How ought we respond when we hear that a Christian has fallen into scandalous sin? What effect should the fall of a Christian pastor have on us? We hear that someone, perhaps one we have known well, has fallen into financial sin (say, defrauding his church), or has been dishonest in his speaking or writing, or has committed great sexual sin, or has had an outburst of aggressive and blasphemous anger. Or he has in some other way dishonored the gospel of the Lord Jesus and damaged the church. In recent months, we’ve heard of several such tragedies.
After the first shock of discovery, what is a godly response? Here are 10 principles from Scripture I hope will guide us.
1. Be Sad and Angry
It’s right to be both sad and angry in the face of sin. For it is through sin that death came into the world (Rom. 5:12); every ugliness, each misery, all suffering, is the result of sin. When seen in its true colors, sin is always ugly. In his “anxiety for all the churches” when the apostle Paul hears of someone who has been caused to stumble, he burns with indignation (2 Cor. 11:28–29); it makes him angry at sin, angry at the Devil, angry at the one who has sinned.
When seen in its true colors, sin is always ugly.
When the Lord Jesus was face to face with death at the grave of Lazarus, he burned with sadness and anger. The expression “deeply moved” (John 11:33, 38) signifies not just grief but also anger. Every sin, and most acutely a scandalous sin, reminds us that we lie in the shadow of death. A holy sad anger is a right response. Don’t be afraid to weep.
2. Support Those Most Deeply Harmed
Every scandal causes casualties. When a man leaves his wife and children, the family will need much loving, sensitive support. They may need financial help or profound practical assistance, as well as sympathy and friendship.
When a pastor falls into sin, a whole church will be hurting. When someone with a wider ministry across different churches is snared in scandal, the shockwaves of pain and sadness may spread far and wide. We must do all we can to support those most deeply affected.
3. Watch and Pray
Anger at the sin of others is dangerous; it can blind us to our own frailty. At the start of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul invites us to meditate on the terrible sin of Old Testament Israel. How should we respond? Paul tells us: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction. . . . Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:11–12). “Keep watch on yourself, lest you be tempted,” Paul writes, when you’re seeking to restore one who has sinned (Gal. 6:1).
When I hear about a fallen minister, it frightens me to know I’m entirely capable of doing just what he’s done—or worse. I share a sinful nature.
So the sin of another ought to humble me afresh under the mighty hand of God, to move me to repentance for my own sin, to pray for a new realism about the darkness in my own heart, to watch myself closely lest I too be tempted and fall. “Lead me not into temptation” takes on a new urgency when I hear this news.
And humble watchfulness will guard me against the temptation to gossip about this sad failure, to spread the word around because it somehow makes me feel better about myself. This is always wrong.
4. Lovingly Watch over One Another
Hebrews 4:12–13 tells us:
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.
Sin is desperately deceitful; I can fall into scandalous sin and persuade myself it’s okay.
Sin is desperately deceitful; I can fall into scandalous sin and persuade myself it’s okay.
So I need brothers and sisters who will watch over me, warn me, encourage me, help me to be on guard against sin’s deceitfulness. When a brother or sister falls in some terrible way, it should stir us all to redouble our care for one another, whether through prayer partnerships, accountability groups, or just the healthy watchfulness that ought to characterize church life (cf. Heb. 10:24–25). Each of us has areas of weakness. A faithful prayer partner can be a friend who knows me well enough to warn me when he sees danger ahead. He may spot lurking sin to which I am blind.
5. Be Gentle
We should approach the fallen Christian in “a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). The guilty sinner will be bruised. There will be all sorts of conflicting thoughts and emotions raging within them. It will be a time of terrible turmoil. If you’ve been their friend, and you come to them with a stern rebuke or condemnation—however much they may deserve it—you may expect him or her to pull down relational shutters, to unfriend you on social media, to ignore your calls or texts, to hunker down and cut themselves off from Christian friends. So be gentle. Offer friendship.
They won’t expect you to condone what they’ve done, but they may be grateful that you continue to show them friendship. They may not. They may refuse you and turn you away. But with gentleness they may, even tentatively, agree to meet or stay in touch. Who knows? You may be God’s special instrument of grace to them.
6. This Isn’t the End of the Story
You don’t know how the story will end. You don’t know that it will end with grace, forgiveness, restoration, and reconciliation—it may not. But nor do you know it won’t, so pray.
The apostle John writes:
If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that does not lead to death. (1 John 5:16–17)
I’ve always been puzzled as to how John expects us to know, at the time, which sins lead to death and which do not. Given the context in 1 John, a definitive acceptance of wrong teaching about Jesus Christ may constitute the former, but I’m not sure. In the case of scandal, however, it seems to me that we usually don’t know.
We never know how a story will end.
Paul writes of a godly grief that produces a repentance that leads to salvation and a worldly grief that “produces death (2 Cor. 7:10). Pray that grief in your friend may prove to be godly sorrow that leads them to repentance. It probably will take time, but pray that will be the outcome.
Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter stand side by side so strikingly in the narrative of John 13 and John 18. Had you been talking about Judas in earlier days, you probably would’ve been pretty sure he was a genuine disciple; he was, after all, the apostolic band’s treasurer. No doubt he looked and sounded like a real follower of Jesus. But you would’ve been tragically wrong. But, then again, had you watched Simon Peter denying his Lord three times, you might’ve concluded he would be lost forever. And you would’ve been gloriously wrong. We never know how a story will end, so there is always hope in the gospel’s power to transform.
7. Pray for All Christian Leaders
A professing Christian’s fall into scandal is always a shocking event. But it’s particularly shocking when the one who falls is either a senior and respected Christian leader or a young, gifted Christian leader. Pray for them. They are engaged in a noble task with high moral expectations and demands; there is a Devil who prowls around like a roaring lion, desiring to destroy (1 Tim. 3:1–7; 1 Pet. 5:8).
I try to pray regularly for those Christian leaders to whom God has entrusted a high public profile, especially in this age of social media and internet fame. I ask God to keep them humble, to guard their character, and to make them ever watchful over their life and doctrine (1 Tim. 4:16).
8. Don’t Let This Rock Your Faith (Put Not Your Trust in Princes)
I remember a terrible fall many years ago by a noted a Christian leader. Many churches felt the shockwaves. I’ll never forget an older Christian friend, who’d admired this leader, quote from Psalm 146: “Put not your trust in princes.” Sometimes people feel their faith has been rocked by a scandal. But if our faith has been shaken, it may suggest our faith has been misplaced. If we place our trust in human leaders, we are going to be shaken, for we ought not to have relied on them in the first place. Only God is trustworthy.
If our faith has been shaken, it may suggest our faith has been misplaced.
With characteristic wisdom, John Newton wrote:
Gifts may perhaps be compared to a weapon or sword which will enable a man to do much execution in the battle, but they are no evident proofs on which side he intends to fight.
Church history is littered with brilliant people who have proven to be enemies of the gospel, often within the visible church.
In our age of the Christian celebrity, this warning must be sounded with clarity and intensity. We must not trust ultimately in even the greatest Christian leader. As the psalm goes on to say, even if they don’t let us down in this life, they will eventually die. Even the Christian leader who remains faithful to the end cannot save us. That ought to be obvious, but somehow we keep forgetting it.
9. Take Comfort in the Goodness and Sovereignty of God
A minister’s fall from grace is a moral earthquake. When a marriage breaks, we all feel our marriages are less secure; when scandal breaks, we feel ourselves somehow less safe. That’s only natural. But we mustn’t stop there. The great Scottish pastor Robert Murray McCheyne wrote:
The falls of [professing Christians] into sin make me tremble. I have been driven away from prayer, and burdened in a fearful manner by hearing or seeing their sin. This is wrong. It is right to tremble, and to make every sin of every professor a lesson of my own helplessness, but it should lead me the more to Christ.
Christ has declared that he will build his church (Matt. 16:18), and he will. Scandal rocks the church; it brings the gospel into disrepute; it can close doors for gospel work. But it can never frustrate Christ’s sovereign power and unchanging purposes to build his church. One day there will be a “great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes” (Rev. 7:9). Among that number there will be some who fell into scandalous sin, but were later brought to repentance and restored. Your friend may be among them.
10. Stir Up Fresh Zeal for the Gospel
Remember that only the gospel abolishes death and brings life and immortality to light (2 Tim. 1:10). In a world where Paul knew sin, scandal, and betrayal, he rejoiced at being a “preacher and apostle and teacher” of this glad message (2 Tim. 1:11). Only the grace of God can train us for godliness (Titus 2:11–14); only the grace of God can keep us faithful to the end; only the grace of God can grant us fresh repentance (2 Tim. 2:25,26).
Devote your life afresh to the gospel. Don’t let this sad discouragement slow your steps, weaken your knees, or lower your spirit, but keep on proclaiming this good news of Jesus, our only Savior.