What should I do if I see moral failings in my pastor? One of the hardest things in church life is to confront and reprove someone for inappropriate actions.
But what if that person is one of your pastors? What if you have concerns or even concrete information about moral failings in your church leadership? If the accusation is serious, could saying something hurt the church more than your silence? What instruction does the Bible provide for confronting your pastor?
Evaluate Your Heart
Whenever we reprove someone, we first need to evaluate our own motives for doing so. Jesus instructs us to examine the log in our own eye before addressing the speck in our brother’s (Matt. 7:1–5). This isn’t meant to keep us from confrontation, but to encourage us to look deep into our own hearts before doing so.
One of the reasons Paul insists on multiple witnesses for a charge to be brought against an elder (1 Tim. 5:19) is to protect elders from a single jealous or spiteful member looking to take them down.
Ask yourself these questions: Is there jealousy in my heart that I need to deal with first? Is there a biblical basis for the reproval? Is my goal to restore this brother or just tear him down? Is my aim to see this church flourish? Is this an issue that needs to be addressed by me?
There are two kinds of non-disqualifying behavior: personal and general.
Did one of your pastors do something that hurt you personally? Perhaps he broke confidence and gossiped about you, dismissed you, or neglected you in a time of need. Jesus is clear in this situation that you go to your offending brother, tell him your grievance and allow him the opportunity to repent, and heal your relationship (Matt. 18:15). If he doesn’t hear your grievance, Jesus instructs you to get someone else (Matt. 18:16). Because you are dealing with your pastor, I would suggest this other person be an elder or other leader in your church.
Beware of taking up someone else’s personal offense. If you know the pastor has personally hurt someone else, encourage them to address the issue. If they are reticent or scared, walk with them through this process and stand by them as they address it.
One of the hardest things in church life is to confront and reprove someone for their inappropriate actions.
The second type of non-disqualifying behavior is a grievance or sin of a more general nature. Maybe you’ve observed the pastor behaving in a manner unworthy of a Christian, but the offense wasn’t personal. Maybe there is concern about his teaching and doctrine. Maybe he exudes pride and not humility. Maybe there is concern about his lifestyle or potentially inappropriate boundaries in relationships.
Hebrews 12:15–16 instructs us to guard each other, and your pastor needs this as much as anyone else. Go directly to him and communicate what you’ve observed and your heart for him to be fruitful and successful in his calling. Be careful not to ascribe a motive to his actions, since you don’t know his heart. Just talk about how he comes across in a general sense and what specific situations you have observed.
If he does not hear you, bring in another church leader. If the pastor acknowledges this non-disqualifying offense and repents, praise God. The goal is restoration, not punishment. Depending on the gravity of the behavior, it could be one simple conversation where he is grateful for your input and moves in the right direction. In other situations, a plan of restoration overseen by church leaders might be in order. Either way, you have blessed the church.
If you have any reasonable accusation of disqualifying behaviors in your pastor (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:5–16), you have the obligation to go to your church leaders about it. Making an accusation like this against someone in authority is inherently intimidating, but God has given you other leaders in your church to come alongside you and make sure you are heard.
What about 1 Timothy 5:19 that says we need two or three other witnesses? The burden to find other witnesses is not on you. Paul is instructing church leaders on how to receive accusations; this is not a ban on confrontation unless you can find these witnesses yourself. Most pastors engaging in sexual misconduct or abuse, after all, are going to isolate their victims and make them think they’re all alone—in hopes that they won’t come forward. Once the accusation is made, church leaders have the biblical responsibility to seek out the additional witnesses (which are usually easier to find than most would anticipate).
What about going directly to the pastor, though, as Matthew 18 seems to indicate? Matthew 18 cannot be easily applied to every situation, since it assumes two laypeople and specifically deals with one party directly sinning against another (“if your brother sins against you” v. 15).
If you have knowledge of disqualifying sin that isn’t against you alone (e.g., sexual indiscretion, embezzlement, abuse of authority), you have no obligation to confront the pastor alone.
In these situations, 1 Timothy 5 instructs elders how to deal with accusations. (Again, the witnesses requirement seems to be a way of protecting a pastor from unjustified slander.) Godly elders bear responsibility for evaluating a case against the pastor and confronting him about his sin. As the shepherds of the congregation, they are charged with caring for and protecting the vulnerable people in their flock.
What If the Pastor’s Actions Are Illegal?
Without exception, the leaders of the church should immediately hand it over to the proper authorities. No in-house investigation is going to be adequate, especially if the situation involves anyone in danger.
God has given us authorities, and we have the duty to report crimes in our midst as soon as we become aware of them, no matter who is accused.
What If I’m Not Heard?
Sadly, there are times, especially if the pastor is professionally successful and the church is growing, where church leaders will not want to hear “inconvenient” accusations. If your accusation is ignored, or if you are told sin should be overlooked to maintain peace in the church, your leaders have broken their covenant with you and disqualified themselves.
At this point, you are free to go a few directions. You can go to ecclesiastical authorities if you have them, you can bring this matter to the whole church, or you can leave the church. Church leaders should be held accountable when they abdicate their responsibilities, and most polities have provisions to make this happen.
Sin Will Come Out
Your pastor’s sin will almost always come out eventually. It will certainly come out on the Day of Judgment. To prevent the sin from continuing and harming others, though, I encourage you not to keep silent. The burden of keeping your whole church on track is not yours alone, but you want to stand confident before God and your church that you did your part to hold your leaders accountable and to serve your church well.
Confronting a leader is always difficult, but God will grant you the words and the courage. Remember, he cares about his church even more than you do.