Dr. Hershael York is known by many as the preaching professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. By some, he’s known as an outspoken critic for moral and Christian issues. To a few hundred, he’s the pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky, in the midst of paying off their debt and moving to a new facility. By a privileged few, he’s a father, grandfather, husband.
I used to know him as that guy in seminary that “if you take his preaching class, be prepared to have your rear end handed to you.” So I never took his class and I regret it.
After I fell from the ministry, years after my seminary experience, I was encouraged by a friend to call him. I heard that Dr. York was someone who had experience reaching out to fallen pastors with love and compassion. Strangely, that did not mesh with the image I had in my head of him.
I was happy to be proven wrong. When I interviewed him, he was gracious, kind and his wisdom is pasted throughout my book, “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World.” Better yet, I see him as a spiritual father of sorts now.
“We’re totally comfortable when a dope smoking, meth lab owning guy gets saved and we rejoice in that; but what if a Christian falls into that and returns? Our discomfort sort of negates the book of Galatians. In Galatians, Paul says, ‘What don’t you understand? Now if you began in the Spirit you are not perfected by works!’”
In fact, when my wife and I traveled to Frankfort recently to see and interview him (partly for this blog but mostly because I missed seeing him), the first thing he told me was how proud he was of me. Something I had longed for my own father to say.
Enough of that. I’ve tried to break down the interview the best I can. If you go and talk to Dr. York about anything, you’ll end up with a repository of awesome material that’s hard to replicate on the page. So, I’ve tried to do my best.
Fallen Pastors and Repentance
One of the topics we discussed was fallen pastors and when they repent. A lot of times, the fallen pastor will repent immediately and be restored to Christ, but other times, as in my case, he won’t. Dr. York discussed the issues with a late repenting pastor:
“Christians want things to end clean and neat. And they’re uncomfortable when they don’t. What people are uncomfortable with is what everyone wants; we want to see reconciliation with his wife which means they get back together and live happily ever after. But you know what? That’s not always how it works. At the point people wake up and become really broken over their sin – at whatever point that is, then they have to deal with whatever consequences have occurred up to that point.
“There’s no going back, you can’t roll back time, and so what’s the godly way to deal with this? Have we read our Bible? What about Abraham and Hagar? There were consequences. We can lament what Abraham did all we want, but we have to deal with it. And I think a lot of Christians miss that at some point and we have to answer the question, ‘How do I honor God now?’”
That turned him to the message of the Gospel:
“If we really believe the gospel – the gospel takes you where you are. We say we believe the gospel isn’t about ‘try harder and do better’ but it’s about resting in God’s grace. And then we act upset when someone actually does something that demands that.
“We’re totally comfortable when a dope smoking, meth lab owning guy gets saved and we rejoice in that; but what if a Christian falls into that and returns? Our discomfort sort of negates the book of Galatians. In Galatians, Paul says, ‘What don’t you understand? Now if you began in the Spirit you are not perfected by works!’
“If true holiness is realizing our complete dependence upon God, then sometimes the Lord has to allow the consequences of our own sin to get us to that level of dependence on Him. If anyone else is uncomfortable with it, then so be it, they’re just going to be uncomfortable with it.”
What is true repentance and brokenness? Dr. York shares a personal story:
On to another important topic and a sensitive one that is often challenged. How do we know if a fallen pastor (or for that matter – anyone) is really repentant or broken over their sin? I told Dr. York I had a church contact me once and tell me that they had a candidate apply for a job who had fallen 25 years prior. When asked about it, he became defensive. I said, “If he was truly repentant and broken over his sin, his response would have been, ‘I committed adultery 25 years ago, I was forgiven by God, but I am more than willing to discuss anything with you, even the consequences of my actions.’”
“You couldn’t have said it better. Years ago, I counseled an associate minister who had an affair with someone else in the church. He and his wife decided to reconcile immediately and he agreed to undergo counseling and follow a path to repentance, but he was asked to leave. He and his wife came here to our church.
“The first time I met with them, the man said to me, ‘I just want to get past this.’ And I thought, here comes the speech. You get the speech for that one. I told him, ‘You’re never going to get past this. There is no getting past this. This is going to be whispered about you wherever you go for the rest of your life. You better get used to that. When your children get older, someone is going to tell them and it’s going to crush them.’
“I laid it out clearly and said, ‘This is what your future looks like. Now listen, you’ve only got one hope here. And this is the only way for you to do this – and that is if when somebody does whisper what you’ve done, someone else says, ‘That is just so hard to believe. Because look how he just loves the Lord and follows Jesus in the genuine wholeness of his life.’ To get there requires brokenness and it is a long hard road.
“His wife had a family reunion once a year and when he went, no one would speak to him. The family even called Dr. York and was furious that he was counseling this man. And he said to them, ‘As long as he is acting like he wants restoration, and he definitely does, then it all remains to be seen and proved over the course of time. It’s judgment on my part whether he is or isn’t repentant.’
“The man came back from the reunion and was angry. He said, ‘They treated me horribly.’ I said, ‘Why did they have the opportunity to treat you like this? Who put them in this position? You have to own the fact that you got the choice and they didn’t, so you can’t judge them for the way they react to your sin’ He said, ‘What do I do?’ I said, ‘Sit there quietly and kindly, don’t force anybody to speak and when it comes time to pick up after a meal, do it and help out. Be a willing servant. Just have the attitude of the prodigal son after he came home and say, ‘Just let me be like one of your hired servants and that will be enough for me.’
“And if you have that attitude, eventually, you’re going to win. How long? How many years? I don’t know. But eventually, they’re going to say, ‘His repentance is real, this is for real.’ For now, they might say, ‘This is an act.’ Four or five years down the road, they might not say that anymore. The question is, are you willing to do that? And if you’re genuinely broken over that, you will.’
”It’s been almost ten years for them now and he called him because a church asked him to take on a leadership role. The man turned that down. He told Dr. York, ‘I knew it had the potential to appeal to my superficial nature which got me in trouble in the first place.’ Dr. York said, “He gets it now.”
Dr. York reflected on the reality that the situation could have ended very differently:
“There were moments where it was touch and go. The wife would call and say, ‘I don’t think this is going to work.’ But now, he’s walked in repentance and the Lord has been good. In their case, their marriage was saved and people look at it differently. But let’s say it had ended.
“Frankly, his walk of repentance would not be significantly different. His life circumstances would be different, but the repentance would still have to be there. He would have to humble himself in front of his family, his children, and her. Repentance is repentance. The consequences you’ve inherited might be different based on what point it hit you. It’s not the consequences you’re answering for when you stand before the Lord. It’s the sin. And I think Christians misunderstand that.”
Stay tuned for part two of this interview. In it we discuss the true cause of ministry failure, pornography, and preventing a fall.
Dr. Hershael York is the Victor and Louise Professor of Christian Preaching and Associate Dean of Ministry and Proclamation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Senior Pastor of Buck Run Baptist Church in Frankfort, Kentucky. Tanya, his wife of twenty-seven years, is a popular speaker at women’s conferences, and they have two married sons, Michael, 25, and Seth, 23. For a full biography, please click here.
Ray Carroll is author of “Fallen Pastor: Finding Restoration in a Broken World.” If you are a fallen pastor, a pastor in trouble, a church whose pastor has fallen, or need someone to talk to your group about preventing ministry failure, please feel free to contact Ray here. All messages will be kept confidential.