I am troubled.
Actually, I am deeply disturbed.
It seems I am confronted almost weekly with stories of pastors who have fallen to some type of moral failure. Maybe it’s adultery. Maybe it’s addiction. Maybe it’s abuse. But it seems to be of epidemic proportion.
But do you know what might bother me even more than the moral failures of pastors? It’s the number of people and churches who allow these same men back into the pulpit without any evidence of repentance.
I am going to use Perry Noble as an example. Let me make it clear that I do not know Noble. I have never met him. The only thing I know is what I have heard from him, from his former church New Spring. I am simply using Noble as an example to prove my point.
I used to faithfully listen to Noble. New Spring Church was on my podcast subscriptions, and I enjoyed listening to his weekly sermons. As time went by, however, some things began to bother me. He talked about his difficult childhood, his struggle with pornography, and the loss of his mother as a child. It was heart-breaking…and yet so powerful to see a man who had overcome so much through the work of God in His life. But I began to notice some common themes in his sermons.
A theme of it’s ok if I drink a little here and there.
A theme of it’s ok if my language is slightly colorful at times.
A theme of it’s ok that I struggle with anxiety and depression.
And here’s the thing: It IS ok to struggle. But I didn’t sense Noble’s sharing of his own personal struggles as an attempt to connect with others on the human experience. Instead, I sensed Noble defending his right to be part of this world, to indulge in sin rather than striving for holiness. And it was a sense that I was very familiar with from my own marriage to a pastor who failed morally.
In July, 2016, Noble was removed from his position with New Spring Church in Anderson, SC, because of an issue with alcohol and neglect of his family. Over the last four years, Noble and his wife of 17 years divorced.
And, in the past few years, Noble has started a new church and returned to the pastorate.
This last week, I began to look a little deeper into the situation with Noble. There seems to be a lot of back and forth between him and New Spring, him accusing the church of trying to destroy him and New Spring defending their refusal to allow him back into their pulpit.
One comment from Noble about the “attacks” from New Spring mentioned the church’s actions as an attack on his “livelihood.” That really didn’t set well with me. I believe wholeheartedly that ministers should be paid—it says so in Scripture (1 Timothy 5:17-18). However, I would hope that as ministers of the gospel, we never see preaching simply as our livelihood. It must first be our passion to share the good things the Father has done in us and for us. My Father is my livelihood, my Provider, my source of income on this earth, and I will share His goodness until my dying breath regardless of whether I am paid for sharing.
Here’s the thing: I have absolutely no problem with Noble returning to the pastorate if he has truly repented and experienced the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. But, are we as Christians truly looking for the signs of repentance, or are we falling for a charismatic individual who is a gifted speaker? I fear we often fall into the latter category.
For those of you who are wondering about essential elements of repentance, here’s a few things to look for:
A repentant individual will…
Acknowledge sin. If a pastor (or any individual) has fallen to sin, he/she must acknowledge his/her actions and call it what it is: sin. There will be a sense of remorse—not a tendency to blame others or deflect responsibility for his/her actions.
Here’s a personal example: shortly after our divorce, my ex-husband went to another church. The story I eventually heard from a denominational leader was that I just woke up one morning and didn’t love him anymore. He conveniently left out his three years of adultery, his online dating profile, and his pornography issue. This line of reasoning seemed to be a common theme from the multiple churches he pastored between our divorce and his death.
A truly repentant individual will be so devastated over his/her failures that there will be a desire to take responsibility. They will have a Psalm 51 mentality that is broken over the pain inflicted on God and others. They will readily acknowledge their sins and desire to never go down that road again.
Accept accountability. The one who is truly broken over his/her failures will open himself/herself to accountability. They will allow relationships that probe deeply into their personal space, people who truly desire to help them live a life of holiness. Nothing will be off limits to these people. Phones. Electronics. Every keystroke will be recorded for monitoring if something suspicious arises. And the individual’s family? If a spouse or even child has concerns about the individual’s actions, they will be able to freely turn to the accountability group/individual for a deeper look.
My ex-husband initially reached out to another pastor who also had an affair. Initially, it was a great relationship, one that my ex-husband spoke very highly of. But, when this man mentioned that my ex-husband needed to return to our church and offer an apology for his actions? The mere mention of making things right led my ex-husband to end the relationship.
Submit to discipline. True repentance recognizes that discipline is an essential element of recovery. And so is making things right with those who have been hurt by the moral failures.
When an individual who has had a moral failure just wants everything to return to the way they were—with no consequences for his/her actions—there’s a good chance there’s been no true life change. My ex-husband wanted me to simply trust him again despite his affairs. He didn’t want me to question his whereabouts or look at his phone records. He expected me to simply go back to my blind trust in spite of the pain he had caused me. This type of behavior is a huge red flag.
Support his/her family. Scripture teaches that those who fail to care for their families are worse than unbelievers (1 Timothy 5:8). When a pastor (or anyone) is truly repentant, he/she will make family a priority—even if the family has been fractured by divorce.
What does this look like? A repentant man will go above and beyond the minimum ordered by the state to support his family. He will make sure his ex-wife and children have their needs met before his own. He will ensure they are safe and provided for and protected. There will be no arguing about financial support but instead he will have a generous spirit towards his family.
I know so many single moms who struggle to survive financially while their ex-husbands are off taking vacations and living large. Why? Because there is no repentance. Because what’s his is his and she/the kids don’t get any of “his” money. It’s a sad existence for so many single moms and their kids.
If you are looking for a church or your church is looking for a pastor, make sure you do your research. Ask members of former churches about any character issues they have observed. If he is divorced, make sure you get both sides of the story. Look into open records such as divorce decrees (my divorce decree clearly states my divorce was granted on the basis of adultery). If he/she has been out of ministry, find out why. If he has had a moral failure, dig deep into the above situations. Does he acknowledge his sin? Does he have accountability in his life (true accountability not just friends who say what he wants to hear)? Has he submitted to discipline and allowed adequate time for healing before returning to the ministry? Is he caring for his family above and beyond the minimum required by law? If not, think twice before allowing him to be you pastor. He just might be using his own charisma rather than the power of the Holy Spirit.