When Is Someone Disqualified from Ministry?
This is an unspoken question for many evangelicals. Most of us don’t know where the idea of “disqualification” comes from. We may be hard pressed to find anything definite in Scripture that says close to what we mean.
Sure, Paul talks about being disqualified from ministry if he were to fail. But what does he really mean?
But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.
— I Corinthians 9:27 (ESV)
But here, at least, context has nothing to do with moral failure as is so often thought. He is talking about becoming “all things to all men.” This is so that Paul might make the Gospel relevant in all contexts. Otherwise, Paul would be disqualified if he succumbed to any temptation to legalism, and a stilting of the Gospel.
Further Reading: Called Into Ministry? 5 Questions to Ask Yourself
Am I saying nothing would force someone to step out of ministry for a time of restoration? No! But that’s an article for another day.
The Apostle Peter: Disqualified and Restored
I want to share a story most of you are familiar with. This story should be brought into all discussions of “disqualification.” It is included only in the Gospel of John.
John wrote his Gospel over twenty years after Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Its contents likely represent John’s many years of reflection. He certainly saw relevance something that the other Gospels passed over.
All the Gospels record Peter’s denial (Matthew 26:69–75; Mark 14:68–72; Luke 22:55–62). It’s only John who records Peter’s restoration:
15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.”
16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.”
17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.
— John 21:15–17 (ESV)
Notice the odd series of questions. Christ asked Peter three times “Do you love me?” Many have focused on the differences in the Greek word translated “love.” This probably had little meaning to John. He always switched cognates for literary purposes, not theological.
What I want to point out is the threefold nature of Christ’s questions. Remember, Peter had denied Christ three times. Now, Peter’s threefold and frustrated response, “I love you” reminds us of his threefold denial.
About ten days after Peter’s rejection of Him, Jesus restored Peter to ministry. The specific language is “feed/tend my sheep/lambs.” Let me repeat this a different way: Peter committed arguably the worst sin a Christian can commit, the denial of Christ. and Christ restored him just a few days later.
What’s going on?
What about these words of Christ?
[B]ut whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.”
— Matthew 10:33 (ESV)
Didn’t Peter deny Christ before men?
What Were the Apostles Thinking?
I wonder what the other Apostles were thinking. I can just hear their thoughts (that is, if they thought like us today):
“If you restore him too quickly, this will be an implicit approval of his sin”
“Let us all sin more so that grace might increase!”
“Jesus does not know human nature. You have to draw attention to his sin or he will never change.”
Peter is certainly sorry and repentant for what he did that day. I am sure it haunted him for years to come. And you may think he never did this again. But Peter never really gets over this issue. He is always afraid of what his countrymen might think.
From Act 2–10 (a ten year period) Peter lived with a terrible sin: prejudice. Remember, in Acts 2 the Holy Spirit filled Peter. But it is not until Acts 10 that Peter finally let go of his prejudice (to some degree). He finally allowed himself to enter a Gentile’s (non-Jew’s) home. Before this he held to the unbiblical belief that:
- He wasn’t to step foot inside a Gentile’s homes.
- He was forbidden to eat with them.
Can you imagine someone doing this today? My dad hated Japanese people. He wouldn’t hang around them or befriend them. This lasted his whole life (a WWII thing). We recognize how sinful this was.
Peter had this attitude for almost twenty years. This is after the Holy Spirit filled Him at Pentecost! He was always afraid of what the Jews thought of him. So much so, he would change the message of the Gospel throughout his life in the way he lived. Paul ended up having to have a difficult discussion with Peter about this (Galatians 2:11–13).
Further Reading: Why Paul Should Not Always Be Our Example in Confrontation
The Imperfect Lives of Christian Ministers
I’m not trying to jump all over poor Peter. Peter held the lofty position of Apostle. We would be blessed to have lived his life; including his upside down crucifixion.
My point is that those who minister for God don’t live unimpeachable lives. By “unimpeachable” I mean perfect. But the sins we are often quick to use to disqualify someone from ministry are far less severe than:
- Denying Christ
- Adjusting the Gospel to make it square with our prejudice
We look only at the most tangible (and often unbiblical) moral failures. We fail to realize the heart issues we live with. These go unnoticed.
Do the Unexpected: Forgive
This is my thesis: If Christ restored Peter to ministry so quickly, why don’t we? Who are we to have such an itchy “disqualification” trigger finger? Isn’t being gracious one of the ways we should be like Christ?
Maybe you’re like me and are tempted to think:
“This sin has to be pointed out! He must go through a ’time of restoration.’ The seriousness of his sin needs to be exemplified through punishment and a long time of restoration.”
Maybe the best way to exhibit grace and affect change in others is to show mercy. We should be like Christ and do the unexpected, forgive. In all honesty, I do believe there are character issues and sins that can and should “disqualify” people from ministry. These are listed in 1 Timothy:
1 Tim 3:1-7
A bishop then must be blameless [was Peter], the husband of one wife [which does not mean “not divorced, but faithful], temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable [was Peter to the Gentiles?], able to teach [in my experience, few have qualified]; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well [what if the wife is not following the Lord or has children that don’t believe?], having his children in submission with all reverence (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside [did Jesus have a good testimony with the religious leaders? This begs the questions, “Who are those who are “outside”?], lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.
All I am saying is that this story about Jesus’ restoration of Peter and his continued problems does give me much pause. Things are not as clean as we would like them to be. Grace may be the default in so many things.
Where am I going wrong?
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C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]