Some Thoughts on Defrocking the Pastor

I find it interesting that the Bible never gives a single instance when a sitting pastor was defrocked.  I suppose there could be several explanations for this odd phenomenon.  Perhaps the pastors of that time were cut from a different cloth than pastors in our day.  It could be that there were no pastors who disqualified themselves, and thus nothing to reveal.  Or perhaps, the writers of the New Testament simply chose to ignore specific cases that called for the dismissal of a pastor.

To be clear, we are not arguing that the New Testament has nothing to say about the discipline of a pastor. Paul gave clear instructions for handling such a case. 

Rebuke not an elder, but intreat him as a father; and the younger men as brethren; (I Timothy 5:1)

Against an elder receive not an accusation, but before two or three witnesses. Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear. (I Timothy 5:19-20)

These verses indicate the possibility that there will be accusations against elders.  Anticipating this, Paul gives direct instruction on how to handle it.  Consider then what we have here.  Paul acknowledges that there may be accusations against an elder.  He admits that the pastor may in fact be in the wrong.  Yet, he does not provide a single example of the dismissal of the pastor.  Are we to take this to mean that no pastor disqualifief himself in the New Testament?

To be honest, I can’t say.  I believe that a pastor can disqualify himself from pastoral ministry, of course.  But the Scriptural emphasis is on the qualifications, not the disqualifications. The point of the qualification passages (I Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)  is not so we will know when to give the pastor the sack.  Paul gives the qualifiers; we imply from his list the disqualifiers.

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With this in mind, we should consider at what point violation of the qualifications of a pastor would require the removal of the pastor.  I have observed that many make assumptions about the point of disqualification, but more than a few of these assumptions are extra-biblical, informed more by tradition than Scripture.  In my mind, an even bigger problem comes from the uneven way these qualifications are applied.      

That said, here are a few points to consider.

First, Paul provided qualifications for the good of the church

In the pastoral epistles, Paul emphasizes the examples set by church leadership in and before the church.  God wants men of character leading His church.  Pastoral leadership must provide a solid example of what the church should be or should become.  The gospel invaded a culture that was in every way contrary to the culture of the Lord, which a New Testament church should establish.  Cultural change would come as godly men set the spiritual tone for God’s church.

The kind of idolatry, hedonism, and profligate lifestyle that characterized so much of the Gentile world at that time (I Corinthians 6:9-11) would present a great challenge for finding qualified men to lead the church. We can assume that more than a few of the men of these early churches had a “past.”  It might have been a challenge to find a one-woman man in Corinth, for instance. 

In Titus, Paul is explicit about his purpose. 

For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee: If any be blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly. For a bishop must be blameless, as the steward of God… (Titus 1:5-7) 

The church needs men of high character to lead.  If the church promotes the wrong kind of men into leadership, the people will follow their bad example, and the result will be a self-contradiction – a church that does not live out the gospel it proclaims. 

So, the point isn’t merely to “raise the bar high” for the sake of having high standards.  These qualifications represent what God wants His church to be – not just what He wants a pastor to be.  The pastor plays a vital role in setting an example for the church to follow.  God wants men to lead His church, men who will lead the church towards greater sanctification, who will provide an example of faithfulness that the church can follow.  Thus the importance of these qualifications.

Second, a pastor can disqualify himself from ministry.

The fact that modern evangelicalism has embraced a very squishy view of nearly every Scriptural requirement should not prevent us from carefully applying the mandates of Scripture.  The qualifications of a pastor are not mere suggestions.  While their application requires some degree of discernment and Biblical wisdom, they are more than a pie-in-the-sky ideal that doesn’t work in the real world.  If a man desires the office of a bishop, he should understand that part of this desire includes the desire to live up to these qualifications.

Simplistically, where there are qualifications, there are also disqualifications.  And while I would deny the kind of perfectionism that requires a pastor to meet every qualification at all times perfectly, I would also deny that a violation of these standards would never lead to disqualification.  For instance, if the pastor socks one of the deacons in the jaw, I deny that he should immediately resign.  Maybe the deacon had it coming.  But if fistfights are a common feature of a pastor’s administration, I would argue that this should lead to disqualification. 

Third, Paul wrote the qualification passages for those entering the pastorate.

These are qualification passages, not disqualification passages.  Paul writes for those who desire the office of a bishop, for those to be ordained in every city.  The qualifications tell the church, “look for this kind of man.”  For those aspiring to the office, aim for these standards. 

Unfortunately, it seems to me that in discussions of these qualifications, we tend to focus more on what disqualifies the pastor than on what qualifies him.  Before considering a man for pulpit ministry, a church ought to consider these qualifications carefully.  I wouldn’t be a big fan of putting the pastor through that same examination process as an annual review.  For the sake of accountability, perhaps.  For the sake of evaluation, no.  

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As it is easier to decide against a pastoral candidate initially than to remove a pastor once he is in office, a church should take great care to review a man’s qualifications before electing him as pastor.  Paul gave the qualifications for this reason.  He wasn’t arming the malcontents, so they could defrock a pastor with whom they disagreed.

Fourth, the standard for disqualification is not the same as the standard for qualification. 

When considering a man for the pulpit, the church ought to be more careful.  Once the church has called a man to serve as pastor, the church shouldn’t apply the same strictness.  In addressing the possibility that a pastor will sin, Paul offered three restrictions.  First, a pastor in sin must not be rebuked but intreated (I Timothy 5:1).  Second, an accusation against him must not be entertained without two or three witnesses (I Timothy 5:19).  And third, if the charges against him are substantiated, those who sin are to be rebuked publicly (I Timothy 5:20). 

But – and this is an equally important note – Paul does not say that those who sin should be removed.  He says rebuked.  Some sins may very well be grounds for removal (I would argue that some sins most definitely would be grounds for removal).  But Paul’s charge here also indicates that some sins are grounds for rebuke and not for removal. 

All this explains why a church should be stricter at the front end – since it is harder to remove a pastor once he is in office – as it should be.  Similarly, before a couple marries, they may end the relationship for relatively trivial reasons.  If a seemingly minor issue arises that raises a concern, that should be considered carefully.  Once the couple marries, that same concern can cause much trouble in the marriage.  But once the couple marries, getting out of the marriage is much more difficult.  So, for instance, if a young man is unreliable in paying his bills, a young lady would be wise to think twice about marrying him.  But if she marries him, she shouldn’t divorce him because he doesn’t pay his bills.

Even so, when considering a pastoral candidate, the church should look for evidence that a man is vigilant, sober, given to hospitality, and has a good report of them which are without.  Once the church has called him to serve as pastor, it would be difficult to remove him from office based on these particular qualifications. 

Along the same lines, if his children race through the church like banshees during the vetting process, the church would be wise to look elsewhere.  Once the church extends a call, if his kids terrorize the older members with their wild behavior, that isn’t grounds for removal.  Rebuke perhaps, but removal only after a significant amount of interceding. 

Fifth, when it comes to disqualification, the church decides. 

Independent Baptists especially ought to reject every form of popery. Busybody pastors who meddle in the affairs of churches not their own ought to “Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof” (I Peter 5:2) and stay out of other church’s business.  

In this matter, a pastor serves at the pleasure of his congregation.  If a church removes its pastor for unscriptural reasons, they will answer to God for it.  If the church applies the standards for qualification in a wooden or overly precise way, they will face the same scrutiny, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:2).  Nonetheless, the church has the authority to remove its pastor based on a violation of these qualifications. 

As a pastor, I have a responsibility to preach the whole counsel of God concerning all things to my church.  That includes the duty to preach I Timothy and Titus.  Paul wrote these “pastoral epistles” for the sake of New Testament churches everywhere, intending that the churches would be thoroughly instructed in the doctrine and practice taught in these books, including the purpose and meaning of the qualifications of a pastor. 

Faithfulness would require a pastor to instruct his church where the line is, the point at which a standing pastor is no longer Scripturally fit for the office he holds.  I tell my church that, sin being what it is, chances are that if I had disqualified myself from ministry, I would also resist any effort to apply Scripture to myself personally.  And so, I have taught our church what steps they must take in such an event.  I have also warned the church that these would be difficult steps to take.  But God’s church is worth it, and God’s people ought to place the integrity of their church far above their devotion to the man who is leading it. 

Along those lines, having defined what amounts to disqualification for a pastor, I believe that a church must determine at what point they would need to separate from another church based on these qualifications.  Drawing these lines can get tricky.  A church may draw the line for their own ministry at a stricter place than they draw the line for fellowship.  In other words, the church may determine that, for the sake of their ministry, the point of disqualification would be at a certain point but may not require other churches to draw the line as strictly as they do.  Churches should respect the autonomy of other congregations. 

Sixth, in most cases, disqualification has to be considered on a case-by-case basis.

It would be difficult to give a strict point at which a pastor would be disqualified based on most of the qualifications of a pastor.  Take, as just one example, the restriction that a pastor not be “greedy of filthy lucre.”  Titus uses the phrase “not given to filthy lucre.”  Both passages use a single Greek word that means “money-greedy.”  It would be difficult to pinpoint the precise point at which a pastor should be disqualified on this basis.  Is he working two or three additional jobs while taking a full-time salary?  Does he spend significant parts of his day investing in the stock market?  Does money play the deciding factor in most of his decisions? Does he place heavy demands on his people to give sacrificially and then use church funds to pay for lavish vacations?  A handful of the pastoral qualifications would be reasonably easy to define as far as disqualification.  If a pastor has an affair, the church should remove him, as he is no longer a “one-woman man.”  But I would suggest that even this qualification will require some discernment when it comes to sexual uncleanness.  For example, if a pastor has looked occasionally at sexually explicit R-rated movies, is that grounds for immediate removal, or does it qualify as a I Timothy 5:20 issue?  I would argue that the church will need to decide that – and in most cases, will need to consider more than just the behavior itself.  Is the pastor repentant?  Has he been forthright about the problem?  Has he taken steps to correct this?  I believe that all of these things should factor into the decision.

These are some general considerations to take into account when considering the qualifications of a pastor and the resulting disqualifications. Shortly, I intend to consider some more specific standards that I believe could result in disqualification. The next discussion will be rather lengthy, which is my reason for considering it separately. Look for more soon…

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