Should errant Christian leaders be restored?

While I am taking a break from my series on Authority, power and rights in the New Testament, my near neighbour (at least from a global perspective, but we have never met) Sam Norton has started a series on a related topic: Does the priest have to be pure? In this he talks about the Donatists, whom I discussed here nearly two years ago. Sam gives an excellent explanation of why they were wrong to teach that the ministry of a Christian leader is invalidated by their personal sin.

This doesn’t mean that the sins of Christian leaders should simply be ignored. Unrepentant sinners like Michael Reid certainly should not be allowed to continue in ministry. But it does mean that those who fall should be allowed to repent and be restored, the process which was at least starting with Todd Bentley (but I haven’t kept up with that story) – and which the Donatists did not allow with the original traditores in late Roman times.

But this argument against the Donatists has its limitations in that it is not really applicable when a Christian leader not only falls into sin but also teaches that that sin is in fact right. This, arguably, is what many of the practising homosexuals in Anglican and other churches are doing: they are not only sinning (at least according to traditional biblical standards) but also teaching that what they are doing is right. But the argument against Donatism doesn’t mean that these people should be accepted, because unlike the traditores they are unrepentant.

Indeed the same can be said corporately of The Episcopal Church, which has this week demonstrated its lack of repentance over the Gene Robinson affair, as well as its contempt for the Archbishop of Canterbury, by approving the consecration of another practising homosexual bishop. This is a direct challenge to the rest of the Anglican Communion, which will renew the tensions which have brought it close to falling apart. But this teaching in effect approved by TEC is also rife in the Church of England.

I am now looking forward to the continuation of Sam Norton’s series. He promises to answer the question “what do we do when the priest isn’t pure?” In a comment I challenged him also to consider what happens when the priest is not “holding fast to the truth of the faith”. I hope he also applies these principles to the current situation in the church and the Communion in which he is a priest.

PS: I will not allow any comments here concerning Todd Bentley, unless they include significant and verifiable new information about him.

0 thoughts on “Should errant Christian leaders be restored?

  1. Peter
    Looking back to youe earlier post, I see this is where I first entered the field of commenting on blogs – wern’t you the lucky one to be the first!

    I have looked at Sam’s post as well. You are not specifically asking whether a pastor in sin can be restored. given the realtedness of that dimension, except for the unforgivable sin, then the answer is surely that a pastor can receive forgiveness as much as anyone else, if he repents and confesses their sin. “All have sinned” and do sin. The extent to which it might be appropriate for them to take up their former minsitry possibly is related to the nature of both that ministry and also the sin. And the only theological justification I can find for Forward in Faith supporters being so adamant about the “Flying Bishops” and their wish for a third province if we ordain women to the Episcpate, is that there is no repentance among Bishops who ordain women, who don’t see anything to repent about. I do not support Fin F on this by the way, but their line is that bishops have broken the historic faith.

    The Donatist controversy goes far deeper than issues of personal sin in the minister, as it goes into issues of heresy, compromise etc. Is the validity of absolution, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, marriage etc damaged by the minister having been in a state of sin/compromise at the time? What is the validity of that ministry in the recipient at a later date and is it dependent on the repenetance of the minister?

    My first response is that the extent to which we receive the spiritual benefit which, say, the sacraments provide an outward sign, is a gift of grace to those who receive in good faith. The CoE 39 Articles are not Scripture of course, and at times they seem stilted and owing something to 16th century church politics in their language. However they are a fair start point, and they support the concept that the sin (including private dountsd and hersies?) of the minister do not invalidate the ministry.

    But as you say what is the position when ministers are openly preaching and possibly practicing sin? Should we actually withdraw once we know of the situation? Of course on the homosexuality issue, those of an “Inclusive church, AffCaff, Accepting Evangelical” mind would not agree they have a need to repent of their views. The dilema faced by traditional Bible accepting Christians in ECUSA? Not easy.

    I look forward to seeing other opinions., and will follow Sam’s site was well

  2. Colin, thanks for your long comment. I realise there was more to the Donatist controversy than I have explored in this post. As I don’t see the “validity” in God’s eyes of any kind of ceremony or sacrament as depending at all on the person performing it, then of course I agree that it doesn’t depend on their state of sin or otherwise. But teaching of wrong doctrine is another matter.

    I wonder, would Forward in Faith accept the ministry of a bishop who had ordained women but later repented of this “sin” and asked to join their number? If not, they would be guilty of the Donatist “heresy”. I don’t know if there are any such bishops, but there certainly could be.

  3. Hi Peter, thanks for engaging with this. In brief, my answer would be to discuss the processes of the church – that the church has authority to determine whether a priest can maintain their ministry, after sinning (eg adultery, though I think that is over-emphasised as a mortal sin). I also think that the church has authority to change its teaching. Which rather begs the question about what “the church” actually is….. Did you listen to my talk on gay bishops by the way? Very relevant to this point:

    PS I trust that one day our paths actually will cross!

  4. Thanks, Sam. The problem for me is that I think I have a very different idea from yours of what the church is. I’ll make a point of listening to your talk when I find time. Meanwhile I have been distracted by the news of our new bishop, which I have just posted about.

  5. I’m not really a churchy person so I am probably not the kind of person who should address this question. That said, let me address this question 🙂

    The media love it when some fat old ugly dude like Michael Reid falls from grace. It’s got tabloid syrup all over it. His fall from grace reminds me in some way of Ted Haggart’s similar great fall. If you remember, he was a top evangelical leader in the State who railed against homosexuals while at the same time paying a gay prostitute to do what homosexual prostitutes do.

    There is something wonderfully entertaining seeing one of these ‘holier than thou’ types get so spectacularly caught in their hypocrisy. However, as the story of the ‘Bonking Bishop’ unfurled over the months I began to wonder just where exactly does the forgiveness start?

    I’m not, as I say, a churchy person, but as someone from the outside looking in I wondered why so many of his former flock were so absolutely vitriolic about his moral collapse. I began to think that the whole affair showed the very ugly side of church, the side that keeps me from ever wanting to attend such a place. Leaders engaged in deep hypocrisy, then thrown out and reviled by members who show similar amounts of hypocrisy in their total lack of love and forgiveness for the sinner at hand.

    Of course, the ‘bonking bishop’ has shown absolutely no remorse for his lover-boy ways. And now the fact that he has started some new ‘ministry’ seems absolutely deplorable to me. But what can you do?

    I completely understand the people of that Brentwood church being very angry indeed at this man for his behavior and his attitude after he was busted. But Reid was no angel before his transgressions came to light, and it’s my feeling that people should have addressed his behaviour LONG before this happened. Perhaps much of the reason why churches seem so unwilling to forgive and restore their fallen leaders is because in some respects the fall of that leader brings to light failures within the church that people would much sooner not deal with. In the end it’s easy to cast someone out and say “the problem is solved.”

  6. Thanks, Simon. That is interesting insight, and important for those of us within the church. Of course Reid had taught his church to be condemning rather than forgiving of those who sinned, and that attitude has come back to haunt him. Maybe if he had shown a thoroughly repentant attitude Peniel would have had him back. Maybe they should have. But in the circumstances he can hardly be surprised that they have turned against him. Fortunately not all churches have this kind of condemning attitude – but some go too far the other way.

  7. It’s a shame that there are so many ‘personality based’ churches. I like to debate and discuss things, I like to exercise my brain, to challenge and to be challenged. I have found this to be an incompatible mindset with many of the churches I have known over the years. (Admittedly these churches are often charismatic churches like Elim.) I’ve found that personality preachers like Reid have no time or patience for people who do not ‘tow the line’ and that they have reared a congregation of devout followers who shield them from challenges.

    I’ve been called “evil” and had people warned away from me because I was “sent by the devil” all because I have chosen to challenge ‘personality preachers’ who seem more about hellfire and fury rather than love and compassion. These kind of men always lack humility and are often times empire builders, their hallmarks are easily identifiable yet nearly impossible to challenge due to the weak people they surround themselves with (as in the case of the Brentwood church).

    I think wayward leaders should be accepted back into their churches (if they want that and are accepting of their ‘sin’) but I think that they should be kept from taking up leadership roles for quite some time. Instead I would suggest some humility training, whereupon the preacher involved has to go out into the community.

    The ‘Bonking Bishop’ is clearly a toxic little man, but he’s no more or less of a sinner than I. If I were put into a position of power and influence I am not entirely convinced that I wouldn’t have a similarly spectacular corruption and fall. I think it takes real strength of character for a leader to surround himself with strong people who will challenge him. Ultimately though, any such leader would be stronger and command more respect in the end.

    I’d like to think that God would be a little more proactive in monitoring those who speak on his behalf. Sadly, brand management isn’t a the top of the good Lord’s list of jobs it would seem. Maybe he’s given up on trying to control it, or maybe its really not that big of a deal to him, or just maybe he never existed in the first place. I am, as yet, undecided on this.

  8. Simon, that’s still good material. I agree that a church should be more like what you think it is, and not centred round a strong personality who cannot be questioned. There are churches more like that if you look for them, but maybe they are hard to find. But I’m afraid some people want and even need a more centralised church. So maybe that’s why God allows strong leaders – at least until they go too far, as Reid did, and he lets them fall.

  9. Sam, in the ongoing debate about bishops and healthcare I nearly forgot to listen to your talk, but now I have done. Interesting to hear your voice, and an interesting talk.

    A higher authority than Scripture? I accept that of Jesus. But I don’t accept that the Church of England puts tradition and reason above Scripture. Yes, Scripture should be understood in the light of these, but they should not be allowed to contradict Scripture. Also I don’t accept your argument that the unique change from the OT to the NT is a model for how the church can now change NT teaching.

    “The law is a guidance for us”, yes. But “the church as a whole is given authority to make and remake the law”, no, surely that is not what Matthew 16:19 implies. My quarrel with you on that is basically one of ecclesiology. But maybe I need to think about this more.

    Of course there is also the question of what Scripture actually teaches, which I have raised in my latest post. I think that gives you more room for arguing that gay bishops should be permitted.

  10. Hi Peter – glad you’ve listened to it, but I’m not sure I’m arguing for what you think I’m arguing for :o) I don’t think that the CofE does (or should) put tradition and reason above Scripture; I do think that Scripture (with tradition and reason) is more open-ended than sometimes allowed to be and, specifically, I do think that the church can remake “the law” – which is what I take the discussion on circumcision to establish. So yes, I do think that the difference between us is one of ecclesiology – but I trust it’s not really a ‘quarrel’ 😉
    NB I’ve gone into how I see Scripture/tradition/reason in much more detail elsewhere – you might find these of interest, especially the graphic and my discussion of it: and especially

  11. sorry, should have added – I’m a big fan of James Alison and he’s been a major factor in shifting my thinking, so I’m glad you’ve discovered him. I would warmly recommend his books.

  12. Thank you, Brian. But I don’t see any new information there, just some relatively new negative comment about teachings which have been around for a long time.

  13. Pingback: Whatever happened to Todd Bentley? - Gentle Wisdom

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