Can he continue in ministry?

The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of its Leaders
John H. Armstrong
Christian Focus Publications, 2000

One of the saddest features of the contemporary church is that stories of the sexual indiscretion of Christian leaders are exceedingly common. According to an increasing number of surveys, roughly one in four pastors admit to committing some kind of sexual impropriety in the course of their ministry, and one in eight admit to actually committing adultery. Most confess to a great struggle to remain sexually pure.

In light of this tragic revelation, John Armstrong’s book, The Stain that Stays (first published in 1995 under the title Can Fallen Pastors be Restored?) addresses a critical question for ourtimes: How should the church respond to the sexual misconduct of its ministers? Although best known as an author and conference speaker, Armstrong is no stranger to the strains of church ministry, having served himself as a pastor for some twenty-one years. This enables him to write not only with compassion and humility but with a deep appreciation of the complexities which surround this issue.

Nevertheless, Armstrong’s first concern is to be faithful to Scripture. This concern gives rise to several lengthy exegetical discussions of key Bible passages throughout the book. In fact, a whole chapter and a half is devoted to an exploration of the meaning of Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6:18 about the uniqueness of sexual sin. On this particular text, Armstrong concludes that Paul’s point is that sexual sin is not only a desecration of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit, but is uniquely destructive of a one’s inner personality (pp. 54-56, 64-65).

Armstrong’s concern for Scriptural faithfulness is also matched by a love for the church of Christ and its spiritual health. This two-fold passion drives him (as Kent Hughes puts it in the book’s Forward) “to cut through the therapeutic detritus common to today’s thinking and question whether fallen pastors can be restored, and if so, under what circumstances”. The common practice in many denominations today is for pastors to be restored to office once they have publicly repented and broken with their sinful behaviour. Moreover, in many cases this restoration is ‘immediate’ (inside twelve months), involves no new process of ordination or re-examination and can even be to ministry in the same church where the moral collapse took place. Whilst believing strongly in the personal restoration of fallen ministers, Armstrong is rightly critical of this disastrously naive easy-going state of affairs.

Armstrong’s own view is that restoration should be the exception not the norm, and a rare exception at that (pp. 135, 143). In other words, in almost all cases ministers guilty of sexual misconduct should be permanently disqualified from holding office. Armstrong is quick to point out that there is no question that a fallen minister can be restored to God, to his family and even to the congregation he was pastoring at the time of his fall. Neither is Armstrong contending that the case for restoration is without any biblical support. However, he is arguing that the case against is significantly stronger.

In a chapter entitled ‘The heart of the matter’, Armstrong
offers six reasons why he recommends the approach that he does. First, the pastor must be ‘above reproach’ (1 Tim. 3:2). Second, the pastor must have a good reputation with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:7). Third, because patterns of sexual sin are not easily broken, there is the danger of relapse. Fourth, the pastor must be a consistent model of integrity. Fifth, a pastor who commits sexual immorality has displayed a complete lack of judgment and discernment. Sixth, the church must judge those inside it (1 Cor. 5:12-13), and pastors must be judged by even stricter standards (cf. James 3:1 and Luke 12:48).

The final two chapters of the book helpfully address the issues of how to help a fallen pastor rebuild his life and find ‘alternative ministry’, and how both churches and pastors can guard against the sexual misconduct of pastors.

Armstrong’s book is both sobering and fortifying, and (in my opinion) ultimately convincing. Whether one agrees with all of his arguments or accepts all of his recommendations, The Stain that Stays deserves to be read widely and pondered thoughtfully not only by pastors and ministers, but by local church elders and denominational officials. The issues are too important to ignore.

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