I’ve previously written about how one might arrange their life in such a way to make them ripe for a fall. I’ve held out the possibility there of restoration for those who have previously disqualified themselves from ministry. You don’t have to be a church leader to make a smoking crater of your life and relationships, however. When repentance is genuine and submission to discipline and accountability is embraced, the joyful reception of the church is to be an acceptance back into the fellowship of the church.
Maybe you’ve been there and back. I have friends who’ve fallen, both as church leaders and as “ordinary” church members. Some pursued repentance soon after their sins were exposed and have seen their relationships (eventually) and church membership restored. Some are still in pursuit of their sins. For those in the former category, what kinds of vigilance might they want to maintain to make sure they do not drift headlong back into old patterns of vulnerability and compromise?
If you’re a restored church leader—or simply a church member walking in repentance after a fall—you may have some obvious boundaries in place to keep you from the explicit routes back to your old sins. But there are some ways your new life might make you vulnerable to new sins. The Devil is cunning and is perfectly willing to cut you in the left side while you protect your right. How might this happen? What are some ways you might fall again? Here are four:
1. Turn your testimony into a point of pride.
God is to get the glory for forgiving the vilest of sinners. Reveling in the proclamation of grace often means declaring what the Lord has delivered you from. But there is a way in which our sordid past can become a badge of honor, a prop we dig up to show our “realness” and “authenticity,” to the point where our testimony becomes our shtick and our message becomes more about ourselves than about the Christ who redeems us. The biblical qualifications for eldership, for instance, are there for a reason. And yet we live in a day when fallen leaders talk like their disqualification is their qualification, which is a great way to denigrate God’s Word, prioritize themselves over the church, and prove their repentance is incomplete.
Do you reckon your shocking story makes you a more authentic believer than those who’ve never engaged in the same kinds of rebellions as you? Does your fall make you somehow a better Christian than those whose testimonies seem more boring? This is a subtle kind of pride that has the appearance of celebrating grace. But its aim is self-oriented. And it seems to forget that the grace that is power to forgive our disobedience is also power to fuel our obedience.
2. Begin shifting your language away from what you did toward “what happened to you.”
The minute we begin deflecting and distancing ourselves from our actions is the minute we re-engage in the blame-shifting both Adam and Eve engaged in minutes after the Lord called them to account for their sin. Some Christians ostensibly restored begin using impersonal language about their sins, sometimes even recasting them as simple “flaws” or “brokenness.” No forgiven person needs to believe they are unforgiven—heavens no!—but repentant persons have no problem owning up to the sin for which they’ve been forgiven.
If we truly believe in the justifying pardon of Christ, we will have no problem admitting our sin, and admitting it was our sin, nobody else’s, and still less is it something we “fell into.” Don’t talk like you woke up one day somehow ambushed by sin. That’s a great way to become passive about staying out of it today and tomorrow.
3. Become a reverse Pharisee.
Now that you’ve been forgiven and are enjoying restoration, start criticizing all those legalists who didn’t treat you well.
If you for whatever reason couldn’t submit to restoration in the church or Christian tribe in which you fell, once you’ve emerged in a new one for your new life, make sure to take potshots at the old circles you used to run in. Turn your grace into license for bitterness and blame. Feel like blaming your restrictive or demanding previous context?
Make your “restoration tour” about critiquing the people who once supported you. Give public thanks that you’re not like those judgmental people over there.
4. Rush back into elevated positions.
Someone recently asked me, knowing that I’m theologically open to the restoration of disqualified ministers to the pastorate, if I’ve ever known of it to happen in an appropriate way. I could only think of a couple of examples personally. My friend asked, “Why do you think that is?” I suggested it’s because the fallen guys we’re all aware of—the ones with public platforms—tend to grow impatient in whatever restoration process is ostensibly held out to them. The limelight is intoxicating. It’s a hell of a drug (wording intentional). And when one has pursued it previously out of some need for validation or exaltation—and these needs aren’t sufficiently addressed by the gospel in the time of a fall—the lure to get back in the spotlight becomes overwhelming.
But this is true for “ordinary” pastors and church members too. When we begrudge restoration processes, bristle at accountability, impatiently stew about the time it takes others to trust us again or steward ministries to us again, we short circuit what the Lord can do in our hearts that being in charge of something can’t.
Some leaders will in fact grace-shame those who want to move slowly in any kind of restoration process. “You must not believe in grace,” they say. We should look them in the eye and say—gently but firmly—”No, you must not. Because you have not been still long enough to see how satisfying the Lord’s grace can be for you when you’re not in authority.” Restoration to the pastorate should not be the goal for any newly fallen pastor. Let him grow as a believer in the fellowship alongside his fellow saints. Let him long earn a new reputation. No one is owed the pulpit or a platform.
These aren’t the only ways, of course. But while you’re setting up guardrails in your internet browsing or personal relationships, and so on, keep on guard still against the subtle means of attack. Once the lion has felled us, we may rebound, but we often do so weaker than we know. And let each of us—each. of. us.—who thinks we stand take heed lest we fall (1 Cor. 10:12).