by Steve Nelson | 28 February 2021 |
God’s Word is abundantly clear: “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Why, then, do some churches mandate stiff consequences for moral failures from spiritual leaders? Wasn’t David forgiven for his sexual sin? And wasn’t Moses forgiven when he struck the rock?
It appears that God was less forgiving to Moses than he was to David. God tells Moses, “…land I have given the Israelites. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, as your brother Aaron was” (Numbers 27:12-13). It sounds like God is saying, “Here it is, Moses! Look at the wonderful inheritance your people will be getting to enjoy! But for you, sorry, you’re going to die.”
Something else must be going on here. God tells us that, “He does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men” (Lamentations 3:33). So what is really taking place? When God told Moses the penalty for his sin was to lose the privilege of going into the Promised Land with the rest of the children of Israel—who, by the way, were many times more rebellious and unfaithful than Moses was—He told him, “for when the community rebelled at the waters in the Desert of Zin, both of you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy before their eyes” (Numbers 27:14).
Here’s the answer: Moses was a spiritual leader, and as such he had special privileges. He spoke with God “face to face, as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11). The consequences for his actions were in proportion to the exalted position he filled.
When a spiritual leader falls, it is not the same as someone else falling. God has honored him and placed him in a high position of sacred trust. And, like Moses, when he falls, he fails to honor God “as holy: before the eyes of the people.” There must be serious consequences for such actions.
It’s not a matter of forgiveness. It’s a matter of violating a sacred trust—a trust that can never be completely restored.
If God’s leaders fall, ultimately, they lead others to lightly regard the sacredness of their calling and the purity of God’s holy character and they fail to honor the sacredness of God’s law. They disgrace Him before the eyes of the people.
Some may be wondering, “But what about restoration?” Even Peter was restored to his position after he denied his Lord three times.
Yet I would argue that Peter’s fall was different from that of a minister caught in sexual sin. Sexual sin destroys not only the one who commits the act; it often destroys the one they lead into sin as well. In reality, a fallen minister more closely resembles the actions of Judas than those of Peter. Judas took from the disciple’s moneybag, an action that was done to gratify his own desires. He was so self-absorbed that his passion for more led him to commit the most horrendous crime ever committed: He sold his Savior.
Like a morally fallen minister, Judas sold his own soul to gratify his desire for money.
You may be thinking, “Well, that may be true, but there is the account of King David’s fall. And, God even called him “a man after His own heart.” Yes, David committed adultery and murder. And he was forgiven and allowed to remain as king of Israel. Certainly, some may believe, there is a precedent here for restoring a fallen minister.
But is there really? If there is an argument to be made in favor of restoring the fallen, King David’s life would be a model of grace. But, if one takes that position, then there are other questions that must be addressed.
David’s sin, in terms of consequences, was one of the most costly sins a fallen leader had to endure. God tells David, “You did it in secret, but I will do this thing in broad daylight before all Israel” (2 Samuel 12:12). Most ministers who fall have real difficulty admitting the heinousness of their actions. The first reaction is to minimize or justify themselves. They, like David, try to hide their sin. You will hear sentences such as “I fell from grace” or “I took my eyes off Jesus.” All true, but this type of confession only minimizes the seriousness of their actions and personal accountability. These types of justifications are often spoken in order to gain sympathy and support, rather than to reveal the true nature of their sin.
God told David his secret sin would be broadcast in the “broad daylight before all Israel.” Apparently, God was greatly concerned how the effects of David’s sin would corrupt a nation if kept secret. Like the prophet Eli’s sons, who committed adultery with the women in the church, David’s sin would “make the Lord’s people to transgress” (1 Samuel 2:24). Often a moral fall and restoration are kept secret, allowing the fallen minister to continue on without any fear of embarrassment or real consequences.
God told David, “Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own” (2 Samuel 12:10). Life was not going to be a bed of roses and “easy street” for David after his fall. Additionally, God told him, “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you. Before your very eyes I will take your wives and give them to one who is close to you, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight” (2 Samuel 12:1).
Serious consequences indeed! How many fallen ministers would argue, “I am a man after God’s own heart like David! He wants to restore me. The best years of service are still ahead for me….” if, indeed, this were their fate? Sadly, often their focus is “all about me,” while the congregation they devastated and the lives they destroyed recede into the background. The spotlight is directed on themselves in order to gain sympathy, thus minimizing their “mistake.” How unlike David, “a man after God’s own heart,” they truly are!
David’s penalty was severe. David lost four sons. He lost the honor and prestige he had so wonderfully achieved through his prior loyalty and faithfulness to God and the people. And, what he did seriously impeded the evangelistic work of the church, for God told him, “You have made the enemies of the Lord show utter contempt” (2 Samuel 12:14).
Given all this, we are forced to ask the question: Is it worth the risk of such extreme loss to the church, to God’s reputation, to the victims of a fallen minister’s actions, to restore him back to his position? How could such a risk be worth the taking?
Salvation, not self-protection
What then is true restoration? Both Moses and David were restored to a saving relationship with Christ. But Moses’ service as a leader of God’s people came to an end. God did not abandon Moses or David because of their unfaithfulness. In both cases, He showed the children of Israel an extremely important lesson—one that we would do well to heed. If, after being used by God in a most solemn and sacred work, one lets go of their hold on Him and causes His name and church to come under censure and reproach because of their sin, there are extremely dire consequences. For both of them there was great loss. Joshua succeeded Moses as the leader of Israel, and David’s effectiveness as a leader was in many ways destroyed. His own sin caused division and abuse in His family, which led to insurrection by his son Absalom and disgrace to the children of Israel.
To a fallen leader I would say, “It’s time, with humble submission, to accept the consequences your actions have brought upon you, and to honor God and the church you failed to serve by refraining from seeking to restore your position.”
Moses gives us a wonderful example of how a fallen minister should respond to God’s hand of discipline. He lays down his rod of leadership and honorably turns over the reins to another whom God has chosen to take his place. He does not protest that he is God’s chosen instrument and that, even though fallen, he is still called and qualified to lead God’s people. Moses quietly and humbly steps aside. He places his life into the hands of a God he loves and trusts.
It’s not about forgiveness
Moses was raised to life and was granted eternal life, but his fall excluded him from being able to further lead God’s people here on Earth. It’s not unforgiving, unkind, or unChristlike to not allow a fallen minister to regain the position they once held, and through which they abused another. In fact, it is one of the most loving things we can do. Not simply for the morally fallen, but for the church, and for the highly honored name of our Creator whom we exalt before the world. It is imperative that we set a right example: one that shows God’s mercy and forgiveness, but one that also reveals He holds accountable those who serve as His leaders. Leaders often fall because the position they once held, if unguarded, easily leads to self-exaltation. To reinstate a fallen leader and place them back into the same position where the temptation to repeat their former actions is very great, is neither wise, nor in their own best eternal interest.
What to do?
What, then, is our responsibility to those who have fallen? Sometimes our feelings and personal attachment to a fallen leader find us encouraging them to stay in leadership. People will try to cheer on the fallen leader, telling them to get back on their feet and once again rise to greatness, though God has clearly said it’s time to step down. The reason we have such difficulty distinguishing between our emotions and principles is because we are more concerned with what pleases humankind, rather than showing our fidelity to God.
Why, at this point in time, is this so important? As Ellen White so eloquently stated,
We are nearing the judgment, and those who bear the message of warning to the world must have clean hands and pure hearts. They must have a living connection with God. The thoughts must be pure and holy, the soul untainted, the body, soul, and spirit be a pure, clean offering to God, or He will not accept it…. “ (Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce, p. 55)
When a leader becomes defiled through sexual sin, they cause the church and “the enemies of the Lord” to “show utter contempt” to God. The work they purportedly gave their whole heart, love and life to serve becomes tainted, and the gospel loses its power to convict men and women of their own sins.
If we cannot clearly see what God requires His people to be, then we most certainly will not be able to discern the high level of integrity His ministers must possess in order for their service to be acceptable and effective for Him. To encourage someone to stand if God says, “Step down,” is extremely dangerous—not only to the one whom we encourage, but to us individually as well. Ultimately, we too will have to bear the consequences if a fallen minister who is again “restored” to leadership abuses someone else. My prayer is that, as a church, we will vigilantly search our hearts to see if we are indeed following where God is leading.
Steve Nelson is a pastor in NW Wyoming. He and his wife Samantha lead The Hope of Survivors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to assisting victims of clergy sexual abuse and providing educational seminars to clergy of all faiths. They love traveling, hiking in the mountains, and enjoying the beauty of God’s creation. You can contact them at 866-260-8958.