The Sacred Trust of Pastors and Christian Leaders: Accountability and Consequences for Sexual Abuse

Recently a well-known writer and speaker at writer’s conferences, who was also a long-time Christian university professor, was found to have had a decades-long history of attempting to seduce young women. Over twenty-some women have come forward, independently telling similar tales. The university has now dismissed him, admitting there were three cases reported to them for which he was warned and disciplined. Sadly, however, he remained a professor and continued to speak at conferences, where he also continued his immoral behavior.

One of the most prominent pastors in the country, from one of the most prominent churches has had numerous women come forward accusing him of sexual advances going back many years. The entire board and most of the pastoral staff have resigned, some of them due to realizing they had defended the pastor and discredited the victims and hence disqualified themselves. Last I heard the pastor was still denying he’d done anything wrong, despite the testimonies of all the women, including highly credible people in the church ministry. If these things had been taken seriously and investigated from the beginning, the outcome could have been very different, and a great deal of the harm to victims could have been prevented.

Tragically, this is nothing new. The evangelical landscape is littered with the carcasses of lives and ministries decimated by sexual sin. For every well-known Christian television personality or evangelical leader who commits sexual immorality, there are any number of lesser-known local pastors, Bible teachers, and parachurch workers who quietly resign or are fired for the same. Most of us can name several, some dozens, and some many more. Three Christian leaders I know of sat down together and between them came up with a list of 250 names.

Recently a Portland church issued a statement about their senior pastor being dismissed for adultery, and when confronted, he admitted there had been previous adulterous relationships. I appreciate the final sentence from this church’s elders: “We grieve the shame this brings to the Gospel and the sorrow it brings to God’s people.”

I’m personally glad for the women standing up against abuse in Hollywood. It is also desperately needed in the church, which should be leading the way in helping and protecting the vulnerable and abused. Before the Church can say anything to the world, she who is intended to be the spotless bride of Christ must look to herself. “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God” (1 Peter 4:17).

Ministry is not just a task. It is a sacred trust between the under-shepherd and the flock that has been entrusted to him by God. To misuse and violate that trust to achieve sexual conquest, or even emotional dependence, is a particularly deplorable behavior. Every time a Christian leader’s sexual sin is passed off as “an unfortunate indiscretion that came at a vulnerable point in his life,” responsibility is avoided or denied, and others—especially the members in the local church—are taught that emotional needs and inadequacies justify immoral entanglement.

Even the secular counseling profession considers it the highest breach of ethics to enter into a romantic and/or sexual relationship with a client. Indeed, sexual involvement with one who has come to seek emotional help or spiritual guidance should not only be considered fornication or adultery—it should be considered sexual abuse.

Sexual activity that comes out of a ministry context is comparable to child sexual abuse, where the supposedly mature and stable adult figure takes advantage of his or her authority and credibility to initiate or allow a sexual encounter with the immature and vulnerable. In such cases, the person in ministry is not a victim but a predator. And it is all the worse because we are trusted representatives of Christ.

Pastors desperately need clear guidelines when it comes to purity and integrity. (My booklet Sexual Temptation was specifically written to help those in ministry to avoid and resist sexual temptation.) I believe that if we would rehearse in advance the ugly and overwhelming consequences of immorality, we would be far more prone to avoid it. (See my blog post on Counting the Cost of Sexual Immorality.)

If Abuse Does Occur

When abuse happens or is revealed, there needs to be a clear, deliberate response. When children are involved, this must include reporting to the appropriate authorities.

I know of pastors guilty of immorality who’ve been quietly dismissed or who have resigned from one church (everyone wanted to avoid a scandal), only to reappear at another church that was totally ignorant of their previous track record. Too often they repeat their sins, largely because they’ve been protected from sin’s full consequences and never been helped to overcome their problem.

Such an attempt to guard a leader’s reputation amounts to an irresponsible endorsement of a man whose moral vulnerability should have required his stepping down from ministry, at least for a significant season, and in many cases permanently, when the underlying issues have not been sufficiently acknowledged and repented of, and the damage is such that people’s trust cannot be regained. The leader, his family, his church, and his Lord’s reputation all suffer when sin is covered up.

Many churches have been guilty of not doing due diligence by hiring a pastor without thoroughly interviewing those in authority over that person in their previous ministry. If the only references consulted are those a candidate lists, who typically will be ignorant of or unwilling to divulge his moral track record, then church leadership fails both Christ and their congregation. It is unconscionable to hire a man without first diligently investigating his past, interviewing knowledgeable people with direct and pointed questions about any history of accusations of sexual impropriety. These conversations should always take place with those he worked with and under in his previous church.

Countless churches have hired a pastor who ends up in immorality, only to find out that he had been guilty of the same in his previous church, which they had failed to ask about his character, morality and reputation.  To not do so in our current moral climate is irresponsible in the extreme.

Those in positions of leadership are particularly subject to public discipline: “Those, [elders] who sin are to be rebuked publicly, so that the others may take warning” (1 Timothy 5:20). The goal of all Church discipline is always restoration, not reprisal. But as I’ve blogged about before, that certainly does not automatically mean restoration to a position of authority. Jonathan Leeman says this in his article Why repentant pastors should be forgiven but not restored to the pulpit:

To “forgive” a pastor means we don’t personally hold his sin against him and that we restore him to his office of church member. If he is repentant, he meets the qualification of membership.

That doesn’t mean we should restore him to the office of pastor. Our forgiveness does not mean he magically meets those qualifications. His life, quite simply, is not above reproach.

Church members inevitably begin to think that sexually immoral acts must not be a big deal if a “man of God” can be restored to his position of leadership without much more than a slap of the hand (and in some cases, a paid leave of absence). This only perpetuates the problem, and makes people laugh at the church for its hypocrisy in claiming a higher standard than the world (whereas a public school teacher dismissed for sexual impropriety is unlikely to ever be given a second chance). 

The church needs to discover ways to demonstrate greater grace and forgiveness than the world, and also a higher commitment to truth and the sort of integrity that engenders trust in its leaders. (See also Ed Stetzer’s article The Moral of Moral Failings of Christian Leaders, and David Murray’s article Why Do Churches Cover Up Sin?)

One reminder: we who are not directly involved in abuse situations must be careful in not assuming that everyone accused is automatically guilty, as I share in this blog post. It’s true there is always danger of false accusations being made. However, accusations should never be automatically dismissed. Rather, they should be carefully investigated with fairness and integrity. We should be quick to speak up for children and innocent people.

In cases of adultery, the primary responsibility and consequences should be placed on the Christian leader, the one in the power position, while never condoning the sin of their partner in adultery. The misuse of the leader’s power is always, to one degree or another, a form of sexual abuse.

Sexual TemptationFor more on purity, see Randy's book The Purity Principle and his booklet Sexual Temptation: Establishing Guardrails and Winning the Battle.

See also EPM's free resources on purity.

Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries