Sunday, June 30, 2013

No Restoration To Ministry For Pastors Who Commit Adultery

A pastor who commits adultery should never be allowed back in the pulpit. The ban must be permanent and absolute. If he repents he should be restored to Christian communion but not to Christian leadership.

Most evangelicals disagree with me about that. According to a recent article in Christianity Today, "Almost all evangelical Christian leaders, including denominational heads, agree that a pastor guilty of adultery can be restored to a pastoral position...Only 5 percent said that adultery would disqualify one from ever holding another pastoral position."

Really? Only five percent? So if I'm in a room with 19 evangelical leaders they're all on one side and I'm alone on the other? You might think that the pressure of their numbers would weaken my conviction and make me want to change my vote. But no, I'm digging in my heels. Like Athanasius contra mundum ("against the world"), I will make my case against nearly unanimous opposition. Here goes.

I have noticed that whenever evangelicals defend restoring adulterers to the ministry they always frame the issue in terms of grace. That is, they connect such restoration to the biblical doctrine that anyone can be forgiven in Christ. For example, Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, says, "Evangelical leaders are adamant that the grace of God extends even to ministry leaders who commit adultery." Anderson implies it's a matter of how far we think God's grace can reach. If we don't believe adulterers should lead churches, it's because we don't think God's grace can stretch far enough to cover marital unfaithfulness.

Megachurch pastor John Jenkins agrees: "The gospel's aim is to restore. Pastors should not be exempted from that same grace." Again, grace is the deciding factor. If you are against bringing adulterous pastors back to the pulpit, you must be against gospel grace. Maybe you believe in it generally, but you make an unwarranted exception when it comes to frisky ministers.

Berten Waggoner, National Director of Vineyard USA, goes even further: "There is no sin that a person, including pastors, cannot be both forgiven of and restored in every way. This is the message of grace and the hope of resurrection life." That is an example of a preacher getting so carried away with his own rhetoric that he winds up spouting bilge. Restored in every way? Oh no, absolutely not. Would you restore freedom of movement and a gun license to a serial killer? Restore Bernie Madoff to the position of hedge fund manager? Restore a pedophile to his former job of babysitting? Orthodox Christians have always believed that killers and thieves and rapists can be forgiven and share in the hope of eternal life, but this has nothing to do with their restoration to former liberties and responsibilities in this life. Here, they may still have to suffer imprisonment without parole or death by lethal injection. That is as it should be.

Though Christians who defend restoring randy reverends tend to frame the issue in terms of gospel grace, I think it can be shown by a simple thought experiment that grace is not the issue at all. Restoration proponents can be induced to discard their grace rhetoric in a heartbeat, I think, with very little prodding. The real issue is the severity of the sin. That's the crux. In other words, Anderson, Jenkins and Waggoner do not disagree with me about the doctrine of grace - they disagree with me about how bad adultery is. The real ground upon which this debate must be fought is not, "Can God forgive sinners?" but, "How evil is adultery?"

Here is the thought experiment. Replace the sin of adultery with a sin that you find spectacularly heinous and repulsive, and see if you still favor a full restoration to the ministry. Suppose the pastor regularly exhumed corpses from the graveyard and sexually violated them. Or suppose he kidnapped small children, starved them, maimed them, and made them believe that their parents were dead. Or suppose he framed minority men for crimes he had committed himself so that they would spend years in prison away from their families. Would you ever want such a man pastoring your church again? Of course not. But not because you doubt the power of God's grace. God's grace can redeem reprobate sinners whom we regard as hopeless. But while foul fiends of darkness can be miraculously saved, we still don't want them tucking in our kids at night.

So the question is not, "Should we show godly grace to adulterous ministers?" but, "How bad is adultery?" Do this: rank sin on a scale from 1 to 10, where "1" is being a little grumpy this morning because you haven't had your coffee, and "10" is being a chainsaw-wielding cannibal rapist Nazi pimp. Where on that scale do you put adultery? I think that Anderson, Jenkins, Waggoner et al put it at about a 3 - "Kind of bad, yes, but we can work around it." I put it at a 7 - "Disqualifyingly evil, an egregious act of selfishness and rebellion that disregards all others and thrusts a middle finger in the face of God. So no more pulpit for you, you adulterous dirtbag."

Here are five reasons why I think adultery is really, really, really bad - especially for a minister of the gospel.

(1) The Old Testament penalty for adultery was death (Leviticus 20:10). Not, "Sacrifice a lamb to atone for your sin and make fair restitution to all whom you have wronged," but, "You don't get to live any more. Not even if you're really really really sorry and promise to undergo counseling and not do it again. Die."

(2) The New Testament penalty is far more severe. In the Old Testament adulterers were merely executed, but in the New Testament they go to hell. Believe it or not, the Old Testament says nothing about the damnation of maritally unfaithful people, but the New Testament talks about it quite a bit. 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 says that adulterers will not inherit the kingdom of God. Galatians 5:19-21 also says that they will not inherit the kingdom of God. Ephesians 5:5 says that they have no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Hebrews 13:4 says that God will judge adulterers. Revelation 21:8 specifies how he will judge them: they will be among those "consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur."

That's why I have never had a problem telling an unrepentant adulterer, "You're going to hell." Yes, I would say this to a pastor. Especially to a pastor, because James 3:1 says that preachers will be judged more severely than normal people.

Can adulterers be forgiven and go to heaven some day? Yes, but they must repent. In the 1 Corinthians 6 passage above St. Paul says, "Such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God" (verse 11). Thank God for the hope of forgiveness. But lest we forget how seriously God takes adultery, let us reflect soberly on the fact that the Bible commands execution for it in the Old Testament and warns of hellfire in the New. This is a bad sin.

(3) Adultery is always connected to deception - massive, massive amounts of deception. I can imagine an honest man losing his temper or succumbing to envy or even getting drunk - but I can't imagine any honest man carrying on an extra-marital affair. He's got to lie constantly. ("Why were you late tonight honey?" "Oh, I had to, umm, go to WalMart to get some...socks. But they didn't have the kind I wanted.") I am on record as saying that ministers must never lie (see the blog entry for September 10, 2006). Adulterers lie to everybody while they're cheating on their spouses. Sneaky lying devious bastards have no place in the pulpit, where everything depends on the earnest proclamation of gospel truth. If someone were to say, "Pastor So-and-So is a real man of integrity - he just happened to cheat on his wife," I'd respond, "Please don't be naive. The man is a liar to the core. And while the caldron of deception boiling in his heart erupted to the surface in the matter of infidelity, you can be sure it has erupted in many other places that you don't know about." Not all liars are adulterers, but all adulterers are liars. Keep those wolves out of the pulpit.

(4) What about the woman?

This is a question I always have, and have never once seen answered, in all the cases I have ever known of ministers restored after extra-marital affairs. Whatever happened to the woman he cheated with? Did her marriage break up? Did her husband start drinking? Are her kids now seeing their dad every other weekend? Do they hate the church? Did she renounce her faith? Did she, disillusioned and broken-hearted, move on to multiple affairs? Had she been close to following Christ, but now, associating him with a nasty part of her life, stays away from religion entirely? Does she distrust all preachers? Did she take her life? Did anybody think of restoring her?

The collateral damage wrought by a cheating minister is beyond calculation. He ruins people's lives, and many of those lives stay ruined.

(5) Adultery can only spring from a thoroughly corrupt heart. We all sin in various ways, and some of us fall into some sins very quickly - like when St. Peter, intending to remain faithful to Christ, realized on the night before the crucifixion that he too was in danger of being slowly tortured to death and blurted out, "I don't know him! I don't know him!" But adultery does not pop out of nowhere like that. I cannot imagine a man who regularly says his prayers, reads his Bible, walks humbly with his God, treats his wife lovingly, manages his kids with tenderness and discipline - but suddenly one night goes to bed with another woman. I deny that that is possible. A man must first walk down a long, long road of corruption, deception, narcissism, indiscipline, hypocrisy, and contemptuous disregard for all others before he could do such a thing. And all that time this beast has been shepherding a flock? That is an act too revolting to countenance. It is not to be borne.

So let the ban be permanent and absolute. Send a message of righteous fear to all wavering pastors that if they fall off this cliff, there will be no putting back the pieces and going on as before. And send a message to the world that we don't tolerate shenanigans among our clergy. Lance Armstrong will never race again in the Tour de France. Pete Rose is permanently banned from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Charles Manson will not get paroled. And cheating ministers must never be allowed in the pulpit again.


  1. Very clearly written and well argued article - the best I have read on the internet. I have been wrestling with this one. A visiting speaker (and a spiritual father to our Pastor) at our church committed adultery twice whilst a pastor. He was restored to ministry after about 18 years.

    He is certainly a very powerful speaker and a charismatic (small c) personality, and I can see why a church may want his teaching and gifts, but were they wise to restore him?

    What really disturbed me was that after the service, he spent most of his time chatting to much younger, and pretty women, to one of whom he gave a very long, affectionate hug.

    I was left feeling that this is a very creepy guy who has either wormed his way back into influence - a very calculating, serial adulterer, a male version of the Jezebel mentioned in Revelation chapter 2, or here is someone who is falling back into temptation now that he has power, influence and admiration from lots of people and he needs to watch himself. The people in my church would probably be oblivious to the issues I had.

    You are right in saying that adulterous affairs involve a lengthy period of calculated deceit. They are not to be compared with (say) Peter's denial of Christ.

  2. I want to thank you for your courage. I have the same sentiments. We are living in a day and age when so-called 'professing believers' think it is purely 'ok' to allow a pastor to continue preaching after being caught in any type of sin. God is merciful and he will forgive; however, I believe that someone in pastoral title must step down and sit in the congregation. His/Her sins will always blemish the church and their messages will never have power. I know several churches that allow pastors to be in the pulpit with full knowledge of them being 'On the Down Low' and in adultery. I have seen this behavior most prevalent in African American Congregations. I witnessed this as a child more than 50 years ago and it has continued. I have relatives that attend these types of churches. I have gone to churches that will not tolerate this. How can we be Light in a day when there is so much Darkness? We must be on our knees and pray that we live a life that will lead people to Christ. There are people outside of the church who don't believe that they have the power to overcome. These type of ministers are emissaries of the devil and only cause people that have perish.