No church leader is perfect. So all church leaders sin. So when does sin disqualify someone from leadership?
I suggest two things need to be borne in mind.
First, the attitude of the leader (or potential leader) to their sin. The key thing is a person responds with faith and repentance. This is more important than some notional scale of sin. Do they repent of their sin? Do they believe the gospel promise’s of forgiveness, justification and reconciliation? If, for example, they don’t believe themselves justified in God’s sight then they are likely to become hesitant in their preaching and pastoral work for fear of their own exposure.
The problem (from a pastoral perspective) is that faith and repentance are not binary for Christians. It’s not that we either have faith or we don’t have faith. ‘Lord, I believe; help my unbelief,’ is our constant cry. There is every possibility that a person can be believing and repentant, and at the same time unbelieving and unrepentant – or at least moving between those two states. So there is a need for wisdom.
It is possible for a person to respond to exposed sin with faith and repentance in a ‘textbook’ way. That could be a good sign. But it could also be a bad sign! They could be doing what they needs to do or ought to do to be regain their position in the community. They could even be responding to their sin in the ‘right’ way with motives that are self-righteous. Even confession can be a form of self-righteousness! So it is sometimes helpful to move the language away from forensic categories to affective categories (or at least to ensure the latter are included). So the issue is not just what they do or even what they believe. The issue is also what they love. Without this affective dimension mere assent might be confused with faith. As Jesus asks Peter, ‘Do you love me more than these?’
Second, it is important to distinguish between the seriousness of a particular sin from a divine and human perspective.
From a divine perspective what counts is not the gravity of the sin (as measured by human beings). Matthew 5 tells us that lust in the heart is equivalent in God’s sight to adultery. (Indeed sometimes the only difference between the person who lusts and the person who commits adultery is cowardice.) What counts before God is faith and repentance. Indeed a lack of faith is God’s definition of sin.
From a human perspective some sins are worse than others in the sense of the impact they have on others. With Matthew 5 in mind, I would rather some hated me in their heart than murdered me! So, while in terms of justification and sanctification we should treat all sins alike, in some situations we can and should take into account the gravity of sin measured in its impact on others. This is particularly the case when assessing leaders. 1 Timothy 3 says an elder should be an example to believers and of good reputation with unbelievers.
1 Timothy 5:20 suggests that leaders need a public process of reproof (and, by extension, repentance). Clearly this cannot mean every sin must be publicly disowned. I think it refers to sins that, if they came to light, would confuse the flock and harm the church’s wider reputation. Consider an elder who commits an act of sexual immorality of which he is then repentant. Let’s suppose this is hushed up and he is quietly stood down for a time before being re-instated. What happens if this comes to wider attention at some point in the future? Christians in the congregation are confused and unbelievers have their prejudices confirmed. But if his repentance is public then the message of the gospel is affirmed and illustrated to all. Plus there is no fear of future exposure.