthcoming “How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age.”