Sexual Sin in the Ministry
For the last twenty years, thousands of men from across America struggling with sexual sin have come to our intensive counseling workshop. Over half were pastors and missionaries.
I wish our experience was unique.
Several years ago, a seminary professor told me, “We no longer ask our entering students if they are struggling with pornography; we assume every student is struggling. The question we ask is, ‘How serious is the struggle?’”
One missions agency told me that 80% of their applicants voluntarily indicate a struggle with pornography, resulting in staff shortages on the field.
Pornography is just one level of sin — a form of visual sex, or heart adultery. Physical adultery includes an affair, multiple affairs, prostitution, and homosexuality. Other sexual behaviors within the ministry are such heinous “unfruitful works of darkness . . . it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret” (Ephesians 5:11–12). To face the crisis, we must correctly understand the nature of the problem, ask God to search our own hearts, and be committed to restore each one caught in sexual sin “in a spirit of gentleness” (Galatians 6:1).
I have pondered long and hard two questions: Why do people repeatedly return to sexual sin, and why do people turn away from sexual sin?
Deeper than a Disease
First, I would say that after two decades of helping set free those held captive by sexual sin, I’m convinced that the concept of sexual addiction as a disease does not fully identify the seriousness of the problem. If we are going to get serious about the problem in the church, we can ill afford to be misled in our thinking. The real problem is hidden deep within. The least bit of lust is an indication of vast corruption in the human heart. It is an enslavement that cannot be broken through any form of behavior management, recovery program, or counseling. The inside is so ravaged by sin that we can do nothing to change it.
“Secret sexual sin is an invasive poison to the soul, mind, and body.”
When one is held in the grip of sexual sin, there is no hope of self-reform or self-efforts for those living according to the “passions of [their] flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:3). To put it bluntly, those living in habitual sexual sin are “dead in [their] trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1). Dead — as in, a loss of spiritual life. Dead to finding satisfaction with God. Dead to living for his purpose. Holiness is dead. Wisdom is dead. Purity is dead. Love is dead. Like David, the sexual sinner has sinned “against the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:13), and in so doing has “utterly scorned the Lord” (2 Samuel 12:14). The horrible fact is they are “by nature children of wrath” (Ephesians 2:3).
I believe addictionology plays down the seriousness of sin and the necessity of the work of God when it encourages the sexual addict to accept the theory that recovery will only be successful when they begin to believe that they are a good person at the core and just have a disease.
Diagnoses always determine the method of treatment. So “good” people only need to get serious, follow the steps of recovery, and remain in recovery. The opposite is true. When dealing with sexual sin, we must hold fast to the teaching of Jesus Christ: “From within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality . . . adultery” (Mark 7:21).
By nature and by choice we satisfy ourselves, rebel against God, and have no accurate understanding of the depth of our problem. The heart is deceptive, and without supernatural change, it will grow worse. The only hope is “the grace of God . . . training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age” (Titus 2:11–12).
Look closely and you will see that sexual sinners are disappointed with pleasure in their pursuit of what is essentially false intimacy. As one pastor, who was living in two adulterous relationships, put it, “This was the insanity: I no sooner finished the sexual act and immediately broke into tears, devastated by what I had done, but I only returned again and again to the same sinful relationship.”
As sinners, we are created with desires for intimacy and for delight. Therefore, “The way to fight lust is to feed faith with the precious and magnificent promise that the pure in heart will see, face to face, the all-satisfying God of glory” (Future Grace, 338).
Yet the sexual sinner, finding no pleasure in real intimacy with God, ultimately finds no pleasure in false intimacy. Real intimacy has both pain and pleasure; false intimacy offers the illusion of no pain, but in the end there is no real pleasure! A part of exchanging “the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25) is that you end up with pleasure now, but pain forever!
Deception runs deeper than we think. Deception is inherent to the problem of sexual sin on two levels.
First, there is the double life with clandestine liaisons, endless hidden hours on a computer, or the misuse of unaccounted time away from the office or home. The behavior is carefully hidden from view, but there are lies, then more lies to cover the lies. Face the facts: the motive for secrecy is to keep doing it. But secrecy of sexual sin also indicates a person’s commitment to flee from the light. “And people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19).
“In all the vileness of sexual sin, exposure is showing us the perfect patience of Christ.”
The second level of deception is self-deception. If the heart is deceitful, it impacts the way we want to see the secret things in our lives, particularly secret sexual sins. The missionary can justify going to nude beaches; a pastor sees the value of an affair because it makes him happy; going to a prostitute on Monday is just a reward for hard work on Sunday.
When you say, “I will keep this part of my life a secret,” what are you hiding?
Hidden from view is scandalous behavior that would certainly horrify any congregation or spouse. It is also a calculated contradiction of one’s public image that, if revealed, would bring ruin. It also may be a relationship that you believe is so fulfilling you can’t imagine ending it.
Everyone thinks they are hiding their acts of sin: lust, cheating, porn, and adultery. Such thinking makes it easier to justify the secrecy for the greater good of one’s marriage, family, ministry, job, and future. Such rationalization is universal to all secret sexual sin. “After all, a lot of people would be hurt if they knew what I was doing.” As one pastor put it, “I was in a six-month affair, at the same time preaching and counseling against adultery, and telling myself that God didn’t care because the church was growing.”
In reality, it is not the behavior alone that is hidden.
Secret sexual sin is an invasive poison to the soul, mind, and body. It is a poison deep within the recesses of the soul that keeps one from finding satisfaction in God and meaningful intimacy with others. This is a poison that will kill not only in this life, but also for eternity! “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure . . . has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). Sexual behavior that is indistinguishable from the unbelieving world may indicate a person is not truly a child of God.
The Turn from Sin
Why do people turn away from sexual sin?
In thousands of cases that I have counseled, only about 1% of the men have come to us voluntarily and preemptively. Ninety-nine percent of the men were caught.
Getting caught in sexual sin doesn’t change the heart.
I can’t prove it, but I believe that God will providentially expose the secret sexual sin of his children.
It staggers our finite imagination that God will let his chosen ones go deep into brazen sexual sin, live in it for many years, and have so many people badly hurt. And no matter how difficult it is for spouses and church members to see it in the moment, God is at work when a pastor’s sin is exposed. Exposure is a sovereign act of God. God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8)! In all the vileness and rebellion against God that is a big part of sexual sin, exposure is showing us the perfect patience of Christ.
Many times I’ve been asked, “How can you keep dealing with such sinful men?” There are two reasons: First, I have seen over and over again the power of God to change the darkest sinner. Second, restoration with God is more important than anything. It is more important than career or marriage. God cares more for you, your soul, and your wife than he does your gifts and calling. You are his child before you are a pastor or a husband.
After secret sexual sin is exposed, we can make the mistake of focusing on the actions and attempt to eliminate behavior. We may be inadvertently feeding a false conviction rather than aiding true conviction.
“The cross isn’t a recovery program. It is a place to die.”
False conviction is a reflex reaction caused by self-disgust, a sorrow over the consequences of sin. True conviction is an abiding sorrow over the offense against God, and while not the natural response, it does demonstrate that God has begun a good work that he will complete (Philippians 1:6). True conviction is followed by true repentance. False conviction is followed by counterfeit repentance that only sees the consequences of sexual sin and the pain it caused others. Often this leads to a temporary change in behavior without a heart change.
Heart change is critical, “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God” (Ephesians 5:5). There is no room for error when it comes to dealing with sexual sin. There is a demand to repent or perish (Luke 13:3, 5). So there must be inner transformation of the heart because it is “deceitful above all things, and desperately sick” (Jeremiah 17:9).
Christians must take severe measures in killing this sin. This is the real danger: “Every unclean thought would be adultery if it could” (John Owen). “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality . . . ” (Colossians 3:5).
The cross isn’t a recovery program, the place to improve on what good is already there. It is a place to die. It is not a question of giving up sexual sin, but of giving up one’s rights!
“But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness” (Romans 6:17–18). As dead sinners we lived “in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:3). Deceived, we foolishly think we can use our bodies as we choose when we are in love, when it brings us pleasure, when it makes us a whole person or feeds our spiritual well-being. The truly repentant sexual sinner begins to grasp, “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:19–20).
True repentance is radical change from the inside out. “The basic meaning of repent is to experience a change of the mind’s perceptions and dispositions and purposes” (What Jesus Demands from the World, 41). Repentance is not just becoming sexually pure, but an inward change, “so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10). Inward change leads to sexual purity. Repentance happens on the inside where heart change includes the development of an ingrained attitude to flee sexual immorality.
Don’t Wait to Get Caught
Some time ago, I met a pastor who told me that he had two or three affairs in each of the several churches he had pastored. He said, “My reputation in my denomination is to take a small struggling church and see it grow, only to again take another small church and see it grow. I’ve made that move three times, but in fact, I was only moving to a new church before I got caught in those affairs.” That man has no reason to expose his sexual sin or leave the ministry. Why should anyone know?
“There is hope. It begins with facing the truth.”
Why should anyone turn from sexual sin before being caught?
First, don’t let yourself be deceived. “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil. . . . No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God” (1 John 3:8–9). While not completely free from sin, the heart of true believers has been transformed, and they cannot live in a pattern of continual sexual sin.
Second, the exhortation is to “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (James 5:16).
Third, fear is not a virtue. Yes, exposure will be costly, but right now you are dying on the inside. It may not feel like dying right now, but you are. You are slowly killing yourself, your spouse, your family, and your congregation.
Fourth, if secret sexual sin has severe consequences, it is worth dealing with before the devastation occurs. Get help before your Internet browsing history is discovered and shared; the prostitute turns into an uncover police woman and you are arrested for soliciting; you contract an STD; or you are publicly exposed, humiliating yourself, your spouse, your family, and your congregation.
Fifth, it will come out. God is never mocked. “Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness” (Romans 11:22).
Sixth, getting caught shatters trust and honesty in marriage, embarrasses your spouse, and makes reconciliation more difficult.
Seventh, there is hope. It begins with facing the truth. It is never just a struggle with your thought life; like all sexual sin, it is evil. If there is an old self to put off, there must be a new self to put on; that is the gospel (Ephesians 4:20–24).
Hear the Better Word
Christ bears the wrath that will come for all sexual sin. If you are a true believer and real change has occurred, you are called to put off the old and put on the new. Killing sexual sin starts with exposure; it ends with no longer being enslaved (Romans 6:6). Exposure is painful, but it is better to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21) than to hear, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).
If you are a pastor stuck in sexual sin, no matter how well you have attempted to cover those sins with layers and layers of lies, I plead with you, step out from the darkness of those sins. Step into the light. Get help. You will never find life in the shadows.