Does Struggling with Pornography Disqualify a Pastor from Ministry? (Part 1 of 4)

In December 2010 Covenant Eyes released a new e-book for pastors who struggle with pornography. The following is part 1 of Pastor Bobby Scott’s chapter.

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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. 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. 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, pastors, like all believers, at times 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). And 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 pastors can and some 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. I’ll have to answer these questions in my next post. But for now let me end on with this plea—please pray for your pastors. They fight on the front lines and are always under spiritual attack. They (we) do need your help.

Stay tuned next week for Part 2…