There are few topics that evoke as much widespread and intense emotion as that of a pastor falling into moral failure, especially adultery. The “man of God” stands as an under-shepherd over Jesus’ flock, who is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5:1-4). He is the primary representative of the church to the community. He is to be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2). And, when this man falls into serious public sin, there are vast consequences in the church and community.
Enter Ray Carroll and his book Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World (Civitas Press, 2011). Carroll is a formerly-ordained pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Western Kentucky. In 2009, he, as he phrases it in the tagline of his blog (https://fallenpastor.com), “fell from grace by breaking the seventh commandment.” Indeed, he fell hard but not from grace. He fell into sin and hardened his heart in his rebellion, choosing his mistress—who was a member of his congregation and his wife’s best friend (33*) and whom he married as soon as his divorce was final (46)—over his wife and the ministry (40).
Yet God has been dealing with Ray and his heart. He seems to have begun to open Ray’s eyes up to the sinfulness of his sin and has placed a burden on him to help other pastors avoid the path that he went down, and for those who already have walked the same road, he hopes to help them find reconciliation with God and with the church. Fallen Pastor is his labor of love toward these ends.
A Personal Disclosure
I feel it is important to say up front that I am not simply an uninvolved, objective observer of the situation that led up to the content of this book. Ray and I met back in 2006 or 2007. I used to be the associate pastor at a church that is in the same city where Ray served when he fell into sin. While I served there, we had lunch together a time or two and talked on the phone and emailed a little. I even sought him for sports medicine advice. We had the beginnings of a friendship, but then the Lord moved me almost three hours from that area in the Fall of 2008.
I moved to Tennessee to take my own church, and in 2009 before Ray’s adultery came to light, he had asked me to preach his church’s Fall revival. When his sin came to light, he called me to let me know what was going on and gave me the option of declining to come. I felt that it would be important for the church to be ministered to in the wake of losing their pastor to moral failure. So, I asked for the Deacon Chairman’s phone number and ended up preaching in Ray’s former pulpit a number of times in late October 2009.
The knowledge of Ray’s adultery at this time was still really fresh. His wife had not yet filed divorce papers. My wife and I spent time with her, encouraging her and praying for Ray’s repentance and their marriage. A mutual pastor friend and I took Ray to lunch that week and begged him to repent and turn away from his adultery, but Ray had no desire to do so.
Before the week of revival was over, I preached hard to his church about working to restore Ray not to the pulpit but to righteousness. In fact, Ray later thanked me for my words. I wish so badly that things would have gone differently.
In the past two years, I have spoken with Ray a few times on the phone but have kept up with him regularly through our mutual pastor friend, who has tried to minister to Ray in many ways. In fact, Ray and his new wife briefly joined our friend’s church. I have also for the past year without comment read the vast majority of Ray’s blog, even the original blog material back when he was using a penname, long before he switched hosts and scrubbed much of the content. His original blog asked you to go back and read from the beginning, and I did, every sordid detail. I am sure it was therapeutic for Ray, and it certainly provided a window directly into his conflicted soul.
So, I disclose all of this information to let you know that I will strive to be as objective as possible in reviewing this book even though I am somewhat subjectively involved.
Fallen Pastor has a stated tri-fold purpose:
- to comfort “those who have fallen from grace, are trying to make sense of life and are seeking restoration and peace;”
- “to reach out to those who have been affected by the fallen pastor’s choices;” and
- “to provide a helpful guide to prevent failure, and to aid those who would take up the call to walk by a fallen pastor in his most desperate hour,” (14).
In working toward this purpose, Carroll organizes the book into four sections. Section 1, called “The Crisis at Hand,” first provides a hypothetical scenario that might lead a pastor to commit adultery. It is here that Carroll introduces his big ideas of the idolization of pastors in today’s church culture (23) and the church being the adulterous pastor’s first mistress (25). Section 1 also paints the narrative surrounding Carroll’s own adultery, divorce, remarriage, and exit from ministry.
Section 2, called “Coming Alongside the Fallen Pastor,” introduces the stories of eleven other pastors who committed adultery. This section seems to have two purposes. One is to simply help fallen pastors see that they are not alone and to build sympathy for fallen pastors. The other goal is that the stories serve as data for an inductive search for commonalities in each man’s fall. Carroll is hoping to discover what factors lead to a pastor’s fall.
Section 3, called “Understanding the Fallen Pastor,” provides the reader with conclusions from Carroll’s inductive study. The commonalities he “discovers” are: high expectations (133), isolation (146), poor relationship with spouse (154), and a judgmental spirit within the pastor (162).
Section 4, called “The Response,” is Carroll’s effort to instruct the reader in how the church should respond to a fallen pastor and how to prevent a pastor from falling.
Fallen Pastor is a quick and light read on a heavy subject. Let us look at its strengths and weaknesses.
Strengths of Fallen Pastor
Carroll gives painful portals into the lives of pastors who have committed adultery that serve as serious warnings to pastors and husbands everywhere. This strength is the greatest one of the book. Sin and its consequences are ugly, especially adultery. Selfishness parades, promises are broken, marriages are torn apart, children are burdened, churches and members are hindered, and character is destroyed. We must see it for what it is because the devil and our flesh deceive us. God through Paul instructs the church to rebuke in the presence of all those who continue in sin so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning (1 Timothy 5:20). Although Fallen Pastor is no way a rebuke of those who commit adultery, the public telling of these falls serves as a striking admonishment to the reader to avoid adultery. The repercussions are vividly on display in this book, sickening the reader toward this particular sin and sin in general. I came away from this book hating sin more and loving my wife more. I am not really sure if this purpose was intended by Carroll, but nevertheless, it is a welcomed effect.
Carroll provides needed insight from the adulterous pastor’s point of view. We rightly gravitate toward the victim in an adulterous relationship, who is always the spouse of the adulterous person. We want justice to be served on the adulterer. This reality is illustrated by Carroll’s deacon’s response after Carroll confessed his adultery, “Why, I oughta pick that stick up over there and beat the fire out of you!” (43). In our righteous anger at sin and our empathy for the victimized spouse, we often basically tell the adulterer to shut up. We really do not want to hear anything they have to say and in essence consign them over to get what they deserve. And, we very well might have to give them over to Satan for the destruction of their flesh (1 Corinthians 5:5), but God would have us fight to restore them before that (Galatians 1:1).
For this reason, we need to have a level of compassion for the adulterous pastor as well. We need to understand what they will go through in the wake of their fall with the hopes of lovingly confronting them unto repentance. Fallen Pastor does a good job of giving us the adulterous pastor’s point of view and provides a list of typical emotional things a pastor will go through after his sin is found out, such as disorientation, increased pride, self-justification, shame and avoidance, anger, brokenness, and fitting in (171-183). This side is the one we usually do not hear because we do not want to hear what they have to say. Admittedly, it is hard to listen to them and feel empathy in the wake of such sinful heights, but for the sake of the gospel and the adulterer, we must.
Carroll recognizes the great need for adulterous pastors to be forgiven. This truth cannot be overlooked! Jesus Christ died for adulterers too (even adulterous pastors) and hopes to transform them from that sin into marital faithfulness. His desire is not for them to jump off a cliff and kill themselves. His desire is that they repent and go and sin no more (John 8:11). There is no sin too depraved that God cannot cover with His grace, and we in the church should be willing and able to truly forgive the pastor who has committed adultery as the Lord forgives. Yet, as Carroll illustrates through ample anecdotal evidence, forgiveness is often little and far between when it comes to an adulterous pastor. In a sense, Fallen Pastor is a plea for churches to soften their hearts unto forgiveness toward the adulterous pastor, and that plea is a much needed one.
Carroll’s idea of the church as a pastor’s potential mistress is insightful. Carroll introduces this idea on page 25 and picks it up again on page 160. All pastors everywhere need to meditate on this one question implied by Fallen Pastor: is the church your mistress? In other words, is your energy, creativity, passion, attention, love, and priority going to the church instead of your wife? Pastors can so easily be sucked into giving their best to the church and the leftovers to their wives. They can unintentionally put their marriages on the back burner until their marriages are left empty and vulnerable to sin. Pastors must realize that churches and the ministry will come and go, but marriage is until death do us part. Fallen Pastor in an indirect way calls pastors to evaluate this aspect of their lives.
Weaknesses of Fallen Pastor
Carroll’s use of Scripture is almost nonexistent in Fallen Pastor. Remember that one of Carroll’s stated purposes is “to provide a helpful guide to prevent failure, and to aid those who would take up the call to walk by a fallen pastor in his most desperate hour,” (14). One has to assume that he is primarily trying to instruct individual Christians and the collective church, but he neglects the very instructional authority for Christians and the church, namely the Bible. Carroll claims that “Scripture calls upon us to restore those who sin,” (185), and I agree that it does, but where does it do so, and how does it do so?
Almost never does Carroll say, “You should do this because the Bible says this in this verse.” He does discuss John 8:1-11 (50-53) and John 18:25-27; 21:15-17 (169-170) a little, but even here, these are not didactic passages aimed at instructing us. They are narratives with varying applications. His other sparse citations of Scripture are merely passing points to illustrate or expand his point. So instead of utilizing biblical authority which contains the unchanging, unmatched wisdom of God, Carroll makes his case with his own wisdom and the wisdom of the “experts” he interviews. This aspect of Fallen Pastors is very disappointing.
Carroll blameshifts, making adulterous pastors out to be victims. It is as old as the fall of Adam and Eve. When one sins, he or she is immediately tempted to remove the blame from themselves or at least some of it. Adam did it first (Genesis 3:12), and Eve immediately followed (Genesis 3:13). Carroll follows in their legacy.
Ironically, Carroll declares that blameshifting is in no way his purpose:
- “This book does not exist to make excuses or to justify any pastor’s indiscretion,” (14).
- “The point is not to justify adultery but to show the common patterns that create virtually the same outcome,” (16).
- “The danger for a fallen pastor to write a book such as this is that I might appear to be justifying my sin. That is the furthest thing from the truth,” (17).
- “The problem in asking ‘why’ is the fear of justifying the act,” (50).
Carroll’s intentions are well taken, but then when he attempts to answer “why,” it is all external things that lead up to a pastor’s adulterous sin: high expectations (133), isolation (146), and poor relationship with spouse (154). He also cites a judgmental spirit within the pastor (162), which is internal, but I see absolutely no correlation between judgmentalism and the fall into adultery. Therefore, the “why” remains completely external, making the pastors out to be victims of circumstance. Even the title of chapter 2, “A Well-Deserved Perfect Storm,” which contains the story of Carroll’s fall, portrays a victim mentality (31). All of the pieces seemingly came together in Carroll’s eyes to blow him down. The same case is basically made for the other eleven adulterers.
A victim mentality is especially on display in chapter 2 where Carrol paints a picture of this overwhelming burden that he heroically took on with his former church but could not sustain. He writes:
“Being a bi-vocational pastor offered a new set of difficulties. I was required to perform a full time role in a part time space. It included preaching, visiting, growing the church, managing conflict, teaching and balancing all of these tasks at once. While all that was occurring, I felt like a hero to many. On Sundays, I felt like a different man. I was being praised for results and the good things that were happening. During the week, I knew my weaknesses and shortcomings. The expectations that some had for me had placed me higher than I ever should have been. In my mind, there was a battle raging. At times, I was the phenomenal pastor who was able to do all things for all people. At others, I felt weak and unworthy of my job.
To be fair, I placed higher expectations upon myself than the church ever could. But there were very high expectations placed upon me through passing comments, emails, suggestions and concerned members. The burden was heavy and I took it very seriously,” (35).
Even though Carroll’s former church in rural Western KY averaged only 46 in Sunday school the last four years of Carroll’s pastorate according to the records of the Baptist association to which it belongs, it very well could have been a pressure cooker. The church I pastored only eight miles down the highway from Carroll’s church and the community we shared weren’t pressure cookers in my opinion, but his church very well could have been extremely burdensome. However, let’s not lose sight of this crucial question: what does all of this really have to do with adultery? The answer is nothing, unless one is espousing a victim mentality. There are a thousand other things Carroll could have done in the face of this reported pressure other than commit adultery. He did not have to be pastor of that church. Nevertheless, he chose to stay and chose to sin and is in no way a victim.
One must keep in mind that a sinner is never a victim. Rather, he or she is always a perpetrator and a willful one at that. No matter the circumstances, God has called us to holiness. In the face of the worst scenarios, God has called us to lean on Him. To high expectations, who does not have high expectations? To isolation, you are only as isolated as you want to be. To a poor relationship with your spouse, marriage is an unconditional call to servitude and love and takes work. Therefore, excuses will not do. The adulterer wants to turn his back on God and commit adultery. He or she is a perpetrator and not a victim.
Carroll gives no exposition to the spiritual condition of a person leading up to adultery. He briefly says, “All of this [judgmentalism and affirmation-seeking] reflects a problem of the heart that leads ultimately to the pastor possibly falling into worse sin,” (164) but never gets to what that heart problem actually is, never gets to the heart of adultery, the spiritual root. Instead, he blames his former wife, his former church, and God’s providence in the death of his mother. The same spirit continues in his telling of the other eleven pastors. If he desired to really help fallen pastors and potential ones, he should have spent a great deal of time looking at the inner man to help the reader see that it is man’s sinful heart that leads to a fall.
Carroll’s idea of the pastor as an idol is biblically confused. I am not arguing that pastors cannot become idols, for the human heart can make anything an idol. I am simply pointing to the fact that Carroll’s idea of idolatry is what the Bible calls expecting the pastor to be above reproach and a worthy model to emulate. Carroll explains what he means by the pastor as an idol, “For many, he becomes an idol, an example of what they should be and who they should become. He becomes their hero or role model,” (134).
That is not an idol. An idol is something that is worshipped in the place of God. Rather what Carroll is describing is precisely what the Bible calls the pastor to be—indeed, all Christians but especially the pastor. Pastors are to be an example, hero, and role model. Paul instructs the pastor Timothy, “Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe,” (1 Timothy 4:12). Peter instructs pastors to work at “proving to be examples to the flock,” (1 Peter 5:3). Paul himself invited healthy emulation in 1 Corinthians 11:1, “Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ.”
Unfortunately, Carroll is contemptuous about this sort of calling on a pastor’s life. The bottom line is that those who do not desire to be emulated should not enter into the ministry because to pastor is to be willing to be emulated and to be worthy of emulation. Carroll stands biblically confused on this point.
Carroll does a poor job of answering to what the adulterous pastor is to be restored. It is argued throughout the book that the adulterous pastor should be restored, and rightly so, but to what? The pastorate or church fellowship? The answer makes a huge difference. To fellowship, the man should absolutely be restored in response to his repentance, but to the pastorate, that is much more problematic and debatable.
Although Carroll never explicitly says that adulterous pastors can be restored to the pastorate, he certainly implies it:
“Can we take the risk to restore the pastor immediately? Can we step into the command to forgive and reveal a deeper sense of what the church is really about? As hard as that sounds, there is actually sound Biblical support for doing so.
When Peter denied following Jesus three times, Christ immediately sought him out and restored him, publicly. He immediately restored him to leadership, calling him to ‘feed my sheep,’… As strange as it might sound to immediately restore someone to leadership, this is exactly what Jesus did,” (169).
In this passage, Carroll is making a basic hermeneutical mistake. He is gathering principles from the text that are not there. Yes, the restoration of Peter has to do with restoring a sinner to leadership but has nothing to do with adulterous pastors being restored to leadership. As always, didactic parts of Scripture must carry more weight because they contain explicit teaching, and it is in one such passage that we find Paul speaking about the pastor and marriage.
In 1 Timothy 3:2, we read among other things that the pastor is to be the husband of one wife. There are two common evangelical interpretations of that phrase. One is that the pastor is not to be an adulterer. The other is that the pastor is not to be divorced. If the first is true, then the adulterous pastor has proven to not be a one-woman man and is proscribed from the pastorate. If the second is true, then the adulterous pastor who ends up not reconciling with his wife and gets a divorce has proven to not be a one-woman man and is proscribed from the pastorate. Yet, Carroll never takes any of this on. He simply ignores the Bible at this point and carries on, leaving many questions unanswered.
Sadly, stories like the ones found in Fallen Pastor are more common than we would like to admit. It is a black eye on the church when a pastor falls into adultery, but it is an even bigger black eye when the church handles it the wrong way. I appreciate the fact that Ray Carroll has attempted to wake the church up to a pressing need. There are some good aspects to the book. However, the book is lacking in many crucial areas. In the end, Fallen Pastor is a step in the right direction, but only a feeble step.
*The page numbers reflect the published Kindle edition of Fallen Pastor and may be slightly different from the paperback form of this book.