Sexual misconduct in ministry: A biblical sketch of pastoral identity

Sexual misconduct in ministry: A biblical sketch of pastoral identity (Part 1)

Part 1 of a six-part series dealing with sexual sin in ministers.

Miroslav M. Kis, Ph.D., professor of ethics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

One Sabbath morning, as we prepared for worship, the church elders asked me about the subject of my sermon for that day.

"Sex," I replied.

The elders looked at each other, then at me, then again at each other. Finally, one of them worried aloud, "We don't have a song in our hymnal to go with that topic." "Too bad," I quipped. "Right in the heart of the Bible there is one." The elders' immediate problem seemed to be finding a suitable song for my sermon. Their shock, of course, betrayed a larger issue: the subject itself.

I'll admit that they had several good reasons for their consternation. First, a sermon is a solemn public event, but my subject was sex, a matter of intimate privacy.

Second, the media and society in general speak, write, paint, film, photo graph, and expose nudity and sex with surprising shamelessness. This is what the elders were concerned about. It was not that they were necessarily prudish about sexuality itself.

Adam and Eve were naked and yet they "were not ashamed" (Gen. 2:25).

But there is a highly significant difference between "not being ashamed" of sex (e.g., in the presence of one's spouse, and in the privacy of one's home) and being "shameless" about it.

Sex was and is sacred. It lies at the heart of God's life-giving creative action. Central to its function is its God given, virtually miraculous capacity to reproduce life. Thus it is not difficult to see that it is an insult to human dignity and even to human identity when we treat it with carelessness and profanity in the public square. The elders' unspoken question was, Will this visiting preacher use the pulpit to speak of sex shamelessly? I assured the uneasy elders that I would not do that; but I also told them of the greater risk of, by default, leaving such sacred matters simply to the secular media of our culture, or worse, to the "Playboy" ideologies of our time, who purposefully omit any connection between human sexuality and God, the One who pronounced His crowning creative act, "very good" (Gen. 1:31).

During the last hymn the head elder leaned over to thank me for addressing this issue "in good taste." In this, and in the essays that follow, we intend to discuss the subject of sexual sin in ministry and, of necessity, to look at sexuality and sex.

As we do this, it is crucial that we speak candidly and openly, yet with discretion and refinement. Every aspect of the issue and every person involved in or affected by adultery or fornication deserves our Christian love and respect, no matter on which side of the "guilty line" they find themselves, and no matter how heinous their sin may be. This is the only way Jesus Himself would want us to proceed and the best way to avoid hypocrisy.

The series consists of six parts, featured every other month: (a) a sketch of pastoral ministry in the Bible; (b) sexuality, sex, and sexual sin in the Bible; (c) ministers' sexual sin in the Bible; (d) how sexual sin occurs; (e) the impact of a minister's adultery or fornication; and (f) the redemptive response of the church. The series will conclude with some recommendations.


Because sexuality involves the entire human being (1 Cor. 6:18) and because several disciplines contribute to our understanding of it, it may be helpful to define some terms.

We choose to follow the example of many others by using the pronoun he when referring to the pastor who finds himself involved in sexual sin. The primary reason for this is that statistics show that male ministers are far more likely to find themselves in sexually related predicaments than their female counterparts,1 and a secondary reason is to accommodate simplicity in writing on such a complex issue.

Libido. A term meaning psychic energy mostly sexual in nature. It functions as a motivating force, as a life instinct opposing the fear of death (Freud). It is "the totality of mental energy at the disposal of Eros, the instinct of love."2

Sublimation. A capacity to transform sexual drive by shifting it to other channels and forms of expression. Paul's sense of calling and his burden for the preaching of the gospel consumed all the energies of his being (1 Cor. 7:7). Arts, humanitarian work, monastic devotion, and caring for the needs of an immediate family have proven capable of sublimating sexual drive in many otherwise healthy individuals.

The other woman refers to the sexual partner involved in adultery or fornication.

The other man refers to the husband of the other woman.

Playboy ideology. A view of sexuality characterized by: (a) the claim that sexuality is a physical/physiological function of the body with little significant connection to other dimensions of human being; (b) the insistence that the sexual act is the sole venue available for expressing one's sexuality; (c) the contention that imposing boundaries on sexual activities hamper the healthy development of human personality; and (d) the portrayal of women as sex objects useful for the satisfaction of sexual needs and fantasies.

Injured parties. God, members of the families, church, and community affected by an adulterous affair.

Pastoral identity

To begin with, in attempting to capture the biblical concept of ministry with human sexuality as a backdrop, we will pursue a two-pronged approach. First, we will survey some biblical images dealing with pastoral identity. Then we will examine the roles and functions inherent in that identity and required today by a biblical view of ministry.

Scripture uses several images for the pastor, each defining in its own unique way the ministry and the responsibility of clergy. We look at a few here.

Shepherd. Throughout the Bible God uses the image of a shepherd to convey His idea of the identity of a leader of His people. In moments of frustration with the corrupting influence of the priests and kings of Israel and Judah, God promises the coming of a Shepherd after His own heart (Isa. 40:11; Jer. 3:15; 31:10).

Jesus fulfills these prophetic words when He portrays Himself as the Shepherd of the sheep (John 10:1-18). A good shepherd does not see himself in competition with the sheep, nor is his attitude towards them that of condescension. He respects his sheep's "sheepness" their identity (verses 3, 4). If they need nurture it is not because they are inferior, but simply because they are sheep. If he leads, feeds, and waters them, if they are vulnerable and in need of protection from predators, if they get lost and cannot find their way back, it is because they are authentic and normal sheep.

The sheep are entitled to these services as long as they are his, and he cannot bear the thought of abandoning them to a thief or a butcher (verses 5- 10). Between the Shepherd and His sheep there radiates a magnetic attrac tion of love and boundless trust instead of cold bureaucratic control, exploitative manipulation, or even sadistic coercion (Ezek. 34:1-31). The Good Shepherd loves His sheep enough to die for them (John 10:11, 1 7-18), and they know that very well (verse 5). There is a strong sense in which the Shepherd finds His identity in the identity of His sheep: He is the "Sheepman."

The apostle Peter urges church lead ers to see themselves as under shepherds as shepherds who have a chief Shepherd over them. Jesus is the model they are invited to emulate (1 Peter 5:2-4). Even though they, too, need the shepherding ministry of Jesus, they are called to cultivate shepherd-like qualities of character toward their sheep. They must not cater to them selves at the expense of their sheep, nor should they see their role as a job or a money-making venture. The flock of God must benefit from the highest standard of selfless ministry, a standard of which hirelings are incapable.3

Priest. The image of a priest stands for an uncommon quality of a being: a holy being. The Hebrew word for "holy," qds, means "separate," "cut off." Imagine the awe with which Aaron and his sons participated, as Moses carried out God's instructions in the ceremony of ordination. The bodily washings, the garments, the ephod, the Urim and Thummim, the turban, the holy golden crown, the golden plate inscribed "Holy to the Lord," the sacrifices. . . . (Lev. 8:1-36). How Aaron's totally new self-concept, the qds identity, must have grown while his personal ego dwindled! How his hands and voice must have trembled as he made the first steps of his awesome ministry for God's people in the tabernacle! Granted the pastoral role and function in the church cannot be identified completely with the Old Testament priesthood, yet Paul's instruction to Timothy and Titus in regard to the high qualities of character and the identity of a Christian minister do not in any way lag behind the fundamental standards of the Old Testament priest (1 Tim. 4:11, 12; 6:11, 12).

"For a bishop, as God's steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it" (Titus 1:7-9, RSV, italics supplied).

Teacher. Biblical priests and leaders saw themselves as teachers (Lev. 10:10, 11). They submitted to a rigorous training, became well versed in the knowledge of truth, in communicating that knowledge, and in forming the lives of God's people (Deut. 17:8-13). When they spoke they taught with the authority of an expert. Whether their teachings were truth or error, they had a strong grip on their hearers' thoughts and actions.

Jesus Himself accepted the powerful title of Rabbi (John 1 3:1 3) and people could depend on Him for protection against ignorance and falsehood. Paul required of ministers the ability to teach (2 Tim. 2:24) and repeatedly urged them to instruct those under their charge in sound doctrine (1 Tim. 4:11; 2 Tim. 2:2; 4:5; Titus 1:9).

Prophet. Prophets are those called to speak before the people and for God.

The choice of a particular person does not seem to be based on gender, ethnicity, socio-economic, or educational status. The biblical prophet had the sense of being taken (Amos 7:15), of being surprised by God, almost as if he had been abducted by Him. Jeremiah was "recruited" with significant arm twisting (Jer. 1:4-10), and Moses gave in only after an extensive persuasion (Exod. 3:1-4:17). No one who has been called to this post coveted such a position.

A prophet realized that the calling was an awesome privilege, an irresistible task, and a heavy burden (Jer. 20:7-12). When prophets spoke, God spoke through them (Exod. 4:14-17).

Ministers of the gospel share in a great measure a similar self-concept. Like the prophets of old, pastors are watchmen on the walls of Zion (Isa.62:6; 1 Peter 5:2), soldiers who fight for their charges (2 Tim. 2:3), and men and women of God, committed to Him first and foremost (2 Kings 4:8-1 7; 1 Tim. 6:11).

Biblical antecedents to ministerial roles


God leads His people. He who knows our human nature, who understands the context in which we live, and who anticipates the dangers we face, calls the individuals to whom He gives various tasks and duties. The image of a shepherd anticipates a need for someone who leads, who knows the way, and who will inspire others to follow (Ps. 23).

This introduces the incredible opportunity for ministers to nurture and care for the whole person. The pastor is a person who participates in all important events in a member's life. He hears the confessions of the most confidential nature. He or she is given access to the ugliest and the prettiest scenes, the worst and the best languages, the most shocking and the most beautiful secrets.

This is what a pastor is all about. He is a churchman in the highest sense. He knows what to do with all the trash and all the treasure. This is why people know they can make themselves vulnerable to their pastor as to no other professional.

A pastor can be called on at any moment of the day or night for any type of need a physical or mental crisis, a financial problem, or even problems of a sexual nature. Even if a person needs the expert intervention of a paramedic, the police, or a fireman, it is still somehow easier and essentially reassuring to also have their pastor at hand. For that reason also, we shall see in the upcoming essays how it is that a betrayal of pastoral trust can be so devastating.

The priestly role projects a need of a model of holiness and highest virtue.

Paul urges Timothy to "set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity" (1 Tim. 4:12, RSV). The biblical concept of holiness is made visible in a minister's way of life: the qds lifestyle.

This way of life incorporates such concerns as a passion for justice and truth, along with ethically responsible conduct. "It involves reflecting in what we do, the Christian moral vision by which we understand who we are. Righteousness is the human expression of holiness embodying a vision rooted in moral perspective."4

The church needs this kind of people as intercessors and reconcilers between them and God, and as mediators between them and their neighbors. The pastor will lead his flock, because his sheep will follow. But unless he is a winning example of commitment to holiness and virtue, he may easily lead his flock astray.

As a teacher, the minister of the gospel impacts the minds and thinking processes of his flock. It is hard to know how much (or how little) he knows, nor how much (or how little) he actually lives what he teaches. The power and authority of expertise provide the minister with the necessary credibility so sorely needed to inspire people to take the risks which growth in grace and maturity demand. However, authority combined with this credibility can serve as a cover under which a destructive evil can flourish.

A minister's prophetic role is the most challenging of all. It rests on all of the above characteristics with the additional difference of capital importance: the reality of the divine calling. A divine vocation reaches men and women in all walks of life and charges them with superhuman tasks. Ministers are watch men upon the walls of Zion (Isa. 62:6, 7; Ezek. 33:1-9).

Ministers are so positioned in order that with one glance they can see inside and outside the walls. From their location they can see far and wide. This view enables them to discern trends and movements so they can sound an alarm, engage in the preparation for a defense, and assure the complete security of the church.

Additionally, it is of vital importance that the members of Christ's body stay in constant and clear communication with the Head of the Church (2 Tim.

4:2). In their prophetic role, pastors serve as God's spokespersons. They can not remain silent. They speak when God deems it right whether this be "in season or out of season" (2 Tim. 4:2).

Jeremiah struggles with this. "If I say, 'I will not mention him, or speak any more in his name,' there is in my heart as it were a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary with holding it in, and I cannot" (Jer. 20:9, RSV). Paul exclaims, "Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:16, RSV).

Can any one of us conjure up even the slightest notion of the full scope and magnitude of the ministerial calling, our own ministerial calling? The kind of per son the minister is called to be does not come naturally. "'For to all to whom I send you you shall go, and whatever I command you you shall speak. Be not afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.' Then the Lord put forth his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, 'Behold, I have put my words in your mouth'" Jer. 1:7-9, RSV).

Is it possible for our human minds to ponder the intensity of energy all these elements of a pastoral identity bring together as they converge and concentrate in the pastor's persona? The enormous resources for the care and guidance that shepherds are called to give are staggering when combined with the awesomeness of the call to be "holy unto the Lord," the intensity of teaching authority, the prophetic freedom, and responsibility to speak when and what God places in the heart and the mind of His instrument.

This might not be the usual way a pastor thinks of himself, but this seems to be the biblical outline of the pastoral character and task. No other profession, no other role requires so much invest ment on God's part in the human mind and heart. Every fiber of the minister's body, every pulsation of his energy, every moment of his time must be God's, if His agenda is to be followed.

The pastor is God's ambassador, the man of God.

But this must not mean the neglect of self, of one's marriage, one's home, and family. On the very contrary this means that a minister must cultivate himself as one tends a flower garden.

He must protect himself as one watches carefully over a unique and priceless instrument. He must listen to his body, to his mind, to the dynamics within his marriage, to his emotional, social, and spiritual needs.

The more valuable he is to God and His people, the more interesting and strategic a target he is for the devil and his devices. Temptations will most certainly take the form of "nurturing" the pastor, "catering" to his needs, "providing" for greater efficiency when it comes to his lofty tasks. Only intimate communion with God, his Shepherd, his Priest, his Teacher, and his Lord, only power of divine proportions can keep him safe in His Majesty's service.

1 S. J. Grenz and R. D. Bell, Betrayal of Trust (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 10.

2 B. B. Wolman, Dictionary of Behavioral Science (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., 1973), 220.

3 Ellen G. White, Testimonies for the: Church (Nampa, Idaho: Pacific Press® Pub. Assn., 1995), 3:227, 228.

4 James C. Fenhagen, Invitation to Holiness (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), 44.



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Miroslav M. Kis, Ph.D., professor of ethics at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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