To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away. (1 Peter 5:1-4 NIV)
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:20 ESV)
I cannot prove it, but I suspect that every pastor has moments in his life where he wonders what he is doing in the position. And if he does not, then he probably should. We all are weak in ourselves alone and regularly have failures. 1 Timothy 3:2 and Titus 1:7 refer to the office of pastor and say that he should be “blameless,” or “above reproach.” The idea of both passages is not that a pastor would be perfect, for no one could measure up to that standard, but that his character and the way in which he lives his life should be of good reputation and responsible living.
But even then, we realize that the absence of details in these passages leaves the matter into our hands to interpret and apply. What weaknesses or failures are acceptable and what are unacceptable? Should a pastor be dismissed if he overeats? Should a pastor be forgiven and re-instated if he steals? Where do we draw the lines?
From a Western point of view, which is guilt focused, the failings of the pastor would usually be considered to be his own personal moral choices. From the Asian perspective, however, which also considers shame, his failings would also include examples of poor judgment in ministerial and church decisions. If the pastor makes a poor decision related to managing the church, in the Asian context, the pastor himself would feel that this is his failure, at least in part. He would very possibly feel that he was no longer blameless or above reproach – even though it was a management decision and not a personal moral choice by the pastor.
The Leadership of the Lord: Neither the pastor nor the church are left alone in this matter. The Lord leads His church by His Spirit. By His Spirit He calls pastors, anoints them, empowers them, convicts them, and guides them. And the Spirit is also active in the lives of the church itself. The passion of the church should not be to follow the pastor, but to follow the Lord. The pastor likewise should have the goal that the people love and obey the leadings of the Lord, and not just the pastor. The Lord leads His people. Whenever God’s people come together humbly before the Lord, confessing their sins and surrendering to His Lordship, He will lead and guide them in the way that they should go.
There is comfort here for the pastor also, for both the passages above point out that the church is led by the Lord, not by the pastor, at least not primarily. God led the nation Israel by the hand of Aaron and Moses, but they themselves often fell on their faces before God, admitting their own weaknesses, and the challenging nature of their work. If the pastor will confess his sins and surrender to the Lord’s authority, He will also be led by the Lord.
The Lord is the Chief Shepherd: Along this line, we also note that the scripture calls the Lord the Chief Shepherd. The NIV above translates the second verse, “Be shepherds,” but the KJV says, “feed the flock of God.” Actually the KJV is more correct, but the word “shepherd,” or “pastor,” was not used in this verse. Rather the verb form was used – “do the work of pastoring” not “be the pastor.” The only time the noun form is used here is in reference to Jesus. He holds the title and we do the work.
In fact, it is essential to point out that there is nothing in the pastor alone, apart from the redemptive work of God, that qualifies him for the office of pastor. He is not qualified by his devotion, by his religious childhood (if he had one), by his education, by his good intentions, or by his relative maturity when compared to others in the church. It is not his talents as leader that give him the right to serve as pastor, nor his determination, nor his strong-will, nor his intelligence, nor the pleasantness of his personality.
The pastor is, like everyone else, a sinner saved by the grace of God in Christ, and adopted into the family of grace by the blood of Christ. His ability comes from the call and enabling power of the Spirit. Training, education, proper mentoring – these are important things, and elements we would expect to see in someone who is serious about serving the Lord. But the true and indispensable qualification is the call and enabling power of God in his life.
The Title Pastor: The only time in the New Testament, to the best of my knowledge, that the noun form of pastor is used for a church leader is in Ephesians 4:11, and there it is linked with the word “teacher” – properly translated as “pastor-teacher.” That passage describes the position as a gift of God to the church itself. Yet nothing removes the responsibility of the people of God to ascertain and determine a man’s calling and fitness for the task.
And it is “pastor-teacher” and not “pastor-ruler.” In 1 Timothy 3 the pastor is called the “overseer” and in Titus 1 he is called “elder.” All three of these titles describe the same position: pastor-teacher describes the nature of his work, overseer describes the scope of his responsibilities, and elder describes the maturity that should characterize his life.Romans 11:29 says, “For the gifts and calling of God are given without repentance,” that means they are given by God and never taken back by God. So if God has called and gifted someone to be a pastor, that calling and gifting rests upon him permanently.
The position may be taken away, but not the calling. Even if a pastor sins grievously, and looses opportunities for himself and for Christ, God will still have the possibility of using him again – just like God used Samson again, after he sinned away his day of opportunity.
Summary: So, let me answer the question I started out with, concerning what would disqualify a person from serving in the position of pastor. When sin is a private matter, this is a personal matter between the individual pastor and the Lord. Only the pastor truly knows when he is not walking with the Lord. Depending on the nature of the sin(s) and the condition of his spiritual life, it is possible that he should step down from service – at least temporarily.
I believe it is important to also acknowledge that there are often seasons in life and ministry where the pastor needs his spiritual batteries re-charged. There may not be a specific sin committed. It may be that the demands of the work have overtaxed his spiritual resources, and he needs to withdraw for a season for spiritual rejuvenation.
But when sin is a public matter, the issue comes down to the wisdom of the body of Christ, as they are led by the Spirit, as they determine whether the pastor has sufficiently repented so that he can be restored. Or whether it is so serious, that even though he has repented that he should step down – both for his benefit and for the benefit of the work of the Lord.
Let me say also that there are often injustices in this matter. A pastor can be accused of something that is entirely false, or if not completely false, then it is blown far out of proportion. This is why Timothy wrote: “Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it can be confirmed by two or three witnesses” (1 Tim. 5:19 NET). Even then, the body must determine whether the accusations have true facts behind them, or if they are just vague matters that are unclear.
In all situations, however, the pastor, whether justly or unjustly accused, must be impassioned for the glory of the Lord. He should be willing to do whatever would bring glory to the Lord and further the work of Christ, even if he may suffer personally for doing so. As Christ “made himself of no reputation” for our sake, so we should be willing to do the same for Him.