It seemed like just another picture perfect fall day. My grandfather called my teenage cousin and me to go with him for a ride. We loved to spend time with him—especially on road trips. As it turned out, this would be a very different kind of trip. Coughing all along the way, he drove straight to the hospital. While my cousin and I waited for hours, my grandfather was admitted. That was our final road trip. My grandfather died after a brief stay in the hospital.
I loved my grandfather. It ached my heart to think: what if he had gone in sooner? Would his doctors have discovered the cancer in time? But men don’t like to go the doctor, do they? We don’t like to admit that we have problems, and we certainly hate confessing that we need help. But acquiescing to the fear of vulnerability and to our culture’s false standard of masculinity (i.e., “I’m a man, I can handle it”) often makes for tragic endings. There’s a lesson in this for all pastors. Living by the motto, “I don’t need help, and I can’t expose my vulnerabilities,” can lead to ministerial death, even when Christ offers abundantly abounding grace to rescue us.
In his classic essay on the dangers of ministry, “The Almost Inevitable Ruin of Every Minister,” Donald Whitney writes that:
Almost everyone knows someone who used to be in the ministry. Almost everyone knows someone who shouldn’t be in the ministry. And every minister knows another minister—if not several—he does not want to be like….So I think it’s important to address the subject of the almost inevitable ruin of every minister…and how to avoid it. Once when a Southern Baptist denominational executive was on the Midwestern Seminary campus in the late 1990s, he asserted that statistics show that for every twenty men who enter the ministry, by the time those men reach age sixty-five, only one will still be in the ministry.
Doesn’t your experience confirm Whitney’s warning—too many pastors don’t make it to the finish line (1 Corinthians 9:27)? With the pastoral canvas already strewn with landmines, another lethal one has appeared. Porn, to a staggering degree, is infesting the lives of pastors. Churches and denominations are being forced to implement policies to handle this growing problem. The determinative factor regarding how to respond to pastors who struggle with porn must be found in the Word of God.
It is, therefore, my aim in this chapter to provide an exegetical/theological study of critical passages in order to answer the question—“Does struggling with pornography disqualify a pastor from ministry?”
Can a Genuinely Godly Pastor Struggle with Porn?
The Word of God has much to say to pastors who struggle with porn as well as to their churches. In the highly disputed verses of Romans 7:14-25, the apostle Paul speaks of a person—“I”—who can readily identify with any pastor in a battle against a besetting sin. The fact that this “I” loved the law and hated sin, strongly suggests that “I” is a believer; and because Paul wrote Romans, the “I” most likely is no one less than the apostle himself.
In his brilliant Th.M. thesis, Steve Black persuasively argues that the use of “I” in Romans 7:7–25 is simply too definite, too sustained, and too passionate and personal to allow anything other than the autobiographical sense.1 Perhaps more stunning is the observation that Paul is writing about his present condition as the author of the book of Romans and as evangelizer of all of ancient Europe.2 If these conclusions are true, then the Word of God in Romans 7:14-25 offers a candid look into the ongoing war against sin fought by one of the greatest leaders God has ever given to the church. Therefore, there is much to be learned about a leader’s battle against sin from this passage.
Openly confessing his lapses in his war against the flesh, Paul provides an illustrative example of the principle that until our “corruptible will have put on the incorruptible” all Christians, godly leaders included, will lose periodic struggles against sin. According to Paul, the moment any believer fails to yield to the Spirit, in some way he yields to the flesh, allowing himself for that duration to be a slave of sin (Romans 6:12; 7:14, 23b).
While this is the painful experience of every believer, including every pastor, “doing things that we hate and failing to do things that we want to do,” this must not be the normative pattern for any Christian’s life (Romans 8:13). Christ’s gift of the Spirit enables believers to deny the flesh and to resist the temptation of sin (Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:16). So although Christians will experience episodic defeats, victorious living by the Spirit, as described in Romans 8, must become the pattern of their lives. This is true because of the reality of the believer’s death to sin and resurrection with Christ, described in chapter 6.
Pastors then, like all believers, rest in the hope-giving promise of the gospel to forgive all of their sins. They must also exemplify the powerful transforming work of the gospel, which instructs believers to deny and to not indulge in sin (Romans 6:1, 15; Titus 2:11-12). Thus the difference between pastors and other Christians isn’t the complete absence of sin in pastors’ lives but the consistent pattern of living by the power of the Spirit.
So yes, sadly, at times pastors, like all believers, will be defeated by sin and cry out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24). Like all true believers, by faith they must allow God’s grace to fill their hearts with the exclamation, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25), rejoicing that one day they will be completely liberated from the presence of sin (Jude 24).
However, since that day has not arrived yet, and since some pastors will struggle with lust, the question that remains is, “Does the lustful sin of viewing pornography rise to a level of disqualifying him from the ministry?” In order to answer that question, we must determine at what level, and under what circumstances, such a sin could render a pastor reproachable.
Can a Pastor Struggle with Porn and be “Blameless”?
According to the Word of God in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9, pastors must live by the highest moral standards. Written with the force of the moral imperative “must be” these passages delineate, without exception, the moral qualifications which God requires of every man whom He deems fit for the office of pastor/elder/bishop. A classic example in Scripture of a man who lived a blameless life is Daniel. When his opponents sought to discredit him by finding something in his life that they could use to scandalize his name, they found nothing (Daniel 6:4). Likewise, in the New Testament the standard “above reproach” is an honor conferred upon a man because he lives by God’s standards in his public and private life. So if or when a pastor’s life is fully exposed, it must be scandal-free.
The conclusions drawn from Romans 7 add another clue to understanding the meaning of “above reproach.” No pastor will perfectly keep all of these moral demands all of the time. Luther was correct when he coined the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator—the Christian is “simultaneously righteous and sinner.” Being above reproach therefore demands that all pastors consistently exemplify mature lives but not perfection.
This also means that there is something inherently relative about the moral standards in Titus 1 and 1 Timothy 3. For instance, a congregation’s overall maturity level can affect what it means to be an exemplary model of maturity for others. A man considered to be mature in a newly planted church in a mission field deprived of biblical resources may be noticeably different from a man in a church in which even the children’s pastor has a Master’s of Divinity degree.
In the greatly debated phrase “husband of one wife” there is another clue that can help answer the question, “Is a pastor who struggles with lust not above approach?” If the phrase is interpreted as a moral quality, and it seems that it should be because it is placed in a list of moral qualifications, the phrase means a pastor must be a faithful “one woman kind of man.” For single and married pastors alike, this qualification requires that pastors cannot be womanizers and must be the kind of men who are and who will be loyal to one woman in every sense—body, heart, mind, and eyes.
By way of application, this means that since pornography is a sin where the viewer is intimately engaging women with whom he is not married (Matthew 5:27-31) then succumbing to the sin of pornography can plummet a pastor below the point of being an above reproach, faithful, one woman kind of man. And since being blameless is an honor that a church/denomination confers upon a man based upon what they see, that title is illegitimate when a pastor involved in porn maintains that reputation by wearing a façade of being a “one woman kind of man.”
Obviously, using tech-savvy skills to clear a computer’s history and cookies in order to give the impression of being “blameless” does not qualify a man as being above reproach. Conversely, the affirmation that comes from transparent accountability with other leaders of one’s church/denomination confirms before God and his congregation that a leader, although not sinless, is living above reproach and is worthy of the honored title “Pastor” (1 Timothy 5:17, 22).
Should a Pastor’s Response to His Sin Influence a Church’s Decision to Counsel or Disqualify Him?
A little over a year ago, I was a guest on a radio show of a very prominent Christian host to discuss what I thought would be a dialogue regarding what Christian men can do to resist sexual temptation. On live air, he asked me if I thought genuine Christians could struggle with pornography. Having no idea where he was going with that question, I simply answered “yes.” He emphatically replied, “no,” citing 1 John 3:8-9 as his proof text. At first, I gently tried to correct his misunderstanding of these verses. I explained that without exception, the apostle John identifies unsaved professing Christians as those who indulge in lifestyles of unbroken sin.3 However, he does acknowledge that genuine Christians do sin. In distinction from the professing unsaved though, John describes Christians’ sins as acts and not indulging unrepentant patterns (1 John 1:9; 2:1-3).4
His position was that real Christian men live sinlessly in the area of lust. I argued that the statements in 1 John 1:8-105 could be understood to be exposing the real spiritual state of those who did and those who did not have genuine fellowship with God (cp., 1 John 5:13). According to 1 John 1:7 and 1:9, the hallmark of godly Christians is not sinlessness but a habitual pattern of obedience accompanied with a continuous habit of confession of sins.
Here’s my application to pastors. Pastors will sin, therefore, a pastor’s sin that has the potential of affecting his blameless status must be confessed to God and to those who are responsible for affirming that he is maintaining an above reproach reputation. Otherwise, how can a congregation be assured that they are being led by men who are blamelessly following Christ (1 Timothy 5:17; Acts 20:28)?
When men refuse to allow the true fruit of their lives to be inspected, they prove that they are not qualified to lead God’s church (Matthew 7:16, 20). Such men, who are dangers to the church, indulge in sin, and contrary to living in the light of a thrice holy God, they deny the guilt of their sin and the acts of sin that they commit (1:8, 10, respectively). Whereas God’s posture towards the habitual confessor6 is forgiveness, which John attests God faithfully does (1 John 1:9; 2:1), John gives no such good news to professing Christians who do not consistently and humbly confess their sins (1 John 1:8, 10).
These truths have a profound impact on understanding how pastors need to respond to their battle with sin and how churches and denominations can respond to their pastors who are struggling with lust. Pastors are privileged to preach the wonders of God’s forgiving grace, and therefore carry a greater responsibility of modeling God’s holy hatred of sin by confessing it (James 5:16). Pastors, who preach to others to refresh their souls from the sweet fountain of God’s grace, must themselves drink from that same fountain of forgiveness (Hebrews 4:16).
If you are a pastor struggling with pornography, after reading this you will respond in only one of two ways. One, you will trust God and confess your sin by bringing it out into the light of God’s grace, or two, you will try to hide your sin from God who is omniscient. If you confess your sin, then God will forgive you. That is a wonderful thing! Depending upon the depth of your involvement, our loving God, who grants grace upon grace, will measure your discipline. The means by which He applies discipline for pastors is through the leaders charged with oversight of the congregation (Acts 20:28-31). Church/denomination leadership must not be a good ol’ boys club who cover up each others’ sins. They are responsible before God to help each other live blamelessly (Titus 1:5-6). Therefore, whatever discipline they prescribe—a warning, assigned counseling, increased accountability, or time off—a pastor must accept by faith.
God is holy, and through discipline He enables us to share in His holiness, for without holiness no one—including preachers—will see God (Matthew 5:29; Hebrews 12:14b). This is how He grants all of His children His full aid to live a life of repentance. However, you can choose to not confess your sin (Psalm 32:1-4). If you do, know that your non-confession actually is a confession that you do not believe Psalm 130:4, “there is forgiveness with [God].” To hide our sin is to add sin upon our sin, and is to proclaim that “God cannot see and He does not require anything” (Psalm 10:11, 13). I plead with you not to respond this way. It will only grease your slide further into the abyss of sin. This is what the wicked do (Psalm 10:4). These two radically different options will lead to two radically different outcomes. For every pastor who refuses to confess his sin, who will not repent, and who plumbs the depths of the darkest recesses of porn, remember 1 Timothy 5:20, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” Such a life is not the way of an above reproach faithful “one woman kind of man,” and therefore does not qualify that man for pastoral ministry.
How Should Churches and Denominations Respond to Pastors Who Confess Struggles with Pornography and Pastors Who Won’t Confess?
Developing policies to help pastors struggling with lust is not an easy task. Many pastors are guilty on some level of violating Jesus’ admonish of not looking lustfully (Matt 5:27-28). However, the Word of God gives ample truth to guide us. Here are some general principles based on these biblical conclusions that can be used to develop specific guidelines for your church/denomination:
Before you discipline, teach. Approach writing your policies with the same intent that Paul gave to Titus. He left Titus in Crete to raise men up to the moral standards he outlined, and not just to discard everyone who fell short.
Make it your aim to help your pastors. Apply the words of our Lord, “A battered reed He will not break off, and a smoldering wick He will not put out” (Matthew 12:20, NASB).
Strive to always restore whenever possible. Remember how Christ mended the sin-inflicted wounds of a broken shepherd called Peter and how He restored him to feed His sheep (John 21:15-17). And don’t forget the story of John Mark. After Paul rejected him, Barnabas worked with him and brought about spiritual growth. In the end, he became useful to Paul.
Clearly identify the problem. What are the triggers, the patterns, the lies being believed, the status of his marriage, the dangers of his work environment, his level of spiritual maturity and health, etc.?
Get to the root of the problem. In other words, dig as deep as the problem goes. How does he respond to accountability? Is he transparent? Did he ignore previous warnings? How often does he engage in pornography? Is he looking at soft or hardcore porn? Does he masturbate? Does he involve live persons? To what extent does he go to hide it? Does his behavior become reckless and endanger others? Does his sin include illegal behavior, etc.?
Make a clear distinction between the pastors who humbly confess their struggle and submit to help versus pastors who persist in denying their sin, hiding it, and rejecting accountability. God often exposes sins to uncover wolves among His flock.
Measure your discipline to the degree of the sin. God always disciplines his children in love and with the most gracious means that will bring about repentance. Is a warning and the taking of further preventive steps, e.g., Covenant Eyes accountability software, enough? How about counseling and accountability only? Is an administrative leave necessary? Is permanent disqualification or a criminal investigation required?
Take a clear stance that pornography is a serious breach for any man, especially a pastor. In other words, make sure your policy is specific. For example, if a pastor intentionally looks at soft porn then your policy might prescribe automatic accountability. Try to make sure your policy aims to put out a fire before it turns into a blaze. Or in the case where a pastor initially looks at what you define as unquestionably pornographic, then your policy might prescribe mandatory counseling, and if repeated (once, twice, three times), a mandatory suspension. My point is not to write your policy, but to encourage you to make it specific enough that the pastor’s conscience can be strengthened to draw clear lines that he can not cross without incurring disciplinary consequences (Hebrews 12:6).
Do not be a respecter of persons! Remember God’s warning to Aaron, “By those who come near Me I will be treated as holy, And before all the people I will be honored” (Leviticus 10:3 NASB). If a pastor must be removed, then the church must remove him. We must be jealous for the name of Jesus and be convinced that we do great harm to the church and even to the leaders themselves when we leave men in ministries when God has made it obvious that He wants them removed.
Pray! Consistently make it a point to pray for the purity of your pastors and for the Lord to lead them not into temptation but to deliver them from evil. As you pray, remember Jesus is a High Priest who can empathize with all of our weakness. He Himself prayed for Peter knowing that he would fall. “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan has demanded permission to sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and you, when once you have turned again, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32 NASB).
In closing, let me offer two final words of advice.
First, intervention is a process that will vary from situation to situation. Therefore, leave room in your policy for case by case discretion. Be wise.
Second, removing a pastor for disciplinary reasons is always hard. So after intense prayer and a careful application of Scripture, if your situation requires dismissal of a pastor because of egregious or unrepentant porn use, then fearing God, do it with great courage and resolve.
May God help our pastors to be and remain blameless, “one woman kind of men” and grant His church the discernment to guard against those who refuse to be.
1For a full and excellent exegetical treatment of the interpretive challenges in Romans 7 cf. “The Spiritual Condition of ΕΓΩ and His Relationship to the Law in Romans 7:14-25” (Th.M. thesis, The Master’s Seminary, 2005).
2The exclusive use of present tense verbs in vv. 14-25 (in contrast to the aorist in vv. 7-13) leads to this conclusion.
3Without exception, John uses the continuous present tense throughout 1 John to mark out the apostatized unsaved professing believer (1 John 2:18-19). This conclusion as well as the ones reached in notes 8 and 9 are based on the contextual uses of the present and aorist tenses throughout 1 John as well as the aspectual senses of these tenses.
4Again, without exception, John distinguishes the sins of genuine believers in 1 John by denoting their sin with the ingressive aorist tense.
5John uses these if then conditional statements to assert that when the if part of the conditional statement is true, what is discovered about that person’s profession of faith is revealed in the then part of the statement.
6This is a syntactically significant use of the present continuous tense describing the one confessing as one who does this habitually.