In the life of the church we become well-acquainted with sin (How is that for an encouraging way to start this post?). This is especially true for church leaders and ministers.
For the sinner, we encourage confession and repentance, and for the church, a path toward redemption and reconciliation by way of forgiveness – all of which we see enacted through the practice of baptism. Oftentimes, for the “outsider sinner,” the non-Christian who comes to begin this journey, the church is quick to joyfully accept their confession and welcome them into the body (Daniel Napier and Todd Hall both note the “rush to the water” in their Christian Studies articles HERE and HERE). Though there is typically some disappointment from the congregation when a fellow church member confesses, initial disappointment quickly fades into the same joyful acceptance of this “member sinner.”
When church leaders and ministers confess to sin (especially when the wrongdoing is on our list of “greater sins”), the church’s response has not always been as merciful.
Understandably, when our leader does wrong, there is often much disappointment. When our teacher acts contrary to their own teaching, questions arise, doubt and fear may settle in, and, perhaps, trust is even damaged. Because of such questions, fear, and break in trust, the leader is quickly asked to step down or the minister asked to resign (sometimes at the same speed at which we baptize and welcome the “outsider sinner”).
The repeated occurrence of this response among congregations has caused many in leadership roles within the church to hide their sin and keep their confession quiet. It becomes a “personal” matter (meaning one they must handle on their own). They become the church’s “silent sinner.” Consequently, when the minister’s confession remains silent, so does the church’s forgiveness.
This post is not intended to judge the decisions of congregations faced with such a challenging situation. From experience, I am well-aware that there are too many variables specific to each situation to discern a “one size fits all” approach. Still, Jesus offers us a framework through his interaction with Peter in John 21, which, if faithfully considered, may serve as a pastoral guide for our encounters with sin, whether from an outsider, a lay member, or a minister.
In the beginning of John 21, Peter is presented as the “denying disciple.” On the night of Jesus’ trial, of course, he denies his Lord three times. Jesus, the “I am,” is rejected by one whom he had accepted with a cold, “I am not.”
Now, following Jesus’ death, Peter is in denial. “I’m going fishing,” he tells the others. He is returning to his old life – the one he lived before he ever was called into a new life by Jesus. His return to the old will not be so simple.
After Jesus calls out to the fishermen and they meet him on the shore, we witness the masterful way in which Jesus deals with Peter, the sinful, “leader of the pack” disciple. Let’s construct our framework by highlighting four movements Jesus makes throughout his interaction and reflect upon how we may appropriate each for the church’s ministry today.
1. Jesus re-creates the scene.
Jesus begins by drawing Peter back to the scene of his denial. With the scent of the charcoal fire on the beach, the same sort of fire by which he stood when he spoke, “I am not,” undoubtedly Peter is back. What Jesus does next, though, reveals that his intention in re-creating the scene is not to shame Peter but to begin him on a path toward redemption.
This concept of “re-creation” is something that is usually either too heavily emphasized and dwelt upon or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, bypassed altogether in churches today. After all, it recalls a painful memory.
Still, in order for a word of grace to be spoken, acknowledgement of wrongdoing and a word of judgment is necessary. At times, no words are needed; only a creative recollection, just as Jesus offers to Peter. However, this word or recollection, for those who follow in the way of Jesus, is always ultimately aimed toward the grace of redemption, not dishonor or humiliation.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the shepherd seeks out the lost sheep to carry him home, not to shame him for wandering from the flock. Rather than crucify the sinner, the church’s role is to restore life to the broken. Restoration, however, first requires a recognition of brokenness.
Here, Jesus begins by re-creating the scene for Peter in order to re-create it – to make something new out of it.
2. Jesus calls Simon (Peter) by name.
After they had finished eating, Jesus said to him, “Simon, son of John….” It is important to notice the name by which he calls his disciple: Simon, son of John. This is the same name by which he was called in the beginning of the Gospel. Peter has sought to return to his old way; Jesus, once again, is calling him out of the old and into the new.
While Jesus’ use of the name Simon is noteworthy, it is of no less significance to recognize that he still calls his disciple by name. The simple act of naming a person offers dignity to the other. They are not merely any person or animal or inanimate object. They have a name! By calling his name, Jesus is ennobling Peter, recognizing his worth.
As the church encounters sinners, it is essential that we seek to raise the other and dignify them, not only for their sake but to reshape and center our own perceptions, as well.
3. Jesus risks himself for Peter.
“Simon son of John, do you love me?” After raising him to his feet, Jesus next risks himself by walking with Peter. And we see just how far Jesus is willing to walk with the sinner on this path toward redemption. Three times had Peter denied his Lord – three times, “I am not.” Now, three times does Jesus ask, “Do you love me?” In doing so, he not only shows Peter the path but he walks it with him, transforming his words of denial into a confession of love, as they tread the road together.
Too often, when the church is faced with sin, we have been quick to offer judgment and point toward the path to change. However, we have, perhaps, been slow to actually walk this path step by agonizing step, joining the other in their transformative struggle.
Perhaps we fail to walk with them either because we have forgotten that we, too, were once the “other” or out of fear of risking ourselves. We become afraid of being taken advantage of, afraid of getting hurt, or afraid of public perception. However, such risk is necessary for those who have truly taken up their cross to follow in the way of their master.
4. Jesus offers Peter a new role.
The fourth thing we witness from Jesus is of no less significance than the first three. Had Jesus stopped before this final act, his work would have been incomplete. He would have simply walked Peter up to the point of his humiliating confession and left him to sort through the pain on his own. Confession, however, is not the end of this path; it is a step along the way. Forgiveness, redemption, and new life are the aim!
“Feed my sheep,” Jesus commissions Peter. And with these words, Peter has graciously been ushered from the depths of sin into the glory of New Creation.
Notice, also, he has been given no small task. Jesus could have said, “Okay, Peter, I forgive you. You are welcome to be my disciple. Eventually I may even allow you to teach. But we can’t have you behind the pulpit. You can sit in the pew, but we can’t have you on the payroll. Everybody knows what you did. The people will never trust you as a leader.”
Instead, like his master, he is now to be the “under-shepherd” of the Good Shepherd! Peter, once the leader of the pack turned sinful denier of his Lord, is now the forgiven and redeemed leader. This is a victory for the kingdom and cause for celebration!
At this point, you may be asking, “But shouldn’t we hold leaders to a higher standard?” This certainly appears to be true in a reading of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. There is not space, here, to properly exegete these texts. I will simply comment in this way:
Undoubtedly, the confession of a church leader or minister is not a simple nor painless situation. We rightly have high expectations for those who lead. But there is not a user’s manual to provide a black and white, step-by-step “how to” for sorting through the mess. While we may learn from others’ experiences, each specific incident is contextual. There are numerous variables and questions that must be considered with wisdom. For example, should a male minister who has previously committed adultery be allowed to counsel women? Should a minister with a prior addiction to internet pornography be allowed to have a computer in his or her office? It would, indeed, be wise to proceed with caution in either of these cases; however, a congregation must consider all variables at play, especially those specific to its own situation and context in order to faithfully discern an appropriate response. Perhaps key in any congregation’s response is to walk this shoreline patiently and remember we are ministering, not in the way of a business, but in the way of Jesus to people, regardless of their appointed role.
As we look to our Lord in his interaction with Peter, we are offered a guiding framework for the church’s ministry today as to how we may approach handling the sin of a leader or minister. It is one that, if faithfully considered, is capable of reshaping our response to such sensitive matters.
While we may have higher expectations for church leaders, as it turns out, sin does not disqualify one from leadership in the kingdom. In fact, one may say that only a (redeemed) sinner is capable of leading the community of (redeemed) sinners, for only a wounded healer can faithfully and appropriately offer healing to the wounded.
As the Father has been gracious in restoring life to us, may his grace become incarnate through us, offering resurrected life to others, as we tread the path toward redemption together.
Please share this article with others you know by using the social media icons at the top of the page. Also, subscribe to the Christian Studies blog to receive notifications of articles straight into your inbox.
Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad -- one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas -- is affiliated with the Church of Christ and is in conversation with all who confess Jesus as Lord. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.