[Today’s post comes from Regan King. You can connect with Regan on twitter, facebook, or at http://www.reganbking.com. And don’t miss his book, #TBH: Basic Challenges to Millennials Who Can’t Even.]
Churches and sex abuse
It should not surprise us when sex abuse rears its ugly head in churches. After all, churches are filled with people who have in some way acknowledged spiritual brokenness and sickness. As in any institution of which men and women are a part, sexual sin will be present at some point in some form or another simply by nature of the fact that men and women break God’s commands—sinning against God, other people, and self. It is not the institution’s fault; it is the people’s. If the institution in some way continues to enable or empower those in sexual sin, the institution then shows itself as culpable in the sin.
Sexual sin has consequences before God and, in some way, will have consequences in our relationships with others. Before God, ongoing sexual sin assures of condemnation “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Eph 5:5). In relationships with other people, sexual sin poisons and creates distrust, destroying meaningful intimacy with others and spawning relational dysfunctionality in a plethora of ways.
In every way sexual sin is self harm. Sexual sin—whether porn viewing, abuse, harassment, rape, or consensual sex outside of God’s established plan—abuses God’s good gift of sex reserved for marriage between one man and one woman.
Adultery is sex abuse
Currently sex abuse is being dealt with on many fronts. While we must be wary of the #metoo bandwagon and what often become practical witch hunts that suspend with the ancient principle that ei incumbit probatio qui dicit, non qui negat (the burden of proof is on the one who declares, not on one who denies), we must be equally wary of not properly dealing with legitimate sex abuse.
This includes adultery.
While not generally viewed as sex abuse, adultery is nothing short of sex abuse. The general view that adultery is not sex abuse says more about our society’s saturation with sex perversion than it does excuse adultery as unabusive. Though consensual, adultery can often arise out of an abuse of power by one party and the lust for status and approval by another. Though consensual, adultery often entails one party grooming another and planting deceptive and demonic thoughts doubting and demeaning another’s spouse. Though consensual, adultery is an abuse of what are often initially (they almost always will begin to suspect eventually) totally clueless spouses. The effects of this abuse are long lasting—betrayal, hurt, and in many cases symptoms of PTSD (flashbacks, nightmares, drenching sweats, intense distress, emotional numbness, physical fatigue). Though consensual, adultery is an abuse of marriage and sex within marriages’ lifelong covenant. Though consensual, adultery is an abuse of righteousness and justice as defined by God. Adultery along with sexual immorality and spousal abandonment are the Biblical grounds for divorce. Adultery is condemned by God in the foundation books of the Bible (Exod 20:14; Lev 18:20; Lev 20:10; Deut 5:18; Deut 22:22) and its consequences regularly seen in Biblical narrative (Remember King David and the effects on his whole household?)
Adultery in any context is undeniably inexcusable and wrong.
Adultery is sex abuse.
Through Christ there can be salvation despite the grievous abuse and sin that is adultery. But in no way does this mean an abdication of responsibility in how churches should deal with adultery among its leaders. Churches must ask serious questions in regard to reappointing or commissioning any pastoral worker following adultery. Specifically, I want to deal with one area I see less discussion of—the sending of individuals who have fallen in adultery to some missionary activity. Remember: we are talking about abuse here. Yes, Jesus saves all who repent (turn away from/leave) of sin, but there are still consequences and we must think and act wisely and responsibly.
A matter of principle
Missions is so loosely defined these days. There is a lot of confusion as to what missions really is, namely outreach, evangelism, and discipleship rooted in the local church leading to growth of the kingdom through conversions and planting other churches for God’s glory. Training leaders, equipping churches for the spread of the Gospel, encouraging potentially discouraged leaders and church members and participating in the discipleship process are all key components of mission whether short or long-term. As such, those involved in missions bear a responsibility as leaders and representatives of Christ and their local church and as such must be held to the high standard of conduct found in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
John MacArthur writes:
There are some sins that irreparably shatter a man’s reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever. Even Paul, man of God that he was, said he feared such a possibility. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, “I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.”
When referring to his body, Paul obviously had sexual immorality in view. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 he describes it as a sin against one’s own body—sexual sin is in its own category. Certainly it disqualifies a man from church leadership since he permanently forfeits a blameless reputation as a one-woman man (Proverbs 6:33; 1 Timothy 3:2).
While he doesn’t find MacArthur entirely convincing here on either a practical or exegetical level, Jared C. Wilson urges extreme caution and indicates pretty clearly that a return to pastoring should not occur anywhere near soon after the offense and not at all unless instigated and called upon by the local church.
John Piper holds a similar view to Wilson, writing,
If a pastor has betrayed his people, and it has wounded a church grievously and wounded his wife grievously, he can be forgiven just like that. Wiped away. The blood of Jesus covers it. But as far as reestablishing trust, which is essential to a shepherd/sheep and wife/husband relationship, how long does that take? A decade? It takes a long time, a long time, until memories are healed.
And very practically I think this is what I would say: A man who commits adultery, say, in the ministry, should immediately resign and look for other work. And he should make no claim on the church at all. He should get another kind of job and go about his life humbly receiving the discipline and sitting and receiving ministry, whether in that church or in another church. And then the church should turn that around if it believes it should, not him.
What is clear from my searching and study is that among those who have a high view of Scripture there is the view on one hand that post-conversion sexual immorality whilst in the pastorate permanently excludes from pastoral responsibility and on another that sexual immorality may exclude but the door may be open for a distant future return. Even still, those leaving a door open see a requirement of clear and attestably deep repentance over a lengthy period and a local church deciding on its own to reassess the individual’s suitability (ie. this is not in any way instigated by the individual0
R. Kent Hughes and John H. Armstrong acknowledge that “some fallen pastors indeed might someday be restored to leadership”, but “believe this increasingly common scenario is both biblically incorrect and profoundly harmful to the well-being of the fallen pastor, his marriage, and the church of Jesus Christ.” One can scarcely fault their caution and there is abundant vindication for such a view (remember the Tullian Tchividjian tragedies?).
A matter of propriety and prudence
99% of those in Christian ministry who have fallen into sexual sin do not confess their sin but are caught. They carry on an affair until caught and exposed. While any adulterous act is tragic, what we are dealing with in the vast majority of cases are not one off flings. We are talking about persistent adulterous activity over the course of lengths of time. This is what is most common and so is primarily what I have in view here.
[As an aside. Friend. Please know your sin will find you out. It grieves me to know that someone I know, someone reading this right now, has participated in or is participating in an illicit sexual liaison that is unconfessed and explained away. It has happened before. An assistant pastor…the pastor who left his family for another man…the well-known pastor, author, and conference speaker who kept a straight face when I discussed a related issue with him. I know it will happen again. Step into the light. It is for your good and God’s glory. Come to me and talk. I will stand with you and strive on your behalf for renewal and reconciliation. Just don’t persist in your sin. Don’t be caught—just confess and accept the consequences.]
We have looked at the principle of fairly serious consequences for a leader or missionary who has committed adultery—at the very least a long-term departure from public ministry aligned with a process of restoration and reconciliation if possible. Such a move is prudent and shows propriety in perspective of how important and challenging ministry can be.
Proverbs 11.14 says “Where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” With that in mind I reached out to some friends and fellow pastors for their assessment. The following quotes are all taken from personal correspondence with permission.
Andrew Sandlin, Founder and President of the Center for Cultural Leadership:
Sexual immorality, like financial malfeasance and spiritual abuse, disqualifies from prominent church ministry. Grace and repentance, while necessary, are not a sufficient warrant for swift reinstallation. Adultery in particular is a severe violation of a covenant trust, without which there can be no viable, viable Christian ministry. There are always places, vital places, in the Lord’s work for those who have committed this sin and have repented. They can be restored. But returning swiftly to a highly visible ministry position, carrying the weight of such responsibility, is exceedingly unwise.
Bart Barber, pastor of FBC Farmersville, active and prominent servant of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention (of which the world’s largest international missions board is a part):
The isolation and other stresses of cross-cultural missions are often under-appreciated at the beginning of the task, and the toll they can take on the missionary is well-documented, as is the tendency for it to lead to adultery. In our own work in Senegal, the interest a visitor from a place like the UK or USA can generate among the local womenfolk can be bewildering to those of us unaccustomed to ever having been a “chick magnet.” Sending ANYONE entails facing these risks. Sending someone who has already fallen in this way is a mistake.
When queried on the nature of the standards set for missionaries Bart responded,
The key questions for applying scripture here are (a) do the qualifications for being an elder apply here, and (b) if not, should these qualifications be lower or higher than those in this area.
Lottie Moon’s existence suggests that Southern Baptists, at least, have concluded in the contrary as to the first point (i.e. we field female missionaries but not female pastors) and that we have concluded that not all of the qualifications for elders should be transferred to all missionaries. I agree with these Southern Baptist conclusions.
With that having been said, we have also found that even with an accompanying wife the temptations on the field are significant. We have also found that populations in other cultures can be very vulnerable to those with the financial position and social status of a missionary. In the area of sexual ethics, therefore, we examine missionaries far, far beyond the examination that our pastors receive.
A matter of protection and purity
The Scriptures qualifications for elders and deacons certainly at the very least call into question the wisdom of appointing and sending an adulterer to public and leading ministry (NB. all who are Christ’s have responsibility to minister and serve in appropriate ways). And yet there is also the Scriptural principle of being our brothers and sisters’ keepers, striving to protect for repeated damage and aid people in their desire to walk purely before God.
Bart Barber says,
There is a kindness found in refraining from the deliberate placement of a man in a situation that will test the limits of his resolve in areas in which he already bears the scars of past failure and injury. There is a kindness found in not leaving a spouse who has already suffered and survived great injury to explore the limits of her hope that her husband will behave himself in a missionary environment replete with temptations. There is a kindness found in not placing at the headwaters of a new church (I’m assuming that anything under the heading of “missions” is designed with the hope of starting new churches) the heightened risk of a scandal at the founding that could jeopardize the entire effort.
When asked by me whether it would be right to send someone who in the not so distant past was caught in an affair to the mission field, Jim Elliff, an experienced church planter and the founder and president of Christian Communicators Worldwide responded,
I would say “no” on the basis that long term adultery is indicative of an unconverted life. If he considers himself a new convert after that adultery is repented of, it would be far too soon even then to think of him taking leadership as a missionary since (at a minimum) he would be a new convert, who must not only evangelize, but congregationalise, appoint elders, set the churches in order, recruit new workers, etc. It’s a high authority position. If the church eventually considered him faithful but not missionary status, they could approve of him as a Christian worker, helping another missionary as needed, but without assuming authority and being fully under the missionary’s authority. But the church must be careful here to really know him and to watch over time to see if he is walking with God.
Former coordinator for the Middle East and Africa at HeartCry Missionary Society, Marc Glass expresses,
I would have a hard time endorsing a man in such a situation for the mission field. Having said that, I do see a scenario where someone who is repentant can be involved in mission work. However, I think it would take a significant amount of time and work at rebuilding trust, as well as the right scenario on the mission field where accountability is taken seriously. My major concern is that, in spite of having a lengthy affair, the man is going to the mission field on his own for lengthy periods. It’s dangerous for his soul as he’s setting himself up for the same sin in the future.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few” (Matthew 9.37)
Anyone serving in a lead role in Christian ministry will relate very much to this statement. That said, this does not excuse sending unqualified or disqualified people into lead service.
There are “few” laborers in the gospel “harvest,” not “no” laborers. While most pastors and missionaries I know feel quite stretched, God’s strength is evident in their weakness. While adding an unqualified or disqualified leader to a situation may give initial relief or help, in the long run it is a grave mistake, which, once made becomes much harder to fix.
In a day when sexual ethics have gone out the window and people’s rejection of truth rests heavily on “not wanting God to interfere in their romantic relationship,” finding qualified and trustworthy people to labour in leading can be difficult. It is not impossible, however. Trust God. Act rightly and with discipline. Follow God’s Word and the collective God-given wisdom of Christ-followers in submission to God’s Word. Belong and be established in the local church. If you have fallen, know that God forgives. Accept consequences. Strive for holiness “without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb 12:14). Grow in the traits of 2 Peter 1 “For if you practice these things you will never stumble.”
Do not commit adultery.
Regan King is the pastor of the Angel Church, in the Angel, Islington, area of London, England. He has lived on both sides of the Atlantic, growing up in Tumbling Shoals, AR. He travels regularly to teach, preach, and train others from the Bible and holds a degree in theological studies from Highland Theological College at the University of Highlands and Islands.