The Bible’s Viewpoint
What Should Be Done if a Minister Sins?
MISCONDUCT by religious leaders is catching the public eye today as never before. Protestants have been embarrassed by the scandalous conduct of TV ministers. After one televangelist was recently caught with a prostitute for the second time in three years, he informed his followers that God told him that his behavior was nobody’s business but his own.
Reporting on a 25-year study, Time magazine said: “A former Benedictine monk . . . estimates that half the 53,000 Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. are breaking their vow of celibacy.” Also, a 1990 news report about a number of Canadian priests convicted of sexually abusing children says: “Church leaders had either ignored, dismissed or responded ineffectively to complaints of sexual abuse, even though they had received such complaints from victims, parishioners, police, social workers and other priests.”
“Until recently,” said Time, “erring priests were simply shuttled from parish to parish.” But now that lawsuits filed by victims of priestly misconduct have reached $300 million in the United States, priests are often given psychiatric therapy before returning to religious duty.
What should be done if a minister, a priest, or an elder sins? What guidance does the Bible provide on how to handle such sad misconduct? Let us examine two key Bible texts—Titus 1:7 and 1 Timothy 3:2.
Must Be “Free From Accusation”
The Bible says: “An overseer [“bishop,” The New American Bible (Catholic translation)] must be free from accusation as God’s steward.” (Titus 1:7) Paul gave this command to Titus when assigning him to appoint elders in the congregations of Crete. However, what did the apostle mean?
The expression “free from accusation” is rendered from the Greek word a·negʹkle·tos. Commenting on this word, The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states: “Anenklētos belongs to the legal setting of accusation in court, and connotes behaviour which is irreproachable, against which no accusation can be made.” Thus, a man’s record must be clean before he is appointed an elder; he could not be under reproach, or subject to accusation. And only if he remained free from legitimate accusation could an elder continue in office.—Compare 1 Timothy 3:10.
Not only is an elder to provide leadership in the congregation but he is also to serve the congregation. He has to answer for his stewardship. He is God’s steward; he shepherds God’s little sheep. Thus, he is answerable foremost to the Owner of the flock, Jehovah, and then to the people over whom God gave him the responsibility of oversight.—1 Peter 5:2, 3.
Must Be “Irreprehensible”
The Bible says: “The overseer [“bishop,” NAB] should therefore be irreprehensible.” (1 Timothy 3:2) The Greek word a·ne·piʹlem·ptos is rendered “irreprehensible” and literally means “not to be laid hold of.” In other words an overseer’s life should afford nothing that an accuser can take hold of and use against him. Expanding on the meaning of that Greek word, the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says that an overseer “cannot be attacked (even by non-Christians) because of his moral conduct.”
God sets high standards for those who oversee his people and teach his Word. James said of himself and other elders: “We shall receive heavier judgment.” And Jesus stated this guiding principle: “The one whom people put in charge of much, they will demand more than usual of him.”—James 3:1; Luke 12:48.
Therefore, if a Christian overseer sins flagrantly but repents, he might remain a member of the congregation, but he should be removed from his office of overseer. He is no longer irreprehensible. It might take years for him to reestablish a fine reputation so as to be free from accusation again. His case may be likened to that of Hezekiah’s steward, Shebna. For his misconduct Jehovah rebuked him with the words: “I will push you away from your position; and from your official standing one will tear you down.” But later Shebna must have regained his fine reputation because we read that he was again in the king’s service as secretary.—Isaiah 22:15-22; 36:3.
What if a Minister Is Not Repentant?
Many religions of Christendom have tolerated ministers who practice sin. Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia became papal vice-chancellor, the highest administrative office in the Catholic Curia. For his notorious immorality, he was rebuked by Pope Pius II. Yet, even though he had fathered four illegitimate children, in 1492 the college of cardinals elected him to the papal throne! He continued his scandalous career as Pope Alexander VI. The toleration of unrepentant, debauched ministers throughout Christendom’s history has undoubtedly contributed to the corruption that we see in her today. What, then, is to be done if a minister is not repentant?
A Christian minister who practices serious sin and fails to provide evidence of repentance should be expelled from the congregation. The apostle Paul wrote: “Quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. . . . ‘Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.’”—1 Corinthians 5:11-13.
Firm action protects the reputation of the congregation and sets it apart from those who ‘publicly declare they know God but who disown him by their works.’ The way a religion handles the problem of a minister who sins will help you to recognize if that religion is truly Christian.—Titus 1:16; Matthew 7:15, 16.
[Picture on page 26]
Pope Alexander VI
Alinari/Art Resource, N.Y.