Monday, March 14, 2016

Mark's thoughts: When a pastor falls in sexual sin

God has given the Means of Grace - the Word, Holy Baptism, Holy Absolution and the Sacrament of the Altar - to his Church. It is through these Means that the Holy Spirit creates and sustains faith, and delivers forgiveness. However, these Means of Grace do not take place all by themselves. In order to provide the means by which the Means of Grace are offered to his people, God has also instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry.
Jesus Christ instituted the Office of the Holy Ministry after his resurrection. In Matthew 28:18-20 Jesus commanded his apostles that disciples were to be made by baptizing and teaching. In John 20:21-23 he commanded that sins were to be forgiven in Holy Absolution. In the Words of Institution Jesus had already commanded that the Sacrament of the Altar is to be celebrated in remembrance of him (1 Cor 11:23-25). This work is to go on until the end of the age – until our Lord returns (Mt 28:20; 1 Cor 11:26).  
Naturally the apostles could not do all of this work by themselves, nor could they do it beyond their death. We find that immediately the apostles began to place authorized representatives who carried out the same actions that the apostles did as they preached, baptized, absolved and celebrated the Sacrament of the Altar (Tit 1:5; Acts 14:23). The apostles considered the presence of a pastor to be something necessary and willed by God for the Church.  

At Miletus the apostle Paul said to the pastors gathered there (the term “elder” in verses about the ministry refer to what we today call a pastor): “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers (ἐν ᾧ ὑμᾶς τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον ἔθετο ἐπισκόπους), to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28 ESV). Here we see that the Holy Spirit works through the Church to place a man in the Office of the Holy Ministry in a particular place.  

This man in the Office does not only administer the Means of Grace in the stead and by the command of Jesus Christ. He also acts as the shepherd – the pastor – who cares for God’s people as the undershepherd of Jesus who is the chief shepherd (τοῦ ἀρχιποίμενος;1 Pet 5:4). God has placed the pastor in the midst of the congregation to be the shepherd of that congregation – he has allotted them to his charge (τῶν κλήρων; 1Pet 5:3). This also means that the pastor must give an account to God for the manner in which he takes care of God’s people (Heb 13:17).

Scripture is explicit in stating this is a position of authority. Since the pastor has been placed in Christ’s Office of the Holy Ministry through the work of the Spirit, congregation members are told to, “Obey your leaders and submit to them” (Πείθεσθε τοῖς ἡγουμένοις ὑμῶν καὶ ὑπείκετε; Heb 13:17). St. Paul told the Thessalonians, “We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord (προϊσταμένους ὑμῶν ἐν κυρίῳ) and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work” (1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 ESV).


It is Christ’s Office of the Holy Ministry – a position of tremendous responsibility as well as authority. Our Lord has not left to chance how the Church is to choose men to serve in this Office. Through his apostle Paul he has provided two descriptions of the qualifications required of those who can serve in the Office:
The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil. (1 Timothy 3:1-7 ESV)
This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you—if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination. For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. (Titus 1:5-9 ESV)
For those in the Lutheran tradition, the first thing that is surprising about these descriptions is how little they say about matters related to education and training. While certainly the more education in Scripture and theology the better, it must be recognized that Scripture does not provide any specific directions regarding how a pastor is to be trained. The process for doing so has varied in the life of the Church, and no doubt, always will.

Unmistakably, the focus instead falls on the Christian character of the individual. The man who can serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry is a person whose faith in Christ guides the general conduct of his life through the work of the Spirit. It is also immediately apparent that there are individuals who are not permitted to serve in the Office. Those who manifestly do not meet these qualifications cannot serve in this way. This is not a denial that through repentance and faith they are forgiven Christians as they face the struggle against sin. But it is recognition that Scripture says there are sinful behaviors that have consequences – they exclude a person from serving in the Office of the Holy Ministry.

These qualifications do not simply guide the Church in placing men in the Office. They also direct the Church about who can remain in the Office. They are descriptions of what a pastor must be in order to continue to be a pastor. More literally Paul says in Tit 1:5, “For it is necessary that the overseer be irreproachable as a steward God” (δεῖ γὰρ τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνέγκλητον εἶναι ὡς θεοῦ οἰκονόμον). Likewise, 1 Tim 3:2 says, “Therefore it is necessary that the overseer be blameless” (δεῖ οὖν τὸν ἐπίσκοπον ἀνεπίλημπτον εἶναι). A man must be this in order to enter into the Office of the Holy Ministry. He must continue to be this if he is to remain in the Office of the Holy Ministry.

The context of the New Testament makes it clear that the apostle Paul’s words in Titus 1:5-9 and 1 Tim 3:1-7 include the sexual conduct of pastors. The New Testament contains the massive presence of material which indicates that fornication is sin (Mt 15:10; Mk 7:21; Gal 5:19; 1 Tim 1:10; Rev 2:14, 20; 9:21; 14:8; 17:2, 4; 18:3, 9; 19:2; 21:8; 22:15) and that Christians are to avoid it (Acts 15:20, 29; 21:25; 1 Cor 5:1-5, 9-13; 6:12-20; 7:2-5; 10:8; 2 Cor 12:21; Eph 5:3, 5; Col 3:5; 1 Thess 4:3; Heb 12:16, 13:4). Likewise it continues to uphold the teaching of the Sixth Commandment that adultery is sin (Mt 5:27-28; 15:19; 19:18; Mk 7:22; 10:19; Lk 18:20; Rom 2:22; Heb 13:4; Rev 2:22). This material is all the more striking because it explicitly contradicts the sexual behavior of the Greco-Roman world.

In the past it has been self-evident that a pastor who fornicates/commits adultery no longer meets the biblical qualifications to be in the Office of the Holy Ministry. Such an offense is the all the more egregious when it involves a woman under his spiritual care He must be removed and can no longer serve as a pastor..

However, today in Lutheranism some are advocating the position that if a man is repentant he can be restored to serving in the Office. There are two factors that are driving this. First, there is in Lutheranism an extreme emphasis on grace that is paired with antinomian tendencies. Such a view denies that there can be significant consequences for the sinner because he or she is forgiven. Grace triumphs over everything, and therefore the sinner is freed from the consequences of his sin. Second, this reflects the broader manner in which our culture’s views about sexual behavior have influenced the Church. Christians are far more willing to accept immoral behavior, and concomitantly they do not find it to be as offensive.

A brief examination of Tit 1:5-9 and 1 Tim 3:1-7 soon reveals that such an approach contradicts the clear statements of God’s Word. In Tit 1:5-6, Paul twice uses the word ἀνέγκλητος which means “blameless, irreproachable” (BDAG 76). First he applies it as a general description of a candidate in 1:5 (“if anyone is above reproach”). Next in 1:6 he explains why (“for”; γὰρ) this is necessary. It is because the overseer must be blameless. Paul begins the description of the overseer in 1 Tim 3:2 in the same manner. He uses a synonym ἀνεπίλημπτον which also means “irreproachable” (BDAG 77). Luke Timothy Johnson has noted that 3:7’s statement, “Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders,” brackets the section as it begins and ends with an emphasis on the good reputation (Luke Timothy Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy. Doubleday: New York, 2001, 213).

Both 1 Tim 3:2 and Tit 1:6 immediately follow the assertion that the overseer must be “blameless/irreproachable” with the statement that he must be the husband of one wife (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἀνήρ). Although the phrase can be understood as a reference to the need for a man to remain unmarried after the death of a wife (see: Jerome D. Quinn, The Letter to Titus. Doubleday: New York, 1990, 86-87), it is far more likely that following the word “blamless/irreproachable” in 1 Tim 3:2 “the main point would seem to be first the avoidance of any appearance of immorality” (Johnson, The First and Second Letters to Timothy, 214). The same is true in Titus 1:6 (“‘the husband of one wife,’ indicates that marital and sexual fidelity are required of the potential elder. This assumes that the church officer is married [the usual situation in life] and thus prescribes fidelity in these terms”; George W. Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1992, 289).

Next 1Tim 3:2 says that the overseer must be νηφάλιον which in this setting pertains “to being restrained in conduct” and so means “self-controlled, level-headed” (BDAG 672.2). Paul uses a term that seems to be synonymous in Tit 1:8 when he says the overseer must be ἐγκρατῆ . This word pertains “to having one’s emotions, impulses or desires under control” and so means “self-controlled, disciplined” (BDAG 274). Significantly, Paul uses the cognate verb cognate 1 Cor 9:25 when he says:
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control (ἐγκρατεύεται) in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 ESV)

Paul goes on to add in 1 Tim 3:2 that the overseer must be σώφρονα. He uses the same word in Tit 1:8. It also pertains “to being in control of oneself” and so means “prudent, thoughtful, self-controlled” (BDAG 987). In addition in 1 Tim 3:2 he adds κόσμιον which pertains “to having characteristics or qualities that evoke admiration or delight, an expression of high regard for” a person and so means “respectable, honorable” (BDAG 561.1).

Finally, Tit 1:8 contains δίκαιον which pertains “to being in accordance with high standards of rectitude” – in this case God’s will revealed in the Ten Commandments and expounded by Jesus and the apostles – and means “upright, just” (BDAG 246.1α). It also adds ὅσιον which pertains “to being without fault relative to deity” and so here means “devout, pious, pleasing to God, holy” (BDAG 728. 1α).

When considered along with the New Testament’s teaching about sexual conduct, the emphasis on a blameless/irreproachable character, self-control, and just/holy life makes it clear that a man in the Office of the Holy Ministry who has sex outside of marriage, and especially if it is with a congregation member under his spritual care, no longer qualifies to be in the Office. Such a gross failing means that he can no longer be considerd blameless/irreproachable and he cannot again be regarded as someone who exhibits the characteristics of self-control and restraint needed to be a pastor.

It is key to recognize that the issue is not forgiveness. In Christ, the repentant sinner is forgiven. But such forgiveness does not change the consequences of how the Church must view the individual in relation to the requirements and qualifications set forth by Paul. This point is particularly important when considering two of the most commonly cited justifications that are offered for the the belief that a man who has sinned sexually can return to serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry.

Some call attention to David who was forgiven by God and was not removed from the postion of being king of Israel (2 Sam 11-12; Psa 51) and to Peter who denied Christ and yet was restored by the Lord and continued to serve as an apostle (John 21:15-19). These certainly are illustrations of the fact that God forgives the repentant sinner. However, two points demonstrate that this argumentation is not valid. First, we cannot assume that what a biblical narrative describes then goes on to prescribe practice in the Church. Yahweh chose to deal with David in this manner and Jesus with Peter. These are facts, but since we are not God we can’t presume that they tell us what we are to do. Second, such a position ignores the direction that God has provided to his Church through the apostle Paul. God has provided very specific instructions about who can serve in the Office of the Holy Ministry. When an individual violates those qualifications, he can no longer be a pastor.

The matter is more complicated when we turn to consider the internet and parachurch. It is not uncommon for a pastor or seminary professor who has been removed from the Office of the Holy Ministry because of sexual sin, to become involved in writing a blog or doing a podcast show. They also speak at events organized by parachurch groups. The argument made in support of this is that no specific biblical text forbids him from doing this. He is, after all, “just a layman talking about Jesus and his love.”

It is true that Scripture does not directly address this situation. How could a first century A.D. text specifically mention modern phenomena? Yet to say that it is permissible because there is no Bible verse that specifically forbids it is a very weak argument. It is rather like saying the Church shouldn’t practice infant baptism because there is no verse that explicitly says, “Baptize babies.”

Instead, we need to recognize that Scripture provides ample material for addressing this matter. As we have seen Scripture is clear that the Office of the Holy Ministry is a position of authority (Heb 13:17; 1 Thess 5:12-13; Acts 20:28). An essential part of this Office is teaching. Candidates for the Office must be able to teach and give instruction (1 Tim 3:2; Tit 1:9). This teaching of those in the Office is authoritative. It is teaching that is charged with correcting or silencing those who are in error (1 Tim 1:3-4;. 2 Tim 2:24-26; Tit 1:9-11) It is done in a assertive manner that delivers what is true (1 Tim 6:2; 2 Tim 4:1-2). In fact 1 Tim 2:12 pairs teaching and exercising authority (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man”; διδάσκειν δὲ γυναικὶ οὐκ ἐπιτρέπω, οὐδὲ αὐθεντεῖν ἀνδρός) .

There is admittedly a gray area when we consider the internet and parachurch. To what extent is the teaching there intended to be received as authoritative? To what extent is it actually received as authoritative? The answer will not always be the same and will be open to dispute.

Yet this very fact explains why pastors and seminary professors removed from the Office of the Holy Ministry because of sexual sin should not be engaged in this kind of work. They can never be “just a layman” in these teaching settings. They were in the Office of the Holy Ministry charged with doing authoritative teaching, and were then removed from this position because of public sin. Certainly in such writing and speaking they seek to continue to teach the Church. However removed from the Office, they cannot now be involved in something that looks like authoritative teaching or that can easily be construed in this way. Teaching the Church is no longer something they are permitted to do.  The recognition of this on their part is a fruit of repentance. It is an acknowledgement that according to God's Word their sin has consequences in life, even as they live forgiven in Christ.


  1. Well written Pr Surburg. I think also that the gray area becomes far less gray when those teachers use their former professional experience as a pastor/theologian to bolster their credibility. They are claiming a sort of authority, even if not explicitly the authority of the Office of the Ministry.

  2. I am uncomfortable hearing or reading the ongoing public teaching of any pastors removed from office because of immoral living. And I think of the victims: Wouldn't those abused and betrayed by the pastor be even more uncomfortable than I? When a pastor is removed from office for a public sin, it is never a victimless sin. If it is because of embezzelment or another matter under the seventh commandment, someone's money was misused. Donors were abused. If the trespass falls under the 6th Commandment there is inevitably a victim or victims. We must also think of the scandalized hearers of the former pastors teaching, and those disappointed hearts who believed him when he made his public vows. In considering the ongoing earthly consequences of former pastors sins, one must also remember the victims who continue to remain voiceless.

  3. Your (good) argument strikes me a similar to Ap. XII, 156 and the surrounding context: "These penalties have nothing to do with the power of the keys because the keys can neither impose nor remit them; God imposes and remits them apart from the administration of the keys."

    We do not have the authority to change the qualifications for the office, but we do (thanks be to God!) have the authority to forgive sins!

    Note: The papists used David's example to say that they could add man-made punishments to sins. Now people use David's example to remove God-given consequences that He, out of fatherly love, attaches to some sins. That is a similar, if not identical, error.

    The Apology continues: "When in the midst of troubles terrified consciences see only God’s punishment and wrath, they should not feel that God has rejected them but they should be taught that troubles have other and more important purposes. They should look at these other and more important purposes, that God is doing his alien work in order to do his proper work, as Isaiah teaches in a long sermon in his twenty-eighth chapter...It is the will of God that our bodies should be sacrifices, to show our obedience but not to pay for eternal death; for this God has another price, the death of his Son."

  4. Very good commentary. Hopefully it will make a difference, practically speaking.

  5. ISTM this is but another example of how people erroneously believe that repentance results in return to the status quo ante, as if there is something pharisaical in the notion of continuing consequences. Would such people consent to allow the penitent pedophile to resume leading the youth group, or the apologetic embezzler go back to being church treasurer?

  6. I have been in churches who have condemned those who make such clear and scriptural arguments as being judgmental and unforgiving. This should be a no brainer, but then the argument also leads to the matter of divorce and what the meaning of "one wife" is. Some say it is a ban on polygamy, but I am confident that in the context, it speaks of divorce, especially since the tone of the verse also speaks toward the need of being a good father. It is a hard saying that some can not accept, but out of the hardness of our hearts, we permit those who have not pastored their families successfully to pastor our congregations, and then wonder why the church has the same divorce rate as the unchurched. Being forgiven and being a pastor are entirely two different things.

  7. There is a disturbing, depressing correlation between antinomian preaching and antinomian living. Clear doctrine and practice on these points protects both bodies and souls. Well written!