Cardinal Keith O’Brien will be the first cardinal to miss a papal conclave because of personal scandal. The cardinal is Britain’s highest-ranking Catholic leader. He is alleged to have acted inappropriately with three priests and a former priest in the 1980s, charges he is contesting, and is resigning from his office.
While Cardinal O’Brien has clearly not been convicted of wrongdoing, his resignation raises the question: can ministers be restored after moral failure? What does the Bible say? What guidelines could churches and ministers follow today?
The importance of personal godliness
First, Scripture clearly teaches that ministers must be above reproach:
• “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap” (1 Timothy 3:2-7).
• “Since an overseer is entrusted with God’s work, he must be blameless—not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:7-9).
• “It is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful” (1 Corinthians 4:2).
Second, ministers must set a personal example for those they lead:
• “Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
• “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2-3).
Third, ministers will be judged by God: “Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1).
Fourth, personal integrity is essential to public usefulness: “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?” (Luke 16:10-12).
Fifth, God requires personal purity: “Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people” (Ephesians 5:3).
Options regarding pastoral restoration
Pastoral restoration is typically approached in three ways:
• Immediate restoration to pastoral office (12 months or less after moral failure)
• Future restoration after repentance and counseling (one to three years)
• Personal restoration with no possibility for restoration to office.
Arguments for restoration:
• “God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable” (Romans 11:29).
• God’s word to the prophet Jeremiah: “If you repent, I will restore you that you may serve me; if you utter worthy, not worthless words, you will be my spokesman” (Jeremiah 15:19).
• “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1).
• “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
• “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
• After the sinner reproached by Paul (1 Corinthians 5:1-5) repented, the apostle urged the church to “forgive and comfort him” and to “reaffirm your love for him” (2 Corinthians 2:7, 8), so that “Satan might not outwit us” (v. 11).
• Abraham, Moses, David (cf. Psalms 32, 51), and Peter (cf. Luke 22:32; John 21:15-19) were used by God after their sin.
• A restored pastor will be able to minister with empathy to others who fall into sin.
• The church’s decision to restore a fallen minister testifies to the fallen world regarding the power of grace. The church should not be “the army that buries its wounded.”
Arguments against restoration:
• A pastor must be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2). Once he has sinned, he cannot be restored to this place in the eyes of others. But note: Jesus restored Peter to his leadership position after he denied his Lord three times.
• An adulterer’s “shame will never be wiped away” (Proverbs 6:33). But note: this statement refers to the jealous response of the woman’s husband, not to God’s judgment or pastoral ministry.
• Paul’s fear that he might be “disqualified” from his ministry (1 Corinthians 9:27). But note: his statement seems to have related more to heavenly reward than present ministry responsibilities.
• Moses was not allowed into the Promised Land.
• The church’s decision to restore a fallen minister may be seen by the larger community as an endorsement of sin.
My view: a minister can be forgiven and restored to ministry, if he or she takes the necessary steps for such restoration.
The process of pastoral restoration
“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector” (Matthew 18:15-17). My conclusion: If the person responds with repentance, he can be restored; if not, he must be removed permanently from his office.
In a recent survey of evangelical leaders, only five percent said that adultery would disqualify a person from ever holding another pastoral position. Responders recommended the following requirements for restoration:
• Immediate breaking of the adulterous relationship
• Genuine repentance
• Ceasing pastoral ministry for at least a year
• Completion of restoration process under denominational guidance. Time frames ranged from one to three years. (Evangelical Free Church of America requires a minimum of two years, as does the Christian and Missionary Alliance. The Assemblies of God requires total cessation of ministry for a year, and approval of ministry activities for a second year.)
• Submission and accountability to a council of overseers
• Restorative counseling including family repair and renewal
• Supervised preaching
• Recommendations from others regarding the person’s fitness to return to ministry
• Restoration to a different church, community or position
• Restoration to a position other than the senior pastorate
• A church’s desire to receive the restored pastor
• Commitment to ongoing, systematic accountability.
One counselor listed these qualifications for a minister who experiences genuine restoration:
• Initiative in disclosing sin
• Humble and broken heart
• Full responsibility taken for personal sin
• Direction received from authorities
• Accountability embraced
• Professional counseling sought.
The church has been called “the only army that buries its wounded.” It is vital that we model the grace we ask others to trust. At the same time, our integrity is our most essential resource. If the culture cannot trust us, it is less likely to trust our Lord.
As the church was founded by Jesus (Matthew 16:18), he is her Lord and Master. He will lead the congregation and minister in whatever way expresses his “good, pleasing, and perfect will” (Romans 12:2).