When A Pastor Falls

Strategically, Satan can do a great deal of harm to the church when he can play a role in the fall of a pastor. Pastors therefore should understand they are the special objects of attack (Zech. 13:7). But they should also remember the powerful presence of indwelling sin will mean they are never guiltless when they fall. The external causes may be Satan and another woman (not his wife), but the internal moving cause is their own sin.

There are degrees of sin (Jn. 19:11).

By suggesting that some sins are worse than others, I am saying, with James Fisher (1697–1775), that such “are more abominable, hateful, and offensive to God than others are” (Ezek. 8:6, 13, 15, “greater abominations”). Indeed, all sins are hateful and offensive to God, and even the least sin deserves his eternal wrath. But there are biblical reasons that some sins are more heinous than others.

A pastor who commits adultery sins in a greater way than a mere member of Christ’s church who commits the same sin. Pastors are judged more strictly due to their office and role in the church. To whom much is given, much is required.

The fallen pastor sins in a greater way if he has children, especially younger children. The more children affected the greater the sin. Children inevitably suffer because of their father’s infidelity. Most times they find out and when their father loses his position at the church, it inevitably leads to both spiritual and economic hardship for all who belong to that family. Regrettably, the shame of the father is passed on to the rest of the family. The family members become identified with “that pastor who cheated on his wife.”

The fallen pastor sins in a greater way if he has a larger flock. There are far more souls who are devastated and in many cases those who are weak in their faith may stumble because they see such hypocrisy and begin to wonder whether Christianity is in fact true. Do you want to pastor in a large church? Be warned. Should you sin grievously – God forbid! – you will have more to answer for because of the amount of people you have harmed. I have spoken to members of churches after their pastor has been caught for adultery and even strong believers are left stricken with grief and anger.

There’s a loss of respect and honor that will likely never return to the man who sins against so many people. Regaining respect that has been lost is extremely unlikely.

And, what’s more, when a pastor commits adultery, his sin is greater because he is in a position of authority, and it will inevitably raise questions over his abuse of power. The affair may be “consensual,” but it is hard to completely avoid some form of abuse of authority.

The fallen pastor may repent and live as a faithful Christian the rest of his days, but his work will be marred by his faithless actions that led to his public disgrace. His seminary training, including the financial investment, is in large part lost.

Not only his family but his friends will never quite regard him the same way again. True, forgiveness can take place, but the memory of his sin will never be lost in this life. The pastor and his family will have to deal with the uncomfortable fact that people will inevitably discuss his sin. In many cases, the world will have a chance to cast aspersions upon the church because even the leaders cannot obey their own message.

Most marriages struggle to recover when the husband is a pastor who has committed adultery. The wife tends to wonder how her husband could have preached from the pulpit about spiritual things while at the same time ripping his family to shreds in private. Marriages where there has been infidelity can recover (and have been recovered). But when it involves the pastor, the recovery seems to be more difficult. In my own experience, younger children are less likely to remain faithful Christians when their father, a pastor, has been found out for his faithlessness. They can carry a lot of resentment towards their father for what he did to the family.

I confess, such a sin, when it is uncovered, leaves permanent scars on so many people that full healing is usually impossible. David was forgiven for his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah, but read the rest of 2 Samuel and you will quickly see his life – and especially his family life – was never the same again.

This is rather bleak reading. But warnings about the consequences of our sin need to be sounded when appropriate. I need to be reminded of what can be lost and if you are a pastor you need to be reminded of what you will lose. It will be far more than what you think you are gaining.

Sin is bleak. And some sins are bleaker than others. In the case of a pastor who commits adultery, it is one of the worst sins conceivable. And that’s why it is usually impossible and inadvisable for such a person to be restored to ministry.

The gospel, which the pastor has been preaching but not believing, is still the only remedy. The pastor needs to not only see how aggravating his sin has been towards those in his life (wife, children, congregation, friends, etc.) but also towards God. There must be a loud, public confession that screams, “I am guilty.” Then, and only then, can there be a loud, public scream from heaven, “you are forgiven.”

Yet, why is it that so many fallen pastors seem to want to continue to justify themselves rather than have God justify them? Why is it that so many fallen pastors half confess rather than fully confess? This is the madness of pride and unbelief. Sin blinds us to the obvious solution. And, sadly, many pastors who have forcefully preached to their flock about the glories of justification by faith alone know nothing of the reality in their own lives.

The doctrine of sanctification is obviously important, but when a pastor falls we quickly find out whether he wants to be justified by himself or by God. Justification of sinners is free, but that seems to be what makes it so hard for some. They would rather protect themselves by hiding their sin than let Christ protect them by confessing their sin. 

Mark Jones (Ph.D., Leiden) has been the minister at Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church (PCA), Canada since 2007.