There is no simple policy that we can implement to protect us. No promises we make to our wives, nor any programs we install on our computers will save us. Only Jesus saves. But there are four principles that should guide us through the dangers and temptations connected to ministry. In fact, these principles are not only for leaders, but for all of God's people.
"Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The real danger of sin and temptation is not so much in the world as it is in our own hearts. Every one of us is capable of grievous sin and rebellion. James reminds us that we are tempted not only by outside influences, but by our own desires which ultimately give birth to sin (James 1:14, 15).
The problem is not that we are ignorant of this truth, but that this theological truth has not sufficiently taken root in our hearts. We agree that it is theoretically possible to fall, but we don't believe it will actually happen to us. We convince ourselves that, for whatever reason, we are beyond the risk of losing our marriages and ministries. We aren't. You aren't. Knowing and embracing the frailty of our own souls is key to depending on the grace of God in all of life. Knowing that we must "take care" lest there be in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart" leads to humility. (Heb 3:12) And it is the humble who know their need of Christ's preserving grace and their hope in the midst of trials and temptations. Be humble, or you will fall.
"Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil" (Ephesians 5:15-16).
The answer to avoiding sin is not in policies and protocols, but there is wisdom in arranging our lives strategically to avoid unnecessary temptation.
One of my pastor friends never travels alone when speaking in other locations. He brings another man with him for mutual encouragement and accountability. This brother is a trustworthy and godly man, but he knows his heart and the world well enough to protect himself from even the possibility of danger. Another pastor friend of mine doesn't spend time alone with women who are not his wife. However, life doesn't always cooperate with our protocols, and he found himself in a situation that required him to drive a young lady home. Again, this is a godly man, and let's assume this was an upright lady. Nevertheless, in this situation he immediately phoned his wife to tell her what was happening, but she was unreachable. So he called me to let someone know.
Staying safe doesn't mean avoiding all danger or secluding ourselves from real-life ministry, but it does require careful, thoughtful living. Living carelessly in the world with a sinful heart will eventually lead anyone into unnecessary temptation and potentially into ruin. I have seen men fall, but I have also seen men falsely accused. A humble heart will encourage us to stay safe.
"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another..." (James 5:16).
The person who cannot be honest with himself or others is the one who will live out a superficial faith that cannot weather the storms of temptation. We must know our own weaknesses, tendencies, and desires. Knowing our fruit sins (complaining, for example) is good, but discovering the root sins that feed the fruit sin (in the case of complaining, namely, the pride by which we convince ourselves that we deserve better) is more helpful to knowing ourselves and where we need to exercise care.
Staying honest must go beyond ourselves to include others. Honesty with our spouse, friends, and leadership is one of the means God has given us to curb sin and kill temptation. As repenting, believing saints, we are called to confess our sins to one another, and encourage one another lest we find ourselves hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb. 3:13). Staying honest is both personal and communal, and it protects us from pretending we are okay when we are not, and performing as if all that matters is what is going on with us externally.
"Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you" (James 4:8-10).
The true essence of keeping ourselves from the danger of sin is staying close to God by faith in Christ. This is the ongoing work of communion, or abiding in Christ (John 15:1-5). Those who are actively seeking the things above, where Christ is, are those who are not distracted by the enticements of the flesh or the devil.
Staying close to God is found in the exhortation to "Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life" (Prov. 4:23). John Flavel once helpfully explained what it means to keep our hearts in his classic book, Keeping the Heart. He wrote, "By keeping the heart, understand the diligent and constant use of all holy means to preserve the soul from sin, and maintain its sweet and free communion with God."
We can preserve our souls from sin and maintain an experiential closeness to God through "all holy means", or what is commonly called "the means of grace." The ministry of the word, prayer, corporate worship, etc. are the means by which God exposes our sin, shows us our need for Christ, and increases our faith. Those who wander from God's means are far less likely to run to Him in their hour of need.
Christians fall (Prov. 24:16). Pastors fail. But much of our trouble can be avoided by remaining humble, living carefully, maintaining honesty, and drawing near to God. May His grace abound in each of us and protect us from the danger in the world, and the more subtle dangers that lurk in our hearts.