Failure is not Final

Bishop Jonathan Jackson shares guidelines on why and how the Church can restore fallen ministers

The weight of church leadership is now more intense and pressurising than ever before. The result is the significant number of ministers who have fallen from grace. It is interesting to note there are YouTubers racking up higher views than ever, when their subject matter is about a major scandal involving prominent church leaders.

Sadly, more energy is given to the scandal than to the restoration process. So, the question to be asked is: ‘What should our response be as Christians, and how should churches respond in a biblical way to bring restitution to fallen leaders?’

A rumour mill is not the evidence that should fuel conversation in the life of the church. An honest report with evidence should be the start of prayerful response to a fallen minister. (See 1 Corinthians 5:1–5, 11:18; 3 John 9–14.)

As senior leaders, we face challenges when dealing with real-life cases of ministers falling from grace and others being falsely accused. When dealing with such cases we must consider the spiritual health of the victim, the congregation, and the accused’s family. And, in these modern times, we now have to consider employment laws when dealing with a minister who is also an employee of the church.

Examining and speaking about specific cases is dangerous when you are in ministry; however, there are incidents that have been played out in the public arena which highlight the issues that arise when ministers fall.

Ministry failure
Many of us loved the ministry of Bishop Eddie Long and the success of his mega church, New Birth. However, when rumours became reality, and resulted in four young men suing him for sexual misconduct, Eddie Long’s church circled the wagons to protect him, ignoring the victims. It seemed there was no system of church discipline outside of his own leadership team, therefore no discipline or restoration process was enacted. The idea of paying settlements in court to compensate the victims is far removed from biblical repentance and restoration. To the hurt of the wider church, we have learned to be a more balanced church, seeing and taking note of the victim’s pain first, and not solely acting to save the reputation of the minister and the ministry.

There’s also the case of Pastor Carl Lentz, celebrity pastor and former spiritual advisor to Justin Bieber. The church culture around him created a toxic environment. The wider organisation had to act when rumours became reports and complaints, and when victims came forward. He was dismissed for moral failures, and he also admitted to unfaithfulness in his marriage. The lack of remorse and deception left no room for a process of restoration, and the congregation had to go through a process of changing leadership and a time of healing.

Restoration after moral failure
The Bible makes it clear there can be restoration after moral failing, and it records how God restored King David (2 Samuel 11–12). In an idle moment, King David saw Bathsheba, bathing on the roof top. She was the wife of Uriah, one of his top soldiers. Overcome with lust, King David summoned members of his court to bring her to him and he had sex with her.

When King David learnt Bathsheba was pregnant with his child, he developed a plan to cover his initial sin, which led to Uriah’s death on the battlefield.

King David eventually had to take responsibility for his personal actions and the further iniquity of all the other people in his court whom he had made complicit to his sin when he was confronted about his behaviour. His life clearly demonstrates the impact sinful behaviour can have when you are in leadership. In this case, through the prophet Nathan, God gave David a pathway of repentance, but not without major consequence.

Biblical models for restoration
Jesus provides a model for restoration in Matthew 18:15-17 which focuses on how personal disputes amongst Christians can be resolved. The church must rebuke and restore, knowing that both are part of the same process of spiritual healing.

The restoring of Peter after his betrayal and abandonment of the mission is a masterclass of healing (John 21:15-19).

And the apostle Paul provided his young leader and mentee Timothy with a model that creates an accountability circle for handling accusations against leadership in an impartial way.

‘Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. I charge thee before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, and the elect angels, that thou observe these things without preferring one before another, doing nothing by partiality’ (1 Timothy 5:19-21).

‘Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted’ (Galatians 6:1).

The end goal of any church disciplinary process must be one of restoration to faithful Christian living.

It is vital that churches exercise wisdom in giving space for the healing process of time to run its course, and for the thinking and ministry action of the person to be refreshed. This builds confidence in the congregation that the necessary lessons have been learned. The length of time is determined by the process adopted by the local church and must reflect its ability to rebuke and restore, as guided by the biblical example given.

Dealing with senior ministers
When a minister has fallen it is essential that a restorative team, a trusted elder, or bishop is responsible for the restoration process.

Criticisms come in thick and fast whenever ‘fallen’ ministers create a group of people over whom they have major influence. These people then collude with decisions that favour the individual and don’t take into consideration the victim (or victims), or the bad example of his (or her) sinful behaviour.

The idea of restoration and godly forgiveness must be one that considers the calling of that individual and the circumstances that surrounded the fall from grace.

In cases of abuse, the law would determine the levels of participation and location of ministry. In the case of a senior minister falling from grace in office, after a time of repentance, discipline and restoration, a new ministry chapter can begin in a new location.

While we would love to leave everything to good conscience and conviction, the wisdom of church governance is priceless.

In my personal view, the greater the calling and covenant the individual or minister has with God, the greater the humility to be demonstrated. When you examine the lifestyle of the serial perpetrator it follows a deadly pattern of arrogance and pride which have an expected end.

The example of repentance must be seen by the wider church, so that sin is not viewed as an acceptable way of life for a Christian leader or church member. A part of any church’s life must be the action of church discipline.

This is quite essential for maintaining the purity of doctrine and for guarding the holiness of the sacraments. Churches that are lax in discipline are bound to discover sooner or later within their circle an eclipse of the light of the truth and an abuse of that which is holy. Hence a Church that would remain true to her ideal in the measure in which this is possible on earth, must be diligent and conscientious in the exercise of Christian discipline. The Word of God insists on proper discipline in the Church of Christ (Matthew 18:18; 1 Corinthians 5:1-5, 13; 14:33, 40; Revelation 2:14, 15, 20).

Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p578

The final say is ultimately with God and how He sees the whole picture of the life of the person who falls. The idea of speaks deeply into the character if the with these words.

‘For a just man falleth seven times, and riseth up again:
but the wicked shall fall into mischief.’
(Proverbs 24:16)

Failure is not final.

Bishop J Jackson DD is Senior Minister and District Bishop at Willesden New Testament Church of God. He is author of The Power of Agreement: Understanding Covenant Theology.

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