Armstrong, John H.
The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to the Misconduct of Its Leaders
Geanies House, Fearn, Ross-Shire: Christian Focus, 2000. Pp. 201. Paper. $17.99.
With thanks for Christian Focus for this review copy!
I’m deeply disturbed every time I read or hear about ministerial misconduct, which sadly, is quite often. All one has to do is keep up with a few news feeds that focus on religion and sooner or later the reader will be bombarded with headlines of church leaders falling into all manner of sin. It’s alarming how often the sin in question is sexual in nature. Just as alarming is the lax attitude that many in the body of Christ have towards such failures. While I wouldn’t suggest gathering up the townsfolk with pitchforks in hand, I would suggest that the issue is serious enough to require much prayer and consideration.
John H. Armstrong is a man who has spent a lot of time considering this issue. He’s someone who has had to deal with it as a member of committees who appoint people to leadership. He’s had friends (yes, more than one) fall in this area and he’s had to offer an ear to listen; a shoulder to cry on; and most importantly, a voice to pray and offer compassionate counsel. The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of Its Leaders is the fruit of not only Armstrong’s academic research in this area, but also his personal ministry.
The heart of this volume deals with the issue of sexual misconduct in the form of adultery and the subsequent restoration of the fallen pastor/elder. Armstrong asks a number of probing questions but the main ones under consideration have to do with whether or not sexual sin (adultery in particular) disqualifies one from pastoral ministry, and if so, is that disqualification temporary or permanent. I’ll cut to the conclusion and tell you that Armstrong argues for permanent disqualification from leadership but suggests restoration to God, family, fellowship, and some other form of service that doesn’t involve shepherding a flock.
Over the course of twelve chapters Armstrong highlights the problem through statistics and personal anecdotes; notes the three main responses to the issue, namely 1) immediate restoration (less than a year after offense); 2) future restoration (1 to 3 years after the offense and counseling); and 3) personal restoration (restoring relationships with no possibility for future leadership). He also details the common arguments in favor of immediate or future restoration; and subsequently examines those arguments and refutes them exegetically and by examining into the church’s response to such issues throughout history; but he also helpfully suggests how to restore fallen pastors and offers sage advice on guarding against sexual misconduct in the first place.
I won’t lie and say that Armstrong’s prose is gripping or that this is the most well written book I’ve ever come across—it isn’t—but Armstrong’s is a prophetic voice. Whether or not one agrees with his conclusion they’re bound to appreciate the way in which he navigates these troubled waters. His probing analysis of the seriousness of adultery as compared to other sins (thus doing away with the old canard that all sins are the same in God’s sight) is worth the price of the book alone. But his ability to differentiate between forgiveness and restoration to leadership is what I found myself drawn to most of all. In my own discussions on this subject I’ve found that my dialogue partners can’t seem to make this distinction, yet it’s key to talking about the issue.
Armstrong is clear that penitent pastors who have fallen should be forgiven and restored in their relationship with God, their family, and their church; but he’s correct not to equate forgiveness and these types of restoration with restoration to the ministry they ruined through their sin. There are plenty of sins that have been forgiven without their consequences being erased. Take, for example, the convicted criminal who comes to faith in Christ while in prison; he’s been forgiven of his sin but he has to serve out the duration of his sentence. The consequence doesn’t disappear because he’s been forgiven. So it is with pastors who have abused their power and broken the trust of their congregations. While no one can rightly hold that sin to their charge, no one is going to entirely forget about it either, and this is problematic in light of 1 Timothy 3:2, 7.
Armstrong ably dismantles a number of other faulty arguments, perhaps most notably the idea that fallen pastors are somehow better pastors because they can more relate to the struggles of their flock. On the contrary, Armstrong notes that Jesus, who is our example for ministry, could identify with our temptation and yet remain without sin (Heb. 4:15). But this shouldn’t be confused as Armstrong teaching some kind of sinless perfectionism (a doctrine I’ve not actually seen taught by anyone although it’s been attributed to those who teach entire sanctification); that’s not what’s going on at all. Armstrong recognizes that sin is a problem that will exist until our future glorification, but the predilection to sin in general doesn’t necessarily yield any one sin in particular, especially adultery or other sexual sins (sins Calvin referred to as extraordinary).
And while Armstrong is firm in his convictions, they’re undergirded with compassion; he says, “Only when you have wept with the broken pastor who has shattered his life through such sin can you appreciate the depth of feeling and pain that goes with the process of ongoing repentance and spiritual restoration.” He continues, “We should desire the minister’s full repentance and his walking once again in practical holiness before God. That is both the beginning and end of the whole process, and that goal must be sought” (152). These are the sentiments of someone who is decidedly for the restoration of fallen pastors as opposed to the restoration of their ministry. This is another important distinction. The ultimate goal is conformity to the image of Christ; not a successful ministry (consider Matt. 7:21-23 here).
There are three things that I would have liked to have seen that I believe would have improved this volume overall. First, I would have appreciated a bit more exegesis, or at least more rigorous exegesis. Armstrong relies on trajectory hermeneutics in the absence of any explicit statement barring the adulterous pastor from future pastoral ministry; such arguments need to be shorn up with as much exegesis as possible. Second, Armstrong presupposes a certain form of church governance. It would have been helpful to see how an independent church who doesn’t elect their pastor by committee could handle such issues. A chapter on how the Orthodox or Catholics deal with the issue would have proven extremely helpful as well. Third, it would have been good for Armstrong to branch out and cover sexual sin more generally. What do we do with the pastor who is addicted to pornography or the pastor who struggles with same-sex attraction?
The Stain that Stays: The Church’s Response to the Sexual Misconduct of Its Leaders is as timely today as it was a dozen years ago when it was originally published, and that’s something to both rejoice and mourn over. Rejoice because there’s a serious, graceful, and biblically faithful response to the issue. Mourn because the issue is still so prevalent and in need of a response. I happily recommend this work to anyone thinking through these issues.