We’ve all been disappointed in people before, but the hurt can be harder to swallow when it comes from inside the four walls of our church.
Perhaps a beloved pastor led your parents to Christ and performed your wedding, but you later discovered he spiritually abused other church members. Maybe your youth pastor always supported you at soccer games and plays but recently abandoned his wife and family for someone else. God used this pastor in your life, but now the memories feel tainted. How can we reconcile the good he’s done for us with the harm he’s done to others?
When a pastor or other church leader fails morally, church members often tend toward two types of responses. We might deny or excuse the pastor’s failures—He’s done so much good in our congregation over the years; that can’t be true! Or we might discredit his ministry altogether—All his sermons and everything I’ve learned from him are no longer valid.
Instead, we must learn to hold these extremes in tension. The good doesn’t mean a pastor is incapable of doing wrong, nor does the bad necessarily erase the fruit of his ministry.
Holding the Tension
The Bible is full of people and leaders God used for good, even though they had major failures. Abraham and Moses are familiar examples.
Abraham followed the Lord to an unknown land and offered his son as a sacrifice, fully believing in the power of resurrection (before it had ever happened in history). But he also lied about Sarah being his wife on two occasions, and he went along with her plan to have an heir through their servant Hagar (Gen. 12:12–14; 16:2–4; 20:2).
Moses led Israel out of Egypt across the parted Red Sea, and God entrusted him with the Ten Commandments. Yet, after seeing miracle upon miracle, he struck a rock to produce water in unbelief (Ex. 20; Num. 20:10–13).
What were these two men, along with many other flawed people, commended for in Hebrews 11? Their faith. Though Abraham and Moses failed at times, they continually turned back to the Lord in obedience. Their failures didn’t erase the wonderful ways God used them for his purposes.
But that doesn’t mean church leaders receive a free pass for their sins. Abraham was separated from his son Ishmael, and Moses never entered the promised land. The results of sin can often be severe and grievous. Pastors may need to step down from their positions until repentance and reconciliation occur and church discipline has been enacted. Even then, full restoration to ministry may not be possible or wise.
Their failures didn’t erase the ways God used them. But that doesn’t mean church leaders receive a free pass for their sins.
Clinging to Christ
What does that mean for those of us left in the aftermath? The sad reality is that a once-beloved church leader may no longer be someone we should confide in or follow. We may even need to find a new congregation to join.
However, that doesn’t void the ways God used these leaders in our lives. We can still thank God for what he taught us through them while expressing our hurt, disappointment, and even anger to the Lord over our broken church situations. That’s part of casting all our cares on him (1 Pet. 5:7). Instead of suppressing our emotions over these failures or allowing the sin of bitterness to destroy us, Hebrews 12:1–2 gives us a better focus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.
God has set a race before each of us, and for many of us, that race involves dealing with the sinfulness and brokenness of church leaders. May we let their failures remind us of our own need to lay aside the sin that clings so closely to us.
Jesus alone lived perfectly. When our earthly leaders fail, we’re reminded to continually look to Christ. Because he alone is the founder and perfecter of our faith, we can hold the good and the bad of our leaders in tension. Only Jesus is worth clinging to with our whole hearts.