When Pastors Fall
Helping pastors who have become enmeshed in sexual sin is a daunting task. Allan Anderson, a pastor himself, has taken on this responsibility several times. The results are not always predictable.
I had learned from the two previous counselling sessions that Pastor Bob appeared to be a gentle man whose ambitions were simple and practical. He was 48 years old and had been in the ministry for about 20 years. As a senior minister his commonsense handling of life's many and varied difficulties had earned him a good reputation in the church and community. People felt safe and at ease when talking with him because he was a caring and down-to-earth man. He enjoyed people and enjoyed conversation.
Bob's wife Deirdre was also quiet and hard working, and so proud of Bob being in the ministry. She was content to keep very much in the background and be lovingly supportive of Bob's important public image. They had been blessed with three children, of whom the two eldest had already married. The youngest, at 19, was living in Auckland attending university. Bob and Deirdre lived and worked in a rural township and their church had a membership of about 150. Bob had been in this church for six years, having previously been pastoring in the South Island.
Bob's main pastoral outlook on life, which regularly found its way into his preaching, was that maturity in Christianity was gained by making daily efforts at not being super-spiritual. He had seen too many high flying self-inflated gurus in the ministry, and the damage they had done to sincere yet naive people. Stability required simple and sensible principles to live by.
Bob was a self-made man. He hadn't been academic at school, but a few years after becoming a Christian at age eighteen, he had attended a Bible College where he successfully completed a six-month course in training for the ministry. At Bible College he also met and fell in love with Deirdre, his first real girlfriend. They married the following year and settled into a farming area in Canterbury. After a few years he was appointed Youth Pastor and Assistant Pastor at a church with a congregation of 80. Bob and Deirdre thrived in this environment.
Life offered few challenges that could not be solved by hard work, commonsense and prayers committing everything to God. However, there were some situations which unsettled Bob, and his quiet strengths were not enough to keep him from losing his equilibrium. Often these uneasinesses would be brought about by some of the women in his church, and/or by women he would be in contact with at the various community committee meetings he was involved in.
These women were usually intelligent and attractive. Good conversationalists, they were interesting and challenging people. Bob both enjoyed and disliked these women.
He liked very much their vibrancy and charisma, but felt awkward at his own level of intelligence. However, more importantly, he felt embarrassed at his lack of control over his emotions when he was with these women. His brain knew the dangers of flirting, but his feelings were so powerful at times that he would be quickly caught up in the heat of the moment and only by good luck rather than good management would he escape falling into compromising situations.
Nevertheless, after returning to the safe environment of church and wife, his level-headedness would reassert itself. He would breathe a deep sigh of relief and get on with life and ministry.
He would decide to work extra hard at suppressing his emotions and seek God's help in reigning in devilish thoughts and desires which were both horrifying and yet magnetically attractive to him.
"Just be practical. Keep away from all tempting situations. Satan is obviously attacking me and I must just rebuke the devil and he will flee and I will be free from all these dark urgings," he would tell himself.
Bob felt that he must keep up appearances as a righteous man of God. He could never speak to anyone about his sexual fantasies, or about being drawn especially towards non-Christian women who were actively promiscuous. When a community meeting was scheduled for him to attend he would regret having to go, yet at a deeper, secret, level he would excitedly savour the female contact he would encounter when the time came.
He knew it was wrong, yet he felt it was harmless if it only remained in his mind. Bob had started to fall into the ancient trap of self-confidence. This was the backdrop to his life just before his adultery started.
The devil really got me!" Bob blurted out as he sat facing me in my counselling office for his third session. "But I now know how to make sure that it won't ever happen again. I'm a good pastor and I just want to get back into ministry. My denomination's executive have sent me to see you, so you can OK me back into pastoring. So I'll do whatever you say.
"The trouble is, I've never really gone much for counselling. I believe that all you've got to do is just set your mind and will, and you get the results you want. It's not complicated at all. All this childhood trauma stuff and all this healing of broken hearts has been completed at the Cross when you get saved!"
As I listened I yawned inwardly. "Lord, I know you love this guy and want to forgive, cleanse, heal and deliver him, but when will these guys ever learn?"
"I help people, that's what my ministry is all about. I've been around church circles for years and I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly. I know plenty of men in ministry who have fallen into adultery. Most you never hear about. But when I was found out, at least I was completely honest about everything!"
"Bob," I interjected, "You've told me that you were having regular weekly sexual contact with this woman for over three years! You must have been extensively dishonest to hide this from your wife and church for such a long time. Didn't your conscience trouble you - not only with the flagrant adultery and the dishonesty, but also the hypocrisy of preaching each week to your congregation?"
"I believe that when you confess your sins to God, he forgives and covers your sin. Anyway, whilst it is serious, it still is only a sin of the flesh and not of the spirit!" Bob pronounced authoritatively.
I now realised that Bob's case was not only one of adultery, dishonesty and hypocrisy, but also of deception.
"Bob, why do you want to go back into the ministry?" I asked.
"Because I love the ministry. Because it is my lifestyle. Because I know I have achieved and still can achieve good things in people's lives."
"But what about Deirdre? Is she wanting to go back into the ministry too? How has all this affected her?"
"Yes, she wants me back in the ministry. When this all came out, the devil really attacked her. She took it very badly. I had to really bind the devil that night. But she knows the mistake she made. In the future we will make sure that she always accompanies me on any visitation I go on. That'll make everything safe."
"Don't you think, Bob, that you've really hurt her - that you've betrayed her, violated her and destroyed her trust in you?"
"She has forgiven me right from the beginning. We have always had a good marriage!" he retorted.
"Then tell me Bob, how you think this could have happened to you. And how do you know that it won't happen again?" I asked searchingly.
"It's so simple! I know I empathise with needy people and that's the love of God in me. All I have to do is organise my ministry with Deirdre present when I minister to women! I know I'm ready to go back into the ministry. I've been stood down for about a year already, and it's been tight financially. It's hard to find jobs when you've only ever worked in churches."
"You know, Bob, King David fell into adultery with Bathsheba and he indirectly murdered her husband Uriah to cover his sin. When we look at Psalm 51, we see not only David's acknowledgment of his sins but his deep desire to delve into the depth of his heart and spirit to find out how a man of God, especially a man after God's own heart, could fall so grossly into sin.1
"Bob, you have projected the problem onto the devil, onto mismanaged and unwise administration of your ministry, and onto your kind loving empathy for needy people! While you continue to project, and to reduce the importance of your own responsibility and deliberately ignore the devices of your own heart, you have a high potential of falling into adultery again.
"You superficialise the depth of your sin. You oversimplify the immensity of your problem. Whilst you remain like this you are dangerous to the Body of Christ, dangerous to any unsuspecting congregation that you may be placed in, and dangerous to your wife.
"If you want to be restored to the ministry, then in my opinion you have a great need to be re-educated in many areas of your life and beliefs. This will take at least a year before I might feel that you are safe to feed God's flock again. Are you willing to commit yourself to that?"
"I know I am ready for the ministry now! I don't understand about the depth of ministry to which you refer. I believe that resolving sin is wondrously easy. God forgives and forgets."
I never saw Bob again. But I did hear that he had been reappointed a month later to a large city church as an associate pastor!
Beware: Counsellor at Work!
Grant spoke quietly yet deliberately as he attempted to answer my question.
"I've always felt that many branches of Christianity were too legalistic about sexuality. Some churches still view sexual contact, even in marriage, as being dirty or a necessary evil.
"I began to see through all of that years ago, but I was too afraid to make my views known in the church I was in at the time. Teenagers were told that they all had demons of lust in them, and that they needed deliverance! I believe that sexuality is a God-given gift to enjoy . . ." he paused and then added, "within marriage of course."
"In reacting against the legalistic view of sex, Grant, did you not maybe swing too far towards the liberal view where all forms of sexual contact are acceptable?" I prodded.
"I'm not sure, but I do know that de-spiritualising sexuality is very wrong."
"You've been an elder and a pastor for many years. You've been a pastor in six churches over the last 25 years and in each church you've committed adultery. Did you move on to a new church when you were found out, so that it would not be made public?"
"Well, yes, I guess so."
"Grant, what do you think God thinks of what you've done?"
"I know what I've done is wrong, but I also know that God is with me, especially when I preach! I get real results!"
"Do you not think that you should permanently leave the ministry because of your long-term sexual immorality? Are you not reprobate in this area of your life? If the non-Christian sector of our society ever found out about you, would you not bring the ministry and the Body of Christ into disrepute?
"How can you ever be sure that you won't commit adultery again? What about the Christian women you've had sex with, some of them are married with Christian husbands. Have you not seriously violated their Christianity as well as their marriages?"
I had to pause. My questions were flowing too quickly.
Grant looked amazingly settled at my flurry of questions. Maybe he thought that I was the one who needed counselling! I looked perplexed and distressed. He looked at peace and confident.
Grant smiled and spoke assertively. "Nothing's too hard for God," he said. "I've got myself into this mess, but I know God can get me out. And I don't believe that it has affected my ministry really. I've tried to reconcile with various husbands of the women I've had sex with, but you must remember that these women have also sinned, not just me." Grant's face and body language still indicated a confident professional, engaged in a problem-solving exercise.
"I believe you are in deception, Grant. Gross deception!" I protested loudly. "You are a disgrace to the ministry that God has given you! And what about your poor wife and children? They must feel absolutely humiliated!
"Don't you feel the pain you have caused your wife? Don't you experience the horror of your sin? Don't you experience conviction and guilt?
"What about Galatians 5:19-21 which declares that those who continue with sins like adultery will not enter the Kingdom of God? Surely you must realise that the Lord could blot your name out of the Book of Life for the extended sinfulness you have unabatedly committed over so many years?"
I'd said enough. I had poured out my strong, hotly verbalised, intercessory emotions from God to man, and now I would sit back and see what would become of this counselling session. What would become of this man?
Grant had now lost his composure. He glared at me. Anger and hatred successively filling his eyes, each emotion passing in an instant. Hot silence filled the air. I returned his stare. Searching for any sign that God was getting through to this man.
Then, amazingly, a tear appeared and began to slowly trickle down the side of his face. This was the moment. A divine encounter was about to take place. As the Lord began invisibly melting this man's heart, I kept my mouth shut.
Grant's eyes now closed. He began to open his mouth to speak, but words would not form. Instead, sounds of agony began to emerge. Tears streamed. His head dropped forward into his lap as he doubled up, heaving deep groans. His body shook as jerking sobs emerged from his spirit.
After a long minute of rowdy agonised guilt, Grant sat still and dishevelled. Silence filled the air. Something deep had been settled in his heart. He spoke very quietly.
"Brother, I have sinned. Please forgive me. Help me . . . please help me."
It was still not time for me to speak. I have learned when the Lord is at work it is best not to interrupt.
"I can't stop. I have no power over this sin. I am hopeless against it. Sexual perversity has filled me for years. Lately even when I'm preaching I'm looking for women in the congregation to have sex with! Maybe I'm demon-possessed. I'm lost! Please, please help me . . . please?"
"What about your wife, Grant?" I confronted gently.
Eyes filled with tears again, flooding down to his chin. He raised his wet handkerchief to mop up the new downpour. "She . . . she . . ." This time the anguish hit him suddenly. He doubled up and toppled off his seat onto the floor. The deep agonising sobs seemed to tear their way out of his body with a great loudness.
After a few more seconds of anguish Grant lay still. Soon he returned to his seat. We looked at each other. His face had softened. I smiled. I knew he was ready to begin the long journey back towards restoration. This time I was hopeful. Healing had begun.
Back and Beyond
A search for the reasons why some who are in ministry fall into immorality, often reveals a mesh of many entangled root causes. Over the years I have observed three important preliminary points which help us in our quest to overcome immorality in Christians and ministers:
Firstly, people ignore Proverbs 1:22. "How long will you simple ones love your simple ways? How long will mockers delight in mockery, and fools hate knowledge?"
For far too long too much Christian teaching has been reductionistic, denying reality and ignoring the complexities of life. We have attempted to defang the Serpent and destroy the power of sin by such immature interpretations of Scripture as: 'when we get saved, Satan and sin have no more power over us.'
Adultery is a powerfully attractive sin with complex roots which have to be addressed before any depth of healing and deliverance can be achieved.
This does not mean that we should allow people to evade basic responsibility by hiding behind complexity. Neither does it mean that adultery is so complex that we can evade repentance by placing it in the too hard basket! What it does mean is that the power of sin and the power of Satan both have a sophisticated subtlety which can undo even a man after God's own heart!
Secondly, we ignore the powerful advice of Proverbs 4:23 to diligently keep, guard and monitor our hearts above all else. Again, Christians are made vulnerable to sin when they are taught that the intellectual mind is the source of our being and all that is needed to overcome sin and temptation is to make a cognitive or will-power decision to do so.
In Scripture the 'heart' is markedly different to the conscious intellect. It is the heart which is the real central essence of our non-physical inner being, the well-spring of life.2 The heart has many devices,3 several of which remain hidden from our conscious intellects and render us susceptible to sin because we are ignorant of their existence, let alone their supernatural powers!
That is why the axe must be laid to the root.4 That is why the Word of God must divide the soul and spirit so that the thoughts and intents of the heart can be revealed.5 And that is why David wanted truth in the inward parts and wisdom in the hidden parts and a clean heart and a right spirit.6
David knew with his conscious intellect that adultery was forbidden. That knowledge in his intellect was insufficient to overcome the forces and drives of David's heart to prevent him from committing adultery. Something much deeper and someone more powerful had to be encountered before David could become safe.
Thirdly: the satanic triangle of Legalism, Liberalism and Super-spiritualism. The Church has always been ravaged by these three extremes of doctrine, and today is no different.
Legalism is so restrictive and fear-driven that sexual awakenings in young adults, for example, have to have controlling prohibitions like no kissing till your wedding night!
Liberalism reacts to Legalism by condoning all forms of sexual immorality, allowing so-called 'good' feelings - rather than the Word of God - to define our consciences.
Super-spiritualism divides into two further groups: legalistic super-spirituals and liberal super-spirituals. Legalistic super-spirituals will state, for example, "all teenagers need deliverance from demons of lust"! To this group adultery is primarily a demon, not a "work of the Flesh" as Galatians 5 :19 states.7
If liberal super-spirituals fall into adultery, you will often hear them misquoting Titus 1:15, "to the pure all things are pure". These adulterers often believe that God has personally informed them that because they have attained a level of spiritual maturity and purity, adulterous sexual contact is (for these special highly enlightened ones) now redefined as a higher expression of pure love.
Doctrinal deception is often the bedfellow of adultery. The road back for the fallen one is often a painful journey through a somewhat barren landscape. The counsellor is both the travel agent and the tour guide through this raw, untamed yet beautiful land.
Uncharted tracks through the Wilderness of Sin are where encounters with Jehovah Rapha happen. It is he who will heal the heart that adultery has broken, and write the royal laws of godly love upon our new hearts.
Names, locations, and details have been changed for the purposes of this article.
7 Genesis 3: 13 Projection of blame onto Satan first entered the human psyche by Eve.
Allan Anderson is senior pastor of Mid City Church, Auckland. He is married to Leonie and they have 4 children. Allan enjoys many sports, especially rugby, and is the founding director and senior counsellor of Pinpoint Counselling Service.