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How To Respond When Church Leaders Fall

– by Christopher Ash

How ought we respond when we hear that a Christian has fallen into scandalous sin? What effect should the fall of a Christian pastor have on us? We hear that someone, perhaps one we have known well, has fallen into financial sin (say, defrauding his church), or has been dishonest in his speaking or writing, or has committed great sexual sin, or has had an outburst of aggressive and blasphemous anger. Or he has in some other way dishonored the gospel of the Lord Jesus and damaged the church. In recent months, we’ve heard of several such tragedies.

After the first shock of discovery, what is a godly response? Here are 10 principles from Scripture I hope will guide us.

1. Be Sad and Angry

It’s right to be both sad and angry in the face of sin. For it is through sin that death came into the world (Rom. 5:12); every ugliness, each misery, all suffering, is the result of sin. When seen in its true colors, sin is always ugly. In his “anxiety for all the churches” when the apostle Paul hears of someone who has been caused to stumble, he burns with indignation (2 Cor. 11:28–29); it makes him angry at sin, angry at the Devil, angry at the one who has sinned.

When seen in its true colors, sin is always ugly.

When the Lord Jesus was face to face with death at the grave of Lazarus, he burned with sadness and anger. The expression “deeply moved” (John 11:33, 38) signifies not just grief but also anger. Every sin, and most acutely a scandalous sin, reminds us that we lie in the shadow of death. A holy sad anger is a right response. Don’t be afraid to weep.

2. Support Those Most Deeply Harmed

Every scandal causes casualties. When a man leaves his wife and children, the family will need much loving, sensitive support. They may need financial help or profound practical assistance, as well as sympathy and friendship.

When a pastor falls into sin, a whole church will be hurting. When someone with a wider ministry across different churches is snared in scandal, the shockwaves of pain and sadness may spread far and wide. We must do all we can to support those most deeply affected.

3. Watch and Pray

Anger at the sin of others is dangerous; it can blind us to our own frailty. At the start of 1 Corinthians 10, Paul invites us to meditate on the terrible sin of Old Testament Israel. How should we respond? Paul tells us: “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction. . . . Therefore, let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:11–12). “Keep watch on yourself, lest you be tempted,” Paul writes, when you’re seeking to restore one who has sinned (Gal. 6:1).

When I hear about a fallen minister, it frightens me to know I’m entirely capable of doing just what he’s done—or worse. I share a sinful nature.

So the sin of another ought to humble me afresh under the mighty hand of God, to move me to repentance for my own sin, to pray for a new realism about the darkness in my own heart, to watch myself closely lest I too be tempted and fall. “Lead me not into temptation” takes on a new urgency when I hear this news.

And humble watchfulness will guard me against the temptation to gossip about this sad failure, to spread the word around because it somehow makes me feel better about myself. This is always wrong.

4. Lovingly Watch over One Another

Hebrews 4:12–13 tells us:

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today’, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.

Sin is desperately deceitful; I can fall into scandalous sin and persuade myself it’s okay.

Sin is desperately deceitful; I can fall into scandalous sin and persuade myself it’s okay.

So I need brothers and sisters who will watch over me, warn me, encourage me, help me to be on guard against sin’s deceitfulness. When a brother or sister falls in some terrible way, it should stir us all to redouble our care for one another, whether through prayer partnerships, accountability groups, or just the healthy watchfulness that ought to characterize church life (cf. Heb. 10:24–25). Each of us has areas of weakness. A faithful prayer partner can be a friend who knows me well enough to warn me when he sees danger ahead. He may spot lurking sin to which I am blind.

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How to Respond When Church Leaders Fall

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