When the Pastor Sins

Rethinking Church, part 5

Click here for part 1, 2, 3, 4

Having previously developed the understanding that God has one ordained office of leadership within the church, namely the Pastor, and that the Pastor is a single position, not a board, and that this position has built-in checks and balances that need no man-made addition, we turn now to the subject of pastoral failures.  Does a church have recourse when a Pastor fails?

The Bible teaches about the discipline of the Pastor by the body itself.  Because the pastor is merely a man, though one called to a holy task, there is the possibility that he may become involved in sinful activity.  Remember, the safeguards of a strong calling, an easily led congregation, the love for the Pastor, and the foot-washing spirit of the Pastor himself will most often provide the guard that is needed to keep a Pastor living a holy life, and leading in a godly manner.  But when these fail, and sin takes root, the congregation as a whole becomes the body of discipline.

Two simple verses in 1 Timothy outline the discipline of the Pastor by the congregation.  “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning” (1 Timothy 5:19–20, NASB95).  These words must be the basis for any action against the Pastor by the church or its members.

The Reason

A Pastor is only to be disciplined for sinful activity, not poor performance, lack of church growth, failure to carry out a particular agenda or need in the congregation, or any host of other shortcomings one might list.

Paul used the word accusation when he brought up the matter of pastoral discipline.  As a Pastor of over 20 years, I know that accusations come freely and often for the modern Pastor (and anyone in public life, for that matter).   Our society, unwelcoming of authority, is quick to accuse its leaders.  Perhaps this is one reason American political opinion changes so quickly.  Any election cycle shows one front runner quickly overtaken by an underdog, who then becomes the front runner until the accusations begin to come and the cycle continues.  We love to accuse those in public life!

We have established that the organizational and leadership office of the church is the Pastor.  Therefore, accusations of poor leadership, lack of vision, disagreement with direction, and a host of other leadership issues are simply out of the domain of discipline.  A Pastor rules his church like a husband rules his home.  While such issues may be lovingly brought to the Pastor for prayerful consideration, the Pastor is never to be disciplined for these issues.  In fact, the one who does so is in sin himself, and likely should be disciplined under Matthew 18.  Be careful before you accuse your Pastor!

If, however, the activity of the Pastor is illegal, immoral, or unbiblical, then it is a matter for potential discipline.  Matters of adultery, homosexuality, unpaid debts, embezzlement, and other clearly sinful activities should bring the Pastor under discipline.  Matters of doctrinal integrity are worthy of Pastoral discipline, provided that the congregation seek wise, theologically trained counsel to make sure there is clear heresy.

So before a matter becomes a matter of discipline, consider whether it is a clearly sinful activity.  If so, discipline might be in order (using the rules below).  If not, then it may be a matter of loving discussion, but no more.

The Requirement

The accusation being of clear sin, the requirement now is that there are at least two, preferably three witnesses.  This is a higher standard than Matthew 18 gives for other church members.  In Matthew 18, one person goes to his brother, and later takes along others to witness the confrontation, though they may not be witnesses of the actual sin.  For the Pastor, however, God has placed a safeguard requirement of two or three eye-witnesses to the sinful activity.    This important safeguard was given by God because of the quick desire to accuse those in the public arena.  This is why I would warn you against believing everything you hear about anyone in public life.

Are there two or three who have seen the sinful activity take place?  Are they willing to testify in public?  If so, the church should receive the accusation.  If not, the Pastor continues to lead with the full trust of the congregation.

Unlike civil life, in churches we often protect the identity of the accuser.  This is dangerous.  In any court of law, the accused has the right to face his accuser.  If a church member is unwilling to publicly confront the Pastor, his or her testimony cannot be taken into consideration.  “I know a member who once heard the Pastor say” is not sufficient.  Use this principle:  If a member will not publicly give witness, then the accusation is not received.

Further, if there is only one witness, the accusation is not received.  Do not let this alarm you, because a Pastor who has left the boundaries of Scripture and Spirit will commit the same sin again, probably soon.  Wait until two or even three witnesses are willing to confront the Pastor together before the accusation is even entertained.

While the Scripture gives the benefit of the doubt to the Pastor by requiring two or three witnesses, it also holds the Pastor to a higher standard in that there is a quicker process for the discipline of the Pastor. Matthew 18 takes a three-step process: confrontation, repeat confrontation, and congregational consideration.  The process for the Pastor, on the other hand, is confrontation (by two or three) followed by congregational consideration.

Who is in charge of this process?  No one!  This is a very important matter.  If a church designates Deacons, the Personnel Committee, or anybody to be in charge of receiving the accusations, that church has violated the teaching of Scripture and placed themselves as the guardians of the realm.   The process needs no such guardian.  Rather, if a member is witness to the sinful activity of the Pastor, he waits to accuse until there is at least one more, careful not to go looking for such a witness.  As I said before, if the Pastor has strayed from the Scripture and the Spirit, it won’t be long until there is another witness to the sin.  In the course of life, the two or three witnesses will come together.  This is especially true in a congregation that fellowships with one another on a regular basis.  These two or three members then, and no one else, are in charge of the operation.  They should quickly make an appointment with the Pastor, confront him with his sin, and then, if there is no repentance, take it to the congregation.  (At times, the sin will disqualify the Pastor from future service regardless of repentance).

The Remedy

I believe this next step is one of the most important for avoiding a church split.  Paul says that accusations, witnessed by two or three, are to be taken to the congregation.  Hear me well when I say that if any other intermediate steps are taken, you risk division in the body and disobedience to Scripture.  The two or three must confront the Pastor and then say, “Pastor, according to Scripture, we are going to bring this to light within the congregation.”

I cannot emphasize the importance of this enough.  If you take it to the Deacons, to a committee, to a small group of respected leaders, to a group of elders, or even to part of the congregation, you will create a royal mess!  Take it to the congregation!

So often I hear people say, “we don’t want this to be public, we don’t want the congregation to know.”  While I understand the political reasons for such action, I cannot find justification for that anywhere in Scripture.

Taking an issue directly to the congregation protects both Pastor and church.  It protects Pastor in that only serious accusations with true eyewitnesses will be taken to the congregation.  Many of the things Pastors are accused of and chided for are simply stupid.  Often the “we don’t want to divide the church” defense for not taking it to the congregation is just a cover for “our accusation is so lame that we would be embarrassed to stand and defend it.”

But it also protects the congregation.  Serious accusations will come before the body, and will be dealt with.  Nothing will be done in secret quarters or in the proverbial “smoke-filled room.”  The members of the congregation have a right both to know and participate in the discipline of their pastor.  The church bypasses this to its own detriment!

When the matter becomes church-wide, it must quickly be decided.  Get another respected Pastor, hear the evidence, allow the Pastor to respond, and let the church decide whether to remove its Pastor from his position or to dismiss the accusations.


Friend, this simple and Biblical process would save so much pain in the body.  I know of few things in life as painful as a divided church, and most churches that divide do so over accusations against the Pastor.  If the church would covenant together to abide by the God-breathed standards for Pastoral discipline, the untold numbers of church splits and disappointed church members could be largely curtailed.

Because most church problems arise from mishandling pastoral discipline, most church fractures could be solved by getting this one matter right.  What a revival this could bring to the church!

Next in this series:  The ministry of the Deacon

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  3 comments for “When the Pastor Sins

  1. Joe Harrington
    February 21, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    My church went thru a situation regarding a youth pastor and the daughter of one of the membeers. It was brought to the elders first and a attempt was made to keep it quite and allow the pastor to resign and leave quitly.
    When it all came to lighht it split the church bady. That was over 2 years ago. Hard feelings continue still and the distrust continues.

    • February 21, 2012 at 11:00 pm

      That approach (keeping it quiet) seems like such a logical approach. The problem is that it is not a Biblical approach, and it has destroyed many churches and Pastors. As I mentioned in the article, the public nature of the discipline protects both Pastor and congregation.

  2. co13_8
    December 27, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    You say that it would be against Scripture not take it to the congregation. I don’t know where you find this in the Word. Could you please tell me where I can find the. I only find that if a man doesn’t repent after two or three witnesses have brought the sin to his attention and he has not turned. Also how does a church discipline other than removal?

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