I have been a Reformed Baptist pastor for 10 years, and I have not fallen, nor am I aware of any problems in my life of the magnitude that would disqualify me from ministry. I struggle with worry and grumbling, but my sins aren’t of the notorious and ignominious sort. I hasten to add, however, that I am no less in need of God’s grace and forgiveness than someone who is disgraced in the eyes of the self-righteous crowd or disqualified in the eyes of the humble Christian crowd. We are all sinners, and we all desperately need continual supplies of God’s grace, which he has given us in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Every sin deserves God’s wrath, but some sins receive different temporal ramifications than others. God has stipulated that those he has set over his flock must not be sinners of the blatant, notorious type (1 Tim. 3). Unfortunately, I am aware of several pastors who have become just that. In fact, some of the most notorious sinners I’ve ever known were at one time pastors. These men were disqualified for ministry, and they faded away in shame, leaving in their wake many hurting, confused and outraged people.
My question is a simple one: why? Why does this happen? Why can we all, no doubt, bring to mind several names and faces of pastors who lost their testimony and their ministry due to notorious sin?
I believe there are a multitude of reasons why pastors fall. Let me address only a few before focusing on one in particular.
First, there are many men who enter the ministry who have never conquered sexual sin in their personal lives. A man who has no self-control is fighting the Holy Spirit whose fruit always produces it. There can be no doubt: a person is a slave to whomever he obeys. People who habitually commit sexual sin are slaves to the devil and to the flesh. Such men enter the ministry already fallen; their later “fall” is just an exposure of what they are.
LACK OF DEVOTIONAL LIFE
Second, there are many men in the ministry who have never established regular devotional times. Such a person is fundamentally at odds with God, because God invites all Christians to meditate on God’s Law day and night. Many men have no interest in prayer. Such men are vulnerable to attacks from the enemy, and when temptation comes over and over, they cannot stand because their lifeline is cut, they have no spiritual power, for they simply don’t love God enough to maintain a relationship with him.
BAD MOTIVATIONS FOR MINISTRY
Third, many pastors get into ministry for the wrong reasons, so their motivations are either false or they are mixed. Some people become pastors because they think they’ll get peace, or money, or respect, or time, or power. They are in it primarily for supposed benefits. It is hard not to think of such men as completely ignorant of what pastoral life is really like. When ministry turns out to be full of disillusionments, they turn to what gives them pleasure, because that was what they were seeking to begin with.
LACK OF COVENANT SOLIDARITY
These and many reasons can be trotted out, but I would like to focus on one in particular. Often pastors fail because they and their families are victims of a lack of covenant solidarity, which subtly turns them from God.
What do I mean by covenant solidarity? I’d define it as a principle of unity among a congregation that isn’t derived from shared personality traits, mutual hobbies, or common interests, but rather is derived from a shared interest in and love for Christ. Covenant solidarity is “the tie that binds.” This Christ-centered form of relationship results in an undying devotion to those for whom he died. It is the lack of this covenant solidarity that is so damaging, not only to pastors but to all in the congregation.
What damage occurs when there is a loss of covenant solidarity? Or what if a church was founded originally on some other uniting principle rather than covenant solidarity? There are many dire results.
First, people gravitate to those of their own stripe and therefore cliques are born. Instead of being interested in all people who are in Christ, people who don’t love Christ first and foremost find some other uniting principle, which typically involves shared interests. It’s striking how petty friendships become when Christ is left out. People unite around baking, motorcycles, hunting, music, and games. People naturally seek to flock with other birds like them, and without a cause bigger than themselves, they simply follow their personal inclinations.
Second, People make their own happiness the primary reason to be in a church, and so schismatics are born: those who will dump a church because it didn’t “scratch their back” well enough. People in churches like this are insecure, especially the pastors. They instinctively feel that they have to perform or “be what others want them to be,” and therefore they fear rejection and are dominated by the whims and opinions of others.
Third, when something other than Jesus Christ becomes the uniting principle in the local church, the church becomes fundamentally idolatrous. To put it simply, people are coming to church for other reasons than out of love for God. I tell my kids, “You aren’t coming to church to see and be seen. You are coming to church to sing to God, pray to God, give to God, and hear from God so that you can love God, worship God and obey God. Church is all about relating to God.”
When an entire church gets this, really gets it, a wonderful sort of harmony and tranquility enters, and the chaotic bustle and attempts at being the Great Personality fade away as everyone realizes there is only one answer, Jesus Christ, and they become content eagerly seeking him. The pastor then can function in his proper role. He can stop being a celebrity and start laboring at the task of feeding Christ’s dear sheep with Christ’s holy Word.
Pastor as Idol
Fourth, another result is that the pastor takes the brunt of the idolatry. He is the most public person in the congregation, and people tend to expect more from him. Often the pastor goes along with this state of affairs and is unaware that it is occurring, even as he wonders why he feels that he is drying up, struggling with fear, and can’t take comfort from God’s Word anymore. Try being the Great Personality around which the church must be unified, and you’ll see how soul destroying it is. When a pastor “goes off the deep end” it is often because the whole group had already been swimming in it for some time.
People as Idolaters
Fifth, another result is the hatred that springs up in idolaters' hearts when their idol fails to live up to their expectations. This is inevitable when the congregation has a principle of unity other than Christ. The numbers of people who have inexplicably turned on pastors because they didn’t show up to a sporting event, or because they didn’t let them teach Sunday school, or because they didn’t check up on them enough, or because they “seemed uninterested” in them, or because they didn’t go along with a peculiar vision for the church—the numbers of such people are surprising, though thankfully not overwhelming. Of course there are other reasons why people become angry at pastors, but in this sense they do so because they have an idolatrous expectation bound up in human religious leadership, and I assume that they are unaware of their tragic spiritual state. They think they are following Jesus, but they need to put God in his proper place in their lives. They need to repent of their idolatry.
The burden that this sort of idolatry places on pastors is enormous, even when they recognize that it is happening and when they consistently, day-by-day, deal with it correctly. The burden on their families is also enormous. And when it becomes too great to bear, the family unit ruptures, invisibly at first, but as relationships grow cold, the pastor has lost his God-given place of refuge in the world. If there is any weakness in his relationship with God, he’s bound to have all his personal weaknesses exploited by the enemy.
I believe that one reason pastors fall is a lack of covenant solidarity in the group. People aren’t united around Christ as the tie that binds.
The Pastor Is Not Christ
I once was in a class on the prophet Isaiah, which I took during my seminary years. The teacher was a very kind man, who was somewhat discombobulated all the time and yet still had something insightful to say every class period. I appreciated him, and apparently other people in class did too, to the level of idolizing him. One day he came to class looking positively oppressed, and after opening the class with prayer, he said something I’ll never forget. He looked at the class, commiserated with some people about their difficult situations, and then he said “I am not Christ.” His point was an obvious one. Nobody thought he was Jesus, and at first I wondered what he was getting at. Nevertheless, it became apparent that he needed to say it. There were people in class who were putting him on a pedestal. People expect far too much out of friends, teachers, and preachers. People expect things that only Jesus can provide: unfailing love, acceptance, security, total relational satisfaction, a heart large enough to feel all their woes. One of the signs of a godly pastor is that he doesn’t take too much on himself. The godly pastor knows who the true answer is, and he doesn’t try to be Him. When faced with the woes of a sin-cursed world, the godly pastor’s response is always “I care about you; I will pray for you; I’ll try to help you in whatever small way I can, but your answer is Jesus Christ as offered to you in the Bible. Go to him through Bible reading, prayer, good sermons, and the ordinances. He rewards those who seek him and will truly meet your every need.” Such an attitude not only points to the true help everyone needs, but it also avoids the trap of unbiblical idolatrous expectations that can literally drive pastors out of their minds and out of their pulpits.
This post cannot hope to give all the reasons why pastors fall, but one reason is no doubt that many pastors are suffering from an idolatrous culture, in which they themselves may be complicit, and which makes something other than Jesus the tie that binds.