We don’t like to talk about it and had certainly prefer to never deal with it in person. But the truth is the question of how to deal with fallen leaders in the church is important. I feel sick in the pit of my stomach when I read of a preacher or leader in the church who is found to be stealing money from the people he is supposed to serve or when they are found to be having an affair with some woman either in the church or with someone outside. Too often it has started with a person coming to the preacher for counseling and it going on too long and getting too close until suddenly one realizes they have broken their vow to be true to their wife and their vows to God to serve him faithfully. Many churches have tried to work with the person and help them overcome their failure to be God’s servant again. When it works it is a wonderful thing. Too often it is rushed and we expect it to be quickly solved and to move on. Other churches have pitifully chosen to pass the problem on to some other church by firing the man but then not telling anyone why they fired him so that another church, unsuspectingly hires the man only to see the same thing happen all over again where they are.
So, what are we to do? Is there a way back for the fallen leader in the church? First, let me say what we all realize, we have all messed up lots of times, hopefully not in being unfaithful to our wives or to God, but we do sin and shouldn’t take a self-righteous attitude just because we haven’t done that sin. Second, remember that God continued to use men after they had fallen and come back to him. He is a God of restoration. One of the most amazing cases was with Simon Peter. Just think about one who had walked with Jesus for over three years and was the leader of the apostles, yet he denied Jesus, three times before others. It was public knowledge that he had committed the sin. So what did Jesus do to deal with Peter’s sin? He told Mary to tell Peter and the others that he was going before him into Galilee as if to send him the message he was still part of the group. He had said to Peter even when he told him ahead of time that he would deny him three times, “When you are converted, strengthen your brothers.” So in telling him that Satan was after him and wanted to sift him life wheat Jesus also said, “I’ve prayed for you.” The most amazing point of Jesus restoration of Peter was described in John 21. Peter had taken some of the disciples and gone fishing. They fished all night without catching anything. Early the next morning Jesus was on the shore but they didn’t recognize him. He called out to them to see if they had caught anything and told them where to drop the nets to catch a bunch of fish. When John said, “It’s Jesus.” Peter jumped into the water to swim to Jesus. He invited him and the others to breakfast with him, to eat some of the 157 large fish they had caught.
But after breakfast Jesus took Peter aside. Three times he asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” The first time it was a comparative question, “Do you love me more than these?” Each time when Peter struggled and affirmed his love for Jesus, the Lord responded with a mission for him. “Shepherd my sheep.” “Feed my lambs.” Jesus once again called Peter to leadership in the kingdom. He continued to tell him that the day would come when he would be taken and carried to places he didn’t want to go and would ultimately die for him. Jesus soon ascended back to the Father. Peter and the others along with some women waited for the Spirit to come on them in Acts 1. When the Spirit came upon them in an overwhelming way, Peter was led to preach to the multitudes the good news of Jesus. He would be the leader of the apostles preaching among the Jews from that day forward and would be the first to preach the gospel to the Gentiles. So, when a leader failed, publicly, Jesus not only restored him, but had him back preaching to the crowds less than two months after the sin.
But, what about other kinds of sins, such as sexual sins like adultery, or incest or abuse of children? Can we bring them back so quickly? Probably not. Here are some questions that we must have answered clearly before anyone can come back. Have they really repented of the sin? If there is any effort to justify the sin, the repentance isn’t there yet. Read Psalms 51 of David’s repentance for the sins of adultery and murder to get a picture of what true repentance looks like. Remember that God brought David back but he suffered some horrible consequences for the sin and so will any leader today. Is the sin part of a pattern? Has it happened before under other circumstances? If so, there must be more time to help a person break the habit. Please understand that anyone, no matter what their sin can make it right with God and be fully forgiven. That doesn’t always mean that a person is ready for leadership in the church immediately. Are they willing to put definite parameters around them and their actions to make certain it doesn’t happen again? Are they willing to completely give up counseling or to only meet with a person of the opposite sex with someone else present? Perhaps most important for the ones working with the person and trying to decide if they are ready to be back in a leadership role is the question, “Will they have credibility with the people?” Only the local leaders can make that decision. But a preacher without credibility is unable to do what God calls him to do. Sometimes it is best for a person to simply come back to God and work as a member of the church rather than being put back into a leadership role at all.
What is clear from the New Testament is the not only did Peter come back and reclaim his leadership role, so did Mark who went with Paul and Barnabas on the first missionary journey and turned back. Even though Paul later didn’t want to give him another chance, he would later write that Mark is profitable to me and the gospel. So it is possible for fallen leaders to become great servants and leaders again, but it is a difficult process for the church that is trying to handle the problem on a personal level. It is certainly something to be handled with lots of prayer and open eyes. It is far too easy to see what we want to see instead of recognizing the problems that led to the sin that may still be there.