If we adopt the policy I am suggesting in the larger church — that of asking elders and ministers to step down if their children are excommunicate (or the moral equivalent) — this solves some problems, but not all of them. It actually creates a few interesting problems.
One interesting problem it could create is that of establishing an institutional disincentive when it comes to excommunicating the children of elders and ministers. Say that the child in question richly deserves it, but everybody knows that if this happened his father would lose his position — so welcome to the world of perverse incentives. We don’t want to get into a place where we disobey one text for the sake of obeying another one.
There is another issue. Drawing the line at excommunication does address the problem of overt disqualification in a minister’s family, but it doesn’t address the trickier problem of moral authority. Say that a pastor has three daughters, and say that every two years, three times in succession, they each got pregnant out of wedlock, from the oldest to the youngest. Say further that each of them repents honestly and fully, and is attending church regularly. One of them married the father, and the other two are single moms. Everyone is in fellowship. What about that?
This scenario, held up to the standard I am suggesting, means that their father the pastor doesn’t have to step down. And that logic is quite sound. If we make excommunication the line, then if that line is not crossed, then it is not crossed. I think this is quite true when it comes to the basic moral aspects of ministerial qualifications.
But there are other issues. Think of them as strategic qualifications. Think of it in terms of moral authority. A man can be qualified to be on the field — but that is not the same thing as being qualified to be the quarterback. Scripture says that Jesus taught with authority, and not like the scribes. Throughout church history, there have been many scribes who have held the ministerial office, and they have been nice guys. But because they were missing the kind of authority that knows how to lead men into battle, they gradually become ministerial caretakers.
Now scandal affects a man’s moral authority. It saps his ability to make strong and decisive decisions. A situation arises where he must say or do something, but is reluctant because he knows what the comeback will be. When David heard that his son Amnon raped his daughter Tamar, he was furious. But he didn’t act on that (righteous) anger because he had really snarled up his ability to do so through his sin with Bathsheba. He was forgiven, but his vigor, his perceptiveness, his authority, was greatly damaged.
Take this illustration one step out because David’s sin with Bathsheba was his own sin. Say that Amnon’s sin was the first high profile sin, and say that David dealt with it (barely) adequately, but not decisively. Now say that eight months later the son of a political rival in all the palace politics does the same thing. What has happened? David’s ability to do what needs to be done has been adversely affected.
This means that how a man manages his household will spill over into some of the other qualifications. In Timothy, Paul says that he must be “blameless” and must have a “good report” with outsiders (1 Tim. 3:2,7). In Titus, the same kind of thing is urged, with the requirement of blamelessness bookending the requirement concerning his children (Tit. 1:6-7).
Now blameless does not mean absolute blamelessness in the sight of God. If God were to mark iniquities, who could stand (Ps. 130:3)? This is talking about reputational blamelessness.
And this is one of those unwieldy and uneven facts of life — scandals bounce the way punted footballs do. Fornication with pregnancy following is not a worse sin than fornication without pregnancy. But fornication with pregnancy following is usually far more public — which means that it can have more of a debilitating capacity when it comes to a man’s ability to lead a congregation.
This is something that connects to the next point, something alluded to a bit earlier. What is the mission of the church? Every church should be actively involved in the evangelization of the town where they are located. The Christian faith is a religion of world conquest. It is not the case that Jesus told us to go out into all the world in order to establish and maintain an acceptable market share.
But it is easy — especially when real spiritual authority has started to slip away — to allow the real mission of the church to slip away with it. If the ministers of the churches are not up to the challenge of our assigned mission, then an obvious temptation will be to allow the mission of the church to drift over to something we are qualified to do.
This is why a minister who has stumbled (in his own life or in his management of his family) can be qualified to continue to serve in some aspect of God’s kingdom work.
A minister in this position should first ask himself if he should be in the ministry at all. If the church adopts the position of not requiring such action unless there has been an excommunication, the minister himself should still have the authority to decide to take himself out of that position. If the decision is made to remain in ministry, I would suggest a thorough inventory or review of ministerial assignments and responsibilities. If this is done right, it could result in a man finding himself where he can labor far more effectively, and with greater authority.
As John Piper might put it, don’t waste your shake up.