Whenever a pastor admits and confesses a personal sin, it is always met with mixed emotions. For many, it feels like a trust has been broken, causing a deep wound to those familiar with or connected to the pastor. Recently a well-known pastor agreed to step down from his role as senior pastor for a duration of time. He voluntarily disclosed that he engaged in inappropriate communications on Instagram with a woman who was not his wife. According to the story, these communications were not of a sexual nature. Unfortunately, there seems to be an increase in stories of pastoral sins and indiscretions. In some cases, the behavior is discovered, and in others, it is revealed by the individual, which was the case in this situation. What I want you to consider today is how the church should respond when pastors admit sin. I know there can be a quick emotional response to this question, but I want to go past the emotions, which can be difficult to do. I want to consider a biblical response which, if we follow Scripture, this too can surprisingly be equally as difficult to do. With that, here are four ways the church should respond when a pastor admits sin.
1. Remove the plank and drop the stone.
If we are going to be honest, when a pastor admits sin so often, the first thing we want to do is pass judgment and trust me, I get it. However, this is not how Jesus teaches us to respond to the sins of others. Jesus teaches us that before we consider the sins of others, let’s first recognize our own sins. Listen to the words of Jesus.
“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 'Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye." – Matthew 7:1-5
In John 8, there is the story of the woman caught in adultery, and the Pharisees wanted to stone her. What did Jesus tell them?
"When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.'” - John 8:7
The first way the church must respond when a pastor admits sin is to remove the plank and drop the stone. The reason this is important is so we can evaluate the situation from the right perspective. When the Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus, they were acting in self-righteousness, which is why his statement cut them to their heart. Also, in this story, the one who had the right to throw the stone was Jesus because he was the only one there without sin, yet he chose not to throw it but offered mercy and forgiveness.
When it comes to dealing with the sins of others, first recognize you have some issues too, and so do I. This is not an excuse for sin it is simply assuring we approach the one in sin with the right attitude and not like a self-righteous Pharisee. So often, the people that are most outraged and ready to bring the harshest judgments and criticisms are the ones who have the biggest planks in their eyes which was the problem the Pharisees had. When a pastor or anyone admits their sin, let’s first remind ourselves that we are sinners who have been clothed in Christ’s righteousness and not our own. When we understand this, we can proceed to address the situation accordingly.
2. Recognize their humanity.
One challenge many pastors face is people tend to put them on a pedestal. Given their position, I understand why this happens, but honestly, the other problem is pastors often don’t take themselves off that pedestal either. There is one universal truth that is true of every pastor who has ever lived and will ever live; they are only human. This includes your pastor and your favorite preachers or teachers; they are only human. This means they are capable of bad choices, bad decisions, and, yes, even sin. Again, I don’t say this to excuse their sin or behavior I say this so we can look at pastors in the proper light.
Every man or woman (including me and you) God has ever used throughout all of history has been flawed and broken. When you read about all the heroes of the faith in the Bible we celebrate, you will see the many bad choices and sinful decisions they made. Even the apostle Paul who we often regard as the greatest Christian who ever lived, dealt with the reality of his own humanity in Romans 7. We all have issues, and the pastor is not excluded. Pastors are human leaders who have weaknesses, struggles, doubts, fears, and insecurities, and yes, they face temptations because they are human. Let me repeat, I don’t say this to excuse the sin, but recognizing their humanity is another important part of the framework for how the church should respond when pastors admit sin.
3. Measure their sincerity.
When a pastor admits sin, their sincerity in the issue matters. There is a key question you must ask and get an answer to. When a pastor admits their sin, are they doing it because there is a genuine desire for repentance and change, or are they just remorseful because their sin was exposed? In other words, they got caught. Since the question we are considering deals with a pastor who admits their sin, I will address it from the position they have a repentant heart. The ones who aren’t repentant should be dealt with differently, but that is a topic for another day.
If a pastor is genuinely repentant, which means they recognize their sin, have asked forgiveness, and seek to turn from their sin, the church has an obligation to help them. Helping them may come in different forms. It may require them to step away from the ministry for a while and maybe even permanently. What it doesn’t mean is we kick them out of the church, shun them, or have nothing to do with them, which is the equivalent of picking up a stone. In 1 John 1:9, we are told if we confess our sins, Jesus is faithful to forgive us and cleanse us. If Jesus can forgive, so can we. This does not mean there won’t be consequences or fallout from the sin, but kicking them out of the church or exiling the one who is truly repentant should not be one of those consequences. Too often, when a pastor or leader admits sin, the whole church world turns its back on them, and we leave them isolated in their sin and brokenness. Can anyone explain to me how that is a biblical model?
4. Restore them gently.
"Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted." – Galatians 6:1
The word restore means to mend what was broken, to repair, and to strengthen. This is our charge for the truly repentant pastor. We need to recognize there is something broken in the pastor and because they are a brother or sister in Christ, we need to help mend what is broken.
To restore may mean seeking forgiveness from those who have been hurt where we don’t praise the pastor and villainize the victim. To restore means, if there have been laws broken, the person may have to face the legal ramifications. To restore means we don’t try to cover up the sin to show face, but we deal with it to bring forgiveness and healing. To restore means, we focus on strengthening, encouraging, and mending the pastor as well as those who have been damaged by the indiscretion. By the way, you do this because they are broken and need mending, not to get the pastor back in the pulpit as fast as possible. That is not and should not be the primary objective.
As you can see, the restoring process takes wisdom, courage, love, grace, and mercy. I believe this is biblical, and as I said earlier, this is not easy. The last part of restoring is to remember the one who has committed the sin, and those who have been damaged by it are still part of the church and part of the body of Christ. This is especially necessary when you are dealing with a pastor who admits their sin and is repentant.
There is one thing Paul says in Galatians 6:1 that I love because it perfectly aligns with what Jesus said in Matthew. He reminds those who are restoring of their own sinfulness. He says watch out or you may also be tempted. This goes right back to the heart of the matter. When we started, the first thing I talked about was perspective, and Paul is saying the same thing. Focus on restoring but do so by recognizing your own weakness. This reminds me of the plank and the speck. When pastors admit sin, it is never easy. There will be many things to deal with to address the issue. However, if there is genuine repentance, let’s make sure we are lending a hand and not picking up a stone. After all, we are not called to be judges and juries but brothers and sisters in Christ. If they are part of the family of God, let’s make sure we treat them and anyone they have hurt in the process like it. The work is hard and may even be a little bit messy, but in the end, it is all worth it.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Brian A. Jackson
Clarence L. Haynes Jr. is a speaker, Bible teacher, and co-founder of The Bible Study Club. He is the author of The Pursuit of Purpose which will help you understand how God leads you into his will. He has also just released his new book The Pursuit of Victory: How To Conquer Your Greatest Challenges and Win In Your Christian Life. Do you want to go deeper in your walk with the Lord but can’t seem to overcome the stuff that keeps getting in the way? This book will teach you how to put the pieces together so you can live a victorious Christian life and finally become the man or woman of God that you truly desire to be. To learn more about his ministry please visit clarencehaynes.com.