What if a church leader confesses a problem with substance abuse?

An interview about addiction and the hope of restoration

March 14, 2022

The stress of pandemic living seemed to exacerbate and bring to light several struggles common in our society — and even within the church. While some like loneliness were to be expected, the issue of substance abuse may have been a bit more surprising to some, especially because it’s happening among church leaders. Josh Vaughan, senior pastor of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church in Waco, Texas, has come face to face with this reality. A fellow pastor on staff confessed to an alcohol addiction, and Vaughan shepherded him and the congregation through the process of seeking help and restoration. Below, Vaughan answers questions about what Scripture teaches and how Christians can begin to respond to substance abuse issues. 

It’s important to note that the information, counsel, and path for restoration laid out below is for substance abuse and addiction and does not apply to other ways pastors might sin that may be disqualifying from ministry. In particular, this path of being restored to ministry should not be applied to sexual abuse.

Elizabeth Bristow: The issue of substance abuse is prevalent in our culture and is present in every church congregation. How do we reconcile this reality? How does the Bible inform how we should think about it?

Josh Vaughan: Addressing substance abuse in the church is something we all want to do. We know it’s there and needs to be taken care of, but very few want to start doing the work. At some point, facing the problem requires taking one step at a time. 

While the Bible does not use terms such as “addiction” or “substance abuse,” the issue that these terms describe is evident within its pages. Whether described as “folly” in Ecclesiastes 2:1-3 or as “slavery to sin” in Romans 6:12-20, the controlling power that a human can find him or herself subjected to is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the destructive pattern of addiction a new phenomenon either. Proverbs 23:29-35 describes the sadly familiar progression of appeal, irrational choices, seemingly irresistible craving, and failure to change despite negative consequences. The prevalence of substance abuse in our culture and congregations should really be no surprise because it has plagued humanity across time and culture. Folly continues to cry out, and even Christians are prone to answering (Prov. 9:13-18).

In our cultural context, the Bible does provide a hopeful perspective that is desperately needed. The most common way our culture views substance abuse is through the lens of “sickness.” This view emphasizes physiological or psychological dependence as the main problem and turns to deal with these issues solely on a medical and/or therapeutic basis. Moral culpability can be minimized  or removed altogether, and consequently, confession, repentance, and the accompanying opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation can also be removed. A view of substance abuse informed by the Bible does not reject the physiological or psychological factors at play since it affirms that we are embodied beings. The Bible insists that human behavior is complex and these issues must also be viewed in light of our brokenness as moral creatures before God.

The will can be bent toward selfishness and foolishness, and when a human acts accordingly, the Bible describes this as “sin.” The Psalmist prays, “keep your servant from willful sins; do not let them rule over me” (Psa. 19:13). While it is not popular to retain the category of “sin” in describing substance abuse, it must be a central aspect of a biblical approach to these issues.. Accounting for “substance abuse” as an expression of sin provides a basis for hope. If sin is the problem and not just sickness, then there is both the responsibility to confess and repent and the possibility for forgiveness, proper help, and restoration. Both the substance abuser and the myriad of people harmed by that substance abuse have the chance to make sense of what is happening and find a way forward.

EB: Why is it hard for Christians to be open about and repentant of substance abuse and addiction?

JV: At the most fundamental level, I don’t believe that openness about substance abuse and addiction is more difficult for Christians than non-Christians. I think it is difficult for all humans to be open. The natural inclination is to hide the truth about our sin from God (see Genesis 3:8), from one another (Proverbs 9:17), and even from ourselves (Ephesians 4:17-19). Christians are not exempt from this natural inclination, yet the only hope for repentance is to first bring the problem into the open.

I do believe that pastors, ministers, and ministry leaders do find it very difficult to be open for fear of losing influence and/or even their employment. To some degree, the fear is justified in that leaders are rightly held to a higher standard by virtue of their increased influence. However, the danger of that “high standard” is that ministry leaders will not confess the early steps toward addiction such as appeal and/or experimentation and take steps to protect themselves from temptation. By the time experimentation has hardened into addiction, many other compromises have been made eroding or destroying the trust that confession is designed to preserve.

EB: When Christians confess their addiction and bring it into the light, what is the path to hope and restoration?

JV: While confession is the necessary first step toward restoration, it is only the first step. The next steps are determined by the severity and duration of the addictive behavior but could include accountability mechanisms, addiction recovery and/or support groups, and professional intervention in a rehabilitation context. Since substance abuse is often used to cover up and/or escape from other mental health concerns, professional counseling and medical help is often an appropriate step to take as well. In all of this, the most important source of hope is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Self-condemnation hampers all efforts at restoration for both the substance abuser and their families, friends, and church. Returning to the hope affirmed in Romans 8:1 that “there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus” is one of the most important practices on the road to restoration.

EB: In your tenure of pastoring your church in Waco, Texas, you’ve walked through a situation with a fellow pastor on staff who came forward with an alcohol addiction. How did you navigate this season as the leader of your congregation, and what important lessons did you learn?

JV: Years before this particular occurrence, my father-in-law gave me some leadership advice that I have returned to often in difficult management moments when appropriate. He said, “If you are going to err, err on the side of grace.” His words rung in my ears as I interacted with the pastor, his wife and children, our church leadership, and our congregation. While guided by a basic disposition toward grace, I was also keenly aware that grace requires truth telling. Before I could extend grace to the pastor, he had to decide to tell the truth about what was going on. Before the church could extend grace, we had to truthfully account for the damage done. This was a painful and uncertain process, but guided by grace and truth, we were able to navigate even the mistakes we made as we helped him.

I learned very quickly that lurking behind the substance abuse were other significant issues in the pastor’s life. This makes recovery a complicated, slow process with many ups and downs along the way. When my church was made aware of what had happened, it provided opportunity for many others experiencing varying degrees of addiction to share openly and get help. In addition, many who had been quietly carrying the weight of a family member struggling with addiction were also able to share their experience, connect with others, and know that they were not alone.

EB: What is the path to restoration for a pastor or church leader who struggles with substance abuse that your church has followed?

JV: Though it will be different for each instance, the path that we established and have used in a variety of situations includes the following four steps:

Step 1: Accountability will be provided as necessary to protect the gospel ministry, the church, and the minister involved. Accusations against a minister must be substantiated (1 Timothy 5:19), and appropriate accountability provided impartially (1 Timothy 5:21).

Step 2: Confession will be the responsibility of the minister committing the offense. The appropriate setting will be determined based on the nature of the offense and the scope of the minister’s work (1 Timothy 5:20).

Step 3: Forgiveness will be the responsibility of the church to express and to enact both verbally and relationally. The aim of the steps to restoration is both to maintain holiness in the church and a relational context for restoration. Forgiveness does not mean that consequences such as employment termination, license revocation, etc., are removed. Forgiveness allows the church and minister to begin healing and rebuilding trust.

Step 4: Restoration will require the commitment and follow–through of both minister and church. A “Restoration Plan” will be agreed upon as outlined below. Each plan will be shaped by the willingness, needs, and opportunities presented by both the church and minister.

The elements of a restoration plan may include any or all of the following:

The duration of a restoration plan depends on the severity of the harm done and issues related to that harm. If the circumstances involve potentially addictive substances or behaviors, the Personnel Committee (or leadership team) reviewing the specific circumstances will seek to identify one of five stages of involvement with a corresponding duration of restoration recommended.

  1. Curiosity: recommend three months professional counseling.
  2. Experimental: recommend six months professional counseling
  3. Regular: recommend one year professional counseling and a three-month suspension of credentials.
  4. Habitual: recommend one year professional counseling and an 18-month suspension of credentials
  5. Addictive: recommend two years of professional counseling and two-year suspension of credentials

EB: What is the role of the church in walking through this journey when its leaders struggle with addictions?

JV: The first responsibility of the church is to faithfully and consistently pray for their leaders whether or not there is a struggle with substance abuse present. The propensity to stumble and the attacks of the enemy are ever-present dangers, and prayer is the church’s chief resource. When an addiction becomes known, the church and its leaders have the responsibility to protect the integrity of the gospel both by providing appropriate accountability and by extending grace to the leader. This will require an exercise of prayerful wisdom to discern what response a particular circumstance will warrant. If the leader is willing to submit to accountability and repent, then the church is responsible to forgive and provide an open door for restoration. That may or may not mean restoration to a position of leadership, but it should include restoration to relationship with the church.

EB: On a personal level, what encouragement would you give to someone walking through an addiction with a close friend or family member?

JV: I would strongly encourage them to find a support group with others who are walking the same road. Al-Anon groups are available in most cities and provide a specialized support that goes beyond what caring Christian friendships can provide. The unique cycle that accompanies addiction relapse is particularly devastating to families and close friends. Without appropriate support, care can quietly turn into resentment causing even further damage spiritually and relationally.

Church members may find themselves in one of two extremes when a leader they respect has a public failing related to substance abuse: They may feel angry and betrayed, wanting to punish the leader personally (i.e., “if I did that, I would be fired”; “I’ve endured hard times, but I didn’t turn to a bottle/pills”; “he needs to feel the pain of what he’s done to this church”, etc.). Or they may rush quickly to grace to forgive and work toward restoration for the leader while skipping over a period of grieving the seriousness of the sin and its consequences (i.e., “what’s the big deal, we all sin?”; “God’s just gonna do great things [while those close are still hurting]”, etc.) What wisdom would serve these two groups well as they seek to respond biblically?

Both responses are legitimate but incomplete by themselves. The failure and harm are real, and it is right to be angry. The need for forgiveness and restoration is real, and it is right to be gracious. Only God himself is able to perfectly experience both justice and grace at the same time, and he did it at the cross of Jesus Christ. The wrath of God against sin met the grace of God toward sinners in the death of Jesus. Knowing this truth frees us from trying to do what only God can. 

Practically, this means that church members must avoid demonizing others who are responding in a way differently than they are. Our understanding about the nature of God is displayed when those who are feeling the need for justice partner with those who are feeling the need for grace to decide how to express both toward a particular person. Church members should resist only interacting with others in their camp and/or retreating from the church altogether. Both responses temporarily relieve the tension but also remove the possibility for everyone to encounter God’s presence in a transformative way through the crisis the church is facing.

I am deeply grateful for the leaders and people of Columbus Avenue Baptist Church because they remained together in the tension of both seeking justice and extending grace. Consequently, we have grown as a family of faith through a public leadership failure. What was intended for evil, the Lord intended for good (Genesis 50:20).

EB: What does lived repentance look like during the process of restoration for a church leader or member who has struggled with substance abuse?

JV: I can only answer this in a limited manner since I have not experienced this particular struggle. However, all sin has the possibility of becoming controlling. Living repentance looks like daily returning to the gospel truth that there is no condemnation for the one in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). It looks like walking in regular confession with a trusted group of Christians (1 John 1:7). It looks like replacing the old habit and response to stress with a new one (Col. 3:5,12). Ultimately, it looks like death — and initially feels like death as well (Rom. 6:6-7). Finally, it looks like a new life of joyful worship and service as the Holy Spirit accomplishes transformation (Rom. 12:1-2).

Elizabeth Bristow

Elizabeth Bristow serves as the press secretary for the ERLC. Elizabeth oversees public relations and media operations for the organization. She received a B.A. in Public Relations and Marketing from Union University in 2010. She is a native of Tennessee and resides in Lebanon, Tennessee, with her husband and two … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24