What should be done with pastors who are making mistakes?
Every so often, I hear from a church member about a problem that they have with their pastor. It typically is phrased something like, “This pastor is awful,” then followed by a detailed description of what the pastor is doing wrong. Five minutes later, the person has finished venting and I am fighting very negative thoughts.
I could just accept what they said about the pastor and not fight the negativity, but Paul’s writings warn against this: “And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love for their work’s sake. Be at peace among yourselves” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13, NKJV). According to Paul, we should recognize our pastors who labor among us and are over us, and to esteem them very highly. It helps their work, and it keeps the peace. But how do we apply this to pastors making obvious errors?
Abraham, in effect, occupied the position of a pastor. He was the head of his house, which had so many people that he could supply 318 armed male servants in an emergency. Ellen White’s comment that there were more than a thousand people under him is very reasonable. He was so faithful in his spiritual leadership that God favored him above every other family in the earth.
But Abraham had struggles. Two separate times, Abraham and Sarah hid their marriage from the people they lived with. Abraham admitted that it happened everywhere they stayed: “And it came to pass, when God caused me to wander from my father’s house, that I said to her, “This is your kindness that you should do for me: in every place, wherever we go, say of me, ‘He is my brother.’” (Genesis 20:13). Not only did Abraham doubt God’s protection, but he put Sarah in great danger from would-be suitors.
How did God respond to this? When Abraham and Sarah lived in Gerar, Abimelech, in ignorance, took Sarah to be his wife. One would think that God would spare innocent Abimelech and punish guilty Abraham. Instead, God prevented Abimelech’s family from having children and told him, “Indeed you are a dead man.” God then told Abimelech to restore Sarah to Abraham and, of all things, to have guilty Abraham pray for his family to be healed!
Abimelech not only did everything God told him, but humbled himself even further. He gave Abraham “sheep, oxen, and male and female servants” and told Sarah, “Behold, I have given your brother a thousand pieces of silver.” Translations vary here, but one thing is clear: Abimelech paid Abraham even more respect than God asked him to.
But why? Why would God and Abimelech defend Abraham, who was consistently practicing wrong?
Parents and Teachers
Last year, I had the privilege of teaching in a mission school in rural Honduras. The school is a private Adventist school, meaning that all parents must agree to obey the rules of the school before their children can attend. One rule of the school is that the children cannot bring meat at lunch. The school wants to avoid the health issues it could bring (is that chicken or pork in their rice?). When enforced, most parents follow this rule.
The guardians of one of my students last year apparently decided that they didn’t like the rule. They would repeatedly send him lunch with meat in it. More than once, I would have to throw the meat away or pick it out of whatever food he had for the day. When needed, I would buy him something to replace it with from the school kitchen to make sure that he was well-fed.
The guardians’ disregard of the rules seriously affected the student. He was one of the most intelligent student in his grade, but the lack of respect, among other factors, led him to ignore his schoolwork. He was repeatedly warned that, if he did not do what was asked, he would fail. Eventually, he failed the grade by inches. The guardians were very unhappy, but he had no choice but to repeat the grade. Had he been taught to respect his teacher despite disagreements, I’m sure he would have tried and succeeded.
Teachers exist because they have knowledge that the parent wants their child to have. If the child learns to obey the teacher, he receives much more good than bad. He benefits from the teacher’s knowledge of the world and life experiences. When a parent overrides the teacher’s authority in one area, the child can lose respect for everything else. The child will ignore both the bad and the good.
The same was true of Abraham. He was one of God’s representatives. God sent him to Canaan to do mission work: to teach the Canaanites about the true God so they wouldn’t be destroyed. If Abimelech had worked hard to destroy Abraham’s reputation, he probably would have succeeded. He also would have succeeded at making Abraham’s godly influence and teaching nearly useless, and fewer Canaanites would be in heaven.
The Holy Spirit had changed Abimelech’s heart. He loved God so much that God spoke directly to him in a dream to warn him of his great danger. To him, protecting and advancing God’s work was more important than revenge or pride. Therefore, he protected the reputation of God’s chosen messenger so God’s work could continue.
Ministers and Members
This lesson is true today. Like teachers, church leaders such as pastors and elders have much spiritual knowledge and experience. And, like teachers, publicly slandering a spiritual leader because of his mistakes destroys the confidence that others have in them.
I know a church which has a pastor that some do not agree with. The pastor thinks that some in the church are too controlling. The accused people think that the pastor is the controlling one. However, because of the pastor’s position, and also to avoid a fight, they are making efforts to work with him, even if it means giving up leadership positions in the church. The main coordinator of church events has said little, if anything, about this publicly.
Why would they submit to this humiliation? They are humbling themselves before the pastor, as Paul said, “for their work’s sake.” They could try to fight the pastor publicly, and they would probably succeed in stopping his influence against them. They would also succeed in creating many bitter feelings, division within the church, and excuses for people to ignore the pastor’s messages calling people to Jesus. As of this writing, the pastor is about to hold an evangelistic series. How many people would listen to God’s word through him if all of the church members said that he couldn’t be trusted?
Although Abimelech highly honored Abraham as God’s representative, he also worked to correct him. When Abimilech found out the truth, he told his people so they wouldn’t make a mistake before God. Abimelech then plainly told Abraham, “You have done deeds to me that ought not to be done,” and then asked why he did it. This apparently wasn’t an angry accusation, because Abimelech allowed Abraham to continue living with him. It was just a plain statement of facts and an attempt to understand why it happened.
Likewise, we shouldn’t let mistakes happen without trying to help the minister. When I have worked to apply Matthew 18:15-17 by talking to the person, I have been amazed at the results. Most people I meet are honest people who really want to please God. They generally take any attempt to correct them well, even if they don’t agree. Some will not take it well and get angry. However, no prophet had a 100% success rate (except maybe Jonah), and Jesus gives special blessings in Matthew 5 for those who are persecuted for righteousness’s sake. If you follow Matthew 18, and they don’t accept the warning, you have done your duty.
Sometimes, I find out that I am the one who is wrong. When I talk to the person about the issue, they have the chance to explain their perspective or their reasons. Often, I find that I misheard or misunderstood what they said. This recently happened with a pastor friend of mine who told a story about his childhood vandalism of “evil” foods such as alcohol. I thought he was glorifying crime, and so I talked to him. He listened, then calmly explained that it was to illustrate how children can try to do the right thing and make big mistakes in the process. Others understood his intent, but I completely missed it!
No minister will do everything perfectly. Some will make serious mistakes. It would be a new thing if people did not make mistakes. But when this happens, God has given us a work to do to protect and support these ministers. As Abimelech was God’s tool to help and support Abraham, we too can honor and help our ministers.
Jensen and his wife Jennita serve at VIDA Internacional, a self-supporting ministry in rural Honduras. May God strengthen you by His Spirit always.