Article from Christianity Today, Inc./LEADERSHIP Journal Summer 1996.
Editor’s Introduction: Of all the articles Leadership has published, the following may be the most photocopied. We still get requests for it, eight years later, because the author offered specific, practical steps for handling a common and powerful temptation.
When we decided to reprint it, we asked Randy what has happened since the article first appeared. He writes: “I wasn’t prepared for the extent to which this article would strike a resonant chord among pastors and parachurch workers around the world. Professors distributed copies to students, missions organizations circulated it to their fields, pastors quoted sections from the pulpit, radio preachers read the list of immorality’s consequences.
“One pastor left this message on my answering machine: ‘Just wanted you to know that I was on the verge of committing adultery with a woman in my church when I read your booklet [based on the article]. God used it to get hold of me. I cut off the relationship and straightened out my life before tragedy struck. I just wanted to say thanks.’”
“Something terrible has happened.” The tense voice was my friend’s, calling from across the country. “Yesterday our pastor left his wife and ran off with another woman.”
I was sad, but not shocked or even surprised. Fifteen years ago I would have been shocked. Ten years ago I would have been surprised. But I’ve heard the same story too many times now ever to be surprised again.
I recently spoke on sexual purity at a Bible college. During that week, many students came for counseling, including three I’ll call Rachel, Barb, and Pam.
Rachel got right to the point: “My parents sent me to one of our pastors for counseling, and I ended up sleeping with him.” Later the same day, Barb, a church leader’s daughter, told me through tears, “My dad has had sex with me for years, and now he’s starting on my sisters.” The next evening I met with Pam. Her story? “I came to Bible college to get away from an affair with my pastor.”
For every well-known Christian television personality or author whose impropriety is widely publicized, there are any number of lesser-known pastors, Bible teachers, and parachurch workers who quietly resign or are fired for sexual immorality. Most of us can name several. The myth that ministers are morally invulnerable dies slowly, however, even in the face of overwhelming evidence. But there never has been a mystical antibody that makes us immune to sexual sin. Even those of us who haven’t fallen know how fierce is the struggle with temptation.
Furthermore, ministry brings with it serious built-in hazards, moral land mines that can destroy us, our families, and our churches. Among them: our position of influence and that strange blend of ego-feeding flattery and debilitating criticism, which can fill us with either pride or despair. As a result, our perspective can be warped, our resistance to temptation diminished. In addition, our endless tasks and the consequent disorienting fatigue can make us oblivious to what’s really happening to us.
I recall with embarrassment my naivete as a young pastor. Every time I heard the stories of Christian leaders falling into sexual sin, I thought, “It could never happen to me.”
What level of pride is required to believe that sexual sin could overtake Samson, David (“a man after God’s own heart”), Solomon, and a host of modern Christian leaders, but not me? Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 10 deserves a prominent place on our dashboards, desks, or Day-Timers: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.”
Fortunately, I wised up. The person who believes he or she will never be burglarized leaves doors and windows open and cash on top of the dresser. Likewise, the one who thinks the danger isn’t real invariably takes risks that wind up proving costly. I now live with the frightening but powerfully motivating knowledge that I could commit sexual immorality. I started taking precautions to keep it from happening to me.
Often those who fall into sexual sin can point back to lapses in their practices of meditation, worship, prayer, and the healthy self-examination such disciplines foster. All of us know this, but in the busyness of giving out, we can easily neglect the replenishing of our spiritual reservoirs.
Daily disciplines are important, of course, but I’ve found that for me they’re not enough. God gave Israel not merely one hour a day but one day a week, several weeks a year, and even one year every seven to break the pattern of life long enough to worship and reflect and take stock.
I periodically take overnight retreats by myself or with my wife. In times of greater need I’ve been away a week, usually in a cabin on the Oregon coast. This is not a vacation but a time in which the lack of immediate demands gives clarity to the still, small voice of God so easily drowned in the busyness of my daily life.
I find I must regularly evaluate my relationship with my wife. In particular, I watch for the red flags of discontentment, poor communication, and poor sexual relationship. We try to spend regular, uninterrupted time together to renew our spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and physical closeness.
Many Christian leaders move so freely and deeply in the world of great spiritual truths and activities that unless they take pains to communicate daily, their spouses get left out. This development of two separate worlds leads to two separate lives and is often the first step toward an adulterous affair with “someone who understands me and my world.”
Communication is key because every adultery begins with a deception, and most deceptions begin with seemingly innocent secrets, things “my spouse doesn’t need to know.”
At work, I surround myself with reminders of my spouse and children—pictures, drawings, and mementos. When traveling, I make contact with my wife as often as possible. If I’m struggling with temptation, I try to be honest and ask for prayer. Fierce loyalty to our spouses is also a key; I try to speak highly of my wife in public and never to downgrade her to others. And I’m careful not to discuss my marriage problems with anyone of the opposite sex.
Further, my wife and I avail ourselves of many of the good books, tapes, and seminars geared to improving marriage. When my wife and I went on a Marriage Encounter weekend, we were surprised to discover some differences in perspective that, if left unaddressed, could have caused problems down the road.
One pastor found his thoughts were continually drawn to a coworker, more so than to his wife. After months of rationalizing, he finally admitted to himself that he was looking for reasons to spend time with her. Then his rule of thumb became: I will meet with her only when necessary, only as long as necessary, only at the office, and with others present as much as possible. In time, his relationship with her returned to its original, healthy, coworker status.
The questions with which I check myself:
Do I look forward in a special way to appointments with this person? Would I rather see her than my wife? Do I seek to meet with her away from my office in a more casual environment? Do I prefer that my coworkers not know I’m meeting with her again?
An affirmative answer to any of these questions is, for me, a warning light.
There’s a mystique about spiritual ministry that some people find attractive. Their attitude toward the pastor can border on infatuation. It’s flattering for a male pastor, who perhaps is nursing fresh wounds from the last board meeting, to receive attention from an attractive woman who obviously admires him and hangs on his every word. (The deacons jumped on his every word.) Often the woman’s husband is spiritually dead or weak. Finding him unworthy of her respect, she transfers her affection to this wonderfully spiritual man, her pastor. This is usually unconscious and therefore all the more dangerous.
She may send notes of appreciation or small gifts; he may reciprocate. Expressions of affection may inch beyond the healthy brother-sister variety. The hands are held tightly in prayer; the arm lingers a bit longer on the shoulder; the embraces become frequent.
All this seems harmless enough, but a subtle, powerful process of soul merger can occur. If things are not good on the home front, the pastor will, consciously or unconsciously, compare this woman to his wife, who may be noticeably unappreciative and uninfatuated with him. This comparison is deadly and, unless it’s stopped, can lead into covert romantic affection, which often leads to adultery.
A relationship can be sexual long before it becomes erotic. Just because I’m not touching a woman, or just because I’m not envisioning specific erotic encounters, does not mean I’m not becoming sexually involved with her. The erotic is usually not the beginning but the culmination of sexual attraction. Most pastors who end up in bed with a woman do it not just to gratify a sexual urge, but because they believe they’ve begun to really love her.
I once casually asked a woman about her obvious interest in a married man with whom she worked. “We’re just friends,” she responded with a defensiveness that indicated they weren’t. “It’s purely platonic, nothing sexual at all.” In a matter of months, however, the two friends found themselves sneaking off to be with each other, and finally their “friendship” developed into an affair that destroyed both of their marriages.
Lust isn’t just unbridled passion. Even when it’s “bridled” it may lead us down a path that our conscience could not have condoned had we experienced it in a more obvious, wanton way. Thus, our enemies are not only lascivious thoughts of sex but “innocuous” feelings of infatuation as well.
When meeting a woman for our third counseling appointment, I became aware that she was interested in me personally. What was more frightening was that I realized I had subconsciously sensed this before but had enjoyed her attraction too much to address the problem. Though I wasn’t yet emotionally involved or giving her inappropriate attention, I wasn’t deflecting hers toward me, either, and was thereby inviting it.
I felt tempted to dismiss the matter as unimportant, “knowing” I would never get involved with her. Fortunately, when God prompted me, I knew I was no longer the right person to meet with her. I made other counseling arrangements for her.
Often we justify our flirtations with logical, even spiritual, rationalizations. One pastor didn’t tell his wife about his frequent meetings with a particular woman on the grounds he shouldn’t violate confidentialities, even to his wife. Besides, he sensed his wife would be jealous (without good reason, of course), so why upset her? Under the cloak of professionalism and sensitivity to his wife, he proceeded to meet with this woman secretly. The result was predictable.
Another pastor had been struggling with lustful thoughts toward a college girl in his church. Rather than dealing with his struggles alone with the Lord, with a mature brother, or with his wife, he took the girl out to lunch to talk with her. Citing the biblical mandate to confess our sins and make things right with the person we’ve wronged, he told her, “I’ve been having lustful thoughts about you, and I felt I needed to confess them to you.” Embarrassed but flattered, the girl began to entertain her own thoughts toward him, and finally they became sexually involved.
All this came from what the pastor told himself was a spiritual and obedient decision to meet with the girl. To misuse Scripture in this way and violate wisdom and common sense shows how cloudy and undependable our thinking can become.
Perhaps nowhere is more said and less done than in the area of accountability. From talking with Christian leaders, I’ve come to understand that the more prominent they become, the more they need accountability and the less they get it. As a church grows, often the pastors come to know many people but on a shallower level, and those around them think, Who am I to ask him if this is a wise choice he’s making?
Many pastors in small churches also feel isolated, and even those in large churches with multiple staff members are usually Lone Rangers (without a Tonto) when it comes to facing their moral struggles.
For several years now we have committed the first two hours of our weekly all-day staff meeting to discussing personal “sufferings and rejoicings” (1 Cor. 12:26), telling each other the state of our spiritual lives, and seeking and offering prayer and advice. We make sure no one is left out. We ask “How are you doing?” and if the answers are vague or something seems wrong, we probe deeper.
At first, this felt risky. It involved entrusting our reputations to others and opening ourselves to their honest investigation. But what actually results is usually positive encouragement. The risks, we found, are small compared to the rewards. Unlike many pastors, we don’t feel alone in the ministry. We know each other’s imperfections, and we have nothing to prove to each other.
Pastors without other staff can find a lay person or two or a nearby pastor who will love them as they are and regularly ask the questions of accountability. What questions are those? Usually the questions we least want to answer. And Howard Hendricks suggests that after all the hard questions are asked, the final question should be, “In your answers to any of the previous questions, did you lie?”
This kind of accountability can produce amazing results. Once I was undergoing a time of strong sexual temptation, and finally I called a friend with whom I was having breakfast the next day. I said, “Please pray for me, and ask me tomorrow morning what I did.” He agreed, and the moment I put down the phone the temptation was gone. Why? I’d like to say it was because I’m so spiritual, but the truth is there was no way I was going to face my friend the next morning and have to tell him I had sinned.
A battering ram may hit a fortress gate a thousand times, and no one time seems to have an effect, yet finally the gate caves in. Likewise, immorality is the cumulative product of small mental indulgences and minuscule compromises, the immediate consequences of which were, at the time, indiscernible.
Our thoughts are the fabric with which we weave our character and destiny. No, we can’t avoid all sexual stimuli, but in Martin Luther’s terms, “You can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can keep them from making a nest in your hair.”
I like to put it another way: “If you’re on a diet, don’t go into a doughnut shop.” For me this means such practical things as staying away from the magazine racks, video stores, advertisements, programs, images, people, and places that tempt me to lust.
One man who travels extensively told me about a practice that has helped to guard his mind from immorality. “Whenever I check into my hotel,” he said, “where I normally stay for three or four days, I ask them at the front desk to please remove the television from my room. Invariably they look at me like I’m crazy, and then they say, ‘But sir, if you don’t want to watch it, you don’t have to turn it on.’ Since I’m a paying customer, however, I politely insist, and I’ve never once been refused.
“The point is, I know that in my weak and lonely moments late in the evening, I’ll be tempted to watch the immoral movies that are only one push of a button away. In the past I’ve succumbed to that temptation over and over, but not anymore. Having the television removed in my stronger moments has been my way of saying, ‘I’m serious about this, Lord,’ and it’s been the key to victory in my battle against impurity.”
I met with a man who had been a leader in a Christian organization until he fell into immorality. I asked him, “What could have been done to prevent this?”
He paused for only a moment, then said with haunting pain and precision, “If only I had really known, really thought through, what it would cost me and my family and my Lord, I honestly believe I never would have done it.”
In the wake of several Christian leaders’ falling into immorality, a co-pastor and I developed a list of specific consequences that would result from our immorality. The list (see article, “The Real and Untold Cost”) was devastating, and to us it spoke more powerfully than any sermon on the subject.
Periodically, especially when traveling or in a time of weakness, we read through the list. In a tangible and personal way, it brings home God’s inviolate law of choice and consequence, cutting through the fog of rationalization and filling our hearts with the healthy, motivating fear of God.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s book, The Hobbit, there was no one seemingly more invincible than Smaug, the mighty dragon. But then that unlikely hero, Bilbo Baggins, found one small weak spot in Smaug’s underbelly. That information, in the hands of a skilled marksman, was all it took to seal the doom of the presumptuous dragon. Unaware of his weakness and underestimating his opponents, Smaug failed to protect himself. An arrow pierced his heart, and the dragon was felled.
An exciting story with a happy ending. But when it’s a Christian leader felled, the ending is not so happy. It’s tragic. The Evil One knows only too well the weak spots of the most mighty Christian warriors, not to mention the rest of us. He isn’t one to waste his arrows, bouncing them harmlessly off the strongest plates of our spiritual armor. His aim is deadly, and it is at our points of greatest vulnerability that he will most certainly attack.
We are in battle—a battle far more fierce and strategic than any Alexander, Hannibal, or Napoleon ever fought. We must realize that no one prepares for a battle of which he is unaware, and no one wins a battle for which he doesn’t prepare.
As we hear of Christian leaders succumbing to immorality, we must not say merely, “There, but for the grace of God, I might have gone,” but rather, “There, but for the grace of God—and but for my alertness and diligence in the spiritual battle—I may yet go.”For resources on this subject, see Randy’s book The Purity Principle and booklet Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle.
Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.