How can the church help?
Research done by Fuller Theological Seminary indicates that one in nine Protestant pastors has committed adultery.1 How does the Seventh-day Adventist Church fare in this area? In a 1994 issue of Ministry, Len McMillan reported the results of a survey done in nine Seventh-day Adventist conferences and at Andrews University; it revealed a similar statistic with 12 percent of respondents having committed adultery, and 37 percent admitting they had had an inappropriate relationship. About two-thirds recognized they were attracted to someone other than their mate.2
The number who struggle with porn indicates that the problem is pervasive, not only in the secular world but also in the Christian community. Fifty-three percent of Promise Keepers admitted to struggling with what they view on the Internet, while 47 percent of Christians noted that porn is a major problem in their homes. Forty-two percent of those who surf the Internet visit porn sites.3
Thus, the time has come for our church to do more than place a bandage on the problem. Whether we want to admit it or not, sexual health is declining in many homes. Forty-one percent of pastors who divorce say that difficulties in the bedroom were a major reason they bailed.4 Few recognize the seriousness of the crisis. Instead of making significant efforts to reduce these moral downfalls, most churches shove the problem under the rug, figuratively speaking. However, secret keeping is dangerous to individuals as well as to organizations. It creates distrust, not only of pastors but of organizations that cover up the pandering of their clergy.5
Psychologist Mark Davies writes, “Sexual malfeasance has damaged the credibility of the church and the problem is compounded by covering up the sin rather than confronting it.”6 Perhaps this is the reason that skepticism of organized religion is at an all-time high. Exposing the issue is far better than acting as though the problem is of little consequence. The church must make determined efforts to help pastors who struggle. If spiritual leaders find it difficult to stay sexually pure, then what do we think happens in the local church?
Pastors who fall are usually not predators. Leadership did a large study on the perils of “the professionally holy” and found these startling statistics: 90 percent of pastors work more than 40 hours a week. Eighty percent believe their ministry has affected their families negatively. How? Eighty-one percent feel they do not spend enough time with their families; 64 percent expressed communication difficulties with their spouse; 46 percent said they had sexual problems in their marriages; and 41 percent said they are angry with their mates. Thirty-three percent feel that ministry is outright hazardous. Seventy-five percent report at least one serious crisis in their ministry; 90 percent feel they were inadequately trained to cope with ministry demands; 70 percent think they have low self-esteem; and 40 percent say that they have a serious conflict with a parishioner at least once a month. Finally, 70 percent say they do not have a close friend in ministry.7
Another revealing discovery states that 91 percent of clergy come from chronically dysfunctional family backgrounds.8 The fallout from dysfunctional homes accelerates in geometric proportions when those who become pastors bring unresolved emotional baggage into their ministries.9 A wise church will help its leaders to become aware of their vulnerability and provide processes for dealing with the past. It is a miracle that more pastors do not explode in this minefield.
To add to the problem, Adventist church policies are strict and yet inconsistently implemented. According to North American Division (NAD) regulations, a pastor who commits adultery should lose his credentials, ordination, and membership. If repentant, he may, at some point, be rebaptized and return to fellowship but never employed by any church entity.10 Psychologist Richard Exley notes, “The stakes are high if ministers reveal sexual problems. Ministers, therefore, tend to live in self-denial. The more successful a man, the more difficult and greater the risk to confess. He has too much to lose, too many people to hurt. Even his success becomes a trap with reputation to keep and an image to protect.”11
Those who struggle with inappropriate sexual conduct are more likely to continue to hide the problem when harsh policies dominate as the official position of the church. The situation is further complicated when these policies are inconsistently administered. This produces distrust in the church membership, which suspects the church will cover problems for prominent ministers. James A. Cress, the former General Conference Ministerial Association secretary, noted in a 1994 Ministry article that some administrators will transfer some “fallen” pastors from one district to another without missing a beat in service.12 Several years later, in 2005, Cress convened a conference of church leaders at Loma Linda, California, to discuss restoration. At the symposium, a recommendation was made to advise a change in policy that would allow for the possibility of a second chance. Several conferences, and at least one union, have developed restoration policies, but the wider NAD has not moved forward.13 The church still languishes for want of a policy of grace and a process of restoration for pastors who fall. I would suggest that the real issue revolves around an inadequate theology of restoration.
A theology of restoration
Sexual sin is often considered the unpardonable sin as far as a return to pastoring is concerned—a position taken in several articles published in Ministry in 2004. Without critiquing these articles, I will discuss two important texts that may provide further clarity.
You will find the first in Galatians 6:1. “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”14 In many cases, discussion of this text has narrowed restoration to those who have not fallen morally. However, the text does not limit rehabilitation to those specifically but provides restoration to “anyone.” Often those who limit the restoration of fallen pastors do not follow the counsel of “looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” In many cases, spiritual leaders treat fallen brethren with distain. They seem to identify broken leaders by prominent sins, rather than looking at their colleagues’ entire ministries. Finally, the word restore in this passage means to put “back to new.” It does not mean merely to forgive.
Most administrators can allow for forgiveness, but reinstatement is a different story. However, this text does not suggest a limited healing but indicates being fully renewed. I do not mean that all situations can be completely healed nor am I suggesting situations such as pedophiles being placed in positions to work with children. If an unchaste pastor has shown significant repentance and won the confidence of his brethren, he might be restored. Of course, ministry involves a matter of grace, and the obligation to restore does not exist.
You will find a second text that has provided impetus for disallowing “fallen” pastors from being restored to ministry: 1 Corinthians 6:18. “Flee immorality. Every other sin that a man commits is outside the body, but the immoral man sins against his own body” (emphasis added). From this text, those who believe restoration is impossible for those who have had a moral lapse conclude that pastoral leadership becomes impossible since sexual sin is the only sin against the body.
There are several problems here. First, notice that the word other is italicized. This implies that the word other was not in the original text. Second, the text does not indicate that restoration is impossible. Third, some question whether sexual sin is the only sin against the body. Are not alcoholism, drug addiction, and even workaholism sins against the body? Many scholars take the apparent literal rendering to mean that sexual sin is different and more invasive than any other. But recent scholarship regarding this text has provided another exegetical understanding. A better translation would probably read, “Sin is outside the body.” To which Paul replied, “Sin does affect the body and sexual sin is an example of a sin that affects the body.”
Scholar Jay Smith writes in Bibliotheca Sacra regarding the inadequacy of the first interpretation:
However, several facts argue against this interpretation. First, the wording of verse 18 does not suggest that ektos tou sōmatos is to be understood in a relative or comparative sense. Such a view is derived solely from the supposed logical necessities of the verse. In fact, the phrase ektos tou sōmatos seems to describe an absolute distinction rather than a relative one. Second, the de introducing verse 18c does not signal an exception (i.e., every sin that a man commits is outside the body, except sexual immorality), as the comparative view requires, but indicates a true contrast. This being the case seems probable for several reasons: (a) pan hamarte ma with the indefinite relative is an inclusive statement (“every sin, no matter what it is”), (b) de is commonly used to signal a contrast and only rarely introduces an exception, and (c) when Paul made an exception to what otherwise looks like an absolute statement, he invariably introduced the exception with ei me rather than de. Third, in the context (vv. 9, 10), Paul put sexual immorality and drunkenness in the same category with no hint that sexual immorality is in a class by itself.15
In short, this is Smith’s conclusion: “Paul was not arguing that sexual immorality is a sin of unparalleled evil. Rather, sexual immorality is one of the several sins against the body, and as such it is not afforded a special place that automatically warrants an elder’s permanent disqualification. Even if Paul were singling out sexual immorality as a sin in a class by itself, it still remains to be shown that sexual immorality automatically demands the permanent disqualification of an elder.”16
Therefore, the exegesis outlined above does not allow for the idea that sexual sin is the only sin against the body. Neither does logic support the idea that this sin is the only sin against the body. Suicide is certainly a sin against the body. If the church could move away from the idea that sexual sin is the worst sin a person could commit, a pastor might be freer to share his struggles. Early detection or help could save many from self-destruction and destroying another person’s life.
Finally, two manuscripts by Ellen White give precedence for restoration of those who have fallen morally. They are Manuscript Release 448: “The Spirit of Prophecy and Adultery, Divorce, Remarriage, and Church Membership,” and Manuscript Release 449: “Dealing With Ministers and Workers Who Have Violated the Seventh Commandment.”17 White was deeply concerned about the sin of adultery and how it could indeed remove the ark of God from the camp of Israel, but she was very compassionate toward those who had sinned in this way. On several occasions, she even refused to notify the brethren of those committing adultery. She chose to work with them on an individual basis.
The following poignant counsel to Elder Butler reveals Ellen White’s deep concern for those who had fallen into grievous sin. Even though Adventists do not form theology from Ellen White’s writings, the time has come for us to allow her compassionate pleas to help the church implement carefully crafted policies for restoration:
When I know that there are those who have fallen into great sin, but we have labored with and for them, and God has afterwards accepted their labors, when these have pleaded for me to let them go and to not burden myself for them, I have said, ‘I will not give you up; you must find strength to overcome. These men are now in active service. My mind is greatly perplexed over these things, because I cannot harmonize them with the course that is being pursued. I am fearful to sanction sin, and I am fearful to let go of the sinner and make no effort to restore him. I think that if our hearts were more fully imbued with the Spirit of Christ, we should have His melting love, and should work with spiritual power to restore the erring and not leave them under Satan’s control.
We need good heart religion, that we shall not only reprove, rebuke, exhort with all long-suffering and doctrine, but we shall take the erring in our arms of faith and bear them to the cross of Christ. We must bring them in contact with the sin-pardoning Savior. . . .
I wish that we had much more of the Spirit of Christ and a great deal less self, and less of human opinions. If we err, let it be on the side of mercy rather than on the side of condemnation and harsh dealing.18
The entire church needs to begin practicing the grace that we preach. If the story of David in the Bible does not inform us, and if Jesus’ restoration of Peter does not serve as a guide, we have missed the true meaning of the gospel.
(Part 3 will appear in the December 2013 issue.)
1 “How Common Is Pastoral Indiscretion?” Leadership (Winter 1988): 12, 13.
2 Len McMillan, “Adventist Ministry and Sexuality,” Ministry 67, no. 11 (November 1994): 18, 19.
3 “Men–Stats,” XXX Church, accessed August 19, 2013, http:// www.xxxchurch.com/men/stats.html.
4 H. B. London and Neil B. Wiseman, Pastors at Risk (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1993), 22, 71.
5 Candace Benyei, Understanding Clergy Misconduct in Religious Systems: Scapegoating, Family Secrets, and the Abuse of Power (Binghamton, NY: Haworth Pastoral Press, 1998), 13, 50.
6 Mark G. Davies, “Clergy Sexual Malfeasance: Restoration, Ethics and Process,” Journal of Psychology and Theology 26, no. 4 (Winter 1998): 331.
7 “Surveys of Pastors—Shocking Stats,” Smoldering Wick, accessed August 19, 2013, http://smolderingwickministries.org/2008/12 /surveys-of-pastors-shocking-stats/.
8 Benyei, Understanding Clergy Misconduct, 50.
9 John W. Thoburn and Jack O. Balswick, “An Evaluation of Infidelity Among Male Protestant Clergy,” Pastoral Psychology 42, no. 4 (March 1994): 286.
10 North American Division of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, North American Division Working Policies (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2003), 481, 482.
11 Richard Exley, Perils of Power (Tulsa, OK: Honor Books, 1988), 19, 20.
12 James A. Cress, “A Call to Consistency,” Ministry 67, no. 11 (November 1994): 28.
13 Alberta Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Revised Seventh-day Adventist Church Policy Statements on the Handling of ‘Fallen’Ministers,” April 29, 2001. Note also the Pacific Union and Southeastern California Conferences policies.
14 Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.
15 Jay E. Smith, “Can Fallen Leaders Be Restored to Leadership?” Bibliotheca Sacra 151 (October-December 1994): 473.
16 Ibid., 462.
17 Ellen G. White, Manuscript Release 448: “The Spirit of Prophecy and Adultery, Divorce, Remarriage, and Church Membership,” Ellen G. White Estate, accessed August 19, 2013, http://drc.whiteestate .org/files/3971.pdf; Ellen G. White, Manuscript Release 449: “Dealing With Ministers and Workers Who Have Violated the Seventh Commandment,” Ellen G. White Estate, accessed August 19, 2013, http://drc.whiteestate.org/read.php?id=16324.
18 Ellen G. White, Testimonies on Sexual Behavior, Adultery, and Divorce (Silver Spring, MD: Ellen G. White Estate, 1989), 242.