Does sin disqualify you for ministry?

Everybody liked Dennis. He was a capable, friendly man who went about his job as church treasurer cheerfully and without fuss.

It all happened before anyone—perhaps even Dennis—realized. He’d been doing the job for a number of years, and was used to ‘fiddling’ things a bit here and there to keep everything going. Sometimes he’d pay an account out of his own money and then reimburse himself when the money was available at church. And very occasionally, it worked the other way too: he’d use some church funds just to tide himself over till pay day.

When his own financial situation went through a slump, he began to rely a little too heavily on the church funds as a back-up. The amounts he ‘borrowed’ grew larger and were increasingly difficult to pay back, a well as to explain to others. To avoid any fuss, he decided to fudge the accounts until he could pay it all back.

But the auditor knew his job, and the scandal broke. Everyone was devastated, including Dennis. He asked permission to address the congregation to explain what he’d done. He publicly repented and begged their forgiveness. For the first time in living memory, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house on Sunday morning.

And Dennis’s repentance was genuine. He undertook to sell some of his assets to pay back the amount immediately, and resigned as treasurer before the question of sacking him could be raised. The congregation, for their part, was as eager to forgive as Dennis was to repent. In fact, there was a widespread feeling that even if Dennis should not be treasurer, he should certainly retain his position as an elder and his place on the board of the local church school.

After serious discussion, the pastor and other elders agreed. If they were going to forgive Dennis and welcome him into full fellowship, they had no choice but to encourage him to continue his other leadership roles.

In fact, the whole episode was a turning paint in Dennis’s life. It prompted him to do some serious thinking, and he decided to seek ordained ministry in his denomination. However, the denominational officials were less forgiving, or so it seemed. They knocked back his application.

Our society has many values that we, as Christians, absorb uncritically. One of these is that merit—what we do, how much we achieve—determines our status and self-worth. Inherited wealth, ancestral fame, sex, race—these things count for less these days, and, in many ways, this is a good thing. But the new merit-based regime has its own problems. If ‘who you are’ equals ‘what you do’, what happens if you’re a garbage collector?

This is reflected in Christian circles by an increasing emphasis on ‘every-member ministry’. Of course, there are good biblical reasons why every member should use their gifts to build up the body (see Romans 12, 1 Corinthians 12, and so on), but this trend is also driven by a merit-based view of self-esteem. Many Christians believe that what they do is the crucial factor in determining their Christian self-worth and their place in their congregation.

The church growth movement makes much of this. If you want a newcomer to become integrated into the congregation, you need to give the person a job to do as soon as possible. People who have been asked to do a job feel valued. They feel they have a place in the church because there is something they can do—something they can contribute.

An increasing number of Christians feel rejected if they are not asked to do a job around the congregation. Sure, it’s really about ‘service’, but if I am not invited to ‘serve’ in some recognized capacity, then I have been denied the status that accompanies doing something in the congregation. I am second-rate. I am not really part of things.

Choosing leadership

Some ‘ministries’ require appointment, and these usually involve leadership: Sunday School teachers, Youth Group leaders, prayer and Bible study group leaders, musical directors, not to mention pastors and elders, parish councillors and so on. These are different from the ad hoc ministry in which all Christians can, and should, participate (see the section on ‘What is ministry?’ at the end of this article). These ‘ministries’ entail public leadership and accountability, and the New Testament lays down some guidelines for the selection of this kind of leader.

In Acts 6, the seven deacons chosen to administer the affairs of the growing Christian community were men “known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom”. In Timothy 3 and Titus 1, the most important passages on this issue, a list of characteristics or qualifications is given for the aspiring overseer/elder/deacon. The Christian leader must be of good character and repute; he must understand and be able to teach the sound doctrine that has been handed down from the apostles; and he must be able to manage his own household.

This is where our problems begin. When we reject someone for leadership, perhaps on the above scriptural basis, it is seen as a rejection of them as a person. As they, and others, perceive it, the person is being victimized for some failing that is past and forgiven.

This is hard, and yet how are we to obey 1 Timothy 3? Should we ordain divorcees to the pastoral ministry? What if the man’s wife is a divorcee? Should a Christian who has had problems with alcoholism be appointed for leadership? Does it make a difference if it was before or after the person’s conversion? And what about criminal records, sexual lapses and rebellious children?

These are complex questions. The following principles should go some way towards solving them for us.


1. All sin is sin

At the start, we must affirm that one sin is no ‘worse’ than another. That is, individual sins are a symptom of our overriding rebellion against God. One sin does not cast us further from God’s presence than any other; they are all acts of rebellion.

It is interesting to note, for instance, that when Paul catalogues the wickedness of those who reject God, he lists what to us seem fairly innocuous sins—like disobeying one’s parents, or gossiping—alongside murder, debauchery and God-hating! (See Romans 1:29f.) God’s free grace in Christ saves us from the consequences of all sin because it strikes at the disease: our rebellion against him.

2. Long-term repercussions

Some sins, however, have more serious repercussions in this life than others. Persistent drunkenness/alcoholism will result in permanent damage to the liver and possibly other bodily functions. Promiscuity can lead to an unwanted child that will change the course of the reluctant parent’s life.

The practical consequences of a person’s sin may have a significant impact on their suitability for Christian leadership.

3. After conversion?

Should any distinction be made between sins committed before and after conversion? In one sense, no; all sin is sin. But in another sense, there is a very real difference.

We see this in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul is insistent that the man who calls himself a brother, and yet is engaged in open immorality, should be expelled from the Corinthian fellowship. In fact, he goes on to say that the Corinthians should not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother, but who is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. When Christians persist in sin, it matters!

However, he also makes plain that this principle does not apply to unbelievers. He doesn’t mean we should not associate with non-Christian ‘sinners’; if that were the case, says Paul, you would have to leave the world altogether. No, Paul expects non-Christians to sin in this way.

A sin committed before conversion should have no bearing on a person’s place in Christian leadership. The Apostle Paul himself is a prime example. His pre-conversion failing was murdering Christians, and yet that didn’t prevent him from becoming God’s ambassador to the Gentiles.

Some pre-conversion sins, by their very nature, might make Christian leadership difficult. If a man has led a particularly promiscuous life before conversion, and has three families for which he is responsible, this may place real limits on his ability to handle Christian leadership.

4. Restore gently

This is a key principle. When someone is caught in sin, we should be eager to see the person restored—not with a superior and judgemental attitude, but being fully aware that we are also vulnerable to temptation (see Galatians 6:1-2).

Of course, if the person is unrepentant, then we have to look at 1 Corinthians 5 rather than Galatians 6. But our attitude should be the same as the father of the prodigal son: we should long for the person to repent and come back, and pray that they will. When they do, we are to welcome them with open arms. There is no place for being censorious; we must not delight in others’ failings, because there but for the grace of God …

So, regardless of the evil and when it was committed, we must forgive and fully accept the repentant person. There must be no barrier to our fellowship with them.

This is where the conflict of values begins to surface. We are concerned that the repentant sinner be fully accepted and welcomed back into the fellowship of the congregation, and we are sensitive to any actions that might make the person feet like we are still ‘holding it against them’. At the same time, we must maintain the standards that are laid out in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1, so that the work might not fall into disrepute with those outside, and so that a godly example is provided for the congregation.

And this is where the merit-based values of our society do not help. If our worth and acceptance are tied inextricably to what we do, how can we convey full acceptance to someone while telling them that they are not suitable for a particular leadership role? It is very hard, and great sensitivity and patience is required.

5. Will it be harmful?

We mustn’t appoint anyone to a leadership role that might be harmful for them. In 1 Timothy 3, there are two factors that might lead the prospective leader to fail into the devil’s snare: he must not be a recent convert, lest he become conceited, and he must have a good reputation with outsiders.

In other words, we must place the welfare of the individual above the importance of filling the leadership gap in our programme. Denying someone a particular role is often more loving than appointing them to it. It can be an expression of how much you value them—that they are more important to you than any job or programme. This concept is quite foreign to our culture, and so we have to work hard to communicate it.

6. Special circumstances

There am some special circumstances which will preclude people from undertaking certain ministries. Certain past sins, though completely forgiven, will affect a person’s public acceptability.

It would be foolish, for example, to appoint a repentant homosexual to run a boy’s club. Even though the person has genuinely renounced homosexuality, and is seeking in God’s strength to lead a new life, it would be inviting trouble to make such an appointment. The danger of accusation and personal attack would be too great. The possible consequences for the individual and for the work of the gospel would prevent us from making this appointment.

Again, if we equate restoration of fellowship with restoration of function, we place ourselves in an intolerable position.

7. Family sins

But what about the family sins: divorce, sexual lapses or immorality, rebellious children, and the like?

This is perhaps the most difficult area of all. We are liable to err at both ends of the spectrum—to be overly censorious and judgemental at one extreme, or to be too indulgent at the other. This area brings out the Pharisee in us, and we end up making subtle and quite arbitrary distinctions between one sin and the next. There is a need for sensitivity and care, for there will no doubt be disagreement among Christians as to how particular situations should be handled. All the same, there are some clear principles to be followed.

The Bible is quite clear on one point: lifelong monogamy is the appropriate context for sexuality and family life. Adultery and fornication are denounced just as severely as homosexuality, and we must not shrink from teaching and upholding these ideals. The breakdown of standards in this area has lasting consequences for family life in the congregation.

Furthermore, this is an area of common temptation. Many Christians struggle to direct their sexual urges in a godly direction, and this makes it crucial that a good example is set from the top. If people in leadership are failing, it makes it all the more difficult for others in the congregation to continue the battle. The overseer then, in 1 Timothy 3, must be the husband of one wife—i.e. monogamous—and be self-controlled. He must manage his family well. He must model the godly pattern. Failure in this area must be a negative consideration in appointing people for Christian leadership, for leaders do more than fulfill a particular function; they set an example for the congregation. The leader who has a bad reputation in this area will bring discredit on the gospel.

In all this, we also need to be careful that sex is not elevated to the position of the sin—sin par excellence. We must counter this by word and action, especially as we express full and open fellowship with those who have failed and repented in this area.

8. There is no justice

The tragedy of it all is that there is no justice. The world is not a fair place, and those who get caught out and suffer the consequences are often those who seem least to deserve it.

The church elder who is having a secret sexual affair may escape detection altogether, and indeed may be the one who declares that an unmarried mother is not suitable to teach Sunday School. One girl might fall pregnant, tell no-one, have a quick, clean abortion, and continue to lead the Youth Fellowship unhindered. Another, more concerned to respond in a godly way, goes ahead and has the child, and suffers the shame and possible exclusion from leadership that this may involve.


Church discipline is not easy. It is often difficult to decide what to do and when to do it, and actually doing it is usually the most difficult thing of all.

In this article, we have begun to examine the issues. We might summarize our conclusions in four key points:

  • We must not confuse ministry and appointed leadership.
  • We must not confuse leadership and full acceptance of the individual.
  • We must not confuse choosing models for the future and criticizing people’s past.
  • We must accept God’s sovereignty, that he has gifted or not gifted each of us for particular ministries, and this includes the consequences of our past sin.

Sin never disqualifies us for ministry, but sometimes it will disqualify us for leadership.

What is ‘ministry’?

As we examine what to do about sin and ministry, we need to make an important distinction. Ministry does not equal leadership; ‘ministry’ simply means ‘service’—doing things for people. Sometimes this will be in a public or structured way. Other times it will not.

On this definition, past sin should never disqualify someone for ministry. No matter what we have done, either before or after our conversion, there is nothing that can prevent us serving others. This is because there are as many ways of serving others as there are people in the world to serve: forming a relationship with the lonely, old woman who always sits in the back row; or visiting some of the fringe members of the fellowship to encourage them to come along; or doing the washing up after church. If fellowship has been restored, there is no barrier to ministry (read ‘service’).

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