One of the most challenging responsibilities is reporting the misconduct of a minister. Ministers are to possess the highest moral character (1 Tim. 3:1–7; Titus 1:6–9) and are to set believers an example (1 Tim. 4:12). Ministers are God’s appointed means of declaring his Word to his church and world, and are thus to be trustworthy (1 Cor. 7:25), having good reputations with all (1 Tim. 3:7).
Consequently, whenever a minister is found guilty of moral failure, the damage can be catastrophic. Depending on its nature and extent of awareness, not only can the reputation of the minister be irreparably harmed, but the reputation of his church—as well as its purity and peace—can also be seriously damaged. Reporting ministerial misconduct to church leaders can be difficult and intimidating; yet, for the church’s health, the minister’s reclamation, and God’s glory, it must be done.
The questions are many: What sins need to be reported? When is it to be done? How is it to be done? Certainly, not every sin a minister commits is to be reported to church leaders. After all, Solomon teaches it’s the glory of the believer to overlook a transgression (Prov. 19:11). And similarly, Paul tells us to “bear with one another, and if anyone has a complaint against another, to forgive each other, just as God has forgiven you” (Col. 3:13).
What Kinds of Sins Should Be Reported?
There are three categories of moral failure that should be reported.
1. Persistent Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing the same sin over and over again after being spoken to about it in private—which must first take place if the sin is known only to a few (Matt. 18:15)—it must be reported. This is because ministers are to be above reproach (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:6), and to be above reproach means to be marked by guiltlessness.
This is not to say, of course, that ministers are to be innocent of all sin, but that they must not be characterized by any sin. Ministers are to be marked by godliness, and godliness includes repentance, and repentance involves not just confessing sin but also turning from it (Prov. 28:13). Some common examples of persistent sin are lying, quarreling, and the use of pornography.
2. Public Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing any sin known to more than a few people, it must be reported. This is not only because ministers are to be above reproach, but also because church leadership must strive for the purity and peace of the church, and the public sin of a minister has the potential of seriously harming that purity and peace.
Church leadership needs to be alerted to sins such as these so that it can ensure that proper confession takes place, which always involves confessing sin as widely as the sin is known. Some common examples of public sin are gossip, slander, and outbursts of sinful anger.
3. Scandalous Sin
Whenever a minister is guilty of committing any particularly heinous sin—something that, if discovered, would disgrace the name of Christ and damage the witness of both minister and church—it must be reported. This would include sins such as drunkenness, adultery, stealing, and sexual abuse.
Some of these sins, of course, will need to be reported not only to church leadership but also to civil authorities. If a minister ever violates a lawful command of the state, and the violation is something the state identifies as a crime, both the church and the state should be notified.
How to Report?
But how are these sins to be reported? What steps need to be followed if a minister commits persistent, public, and/or scandalous sin?
First, be able to prove the sin from Scripture. Show you are dealing with actual offenses, deeds that can be shown to violate God’s law. If it can’t be proven to be sin, it mustn’t be reported; and if reported, it mustn’t be admitted as a matter of accusation (Matt. 18:15;1 Tim. 5:19). A wonderful help for determining if something is sinful is Westminster Larger Catechism questions 102 to 148, which lay out in great detail the duties required and sins forbidden in the Ten Commandments.
Second, obtain at least one other witness. Paul warns Timothy, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19). This doesn’t necessarily mean eyewitnesses of the sin, but anyone who is able to credibly testify that the sin has been committed. Those to whom the report is made must be able to determine if the report is true. If there is only one witness, and the minister denies the accusation, that determination can be challenging if not impossible. However, in such a case where there is only one witness, it should still be reported so that the leadership can investigate.
Third, report the sin to some other leader in the church and follow up. Depending on the church’s government structure, this will vary. But here’s the principle: Sin committed by a minister mustn’t be reported to any layperson (so as to avoid gossip) but only to someone who has authority to deal with it. In my case, as a member of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), this means the sin should be reported to another minister of the presbytery (PCA, Book of Church Order, 34–3). In other churches, the report may need to be made to an elder or to another staff member. Then, follow-up should take place, so that those aware of the sin can know it’s being dealt with properly.
If, in the unfortunate case it isn’t dealt with properly, then the one(s) who made the accusation can (in Presbyterian circles) either file an appeal or a complaint to the next higher court (PCA, Book of Church Order, Chapters 42 and 43), which in this case would be the General Assembly. In free churches, the only recourse may be (depending on the situation) leaving the church and reporting the matter to another leader or group of leaders in another evangelical church who would then try to convince leaders of the accused church to the deal with the issue properly.
Tough, Essential Duty
As challenging as it may be, reporting serious ministerial misconduct is essential. Not only is it vital for the health of the church and the health of the minister, but it’s also vital for the public honor of Jesus Christ.
Ministers are our brothers, and we are our brother’s keeper. May we love our ministers enough to keep them accountable as Scripture demands.