Paul wrote, “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all” (1 Timothy 1:15).
That is to say, the reason for the appearance of Jesus Christ into this world is to rescue people who sin. Or to put it another way, the only people Jesus rescues are sinners — sinners of rebellion, immorality, darkness, and murder. When we also consider the fact that the Father sent the Son into the world, and that the Holy Spirit, in conjunction with the Father and the Son, empowered the Son for ministry, we understand the unified motive for the Son’s entrance into this world is to save sinners.
Sadly, we have rejected this in the modern Evangelical church. We are much like the churches in Asia Minor to whom James wrote when he chastised the leaders for recognizing the rich man over the poor man (James 2:1-7). Many in Evangelical churches are much like the Pharisee who despised the Publican because the Publican was such a sinner and the Pharisee was so good (Luke 18:9-14).
This same attitude extends into the pastoral role. Sad, isn’t it? Everyone else is allowed to have been rescued from sins except the elder. He must be a man who has known no sin, repentance, and regeneration. Or, we swing the other way and allow a pastor who is still practicing sin to go on in the pastoral ministry. Neither are acceptable.
Let’s consider Paul’s analogy in Romans 7:1ff for our conclusion on this matter. He wrote:
1 Or do you not know, brethren (for I am speaking to those who know the law), that the law has jurisdiction over a person as long as he lives?
2 For the married woman is bound by law to her husband while he is living; but if her husband dies, she is released from the law concerning the husband.
3 So then, if while her husband is living she is joined to another man, she shall be called an adulteress; but if her husband dies, she is free from the law, so that she is not an adulteress though she is joined to another man.
4 Therefore, my brethren, you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another, to Him who was raised from the dead, in order that we might bear fruit for God.
The analogy is simply a reference to the Law on marriage from the Old Testament (see Genesis 2:2-25; Exodus 20:14. Leviticus 20:10. Numbers 5:13ff.; Deuteronomy 22:22–24.). The purpose of the analogy is to teach that death actually happened to the person who has been justified in Christ. And to what does Paul say that a man has died to in Christ? The Law. What Law? The same Law that condemned the adulterer. It is the same Law which governed marriage in Israel. It is the same Law that Moses taught. It is that Law to which Paul refers.
And what do we know about that Law? Well, in summary, Paul said in 1 Timothy 1:9-10:
9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers
10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching,
Do you see this? The Law was made, not for the righteous, but for the sinner. What kinds of sinners? All kinds! The Law was so extensive that it identified sins categorically; sins like murder, immorality, homosexuality, kidnapping, and the like. Further, the Law to Israel also allowed for the condemnation, death penalty, which would follow the practice of those sins (see Leviticus 20). If Jesus was simply a reconstituted Moses, then the Law of Moses would still be binding. But He is not!
You see, once a man is in Christ, the Son of God, recreated by the will of the Father and the power of the Holy Spirit, that man has died and is no longer condemned by the Law! The Law of Moses, which categorizes so many sins, is no longer able to condemn him. Therefore, like the woman caught in adultery (although not a part of the canonical text, and yet wise nonetheless), neither should we condemn him.
This does not allow for continuity in sin (Romans 6:1ff.). But, that is not the discussion here. The issue is that the man who has committed sins prior to his salvation, after giving evidence of true regeneration (Galatians 5:22-23), can be considered for pastoral ministry. The only blight that could ever be caused upon the ministry from bringing a former sinner on in a leadership role is that he does not match the picture-perfect world that the hiring church wants to project. If that is the case, I would not advise a sinner saved by the grace of God to go there anyway!
If you are part of a church considering a man for ministry, please be realistic! If you cannot choose a man because of his sinful past before salvation, you might be looking a long time. Rather, choose a man based upon his current level of faithfulness, putting him to a reasonable test of obedience from the point of his true salvation forward. The depth of ministry from a man like that will be far greater than the ministry of a man who, in his self-righteousness, is grateful he is not like the Publican over there.