An argument for the permanant disqualification of abusers.

For the last three years, the SBC’s life has been consumed with discussions about abuse and how the SBC has dealt with abuse in the past. One of the more startling realizations I have had in these discussions is that the church does not universally agree on the idea that a pastor who abuses persons in his flock is totally and finally disqualified as an officer of the church. I have been taken aback by the reality that there are people in the SBC who believe there is a road to requalification for any sin a man in the ministry commits and that nothing is serious enough to permanently disqualify a man from the work of the gospel. From my vantage point considering the text of Scripture, I cannot come to the same conclusion. The work of the deacon and the elder is serious work that requires holiness. Abusive pastors are frankly unholy and wicked, and so it is my conclusion that actual abuse,[1], is a permanent disqualifier from the work of ministry. There should be no pathway back into the pulpit or positions of authority for the officer of the church who abuses the office and the body for which they are supposed to be caring.

A pastor has disqualified himself if:

1.            He has misused his authority to harm rather than care

Hebrews 13 tells the church they are to respect the elders of the church who give watch over their souls. This points us to one of the primary tasks of the minister of the gospel: the care of the souls of the people of God. This means that the minister of the gospel has been given the work of seeing the flock of Christ flourish; the ultimate goal of his effort is the good of the people whom Christ has placed in his charge.

The abuser neglects the care of the flock to feed his appetites and passions. It doesn’t matter if this abuse is sexual in nature or the crushing authoritarianism that Peter warns us about[2]. The minister is disqualified because he has not only abandoned the needs of the flock, but has also acted like a wolf toward the flock by devouring them.

2.            His example to the flock is ruined

Peter tells us that the minister of the gospel is called to be an example to the flock of Christ. This example is twofold. First, he is to be a representation, or an ambassador, of Christ to the flock—to shepherd them in a way that the people will see the example of Christ in the minister. Second, the minister is called to be an example to the flock in the way that they should act. He is to model for them the pattern of righteousness that God has called them to in Christ.

When a minister uses his office to abuse the people of God, he has done two things that destroy his capacity to be an example to the flock. First, he has shown them a Christ who is double-minded, who preaches one thing and lives another, a Christ that devours rather than restores. Second, he teaches them that his actions of abuse are acceptable, thereby leading them into sin.

3.            He is not a one-woman man

In the qualifications of the elder, we see that he is called to be a one-woman man. This particular disqualification shows up in abuse that is sexual. He has turned himself from the marriage that God has given him and either illegally preyed on young ones in the church or used his position to manipulate and seduce a member of the church into an affair. This immorality immediately disqualifies him from the work of the gospel.

4.            He is not above reproach

The minister is told that he is to be above reproach[3]. This means he should carry himself in such a way that criticism seems foolish to those who hear it. He is further called to be well thought of by outsiders[4]. Both of these qualifications speak to the credibility that the minister needs in order to do the work that is given to him and that is necessary as he exercises the authority God has granted through his position.

The abuser has lost the benefit of the doubt he might have possessed before. This is a genuine hampering of the ministry, which is why it is a qualification of the minister. Instead of carrying himself in a trustworthy way that allows his words to be heard and believed, he has brought discredit to the Word of God and is thereby disqualified from the ministry of the Word. He will not be well thought of inside the church or outside the church because of his wickedness.

In the first section, I dealt with the reasons why a minister is disqualified in their actual abuse. In the next section, I will deal with five reasons why the minister who has abused must be kept out of the work of pastoral ministry. I contend that this disqualification is permanent, and the negative effect of this minister’s work on the flock will not change.

1.            Teaches the congregation and future ministers that holiness is not necessary

One of the great hindrances to the Christian life is sin that besets and burdens us. Hebrews 12 calls the Christian to lay aside this burdensome besetting reality so that they may effectively and vigorously run toward Christ and with Christ because they are being watched by such a cloud of witnesses. Allowing a man back into the ministry after he has abused the flock teaches our people that the sin of this world doesn’t beset us. The action of giving this man a pulpit or a Sunday school classroom has two effects on the church. First, it denies the reality of the higher standard to which the Bible tells us he is called. We deny at that moment that there is something sacred about preaching and teaching; we are saying that any man regardless of his holiness can preach the Word without damaging its effect. Second, a man who has used his position to devour Christ’s sheep is an example of unholiness and has taken on the image of the seed of the serpent. This man teaches the flock by his example that sin is not devastating, and it teaches young men who want to enter the ministry that they are not going to be held accountable to God’s standards and there is no real consequence for disobedience.

2.            Distorts the congregation’s view of Christ

The church is also taught an inaccurate portrayal of Christ. The Christ we see in the Bible is described as gentle and lowly, the one who will not break a bruised reed and who calls all to come to him who are weak and heavy laden. The Christ of the Scriptures puts to death sin and suffering and is the Good Shepherd who keeps and cares for every sheep in his flock, even the one who has gotten lost on their way back to the fold. He is the one who diligently searches for this misguided sheep and binds its wounds when he finds it. When we allow a man into our pulpits or to teach our Sunday school classroom who has violated the body of Christ the way abusive officers do, we teach our people that this Christ doesn’t exist.

This is a Christological problem. Pastors are under-shepherds; they represent Christ and his Word to the flock. When a minister has neglected his duties by abusing his flock in any capacity, he has misrepresented Christ. He bears false witness to the people of God about who their Savior is.

3.            Misunderstands the nature of forgiveness

The primary argument against my line of thinking has always been that Christ forgives us and redeems us. This is a true gospel promise. The beauty of the gospel is that there is forgiveness for every single person who falls at the foot of the cross and cries out to Christ to save them.

The problem we have when we consider the Word of God, however, is we see that God’s forgiveness doesn’t always keep us from temporal consequences. Christians should never believe that being eternally forgiven means there is no earthly consequence for their wickedness. The Bible teaches us that we should expect our bad behavior to bring punishment. When Moses sins against God, he is kept out of Canaan and is only able to gaze on its glory from the mountain top; David’s murder and adultery lead to his children rising against him and crushing his household. God teaches us throughout the Word that we should expect consequences for our sin in this world, but there will be no eternal condemnation for those who are in Christ.

The minister of the gospel who is disqualified and removed according to 1 Timothy 5 has no biblically prescribed pathway back into the ministry. He isn’t restored to his authority. He is kept back from the people so they may learn the seriousness of what he has done. This is a sad thing, a lamentable thing, but we must recognize that ministry is not a right of the talented and gifted. There is nowhere in the Bible that says a man must reclaim his position, nor is it a grace to him; it is neither healing nor an attempt to proclaim God’s grace. God’s grace is declared when the man repents, is brought back into the communion of the saints, and allowed once again to table with the bride. This restoration is enough, it is sufficient, no more is required for the gospel to be true, and no more is necessary for the man to be forgiven.

4.            Teaches the minister, the congregation, and future ministers that their glory is greater than Christ’s

One of the primary reasons given for why we allow these men to continue in the ministry is that they are helpful and gifted for the work and we don’t want to ruin their ministry. This reasoning teaches the people that a man is more valuable than the Word, and when we do that, we teach our people that the man and his glory are more valuable than God who wrote the Word for our benefit. The problem that exists with this line of thinking is it values the minister of the gospel and his reputation over the reputation of Christ and the credibility of the gospel itself.

It is dangerous to teach our people that anyone is so instrumental to the work of the gospel that they simply cannot be held accountable for their actions. When we do that, we commit the sin of partiality by saying that God’s standards of righteousness do not apply equally to the entire flock. We also teach the people that their names and their glory are greater and more important than the name and glory of Jesus because we begin to defend their honor over the honor of Christ and the clear teaching of Scripture.

5.            We are a people who ought to fear God

In God’s Word, it is the unbeliever who lives without fear of God—the lost world that boldly and aggressively defends themselves in their sin. Unbelievers operate without concern for the judgment and condemnation of God, “having no fear of God before their eyes.”[5]  They do not feel shame for their actions, and they do not concern themselves with God’s righteous standards. This fearlessness is what allows the world to spiral into deeper and deeper levels of depravity.

In contrast to the world’s fearlessness, the church is taught that the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord. Christians are called to live with a conscious concern for how God views our behavior[6].  Yet, when we allow abusive men back into our pulpits, we are willfully positioning ourselves in a way that rejects God’s standards of righteousness and continuously harms God’s people. The church operates by doing what is right in their own eyes with the aim of getting what they desire rather than consciously considering the danger of allowing these kinds of disqualified men back into the pulpit.


[1]

It is important to deal with actual abuse rather than perceived abuse. It is easy for a person in a church to cry out that they have been spiritually abused when what has actually happened is that they were held accountable for their own sin.   

For the purposes of this article, I will give it is important for me to give a couple of definitions.

First My standards for defining ministerial abuse would be 1. Exercising the authority of the ministry for personal gain at the expense of those you are tasked to serve and care for. 2.  Exercising the authority of the ministry without fear of God in such a way as to bring harm to those you are called to lead with care and serve.

I believe that an accusation of abuse should be held as true if one of these is true 1.  A person is convicted by a criminal court.  2.  There is a legal judgment against them.  3. They have admitted to the facts of the case and those facts are by clear examination abusive. 4.  The proper ecclesiastical authorities have listened to the evidence and determined the accusation is true.

[2] 1 Peter 5:

[3] 1 Timothy 3:2, 6:14; Titus 1:6–7

[4] 1 Timothy 3:7

[5] Romans 3:18

[6] Proverbs 9:10

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