Ministry Today | Serving and empowering church leaders

How we respond to a leader who has fallen into sin should depend on the attitude of their heart.

Many Christian leaders have been through the heart-wrenching process of trying to serve a fellow Christian leader who has fallen into sin. One of the most perplexing questions we all have to face in such situations is whether to pursue justice and retribution, or grace and restoration. I am a strong advocate of minimizing the exposure and impact of the person's sin while encouraging forgiveness and full restoration as soon as possible.

The repentant. In many cases, I try to make sure that people close to the one who fell never even know of the incident. If humility and repentance are evident, life and ministry can continue as if the failure had never happened.

I draw this principle from Genesis 9, in which Noah became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father's nakedness and told his two brothers. As a result, Canaan was cursed and sentenced to slavery.

But Ham's two brothers, Shem and Japheth, took the opposite approach: They refused to see their father's nakedness and went to great lengths to cover it up. As a result, they were blessed.

Too often those responsible for responding to another person's sin seek justice instead of healing. The result? Families are unnecessarily embarrassed, church members' hearts are broken and a smug sense of self-righteousness develops among the leadership.

Paul underscored the delicate nature of these situations when he wrote: "Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted" (Gal. 6:1, NKJV).

The unrepentant. The above applies to those who are humble, take responsibility and repent. But those who have entered into sin and are still proud and self-seeking--those who displace responsibility and claim repentance but prove otherwise with their actions--fall into a different category.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church about the man who married his mother-in-law, he rejected the church's position of tolerance and inclusion and said that they should have put the man out of the fellowship. Some Bible scholars believe the church might have been proud of its attempts to minister to the man by accepting his actions and trying to coach him. Paul harshly condemned this as a counterproductive approach because the man was never forced to deal with his sin; he was able to continue on without repenting.

Discipline is good, not bad. A friend who wounds us because he loves us is helpful. If an enemy is the first one to tell us the truth about ourselves, then we probably don't have any real friends. And if we need discipline and our "friends" are shielding us from it, they are, in fact, not true friends at all.

In the church, predators who seek out weak-willed or vulnerable people and take advantage of them must be disciplined. Those who intentionally deceive the very ones who are trying to help them must be treated differently than those who are humble, responsible, contrite and repentant. If fallen leaders are not disciplined, they will often continue to deceive the softhearted enablers and sympathizers and will eventually poison everyone around them. It's not worth it.

Some of the wounded should be healed. Others should be disciplined. Who decides? Simply put, the wounded.

Ted Haggard pastors New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of The Life Giving Church.

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