How to respond to the moral fall of some Christian leaders? “A clear conscience of sin and confession are indispensable to start restoration”, says psychiatrist Pablo Martinez.
On the last weeks, the media have informed about the moral fall of several pastors. Many others have blogged and discussed about it, both inside and outside the church. What can we learn about sin, forgiveness and God’s view of Christian leadership?
Pablo Martínez, a Spanish evangelical psychiatrist and international speaker, analises the situation and gives some keys for healthy ministry.
“Loneliness in ministry is a breeding ground for sins”, he argues.
Question. How does the fall of a pastor impact in a church where he has had a big influence?
Answer. The impact is big, because the pastor is a role model. The pastor leads and his sheep follow him, he shows with his life and example, the life of the congregation, either if it is for good – the good shepherd- or for bad -the evil shepherds in Ezekiel 34 and in many other texts of the Old Testament.
Therefore, it is very important to train the congregation about a biblical principle that is essential in ecclesiology: God uses human role models who inspire and train us. They are worthy and necessary models, but every model is fallible, because we are clay vessels.
In fact, two of the biggest shepherds that God used (David and the apostle Peter), had big falls. Even in the memorable list of heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11, we find names that surprise us, because they are far from being perfect. The only role model that will never fail us is Jesus Christ, our Lord. A sinless role model who was “tempted in every way... just as we were” (Hebrews 4:15).
It is necessary to find, then, an adequate balance between confidence in the human pastors and fixing our eyes in Christ, the prince of shepherds. A mature church knows that its pastor is subject to passions “similar to ours”, and therefore, he can fall. But its faith is not placed on a man, but on the man par excellence: Jesus. It is also important to remember that the church is not a community of saints where the sin is scarce, but a community of sinners where the grace abounds.
Q. How do we start to help someone with such a great influence in the ministry who, suddenly, after recognising his sin, loses all authority and sees his life (family, friends) crumble?
A. The fall in sin is like and earthquake which produces big cracks in every aspect of a person´s identity: psychologically, a deep erosion in his self-esteem; in his intimate relationships (family and friends): a crisis of confidence; spiritually: confusion and a potential faith crisis. All this may affect his physical and mental health, with unpredictable and even tragic consequences.
To start the restoration it is indispensable to have a clear conscience of sin and a confession. That is what we see in the Bible, both in the “big cases” already mentioned (David, and the Apostle Peter, who denied God), and with anonymous believers.
It is not a coincidence that Jesus shows us the same model in the prodigal son parable. These are the natural and necessary steps towards restoration: the awareness of sin leads to repentance and confession, and opens the door to restoration.
The restoration of a fallen pastor is just the practical application of the Gospel essence. A message of Grace from a God who is “full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11). In a sinner’s restoration, the healing power of Christ’s cross shines at its maximum. The Gospel is a message of restoration with a warning of judgment, not the other way round.
Q. The confession of a sin, where and how should be done?
A. The sooner, the better, because confession is a medicine for the mind and the spirit. We could compare the sin with an infection. The sooner it is cured and eliminated, the better we will feel and suffering less consequences. The therapeutic effect of a confession is one of the greatest blessings that a believer can experience in times of a moral crisis. Knowing and clearly feeling God´s forgiveness is an incomparable balm.
In Psalms 32 and 51, David leaves us a vivid and moving testimony of the key effect that confession has in moral restoration: “You forgave the guilt of my sin. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance” (Psalm 32:5-7). The natural consequence of confession is liberation and the restitution of “joy and gladness” (Psalm 51:7-8). It is difficult to read these two psalms without feeling moved and identified with those who have fallen.
It is usually very useful to confess to God in front of a trustworthy person. It is not to confess to that person, but that he will be a witness of the confession to God. That gives it a very healthy objectivity. Wounds heal faster when someone close to us knows our sin and prays with us. James teaches the close relationship between these three elements: confession, prayer and healing (James 5:16).
Q. What spiritual attitudes can lead to pretend good fruits in the ministry, when “the tree is rooting inside”?
A. No believer is completely free of spiritual fight. The battle between our old nature and the Spirit itself is an expression of life: “They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want” (Galatians 5:17).
The conscience of sin should encourage us to depend more on the Grace of Christ, as Paul says: “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25). The problem comes when we try to conceal, to hide our sins with piety and spirituality, because that is hypocrisy.
The problem with sin which has not been confessed is that it keeps growing inside like a bad seed -darnel- and it generates a ‘domino effect’ that leads to other sins: lies, calumnies, etc. Therefore, an early confession of the sin is crucial. On the other hand, it is convenient to remember that Christian maturity is not measured by the absence of sin, but by the conscience of sin.
Q. Do leaders with a wrong vision of Grace (legalism) difficulties to live a transparent life?
A. Yes, they can be wrong visions of Grace. On one hand, the legalistic concept of perfection puts a lot of pressure on the pastor, and makes him hide every time there is process of sin.
The idea “I cannot fail, under any circumstance”, or “nobody can know it”, ends up being a destructive boomerang because it has an isolation effect. The person shuts himself off and tries to hide the dark side of his life.
On the other hand, the problem can also come from the other extreme. Underestimating the seriousness of the sin, which leads to a cheap grace. A poor awareness of sin is common in our society, where ethical relativism reigns, and the acceptance of some sinful practices is seen as normal because “everybody does it”.
That is why it is so important that the Holy Spirit illuminates our conscience through the Word (Heb 4: 12). When a believer falls, he is called to hold on to the justification by faith, not to the self justification with all kind of arguments.
Q. How can we prevent this type of fall? Are there any practices that the church can do to help?
A. Some precautionary measures can come from the answers we have already given.
The idea of having counselors, mature people the church can call for prayer and confession, is one of the healthiest measures for Christian ministry. Every leader should be able to count with one or two trustworthy persons, and meet with them twice a year.
This kind of relationship helps to renovate the vision and the strengths, and at the same time is a way of giving account. Loneliness in ministry is a breeding ground for sins.
It is not a coincidence, that the exhortation of Paul “carry each other’s burdens” (Gal 6: 2) is given in a context of a moral fall. In these two verses, we find an excellent summary of this topic. The wisdom, sensibility and compassion of God´s Word, mark the path to follow.
The answer to fallen Pastors is this: “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”. (Gal 6:1-2).