Welcome back this Monday. Thank you for listening. Well, there are many factors that would disqualify a man from holding the office of elder, or pastor, in a local church. And that raises an important discussion about a man’s history. To what extent does a man’s sinful past come into play in his qualification (or lack of qualification) today, specifically when that sin is sexual sin? That’s the question we have from a young man.
“Dear Pastor John, hello! Ever since I was converted about four years ago, I’ve felt a strong desire to pursue full-time pastoring. My heart’s desire is to serve the Lord and the flock for the rest of my life. And that desire has only grown more intense as time goes on. Not only this, but, in this past year, the Lord has set before me everything needed to pursue this, like seminary training and support from my elders. There’s just one major question I must answer. Does my pre-conversion life of fornication disqualify me for pastoral ministry now? I have repented, but that life was filled to the brim with sin. According to 1 Corinthians 6:16, I became one flesh with the girl I committed this sin with. I’m unmarried now. But considering 1 Timothy 3:2, does my sinful past disqualify me from eldership today?”
No, I don’t think your past fornication disqualifies you for ministry, not in and of itself. And the reason I say it like that is because it would be part of what disqualifies you if it were part of an ongoing character flaw of bondage to sensuality, or pornography, or lack of self-control. Past fornication need not disqualify from ministry unless it’s part of an ongoing, sinful, unsanctified blemish in the present.
“Past fornication need not disqualify from ministry unless it’s part of a sinful, unsanctified blemish in the present.”
So let me step back then and give three (I think it’s just three) reasons from Scripture why I think that’s true — namely, why a man who is rebellious in a season of life, commits fornication, but has been free from that sin and repentant of its moral and spiritual Christ-dishonoring ugliness for long enough to prove his genuine newness, why it may be right to consider that man for Christian ministry in Christ’s church.
Paul, the Foremost of Sinners
So here’s the first argument. Paul’s example in his past life and present ministry with Christ’s blessing is really quite astonishing because of the actual use he himself makes of that example. Paul was complicit in Stephen’s murder in Acts 7 (see Acts 7:58; 8:1). Then as he became a ringleader in the efforts to stamp out Christianity with imprisonments and murders, it got even worse and more intentional. Acts 9:1–2: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to . . . Damascus.”
In short, Paul was a murderer, and “no murderer has eternal life abiding in him,” John said (1 John 3:15). Paul’s own assessment of his pre-Christian life was that he was the worst, the foremost of sinners. And that God saved him and used him anyway — precisely as an example to others who feel hopeless about their future possibilities of forgiveness and usefulness — is a precious reality in Scripture.
Here’s the way he says it in 1 Timothy 1:15–16: “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason” — and this is why it’s so remarkable, because we don’t have to make this application; he’s making the application — “that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.”
So Paul gives his own experience of mercy as an example that I think extends to a person who may not have murdered, but has, in fact, committed fornication. That’s my first argument.
Husband of One Woman
Second, it’s a little more complicated because the young fellow that we’re dealing with here is sharp. He has studied, and he’s thought through the possible blockages to his own eldership. He’s asking a more sophisticated question. He asks on the basis of 1 Corinthian 6:16 whether, in fact, fornication is a unique kind of sin that may exclude from ministry when, in fact, murder may not.
Now that’s a thoughtful question because of the way Paul argues against fornication in 1 Corinthians 6, and because of 1 Timothy 3:2, to which he refers. In that text, Paul says that a minister in the church must be “the husband of one wife,” which some translate as “a one-woman man.” That’s pretty common paraphrase, a “one-woman man.” In other words, our friend wonders if he can qualify as a one-woman man because he committed fornication. That’s the way he’s thinking, which is a good way to think — I mean, it’s a good question to ask. It means he’s not weaseling. He’s not trying to squeak out of the rigors of Scripture.
So let me try to clarify what I think Paul means by “husband of one woman” (that’s important in the way his argument against himself is working), and why “one-woman man” may be a misleading translation. I have a lot of friends that translate it that way, and I have misgivings about that translation. Suppose your pastor is single. (Now, I think that’s legitimate: Jesus is single; Paul is single. I think it’s legitimate to have a single man for a pastor.) Suppose your pastor is single, and he commits fornication regularly with only one woman. Would he qualify as being a one-woman man? Well, good grief. Technically, yes — and we all know that’s not what Paul meant.
So translating “a husband of one woman” as “one-woman man” can get us into difficulty if we’re not careful. Paul really is dealing with marriage, and whether a man is faithful to his wife or whether he commits adultery.
Is Fornication a Marriage?
Now, the question then becomes, what do we make of Paul’s argument against fornication in 1 Corinthians 6? Some might say, “Well, Paul really does argue that, in essence, a sexual relationship before marriage is a kind of marriage.” Then our young friend might draw the conclusion, “Well, so I was in a sense married, and I’m not faithful to that girl today by not being married to her officially — not to mention that I can’t even get married legitimately if I’m still married to her because of that old relationship.” Is that what Paul meant?
He says in 1 Corinthians 6:13–18, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality [that is, fornication], but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. . . . Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?” And here he’s getting very specific; he means our sexual organs. So our body parts are Christ’s body parts. “Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute?” And he cries out, “Never!” And then here’s the tricky part. He argues like this: “Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?” And he quotes Genesis 2:24, which is about marriage: “For, as it is written, ‘The two will become one flesh.’ But he who is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Flee from sexual immorality.” Now that’s the end of 1 Corinthians 6:13–18.
“What makes fornication so horrible is that it takes the one-flesh design of marriage and prostitutes it.”
So Paul portrays the horror of fornication for the Christian as taking the body parts of Christ, because ours are his, and making them body parts of a prostitute. That’s how intimate and profound sexual intercourse is in Paul’s apostolic, inspired mind: you become one body with her. What makes the text look ominous for our young friend is that Paul quotes Genesis 2:24, which is a text about marriage: “The two will become one flesh.” So does Paul mean that, in essence, then, the one who fornicates with a prostitute is married to her? That’s what he wonders. That would exclude him because of 1 Timothy 3:2.
My answer is no, that’s not what Paul means. He could have said that. He doesn’t draw that inference, or that conclusion. That would have been powerful if he had said that, but he didn’t go there. So what’s he doing?
I think what he’s doing is this. He says, “What makes fornication so horrible is that it takes the one-flesh design of marriage and prostitutes it.” He prostitutes that part of marriage by stripping it out of the covenant relationship of marriage and treating it as though it were designed for a prostitute. It’s precisely that this is not a marriage that makes the prostitution of Christ’s body parts so horrible. The one-flesh union designed for marriage — which represents Christ and the church, which is why it’s not idolatry to have sex in marriage — to take it out of that sacred covenant with a wife and with Christ and to prostitute it in fornication is what makes this fornication so horrible.
So I conclude that Paul was not treating fornication as a kind of marriage. There is no covenant formed at all with this prostitute, and that is precisely what makes the sexual similarity to marriage so morally and spiritually ugly. Therefore, I don’t think Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 6 means that our young repentant, transformed friend should use this text to argue that he’s excluded from eldership simply because of 1 Timothy 3:2, which says he must be “the husband of one [woman].”
Washed, Sanctified, Justified
One last observation, which is also precious. In this same chapter, Paul specifically refers to fornication as something in the church that has been cleansed and forgiven.
Do not be deceived: . . . the sexually immoral [and he’s referring to fornication there, because later he refers to adulterers] will [not] inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9–11)
To which I say, “Praise God that any of us can be saved from our sin.”
So my conclusion is that the elders of this young man’s church should (and if they’re listening to me, greetings in the name of Jesus) carefully and biblically assess his qualifications for ministry and not let that past sin of fornication be decisive in excluding him.