The Process of Confession and Reconciliation Is Not Necessarily Easy, But It's Worth It
Right then and there I had a decision to make. It would have been very easy to cover for this pastor. I could have said to them both, "Look, the kingdom of Christ and our church will be damaged if anybody else finds out. Let's work through this privately, confess and repent to each other privately, and move on." But I didn't. The problem with the "cover-up" mentality that pervades the church is the Holy Spirit is deprived of some incredibly powerful cleansing and healing in situations where His people have morally failed. We worked through this issue privately with the families and loved ones involved in the sin, but I knew if the pastor were to continue in ministry there would have to be a public confession of his sin and repentance, a public expression of our church's forgiveness, and a well established process of restoration and reconciliation for both this man and his ministry respectively.
We followed the path outlined in Galatians 6 and Matthew 18 and began to restore this man's marriage and his pastoral ministry. After confessing his "inappropriate physical contact with a woman not his wife and conduct unbecoming a pastor" to the entire church on a Sunday night, the pastor tearfully acknowledged that God was using his sin and the exposure of it to break him of pride, show him what was really important in life, and placing him in total need of God's grace to even continue in any kind of ministry. He knew reconciliation with his wife was primary, and were he ever to return to ministry, it would have to be a decision of the church. Of course, everybody thought the sin was worse than it actual was (there was only touching and kissing on one occasion), but we were uninterested in trying to justify the pastor's behavior or making him look better in other peoples' eyes. And, to the broken pastor's credit, he didn't care that people thought he was a serial adulterer because in his mind, what he did was just as bad. That's the sign of true brokenness.
Our church family publicly and enthusiastically expressed forgiveness for this pastor that very night. We then set him aside from ministry for six months without pay, helped him find a custodial job to support his family in a neighboring shopping center, and set up a discipleship and recovery team for both the man and his wife. Had the sin been a crime, obviously it would be far more difficult, if not impossible, to restore the pastor. Frankly, we would have encouraged prosecution were that the case, because God uses the courts as "ministers" to bring about His purposes. But because of the nature of this particular situation, our goal was complete reconciliation of the pastor's marriage, and full restoration of the pastor's ministry. We told the church that after six months the leadership team assigned his recovery would come back with a recommendation on whether or not he could and should be restored to pastoral ministry.
Those six months were hard. Not just for this man and his family, they were hard on me. I had people saying we were too tough on the man for forcing him to confess his sins publicly. Others said we should have kept his sin quiet and helped him find another church. I had others, including one very vocal deacon, tell me that if this man were ever restored to OUR church in terms of ministry, he would leave. He wanted his pastors "blameless." But we stayed the course. There were weekly meetings and counseling sessions, we reached out in love to the broken family, we made sure that there was food on the table because the custodial wages from the local shopping mall were quite meager.
After six months we had a restoration service. The man shared his testimony of brokenness because of sin, restoration because of grace, and what God was now doing in his life, his marriage, and his outlook on the world. His wife shared. The restoration team shared. It was one of the most moving, meaningful services in the history of Emmanuel. There was not a dry eye in the service. Remember, this is 180 days after his public confession. The church voted that night to make the man part of our pastoral team again and he served our church with distinction and honor for several years until called away to be Senior Pastor of a large metropolitan church.
In the end, this pastor had changed. He turned from being a legalistic, proud, often angry moralist, to a soft-hearted, grace-oriented, lover of people. Because we loved him enough to help him deal with the issues that led to his sin, he knew Christianity was more than a religion--it's about soul transforming relationships. Because we stuck with him for six months of healing instead of shoving him out the door, grace became more than just a word. Because we restored him to ministry and saw him become a more powerful and effective proclaimer of the gospel of God's grace, this man continues to impact not just Oklahoma, not just this nation, but the world for Christ.
This man continues to be one of my best friends to this day. I love him like a brother and I would literally die for him or his family. You see, friends who love you don't cover-up your sin; they help you deal with it. Friends who love you don't act as if you haven't sinned, they love you through recovery from your sin. Friends who love you will help you take the necessary steps to be restored in terms of ministry.
By the way, remember the deacon who was so upset for restoring the pastor after his sin? I performed his funeral a couple of years ago. When he was very sick, before he died, he grabbed me by the hand, tears in his eyes and said, "Pastor, I couldn't have been more wrong when I told you I would leave the church if we restored Pastor _____ to ministry. I want to thank you for leading our church into an understanding of how to confront sin and not only forgive the sinner, but restore the sinner to more effective ministry. I always thought I knew what grace was, but it was only when I saw it in action that I really came to understand the grace of God in my life."
When the Apostle Paul uses the word "restore" in Galatians 6 to describe the process through which broken sinners are brought healing through gracious people who care enough to confront, he uses a medical term that describes a bone that has healed through being reset. Doctors will tell you that "restored, mended" bones are stronger than they were before they were broken.
My prayer is that we conservative, evangelical Christians will (1). Stop playing our little religious games of cover-up, (2). Cease the erroneous rationalization that "friends" ignore sin and defend the sinner, and (3). Begin the Christian art of restoring a brother by confronting, helping him to confess publicly and clearly his moral failure, and then work hard to endure the process that leads to restoration.
In the end, we all will be spiritually stronger because of it.
In His Grace,