Some Final Thoughts on Defrocking the Pastor

We conclude our little series on defrocking the pastor by considering four positive standards that can lead to dismissal if neglected. Our desire is to build our standards for disqualification on defensible ground. I hope this article will offer some guidance towards that end.

What about his reputation?

The Bible gives good reason for this qualification: “lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” 

This qualification is meant primarily for a pastor entering the ministry.  Before calling a pastoral candidate, the church should take some time to review his credit report.  The credit report may have its flaws and shortcomings, but it does provide an objective snapshot of a man’s integrity.  Does he pay his bills?  Does he have excessive debt?  Does he manage his money well?  These things can dramatically impact his ability to minister in the church. 

At the same time, the church shouldn’t be quick to remove the pastor on this basis.  Chances are, the church will have an idea why the pastor might have fallen into financial hardship in the middle of his pastoral ministry.  It could be that his family has faced a health crisis or that they have endured a string of financial setbacks.  In some cases, the pastor has passed on a pay increase for several years running, and things have started to catch up to him. 

This qualification presents another area where the church will need to use discretion.  If the pastor has gotten himself into excessive debt through luxurious living – new cars, expensive vacations, etc. – and now he is on the verge of bankruptcy, I think the church should discuss his finances with him.

In general, the point of disqualification should hover somewhere in the vicinity of bankruptcy, having the car repossessed, or having the house foreclosed.  But even here, I don’t believe there would be a cut-and-dried disqualifier.  If, for example, some hard providence caused the bankruptcy – say, a car accident left the pastor in dire financial straits – I would hope the church would move to support the pastor, not defrock him.

What about his marriage?

The qualification of marital fidelity – that a pastor must be a “one-woman man” – requires more than just the absence of sexual uncleanness.  While this qualification includes negative prohibitions, the point of the qualification is that he must be devoted to his wife.  That is, he must treat his wife with dignity and respect and must love his wife as Christ loved the church, sacrificially giving himself for her.  His marriage must be exemplary, both in public and in private.

Yet, I would not argue for defrocking the pastor because he has hit a rough patch with his wife.  If the pastor and his wife aren’t getting along, they need to set aside ministry concerns for a while so they can resolve the conflict.  I cannot and will not support a pastor placing a higher priority on his public ministry than he puts on the harmony of his home.  If the pastor’s house is like a war zone, if he and his wife fight the whole way to church, the entire way home, and whenever they are together, he ought to consider a little time off from the ministry so he can fix that.

But I wouldn’t consider this a disqualifier unless the pastor fails to deal with it.  The disqualifier comes with infidelity.  A pastor must be morally pure towards his wife – sexually committed to her.  If the pastor fantasizes about other women, or uses pornography, or allows himself to get romantically involved with other women, he is treading on thin ice.  If he continues this sort of sexual uncleanness, he is in danger of destroying his ministry.  If his wife is aware of these things, she has a duty to bring it to the elders of the church and at least insist that he repent of these things before he continues in ministry. 

Any one of these things can lead to the dismissal of the pastor.  I do not believe any of them to be absolutely disqualifying in every case.  But I certainly think a pastor could be dismissed on these grounds.  This sort of thing calls for discernment. 

The minimum expectation is what we are after here – the point at which most Christians can agree that a pastor ought to be dismissed on the grounds of this requirement.  And on this particular qualification, I hope we can agree that a pastor who has an affair – whether it is a one-night stand, an anonymous hook-up, or an extended sexual relationship – has disqualified himself from ministry.  I also believe that a divorced man is not qualified to serve in pastoral ministry.  If he was divorced before ministry, he does not qualify as a “one-woman man.”  If he was divorced in the ministry, even more so.  The pastor sets the standard for what the church should be; I believe he should step down and let another lead the church.  And if he won’t, I think the church should dismiss him.

That said, I have good friends in the ministry who have gone through tragic divorces.  If you are reading this, I know that we disagree on this point. I am not unsympathetic towards your case.  I love you in the Lord.  But the standard of a one-woman man is clear enough.

What about the pastor’s kids?

I imagine that the most disagreement will come on this particular qualification.  The vast majority of pastors I know believe that a pastor should not be defrocked in any case because of the sin of his adult children – children who are outside of his home.  The idea that a 40-year-old son can disqualify a 60-year-old pastor is over the top for many pastors.  I hear you on that. 

I hope we can agree that there could be a case where a pastor is disqualified from ministry because of his children. But, if the possibility doesn’t exist at all, then why did God include this qualification, and why did He emphasize it the way He did?  Consider the number of words spent on this one qualification between Titus and Timothy:

…having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly.

One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?)

Altogether, Paul uses nearly 50 words on this one qualification.  The only other qualification that comes close to this word count are these three qualifications, each of which is less than half the word count given to a pastor’s children:

Holding fast the faithful word as he hath been taught, that he may be able by sound doctrine both to exhort and to convince the gainsayers.

Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil.

Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.

Surely, we cannot dismiss the possibility that a pastor could be disqualified on the basis of his children.  The real controversy is (or at least, should be), at what point would the behavior of his children require his dismissal? 

Let me throw out a few thoughts on this.  If the pastor’s teenaged children, still living in his home, are scandalizing the church with their lewd behavior, and the pastor either ignores it or winks at it, the church should be prepared to dismiss him.  That seems so obvious to me as to require no further explanation.  God’s rebuke of Eli comes immediately to mind on this. If the pastor’s son has impregnated several teen girls in the youth group, that is grounds for dismissal. 

Besides this (seemingly) obvious disqualifier, the question of adult children is admittedly a bit more complicated.  The requirement in Timothy does not apply to adult children, as they would not be expected to be “in subjection with all gravity.”  If they live outside his home, nobody expects them to live in subjection to their father.  The Bible doesn’t teach that kind of patriarchy. 

It seems to me that the Titus qualification, “having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly,” applies both to children living in the home and, in certain cases, to the pastor’s adult children.  Ideally, the pastor has been most effective in the discipleship of his own children, and their adult lives serve as confirmation of his effectiveness.  But let me quickly add that there are not a few extenuating circumstances that can dramatically impact this.  For example, we would hope that our children would marry a spouse.  The introduction of a life’s mate into the picture can significantly impact the future spiritual lives of our adult children.  Suppose, for instance, that the pastor’s daughter marries a godly young man.  And suppose that, after ten years of marriage, he leaves her for another woman.  I know pastors who would argue that the pastor is now disqualified. 

Nonsense! 

Seriously.  That is silly and ridiculous. 

But, we also have to acknowledge that our children’s marriages can dramatically impact their Christian life.  If their spouse leaves the Christian faith, their own walk with the Lord will be detrimentally affected.  I don’t believe we can move to defrock the pastor in such a case. 

What does the Bible mean, “having faithful children not accused of riot or unruly?”  What can we expect as a minimum?  Could a pastor ever be disqualified on this basis?  I say absolutely. 

The first standard raised by this qualification is that the pastor has “faithful” children.  The question is, faithful to what?  Faithful to church?  Faithful to ministry?  Faithful to soul-winning?  And how faithful?  If his adult children skip a service now and then, is the pastor therefore disqualified?  And what does this “faithfulness” require?  If he faithfully sits on the back row and scoots out of church at the last “Amen,” is he faithful?

I believe that “faithful” means committed to Christ.  But I don’t think we should defrock the pastor because his forty-year-old son is a little bit lukewarm.  Since the objective here is to identify the minimal expectation, I think we can say without hesitation that the pastor’s children ought to be born again.  The Greek word rendered “faithful” here is the term for faith – pista – that is, he must have believing children

But at what point should the pastor be defrocked for unbelieving children?  If his children remain unsaved after the age of thirteen, is that grounds for dismissal?  I should say not.  But if his adult children announce that they have abandoned the Christian faith and no longer believe, I think it would be appropriate to ask for the pastor’s resignation.  In other words, if the pastor’s adult children give solid evidence that they are unregenerate, I think the pastor is disqualified on this basis.

What about the second half of that qualification, “not accused of riot or unruly?”  Is the pastor disqualified if his children participate in a BLM “peaceful protest” or, for that matter, in a cafeteria food fight?  The word rendered “riot” means dissipation, debauchery, wildness, or recklessness.  Interestingly, the Greek text uses the qualified negative, which has the force of “stop” or “quit.”  Knock it off with the scandalous living. 

Photo by RODNAE Productions on Pexels.com

“Unruly” refers to rebellion or disobedience – perhaps towards their parents (if they are still children at home), but certainly towards the Lord.  The qualified negative in the Greek text leaves room for failure on the part of the children, but means that when confronted with their sin, they turn from it. 

Here are a few points concerning this particular part of the qualification.  If my children fall into sin, I would hope that the same grace would be extended to them as would be extended to any other Christian.  If we would patiently seek to restore a “bus kid” who goes astray, I would hope that we would extend that same grace to the pastor’s children. 

Our church believes and practices Matthew 18, which teaches us what to do when there is sin in the church.  The Bible lays out a process of dealing with the sin that gradually intensifies, consistently calling the offender to repentance throughout.  If the sinner refuses these repeated calls to repentance, the church is then called upon to excommunicate. 

On this basis, I believe that if the pastor’s adult children stray into scandalous sin or rebellion, the church should approach them as they would any other believer.  If they repent, we have gained our brother.  Should the children of the pastor refuse to hear the church, I believe the church must excommunicate.  I believe the pastor’s resignation from ministry should follow this act of church discipline.  And, I think this standard should apply if the adult child belongs to another church.  If the church he belongs to doesn’t practice church discipline, I don’t see the standard changing.  If he should have been disciplined – and would have if his church were being faithful – I think the standard should still apply.

Let me add one caveat.  If the pastor’s adult children have been faithful for more than a few years of their adulthood, I have a hard time defrocking a seasoned pastor because, say, his forty-year-old son suddenly decides to divorce his wife.  That sort of thing doesn’t fall under the pastor’s immediate responsibility.  If the kids bolt for the door the moment they turn twenty-one, that is one thing. But, if they have lived as Christians for many years of their adult lives and suddenly do an about-face, I have a hard time defrocking the pastor as a result. 

May God give wisdom to His churches.

What about “blameless?”

Both Timothy and Titus include as the very first qualification of a pastor that he must be blameless.  The Greek word used here is the same in both cases.  And, this qualification applies to both pastors and deacons equally.  The word means “above reproach” — “one that cannot be laid hold upon.”  I have always heard it described as “without a handle.”  “A life that is not burdened by accusations of impropriety.”  No serious blot in the reputation, the kind of thing that can be used to drag a man down. 

As a qualification for a man entering the ministry, this qualification should be at the forefront.  It is the first qualification listed in both Timothy and Titus.  Titus lists it twice.  So, the Bible is stressing this.

As a disqualifier, I have to say that it is a little more complicated to apply.  The way I have seen it used, it has become a catch-all disqualifier for anyone we might wish were removed from pastoral office. So when all else fails, whip out the “blameless” card.  And if we aren’t careful, we will define the qualification so carefully that nobody actually qualifies for either office.

We need to remember the position that is common to us all — that we are all sinners in need of salvation.  Paul said to the Corinthians, “And such were some of you.”  Any gospel-preaching church will include men with a past.  I don’t believe it is necessary or appropriate for a pulpit committee to sift through all the gory details of a man’s teen years to see what nefarious activities it can dredge up. 

At the same time, if a pastoral candidate won’t be forthcoming about his past, this should give the church pause at the very least.  If they do discover undisclosed foibles from his past, they should probably look elsewhere.  What else isn’t he telling us? 

But in general, I think we can summarize the “blameless” requirement this way: not what was he was saved out of but was he in fact saved out of it.  If he shows clear evidence that he has been saved from that, we shouldn’t use it against him. 

Titus adds that a bishop must be blameless as a steward of God – the most trusted servant.  In other words, the qualification is that he must be reliable to handle the Word of God and the people of God with integrity.  Integrity is the bottom line here. 

But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God. (2 Corinthians 4:2)

If the pastor shows a lack of integrity in the ministry, I would argue that he is not blameless.  But I believe this would apply to things like his handling of church funds and resources, and especially to his handling of the Word of God.  If he has his hand in the bag, I believe the church should remove him from the pastorate.  And while that would not be the only offense on this basis, I think the standard applies more to matters of integrity than it does to matters of morality.  A pastor with a pornography problem is not blameless.  But he isn’t the husband of one wife either – and that is the more critical issue. 

These things are my opinions.  As I mentioned, the Bible has not given us the specific points at which the pastor is disqualified.  I believe this is intentional.  God doesn’t stress the disqualifiers.  If He wanted disqualification to be the point, He would have made it the point.  But, as He did so often, God has left it to us to seek a faithful application of these things to our everyday lives. 

The authority for defining the specific lines and standards falls to the churches.  Every church has a responsibility to seek a faithful application of Scripture on these points and apply that standard as consistently as possible.  The final question then would have to be, at what point does one church separate from another based on pastoral qualification (and the resulting standards for disqualification)?   

I don’t see this as such a simple question.  I believe we should respect the local church.  Yet, if it is clear that an individual church has a blatant disregard for the Scriptural qualifications of a pastor, faithful churches should separate. 

As for me, here is my position.  Our church decides how to apply the qualifications of a pastor for our own fellowship – in other words, the point at which I would be disqualified from leading the church anymore.  We have attempted to define the disqualifiers based on the firm foundation of God’s Word.  Our church also determines the extent of our fellowship.  We extend fellowship to churches that do not apply the standards as strictly as we do.  We desire to apply the standard evenly – so we aren’t separating from one church but not another based on their application of Scripture.  Before we decide that we need to separate from a church because of a blatant disregard for pastoral qualifications, we make sure that we don’t apply the standard arbitrarily.  We do not want our stand on this issue to be personality-based (as is typical among fundamentalists) or based on Bible College associations.  We want to be faithful to the Word, not true to our camp. 

The most important takeaway from this little series is this: we must have standards based on Scripture.  We must reject every arbitrary standard.  Every church, I hope, will strive to build their standards for calling a pastor, retaining their pastor, and extending fellowship to other pastors on defensible ground.  If we cannot defend a standard from Scripture, we should scrap it. 

May God bless and sustain faithful preachers, and may their tribe ever increase.

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