Yesterday I reflected on the reality that pastors, church leaders and missionaries are human, are elevated to a position of authority and are thus tempted and tested more intensely than lay Christians, and I encouraged Christians to remember that our faith is not in our leaders but in Christ. I suggested that if someone else’s (anyone else’s) failure or apostasy causes us to doubt or abandon the faith then our faith is in the wrong person. It is on this point that I want to reflect more deeply today.
What if you happen to be married to the pastor, church leader or missionary who is unfaithful? Or what if someone in the church hurts you personally and deeply? How do doubt and faith balance out when it is in our own homes?
First of all, there are two types of people who will fall into these life-altering sins: those who are saved and will repent, and those who are not saved and will not repent. Since it is impossible for us to truly see the heart of another human being, sometimes there will be people in the Church who say they are Christians – who may even think they are Christians, but they have never been pushed to the point of true testing and true conviction. A person can sin – and can sin greatly – when he is a believer, but when He does sin the Holy Spirit will convict him, he will confess his sin, he will repent of it (stop doing it and change), and he will seek the help of the Lord and other believers to help him walk in holiness. But those who are not truly saved will cherish a sin more than they love God or desire salvation. When they are pushed to the point of decision to obey God or embrace their sin, they will choose the sin.
There are pastors who have affairs and will repent, will seek the help of accountability partners and friends to root out all temptation from their hearts, who will confess to their spouses and churches and who will grow. There are also pastors who have affairs and choose the affair, the pornography, the new lifestyle over their faith. They might appear repentant, they might say the right words – but that is often only because they have been caught. Usually, however, they choose the sin and throw everything else away. When the rubber hits the road, they love their sin more than they love God and/or their spouses.
God’s response and our response to these two types is very different. Consider Peter – one of the greatest evangelists and church planters in history – and Judas – the disciple who was damned for his betrayal. They both walked with Jesus for three years. They both preformed miracles in his name. They both learned from Jesus intimately, and at the end, they both denied Jesus.
Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?” And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. From then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Jesus.
– Matt 26.14-16
Now Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard, and a servant-girl came to him and said, “You too were with Jesus the Galilean.” But he denied it before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are talking about.” When he had gone out to the gateway, another servant-girl saw him and *said to those who were there, “This man was with Jesus of Nazareth.” And again he denied it with an oath, “I do not know the man.” A little later the bystanders came up and said to Peter, “Surely you too are one of them; for even the way you talk gives you away.” Then he began to curse and swear, “I do not know the man!” And immediately a rooster crowed.
– Matt 26.69-74
Both Judas and Peter regretted what they had done:
Then when Judas, who had betrayed Him, saw that He had been condemned, he felt remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders, saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? See to that yourself!” And he threw the pieces of silver into the temple sanctuary and departed; and he went away and hanged himself.
– Matt 27.3-5
And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, “Before a rooster crows, you will deny Me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.
– Matt 26.75
And lest we pick on these two too critically, let us remember that all of the disciples were scattered and fell away on that night:
Then Jesus said to them, “You will all fall away because of Me this night, for it is written, ‘I WILL STRIKE DOWN THE SHEPHERD, AND THE SHEEP OF THE FLOCK SHALL BE SCATTERED.’
– Matt 26.31
What was the response of God and the result of these two failures? Judas was damned, and Peter – just a few months later – began the very first Church planting movement.
“The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born.”
– Matt 26.24
“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.”
– Matt 16.18
The Church is commanded to respond in the same way to leaders and non leaders who fall into sin. If someone is unwilling to repent, Jesus taught us that we should kick them out of the Church and declare them unbelievers (Matt 18.15-18). If someone is willing to repent, then we restore them gently, understanding that we are all capable of sin – both small and great.
Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.
– Gal 6.1
When it is within your home, if your own spouse cheats on you, Scripture gives very clear instruction. I have written on this extensively here: Is Divorce A Sin? But, can we doubt in those situations? Doubting is natural and a part of the faith journey. We will all walk through season of doubt and questioning. And some of those seasons will be stirred up because of the failure of those people we value and establish in our lives as teachers, guides, friends and spouses. John the Baptist was, according to Jesus, the greatest man to ever live (Matt 11.11), and when he was facing death at the hands of Herod, he doubted Jesus and sent his disciples to ask Jesus if He was the real deal. Jesus responded gently, kindly and with compassion:
Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the BLIND RECEIVE SIGHT and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the POOR HAVE THE GOSPEL PREACHED TO THEM. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.”
– Matt 11.4-6
Jesus will meet us in our moments of doubt and struggle when we turn to Him honestly and beg Him to reveal Himself to us. If we try to test Him out of unbelief, He will not respond, and our wicked hearts will be revealed as unbelieving. But when those difficult times come, when our spouses cheat on us, when our pastors fall, when someone to whom we looked for Spiritual guidance proves himself to not be a believer, Jesus will comfort us and walk us through it. Being hurt, struggling to forgive, and doubting are a natural response to being hurt on such a deep level. But our faith is proven by our response: do we turn to Jesus, or do we become calloused and jaded? Do we press into the Word, or do we throw it all away?
Can God use someone who has fallen so greatly? Absolutely. The greatest sin is to deny Jesus, and Peter did that three times. And within months He was leading the first and only movement. He was the point man, the main preacher. 1 Timothy does give us clear qualifications for church leaders, and they are mostly character assessments. Can someone who recently had an affair be of good reputation? That is for your church leadership to decide. But we do see the example of Peter as God immediately forgiving and restoring Him. King David took advantage of a married woman, got her pregnant, tried to cover it up, and when he was unable to had her husband murdered and married her. After all of this, God called him a “man after his own heart”. One is not forever ruined for sinning. He must repent, however. One can be revealed as a nonbeliever for his choice of sin over God.
So while the structures of God for such situations are outlined in Scripture to teach us how to handle them, that does not mean that our emotions and responses will not be confused. It is a difficult thing to see someone abandon God, their families, and/or the church. And while God will give grace to forgive, to restore, or to remove such a one from the church, it will be confusing and difficult to understand. This is why we must turn to God, we must focus on Him, we must cling to Him, and we must put our faith fully and only in Jesus Christ and the cross.