The Adultery Epidemic: A Pastoral Perspective

One of the great disgraces of the Christian Church today is that one of the most evil and destructive sins both in society & in the Church, has become a plague in the ministry as well. This is the sin of sexual immorality or adultery. It is a sin which has made the ministry into a mockery. While Christians disapprove of this sin, and actually speak against it, the loathsomeness of it as a sin is not appreciated. I say this because of the way pastors and elders guilty of this sin are treated in most churches. There is some temporary discipline, generally accompanied by acceptable levels of sorrow & shame. Then everyone tries to work to restore the man’s “ministry”. I believe that the Scriptures present a different view and different discipline. I also believe that the Scriptures teach us how this hideous sin can be more vigilantly guarded against. When I say hideous, let me explain. This is a sin that tears apart the innocent partner in a marriage. When it occurs in the ministry, the wife of the pastor is not only torn apart, but torn apart publicly. In this paper, it is the guarding against such a sin, that I am most concerned about. The purpose of this article is to show that this sin can be guarded against if we observe certain principles.

Let me begin with an overarching principle, which allows NO alteration. “If you are in the ministry, there is no adultery. If there is adultery, you are out of the ministry”.

Perhaps the main reason that this sin is so rampant in the ministry is because of how insubstantially this principle is considered and taken seriously, and how carelessly elders are often selected. How many churches really take the requirements for the Eldership seriously? I can’t look at all of these requirements in the scope of this article, but three in particular are relevant to this sin. The first of these is that the elder is to be “the husband of one wife” (1Tim 3:2). The literal translation of these words is that the elder is a “one woman man”. The elder, when understood this way, is not just a man who only has one wife. What kind of high level requirement is that? Are we to suggest that other members of the congregation may have more than one wife? Or that this requirement was only a safeguard against the polygamy of the cultures into which the gospel was moving? I believe it is far more positive a requirement than that. It is not a reaction against the culture. It is a positive statement of how a godly man is to view his wife and his marriage. He is a man who is devoted and dedicated to his wife. This passage also does not teach that the elder is to be a “one woman man” only if he is married. It is a requirement that the candidate for the eldership is a married man who has proven himself as a husband, in his devotion to his wife. He loves her deeply.

When your Church considers a man for the Eldership, has the Board of Elders (a Session in Presbyterian churches) of your Church ever interviewed the wife as well? In our congregation, the elders interview the wife not only to see that there is a devoted marriage, but also to make sure that she is an equally spiritual woman on a par with her husband. This is the requirement of 1Tim 3:12 which says “in the same way their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers, temperate, trustworthy in everything”. Calvin says of this verse “he means the wives both of deacons and elders, for they must be aids to their husbands in their office, which cannot be, unless their behavior excel that of others”. Calvin, as usual, got it right. The elder and his wife are in a deep partnership that obviously exists in the ministry as well as every other area of their lives. Our wives were given to help us (Genesis 2:20). If there is one place that we need help, it is with the problems of the ministry. The only way to get adequate help, is from a spiritual wife. If the Board of elders in the churches took time to really examine the spiritual depth of the man who has been set forward and his wife and the two of them together, many potentially explosive sexual snares could be avoided because you would know that a certain man just doesn’t fulfill the requirement in regards to his marriage.

Now to the next problem. I do not believe that most men in the ministry believe for a minute that adultery rules them out permanently. I do. Here’s why. The Scriptures teach, as we have seen, that the elder must be a “one woman man”. If he commits adultery, he is not a one woman man. He is a two or three or four, etc woman man. That man cannot be in the ministry. Also, his adultery disqualifies him for yet another reason. The lone requirement preceding his being a “one woman man”, and the second requirement that we are going to look at, is that he is to be “above reproach”. That is, he is to be “blameless”. That means “without blame”. Whatever else may or may not be included in this requirement one thing is clear. Once a pastor has committed adultery, he will never again be above reproach, “without blame”. He may be above reproach from that point on, but he will never be “above reproach”. In fact, there is nothing more reproachable, than an adulterer. He has broken the most solemn and sacred human covenant that human-beings enter. He is a man whose own wife will never again fully trust him (how can she?). How can a congregation have this man as their spiritual leader. He has lied and betrayed his wife. He is an untrustworthy and reproachable man. He may, if he repents be forgiven. He may be restored in his marriage, if his wife chooses to remain with an adulterer. But he cannot be returned to office.

I believe that if the Church took this requirement more seriously, men would think twice about committing adultery. This isn’t something that “happens” to a man. This is a deliberate choice he has made. His life may be difficult, but it doesn’t mean that he is a victim of his own adultery. Even taking full responsibility for his sin, doesn’t remove the consequences. He may lose his marriage. He has lost his ministry.

Let me deal with a third requirement for the ministry that is also relevant to this issue. The pastor/elder is to be “self-controlled”. This requirement means that the elder is to be “in control of himself”. We all know that there are temptations out there. We all know that the pastor is a target for such temptations. What is to separate the pastor from others, is that he is to demonstrate “self-control”. If he commits adultery, he has demonstrated that he does not possess this requirement, and must be excluded from the ministry. Our people need to learn not only that all sin, even adultery, can be forgiven. They need to learn that it is really possible to stand against the temptations of our age. They need, above all else, to have models of this behavior in their pastors & elders.

Isn’t it time for the Church to take the moral high ground in dealing with sexual sin? What do we think it means when the Scriptures teach “if a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10)? How can we minimize the wisdom literature which teaches that “a man who commits adultery lacks judgment. Whoever does so, destroys himself” (Proverbs 6:32). Are we to have leaders in the Church who lack judgment? And yet again “among the prophets of Jerusalem I have seen something horrible. They commit adultery and live a lie” (Jeremiah 23:14).

Here Jeremiah condemns the spiritual leaders for their adultery & living a lie. Honesty demands dealing with this sin squarely. In the New Testament, Paul gives a special place of notoriety to adultery when he says in 1 Corintians 6:18 that the people of God must “flee sexual immorality (adultery). All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually, sins against his own body”. In marriage, the two are one (Genesis 2:24; Ephesians 5:31). In adultery, the deepest possible sin against that oneness has taken place. The Church must, when the pastor or one of the elders sins in such a manner, make it clear that he is excluded permanently from ordained ministry in the Church. This can bring a healthy fear of God into the hearts of the people, and into the hearts of other elders. It does no good for anyone, when after a particular pastor commits adultery and is restored to the ministry, to try & justify the exclusion of any other pastor or elder. The standard will inevitably in that case, be to allow a lowered standard for the Church. This is of-course, precisely what we see in the Church. A reproach-filled ministry. Men who are substandard, preaching a tolerance that is big enough to embrace their own sin. This is no good. Let’s start cultivating elders who are men (who along with their wives) meet the requirements of the eldership. We’ve all heard of preventive medicine. This is preventive eldership. It’s also called godliness.

A final word: Men who do not commit adultery have not fulfilled this requirement for the eldership of being a one woman man. The requirement is for the elder to be a one woman man. He is to be a man whose love for his wife is passionate & exclusive. These kind of men (more rare than we think) will bring a higher standard to the Christian Church and the Christian ministry. They will bring the standard of the Scriptures.

Copyright © 2000 Ligonier Ministries-Tabletalk Magazine