When a Pastor Commits Adultery
July 10, 2015
Pastors, like all Christians, struggle with sin. And, like all Christians, pastors need grace. But when a pastor falls to those sins which disqualify him from this role of spiritual overseer he also needs the correction and accountability of the church. He needs clear speech and direction not sentimental sweets.
In recent months several high profile pastors from various denominations have acknowledged committing adultery. I had not planned on commenting on this. In fact after one such public fall I thought to myself, “Don’t touch it with a ten foot pole!” However, the problem with remaining silent is that many of the responses to these public failures have been sadly misguided and potentially dangerous. Also, some of the confessions from these pastors have been, quite frankly, wholly inadequate and even deceiving.
Adultery is the grossest violation of the marital bond. In fact the violation of adultery is so great that God, who hates divorce, nevertheless allows it in cases of adultery. Adultery fouls relationships and brings ruin to entire families. When a pastor commits adultery the consequences are exponentially more damaging. Whether he thinks it is fair or not, a pastor’s sexual sin opens the door for the mockery of the gospel. The adulterous pastor does untold damage to the public witness of the church and invoking God’s sovereignty and grace cannot soften or in any way excuse that fact.
In at least some Presbyterian denominations, pastors make public vows not only to uphold the doctrine of their church’s confession but to live exemplary lives. When those vows are flagrantly violated there must be proper acknowledgment of the sin and clear evidence of repentance. Otherwise, grace is mocked and sin is trivialized.
As I considered these heart-breaking situations and one particular public statement from a recently fallen pastor I jotted down a few thoughts…
1. Sin is grievous primarily because it is an offense against God.
Evangelicals have become so steeped in therapeutic language and categories that they seem scarcely able to see sin as anything other than a private issue of personal flourishing. In other words, contemporary evangelicals seem to no longer understand sin as an offense against God and an insult to the grace of Christ. Even in reformed-ish circles we have been told that we have “Three Free Sins.”
King David was a great sinner but he was and remains the quintessential model of proper repentance. Psalm 51 is his prayer of repentance after the prophet Nathan confronted him for his adultery and murder-by-proxy. Incidentally, Nathan did not rush to David to say, “You sinned but don’t feel bad because, you know, grace!”
When a well-known and beloved pastor falls to sexual sin it is considered bad form to actually grieve for what his sin has done to the reputation of Jesus and the witness of the church. Any public statements must be limited to expressions of cheap grace for the offending pastor whether he has repented or not.
When David repented he gave expression to that most heinous aspect of his sin.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment. (Ps 51:4)
We may want to quibble with David over the fact that his actions were indeed against others as well. However, the point of David’s confession is that sin is first and foremost God-ward. That is, while sin almost always has deleterious effects on other people, it is more than anything else a mutiny against God.
2. The world is a spiritual battlefield.
“…Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Gen. 4:7). Those words to Cain ought to ring in the ears of every believer and especially those who are pastors. Our enemy who is likened to a thief, a liar, a murderer, an angel of light, a deceiver, a menacing lion, and much more takes no holidays. He is fighting with all the spitting anger of a defeated tyrant. Let us not be surprised by the ferocity of the battle or the cunning of Satan.
Pastors should not only be unsurprised by the heat of the battle but they should expect it. Their position will not insulate them from the arrows of the enemy. Indeed the fact that their reputation impacts the reputation of Christ ought to cause them no small amount of trembling. Pastors are walking targets in a spiritual war.
Do not listen to those who, while holding forth the beauty of justification, say nothing of sanctification. Do not listen to those who sneer at calls to holiness as though such pleas are by very nature legalistic. I think we may reliably conclude that making too much of holiness is not the chief problem within evangelical churches.
3. We are not as strong as we think we are.
None of us have arrived. All believers, no matter how mature, will continue to battle indwelling sin until that glorious day when we see Jesus. But until that day no Christian is untouchable. Sin will still entice and promise what it cannot deliver. We ought to have very modest opinions of our strength against such temptations. When a pastor falls let us not for one moment flatter ourselves with the notion that we are beyond such sin.
4. My heart is deceitful.
When a pastor falls there is something in my heart that wants to say, “I’ll never do that!” And depending on who it is that bites the dust I hear a voice in me that says, “I knew that guy was a creep!” Of course, that voice in me is me. It is a reminder that I must daily put to death the temptation to think too highly of myself.
5. Call sin what it is.
When it comes to naming sin we are masters of euphemism. We want to soften sin’s reality by calling it something other than what it is. But none of our careful parsing can ignore the fact that sin is so wicked it required the shedding of blood. Sin is so evil that in order for sinners like us to be forgiven Jesus had to be our dying substitute to bear the just wrath of God on our behalf. We show disdain for that breathtakingly beautiful sacrifice when we euphemize sin with such words as imperfection, mistake, or inappropriate relationship.
6. Don’t rationalize your sin.
“My wife is a mess so I sought comfort in the arms of another” is not repentance. Again, we learn from David’s confession of sin – “my sin,” “my iniquity,” “I have sinned and done what is evil in your sight,” etc. There is never a good reason for a pastor to commit adultery. There is never a mitigating factor that somehow makes adultery a reasonable or understandable act.
7. Yes, doctrine does matter.
Pastors all along the theological spectrum fall to sexual sin. Liberals and conservatives, Baptists and Presbyterians, Charismatics and Catholics have tarnished the name of Christ by their sexual sin. So, no single doctrinal system or error can be blamed for the problem of adultery among pastors. Nevertheless a robust doctrine of sanctification is vital for spiritual health. A theological system which largely ignores the imperatives in Scripture and leaves little room for a deliberate pursuit of holiness deprives men of one of the very means God uses to conform them to Christ. Three Free Sins theology does not and cannot promote holiness among God’s people.
8. Romans 6 still stands.
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?” (vv. 1-2).
Yes we are forgiven in Christ. Yes we are justified wholly by the living, dying, and rising of Jesus. No, there is nothing we can do to lose our justification. We must preach these truths. We must live in these truths. But these blessed realities must never be used as a license to sin or to minimize the need for repentance when we do sin.
The same man who wrote Romans 8 also wrote Romans 6. The same Jesus who canceled the curse of sin has also broken the power of sin. Sin is no longer our commander-in-chief. In Christ we are no longer totally depraved. Our brokenness is, by the power of Christ, being mended.
9. Presbyterian pastors ought to be Presbyterian in practice.
Sessions and Presbyteries exist for a number of reasons, one of which is to provide fellowship, encouragement, and accountability for pastors. When a Presbyterian pastor does not faithfully engage (either because he is too famous or too “busy”) in the structure provided by Presbyterian government then he is removing from his life one of the means the Lord has provided for his spiritual and emotional health.
10. Celebrity Christianity is dangerous.
Celebrity culture has invaded the “reformed” community of churches just as surely as it did broader evangelicalism. This has been disastrous. It is a dangerous thing for a pastor to have fans. Friends? Yes! Encouragers? Yes! But fans are dangerous because fans are after something. Fans are after the sheen of their hero’s fame. Fans will never say the hard thing or ask the inconvenient question.
Incidentally, Presbyterianism properly applied makes celebrity status rather difficult for a pastor to achieve. This is so because, in theory, a Presbyterian church surrounds the pastor with men who care for him, in part, by setting healthy boundaries, reminding him of his limitations, and holding him accountable to his calling. His brothers on the session and in the Presbytery are his friends, not his fans.
* Fallen pastor, keep a low profile. In the name of all that is decent, get off social media. We do not need your triumphal tweets about the great things you are learning about grace since violating your most sacred vows. You are no longer a brand. You should never have been a brand in the first place. You have given mockers a greater reason to profane the name of Jesus. You have heaped scorn upon the church. Quit acting as though you still have a legitimate platform from which to teach. You can demonstrate the genuineness of your repentance by quietly placing yourself under the authority of a church where you can humbly learn in anonymity.
11. Not all sins are equal.
While it is true that all sins are equally damning, not all sins do equal damage in this life. We know this both from Scripture and experience. For instance, there are certain virtues that must characterize the lives of overseers (1 Tim 3; Titus 1) precisely because there are certain moral demands placed upon those who exercise oversight in the household of God. Gloriously, a pastor who commits adultery, if he repents, can and should be restored to fellowship within the church. Indeed, to refuse restoration to a repentant sinner is itself a grievous sin. But fellowship and service within the church are quite different from having the responsibility of spiritual oversight. Restore the repentant adulterer to fellowship by all means. But he has disqualified himself from being a pastor. Jesus has removed the curse of sin. But so long as we are south of heaven we still must bear many of the temporal consequences of sin.
Adultery is a moral disaster. It brings ruin to reputations. It is in the words of John Armstrong, “the stain that stays.” The pastor who falls to adultery has disqualified himself by virtue of the fact that he is no longer of good repute. That there are many who believe adultery does not disqualify a man from the office of pastor (or elder) reflects more on their discernment than on the real nature of adultery.
* On this week’s Mortification of Spin: Bully Pulpit, we discuss the importance of godliness in the lives of pastors.