Various people have multiple times witnessed the pastor of the church, who is an elder, committing sins of lying and spiritual abuse. Two of the three lay elders unsuccessfully confronted the pastor and then made an announcement to the church. After that, they were removed as elders and left the church. Half the church members have left. Remaining church members who ask questions are accused of gossip and then disciplined. We have been told that according to 1 Timothy 5:19, only elders can remove an elder. That means the pastor and the one remaining lay elder can only remove each other. The lay people cannot remove an elder. What is the proper way to handle a church situation where the saints are commanded in such a situation to obey their elders (Hebrews 13:17)?
The question with which we are concerned is, “What should the saints do when the pastor refuses to resign? ” How does a church decide if a man is no longer spiritually fit to continue serving as pastor? Are the criteria for removing a pastor that two-thirds of the lay elders have left the church or that fifty percent of the church members have left for another church? The answer to these is given below along with biblical guidance for taking action.
Criteria For Removing A Pastor
1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 provide the criteria for determining whether or not a man is qualified to serve as an elder or be designated as the teaching-elder or pastor. Therefore, the decision to remove a pastor must be based on the qualifications listed in those two passages and the accusation must be valid. That is, accusations against an elder, including the pastor, must be validated by two or three honest witnesses (Exodus 20:16; Proverbs 21:28). The criteria for removing a man from the office of elder is determined by Scripture.
At times, church members may want a pastor to be removed for silly reasons or immature reasons. It is important to realize that an elder must continue to satisfy the qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 in order to remain in office. But an elder should not be removed unless he has been confronted with his disqualification and given time to change his behavior (1 Timothy 5:19-21). The only exception is if his sin or disqualifying behavior was extremely serious. As an example, we should ask, “Is a pastor disqualified for lying or abusive verbal behavior?” The answer is “yes” if he will not stop lying or his lying was extremely serious. The answer is “yes” if he will not stop his abusive behavior. Again, if the abusive behavior is serious enough on one single occasion, that could be disqualifying. It depends upon the seriousness of the offense. It is important to emphasize that elders are not perfect. All Christians will be perfect only when they go to heaven. Therefore, church discipline actions should focus on grievous sins, not on petty or minor ones. Some church members place unrealistic demands on an elder. The elders of the church must carefully determine if the elder is “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2; 5:7; Titus 1:6).
For an explanation of the individual qualifications that an elder must meet and continue to meet in order to stay in office, please read “What are the qualifications of an elder?” A more in-depth explanation is provided in “Recovering the Pattern of Church Leadership.”
How To Remove A Pastor
When should an elder, including a pastor be removed from office? 1 Timothy 5:19-21 provides the process approved by God.
Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses. Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning. I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of His chosen angels, to maintain these principles without bias, doing nothing in a spirit of partiality. 1 Timothy 5:19-21 (NASB)
The passage states that an accusation cannot be raised unless at least two or three witnesses have firsthand knowledge of the elder’s sin. It is implied that the accusations were discussed by the elders and found to be valid. Then the sinning elder is to be rebuked and warned to stop. The passage says that if the elder does not stop sinning, he is to be rebuked in front of the congregation. At this point, it is implied that the elder is removed from office. Notice that the passage does not say this is the exclusive responsibility of the elders. But it is implied that elders are responsible for performing this action due to Hebrews 13:17.
When dealing with a sinning pastor or a staff pastor, church splits can and do occur due to strong disagreements among the elders in the process of dealing with such a serious issue. When a church split occurs, often the elders raising the disqualifying sins will leave. Then those who are left may have great difficulty clearly remembering the exact nature of the accusations. Additionally, in some sad situations the remaining elders malign the elders who left. It must be remembered if the issue has been handled properly, then only those at the leadership level will have complete knowledge of the issues. Gossip is rarely reliable in determining guilt and innocence. Hearing the accusations from only one side is also incomplete (Proverbs 18:17).
What should a congregation do if the pastor is truly disqualified and for some reason cannot be removed from office? Then the congregation should request that the elders call a congregational meeting to discuss the problem. If the church is very large, it may be more difficult to have a congregational meeting. Then maybe a group of concerned members should ask to meet with the elders to discuss the situation before they choose to leave the church. Any meeting should include the current elders and the elders who left. If the elders refuse to meet with congregants in one of the above scenarios, then the elders’ spiritual qualifications are in doubt and they should possibly step down from office. Additionally, if the pastor was the decision maker in refusing to meet with congregants, then the pastor is like Diotrephes (3 John 9-10). If the current leadership refuses, then the concerned members should feel the freedom to leave the church.
The goal should never be to just yield to the church leadership when sin is confirmed or proven. If the elders’ conduct is unbiblical, then the congregation or a group within the congregation should attempt to call the leaders to follow God’s principles. Proverbs 25:26 warns,
Like a trampled spring and a polluted well
Is a righteous man who gives way before the wicked.
Proverbs 25:26 (NASB)
Whatever happens, the God of peace (Hebrews 13:20) has called Christians to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9).
Suggested Links:What are the qualifications of an elder?
Recovering the Pattern of Church Leadership
Is there a difference between a church leader and a spiritual leader in the church?
Who are the elders, overseers and pastors?
Should our pastor continue in the ministry after his wife divorced him?
What does a Christian do when their pastor sins?