Betraying Trust

Stanley J. Grenz


A pastor who has illicit sex with a member of his congregation betrays trust on many levels, not the least of which is the betrayal of what Canadian Stan Grenz terms "sexual trust" - a serious matter, as sexual trust is linked to our human task of imaging God to the world.


During my second year in university, I occasionally attended a large Baptist church not far from the campus. The senior pastor seemed to be the epitome of a successful minister - tall and handsome, poised and self-assured, exuding warmth and concern for congregants and visitors alike. I had not frequented the church long, however, when the news broke. The pastor had been carrying on a clandestine affair with a woman in the congregation.

I was shocked. How was this possible? How could a minister of the gospel do such a thing? Such conduct simply did not fit with my expectations as a product of a pious Baptist pastor's home.

A Betrayal of Trust

Unfortunately, this was not an isolated incident. In a recent poll among 300 ministers, 39% reported sexual contact and 12.7% actual sexual intercourse with a congregant. In addition, 76.5% indicated that they knew of a minister who they believed had engaged in sex with a church member. And 23% of clergy responding to another survey acknowledged that they had engaged in some form of sexual behaviour they considered inappropriate.

What is at stake when this occurs? What happens when a pastor falls in the manner I witnessed?

Recent discussions of this phenomenon have built a consensus: every pastor is the recipient of a sacred trust, without which effective ministry cannot occur. Sexual failure violates this trust. It destroys the very conditions that make ministry life-giving and vital. But what kind of a trust is at stake? What exactly is the nature of the trust sexual misconduct violates?

Again most commentators agree that a pastor who fails - especially a male minister who enters what Peter Rutter calls the "forbidden zone"1 with a female congregant - betrays a sacred power trust. He violates the power entrusted to him, the power associated with the ordained office. Whatever the pastor's own motivation, and regardless of who initiated sexual contact, he has in fact abused the power she has entrusted to him, and he has exploited her vulnerability.

Outmoded Ethics?

The contemporary enthusiasm to combat this abuse of power, however, has come at the expense of what many dismiss as an outmoded way of understanding the phenomenon, namely, as the violation of a sexual trust.

John Vogelsang, for example, declares that clergy sexual misconduct "is less about sex and more about power. It has less to do with sexual misconduct such as adultery, and more to do with exploiting one's professional position for personal gain."2 Pamuela Cooper-White's critique is even stronger: "We need nothing less than a total paradigm shift: we need to stop treating the problem as only one of sexual morality, emotional instability or addiction, and address the power dynamics of these mostly hidden abuses. Only when this happens and the church stops engaging in denial and collusion can the church be a place of authentic power, healing and proclamation for both women and men."3

Often lying behind this move is a desire to revise the traditional Christian sex ethic. Many Christian thinkers, including Karen Lebacqz and Ronald Burton, suggest that the church must simply discard the older ethic because in the face of contemporary realities abstinence in singleness and fidelity in marriage are no longer workable.4

Marie Fortune, who has been at the forefront of the battle against sexual violence and abuse, agrees. In her understanding, the central concern of any sex ethic is not the violation of any prescribed norm, but mutual consent. She writes, "The only rule that should guide one's sexual decision-making and behaviour is 'thou shalt not sexually manipulate, abuse, or take advantage of another at any time.'"5

The concern for mutual consent is a welcome corrective to certain misapplications of the traditional Christian sex ethic. Fortune correctly warns that any relationship - including marriage - can be exploitive: even marital partners must acknowledge the principle of mutual consent. Yet, in their haste to revise the older ethic, contemporary ethicists risk throwing out the crucial foundation for a truly radical response to the problem of clergy sexual misconduct.

A Deeper Betrayal

Clergy sexual misconduct is a betrayal of a power trust, of course. But the abuse of power it involves must be placed in the context of another, deeper betrayal. Whatever else it may be, an illicit relationship between pastor and congregant entails the violation of a sexual norm. Pastors who fall betray a sexual trust.

To understand why this is so, we must look again at the biblical understanding of sexuality which forms the cradle for the Christian sex ethic. Contrary to what is widely propagated in society, human sexuality is more than merely biological sex. As many contemporary Christian thinkers, ranging from Lewis Smedes6 to James Nelson,7 emphasise, sexuality encompasses our fundamental existence in the world as embodied persons. It includes our way of being in, and relating to the world as male or female.

Above all, sexuality is connected to our incompleteness as embodied creatures. It lies behind the human drive for bonding, which brings male and female together in the unity of persons we call 'marriage' and which biological sex symbolises. But the yearning for completeness also forms the basis of the interpersonal dimension of existence in its various forms, including our quest for God.8

For this reason, the biblical authors repeatedly appeal to marriage to describe God's relationship to us. The Hebrew prophets, for example, invoke marriage as an appropriate vehicle for telling the story of Yahweh and Israel.9 And in the New Testament, marriage forms a picture of the great mystery of salvation.10 Christ is the bridegroom, and the church is his faithful bride11 who awaits the future consummation of their relationship.12

These biblical allusions appeal to marriage in order to speak of the exclusive relationship God desires to share with God's people. Just as the marital bond is special and must be held inviolate, our relationship to God must be holy. God's covenant people can have no other gods but the one God,13 for this God alone is worthy of our love, worship and service.

The biblical use of marriage as a picture of the divine-human relationship suggests why the violation of the marital bond is so serious. We generally view marital unfaithfulness as a grievous act because it violates human personhood. But as the biblical analogies suggest, more fundamentally it also defaces a divinely-ordained picture of the fellowship God desires to enjoy with humans.

Because God intends that the covenant between husband and wife assist us in understanding the mutuality between Christ and the church, we dare not take marital unfaithfulness lightly. Doing so undermines the theological purpose God intends for this human relationship.

Sexual misconduct has become widespread, even among clergy, partially because the church has lost its ethical moorings. We debate who should or should not engage in the sex act without placing such questions within the context of a biblically based understanding of human sexuality. And without a clear sense of how standards of sexual behaviour arise out of the divine intent for human welfare, ministers possess neither a solid foundation for pastoral care nor a sense of clear and appropriate boundaries for their own conduct.

In a day when inappropriate sexual behaviour is destroying lives, many people are looking to the church to be a place of safety, healing and wholeness. We must provide such a haven by affirming the sexual trust our Lord has given us. In this, pastors must lead the way.


Marring the Image of God

Like any Christian guilty of sexual misconduct, the minister who falls sullies the beautiful theological picture God intends marriage to be. Such an act betrays a sexual trust. But a pastor's misconduct constitutes an added failure. In addition to the trust all believers share to keep the marriage bed undefiled,14 pastors are to live as "examples to the flock".15 They are to demonstrate what it means to live in integrity. And this involves sexual integrity as well.

A pastor who engages in illicit sex effaces the ordained office as a model of integrity. The promiscuous or adulterous minister has violated the call to exemplify integrity to the people of God as Christ's 'undershepherd', as one who is to lead and guide Christ's church under the authority of the Good Shepherd himself. Pastors who fall betray this sacred trust.

Viewing the pastor as 'Christ's undershepherd' leads us to an additional dimension of the problem. Pastors who fall mar the image of God. They betray their sacred charge to assist the congregation in coming to know God's character.

Central to the Christian faith is the biblical declaration that humans are the imago dei.16 Indeed the Scriptures indicate that God created us with a special task, namely that we be the bearers of the divine image.17 We are to represent the Creator to creation; we are to mirror for the sake of creation God's own character.

The creation narratives suggest that this image is a social, rather than merely an individual matter. God created humankind in the image of God as male and female.18 And the Creator's purpose was that we enjoy fellowship with each other.19 The imago dei, therefore, is fully present only in relationships - in 'community'. It is primarily as we are in proper relationship with others that we are God's image.

This ought not to surprise us, for God is likewise fundamentally social. God is the social Trinity, the loving fellowship of the three trinitarian persons who are the one God. As we enjoy genuine fellowship with each other, therefore, we reflect the triune God and God's own character - love.

But the Bible teaches that God is characterised by a special kind of love. God is that self-giving love which seeks the benefit of the other, even when it necessitates personal loss (agape). We find the loving heart of God revealed in Jesus: "though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich".20

Agape and Eros

Divine love encompasses, transforms and ultimately surpasses another kind of love, called eros, which refers to the desire for the other aroused by the beauty of the beloved. Eros fulfils certain needs in the lover and provides the lover with satisfaction or enjoyment. In this sense, it lacks the unconditional dimension of agape.

Human relationships that reflect the reality of God and hence mark the divine image are those in which agape is prominent, in which self-giving love - service to and for the sake of the other (agape) - transforms the desire for the other (eros). Relationships founded solely on eros -solely on desire for the other -in contrast, blur our understanding of God's character. They distort the divine image, for they suggest that God is primarily eros, whereas God is self-giving love - agape.21

Human sexuality is especially susceptible to this distortion. There is an unavoidable dimension of eros in nearly every act of sexual intercourse. When the sex act occurs within its proper context, however, agape is present with eros. Kept within the boundaries of agape, the element of eros is wholesome.

But every sexual relationship runs the danger of allowing eros to crowd out agape. When eros triumphs over agape, the relationship no longer reflects God's self-giving love. Instead, it offers a distorted image of God. If this happens, the partners' sexual liaison has violated their personhood as God's image-bearers.

Contemporary attempts to develop a new and seemingly more 'Christian' ethic are hard-pressed to prevent eros from overwhelming agape. They generally end up condoning impermanent sexual relations, which are always potentially exploitive.

Instead of fostering non-manipulative, self-sacrificial relationships, approval of sexual activity beyond the boundaries of marriage compounds the difficulty of building healthy male-female sexual bonds. Marie Fortune, who espouses the revised ethic of our day, nevertheless admits that "Freely chosen, fully informed, and mutually agreed upon sexual activity with another might in fact be a rare experience."22

As Christ's disciples, God calls us to be the divine image. We are to resemble the eternal love which characterises the trinitarian persons. And we are to mirror the loving way in which God relates to us. The Lord of the church desires that his disciples strive to be a community that embodies and shows forth God's own self-giving love.

Discovering the Personal God

Pastors are to facilitate the church in obeying its mandate. Ministers are to "shepherd" the flock of God, so that Christ's disciples might reflect to an increasing extent God's character.

A central means in which a pastor serves the congregation in this manner is through relationships characterised by integrity. Indeed, healthy relationships are crucial for personal growth. We discover ourselves and create our sense of identity in the context of person-to-person relationships. But in addition, through other people we discover the God who is person.

For many congregants, no one is more significant as a symbol of the personal God than the pastor. Through their pastors they hope to gain insight into God's nature and character.

They anticipate that pastors will always be pictures of true Christian personhood. They expect that the ministers' relationships with congregants will provide an example for them to emulate. They envision that their pastors will diligently seek to model God's self-giving love in all they do and never falsely represent God's character. In short, they assume that pastors will exemplify the divine image.

This is a sacred trust, which affords pastors a great potential for ministry. With this sacred trust, however, comes the potential for misuse. A minister is susceptible to the temptation to use this position for personal advantage.

Of course, any illicit sexual relationship mars the divine image. And any act of clergy sexual indiscretion undermines the integrity of the pastorate, sullying what God designed to be a model of the divine image. However, when a male pastor becomes involved in an illicit liaison with a female congregant, the sexual misconduct takes on an additional, pernicious dimension.

The congregant likely came to her pastor in her woundedness. She expected to gain a renewed awareness of the faithful and unconditional love of the holy God.

But the minister reduced a relationship which God intends to model agape into one ruled by eros. His sexual contact marked the victory of his desire to possess the other (eros) over the commitment to self-sacrifice for the sake of the other (agape). The sexual contact means that the pastor-congregant relationship no longer serves as a vehicle whereby the Holy Spirit can heal her wounds and foster growth in her.

The person most obviously violated through the sexual misconduct is the congregant. However, by crossing into the 'forbidden zone' the pastor has violated his own identity as well. Through his sexual indiscretion, he has denied his divine calling, besmirched his identity as a minister of the gospel and forsaken his vocation as one charged with facilitating growth in the lives of his congregants. No longer can others 'see' God through him. He has betrayed the divine image.


What happens when pastors fall? They denigrate the integrity of the pastorate.

They violate the trust between pastor and people - a sacred trust that stands at the foundation of ministry. As contemporary writers suggest, they betray a power trust.

But what observers often overlook is the truth that this abuse of power is so pernicious exactly because it occurs in the context of the betrayal of a sexual trust, which is sacred because it is linked to our human task of living as the divine image.

Left unbridled, sexual misconduct in the pastorate can wreak havoc in the lives of all whom it draws into its wake. We dare not allow this to happen! But responding to this menacing problem demands that we understand clearly the nature of the betrayal of trust clergy sexual misconduct involves.


This article was originally published in Perspectives 11/6 (June-July 1996) and is reprinted with permission.



1. Peter Rutter, Sex in the Forbidden Zone: When Men in Power-Therapists, Doctors, Clergy, Teachers and Others-Betray Women's Trust (Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1986).

2. John D. Vogelsang, "From Denial to Hope: A Systemic Response to Clergy Sexual Abuse" Journal of Religion & Health 32/3 (Fall 1993): 197.

3. Pamuela Cooper-White, "Soul Stealing: Power and Relations in Pastoral Sexual Abuse," Christian Century 108/6 (February 20, 1991): 199.

4. For an important example of those who reject the viability of the older ethic, see Karen Lebacqz and Ronald G. Burton, Sex in the Parish (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), p. 241.

5. Fortune, Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin (New York: Pilgrim, 1983), p. 100.

6. Lewis B. Smedes, Sex for Christians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976), pp. 15-25.

7. James B. Nelson, Embodiment (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1978).

8. For a succinct statement of this view, see Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, ed. James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1994), p. xiv. For a lengthier treatment from my own perspective, see my Sexual Ethics: An Evangelical Perspective, revised edition (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1997).

9. for example Isa. 62:5; Jer. 2:2; Hos. 2:2-23

10. Eph. 5:21-33

11. John 3:29; Mark 2:18

12. Rev. 19:7; 21:9-10; 21:2

13. Exo. 20:3

14. Heb. 13:4

15. 1 Pet. 5:3

16. Gen. 1:26

17. Gen. 2:15

18. Gen. 1:27

19. see Gen. 2:20-24

20. 2 Cor 8:9

21. 1 John 4:8,16

22. Fortune, Sexual Violence, p. 101.


Stan Grenz was principal speaker at the South Pacific Association of Bible Colleges' (SPABC) Conference held in July this year at BCNZ. Stan is married to Edna, Minister of Music at First Baptist Church, Vancouver, Canada, where he plays trumpet and guitar on the worship team, and sings in the church choir. They have two teenage children, Joel and Corina. Stan is the Pioneer McDonald Professor of Baptist Heritage, Theology and Ethics, Carey Theological College; and Professor of Theology and Ethics, Regent College, Vancouver Canada.

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