Q. Do a man’s past (pre-conversion) sins disqualify him from a leadership role in the church?
Thanks for the question. It is a good one, and one that is raised more and more frequently. The primary biblical text, in my opinion, would be found in 2 Corinthians 5:
So then from now on we acknowledge no one from an outward human point of view. Even though we have known Christ from such a human point of view, now we do not know him in that way any longer. 17 So then, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; what is old has passed away– look, what is new has come! (2 Corinthians 5:16-17, NET)
When we trust in Christ’s saving work we become a new creation. The sins of one’s past are covered by the blood of Christ. In Christ, our sins are both forgiven and forgotten.
“People will no longer need to teach their neighbors and relatives to know me. For all of them, from the least important to the most important, will know me,” says the LORD. “For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done” (Jeremiah 31:34; see also Hebrews 8:12; 10:17).
This was Paul’s experience:
This saying is trustworthy and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”– and I am the worst of them! 16 But here is why I was treated with mercy: so that in me as the worst, Christ Jesus could demonstrate his utmost patience, as an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
God’s saving grace should humble us, and motivate us to serve Him, knowing that whatever He achieves though us is to His glory and praise. It should also encourage others by giving them hope of being useful in God’s service (whether that be in a leadership role or not).
Thus Paul reminds the Corinthian saints that they, too, were given a new life in Christ:
Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, passive homosexual partners, practicing homosexuals, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, the verbally abusive, and swindlers will not inherit the kingdom of God. 11 Some of you once lived this way. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
This is the message Paul has for every Christian. Our identification with Christ by faith means that we died with Him. Our sins and their punishment have been fully and finally dealt with in Christ. And when we rose to life in Him we rose to a new kind of life, empowered by His Holy Spirit. Thus, we must no longer live as we did in the past. We must live out the life of Christ:
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that since Christ has been raised from the dead, he is never going to die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 For the death he died, he died to sin once for all, but the life he lives, he lives to God. 11 So you too consider yourselves dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus (Romans 6:8-11).
As I understand it, the qualifications for elders (and deacons) found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are character qualifications based upon a reasonable period of time lived as a Christian (“not a new convert,” 1 Timothy 3:6). As such, they don’t focus on one’s sins prior to salvation.
So, in general, it would seem that the sins of one’s past as an unbeliever cannot disqualify a “new creation” from leading in the church.
Having said this, there are a number of qualifications set forth in 1 Timothy and Titus. Among them is the qualification that an elder or deacon must be a “one-woman man,” the “husband of one wife.” But an elder must also be “above reproach” (1 Timothy 3:2) and “have a good reputation with those outside the church” (1 Timothy 3:7). If for some reason this individual’s past casts a shadow on his reputation (inside or outside the church, rightly or wrongly) then it would seem best not to appoint him to a leadership role in the church.
In the case of a church leader’s past immorality or divorce, be aware that some may use the grace of God as an excuse for their sin. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it reasoned, “Well, David sinned, and God allowed him to continue to live and to lead.” True repentance on the part of the potential leader should serve to squelch such efforts.
I believe one’s past sins should be taken into account in certain instances, for the protection of the forgiven sinner and the reputation of the church. For example, if a man was a convicted child molester before he was saved, it would seem wise and best for all (including that individual) that he not be appointed as a Sunday school superintendent or youth pastor. A convicted embezzler (in the past) would best not be made the church treasurer. This may only serve to tempt that individual, or to make him vulnerable to suspicions and accusations.
I hope this helps,
Related Topics: Issues in Church Leadership/Ministry