The Sexually Addicted Minister:
The Hidden Obsession
Someone you know has a hidden problem. He may be on your staff, a pastor in the same town, a wife of a friend, a district leader, an evangelist, or a returning missionary. Perhaps it is your spouse or family member. You know them on a first-name basis, and you know their spiritual gifts. What you do not know is their secret life of sexual sin. What you do not see beneath the anointed preaching, the gifts of the Spirit, and the successful ministry is the hidden depths of this person’s heart. There you will find the deceitfulness of “evil thoughts … adultery, sexual immorality” (Matthew 15:19), a wickedness so unclean it defies sound logic and reason when it erupts and affects a growing church and a seemingly good marriage. The pervasiveness of this problem is one of the greatest spiritual challenges facing the Christian church in this postmodern age.
Facing The Truth
Ministers are in deep trouble and anyone who doubts that is spiritually asleep (1 Thessalonians 5:6). The numbers alone do not indicate the seriousness of the problem, but that is part of the nature of the problem. To understand the breadth and depth of this crisis pastors must have the courage to open the closed doors of their own ministerial lives and ask the Spirit to examine their hearts.
The problem is not the pornography on the Internet or the many opportunities for sexual sin in America’s sexually saturated culture. It is the potential for wickedness in our own hearts coupled with the secrecy of a pastor’s personal life. The critical questions to ask are:
- Is my personal life shaped by my beliefs, ideals, and traditions as it once was?
- Is my faith effectively shaping my integrity as a Christian leader?
- Do my beliefs make a difference in my private life?
I grew up in an Assemblies of God pastor’s home. I graduated from Central Bible College in 1969. I have lived my adult life in the Christian world, much of it spent in ministry to ministers.
There is a loud silence that must be pierced before the real problem of sexual sin will be understood and dealt with. We can start on the surface with the all too common examples, but we must also go to the unseen depths of the human heart. In humility, ask the Spirit of God to search your mind, look behind your closed doors, and examine the recesses of your heart.
John’s Story Of Dedication And Deception
John (not his real name) was a 25-year veteran missionary. The call to serve God came early in Bible college. By his mid-twenties he and his wife Judy were living out their passion, their calling, and dream to serve God in Nicaragua. They planted churches and discipled converts. The work was demanding, but rewarding.
Early in his fifth term on the mission field John developed a nurturing relationship with Gloria, a 19-year-old Nicaraguan. She was bright, mature for her age, and passionate about learning more about Jesus. Increasingly, John spent more time investing in the spiritual life of this young devotee. She spent hours in the couple’s home and became a close friend to Judy. Judy, however, was growing more and more concerned about her husband spending a disproportionate amount of time calling, e-mailing, and talking with such a young attractive female. Her suspicions, and eventual accusations, were quickly rebuffed with strong rebukes for her immaturity, her petty jealousy, and her lack of commitment to the ministry. When Judy found text messages on John’s cell phone that indicated the extent of his physical relationship with Gloria, she had the evidence to confront his sexual sin and seek the assistance of their field director.
When confronted, John admitted to a 5-year affair. With his reputation destroyed, his missionary career finished, his wife shattered, and the field director left to pick up the pieces, the couple returned to the United States to seek counseling and spiritual restoration. Incredibly, in the middle of all this chaos, John continued his relationship with the young woman via e-mail. He rationalized his behavior by saying that he needed to continue his ministry to her.
The Real Enemy
How could a veteran missionary like John, called by God and anointed by the Spirit, become so disconnected from reality and from God and His Word? Why was he a prisoner of his own evil desires? For John and others, the symptom of the problem is a single relationship they find difficult to end. For many, it is hidden sexual fantasy and lust that may or may not lead to committing fornication or adultery.
Regardless of the behavior, its frequency, or duration why is sexual sin a pervasive problem in the ministry? This question must be answered. But it is often asked during a crisis when sexual sin is involved. People merely shake their heads and respond in disbelief. Without an adequate explanation, people often move on or blame the devil for attacking Christian leaders.
We must understand the real enemy. Ignorance is no longer an option. Closed minds and blind eyes salved by the comfort of our public praise and worship are inexcusable. Paul’s exhortation to the Roman church applies today: “The hour has come for you to wake from sleep.” This is the day and hour that ministers must “cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies … not in sexual immorality and sensuality” (Romans 13:11–13).
The Real Story
In my 24 years of ministry to hundreds of pastors and missionaries, I have helped many escape from sexual sin and restore their intimacy with God and their loved ones. Though the names and faces are now blurred, the real storyhas not changed. Sexual sin continues to destroy lives, weaken marriages, seriously damage ministries, and dishonor the Lord’s name.
The stories I have heard are graphic, disturbing, and implausible. At times when I think I have heard too much, I shake my fist at the destruction that has come to so many people and ministries. But the real horror is unseen, below the surface, and in the human heart.
The tales of lust, sexual immorality, prostitution, homosexuality, sexual misconduct, addiction to pornography, and adultery should not be repeated. But to ignore the details causes further denial and spiritually corrodes the church. All too often those in authority are guilty of getting rid of the problem and moving on but fail to address the difficult issues that exist in the ministry. This is not the time or place to flinch at the external horror of our fallen brother, or fail to examine the content of our own hearts.
Some stories are uncommon, and we must agree with Paul, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans” (1 Corinthians 5:1).
The Uncommon Stories
- Driven by lust and sexual fantasy, a pastor and his wife engage in threesome sex with their 20-year-old nanny. The pastor rationalizes his behavior by citing the multiple wives of biblical characters.
- For years a youth pastor corrupts his mind with sexual fantasies. He eventually has sexual relations with three underage girls and goes to prison.
- A senior pastor becomes sexually involved with a married woman he is counseling. She becomes pregnant, and he pays for an abortion to cover his sin. Meanwhile, his wife gives birth to his child.
- A women’s ministry pastor develops an emotional affair with a lay-team leader. The two women eventually become sexually involved and refuse to end their relationship citing the importance of their spiritual and relational needs.
- A youth pastor engages in homosexual behavior with several young boys and commits suicide before he is arrested.
- An associate pastor who has been married for 19 years has a 17-year affair with his secretary, who is his wife’s best friend. For years they vowed to God and to each other to end the relationship before it destroyed everyone in their lives.
- A youth pastor’s wife leaves her husband and two children to work in a strip club.
The Common Stories
The details are often repeated, but the pain, guilt, shame, and tears leave scars that will not disappear until Revelation 21:4 is fulfilled: “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
The common stories include:
- The pastor who is caught with Internet pornography on his office computer.
- The minister living in adultery, which goes undetected for months, even years.
- The missionary who drifts into various forms of sexual sin — sex clubs, legalized prostitution, and sex with minors — because it is easily available on the mission field.
- The pastor’s wife who feels lonely and abandoned finds comfort in the arms of another man.
A Spiritual Problem
In the church, and even in the pastorate, there are adults with the spiritual maturity of babies. There are also cases of child molestation, sexual misconduct, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and prostitution. Again, it is imperative that pastors understand what constitutes the common and uncommon sexual sins that may be in their churches.
The church is already in danger of minimization, rationalization, or even worse — covering over the real tragedy with standard therapeutic labels. Pastors must not idolize psychology and accept without question every new method of change and technique. Sexual sin is a spiritual problem, not a psychological problem. It is a church problem, and a problem the church needs to confront, just as it did in the first century.
The real horror is notin the specific sin the person committed or in sin’s inevitable destructive capacity. Whether common or uncommon, the real problem is the condition of a pastor’s heart long before he was caught in sexual sin or even committed sexual acts. Sexually immoral behavior should disturb us because of the condition of the heart and the life that is revealed by the act.Then, and only then, can the horror be turned to mourning (1 Corinthians 5:2; 2 Corinthians 12:21).
Pastors must heed the words of Paul: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). There will be no grief or gentleness until pastors see the deceitfulness of the human heart, the deceitfulness in their own hearts, and dig the log out of their own eyes. Then the church can begin to adequately address the pervasive plague of sexual sin.
The imaginations of the heart
Pastors, teachers, and church leadership cannot close their eyes to the biblical understanding of the heart and the wicked imaginations of their own hearts. Evil desires and evil behaviors are the supreme threat. They are spawned from the deep motivations of a heart that resists repentance and the will of God.
These deep motivations create a false reality of one’s own making that denies the reality of God. It is critical to understand that whatever a person thinks he knows theologically and spiritually in his mind is affected by the imaginations of his heart. The truth of righteousness is replaced by the lie of impurity; what is not God becomes a god. The unthinkable then becomes the possible, and even the doable. What other explanation is there for a pastor who teaches vehemently on the evils of sexual immorality and the biblical mandate to keep the marriage bed pure and then becomes involved in adultery or pornography (Hebrews 13:4)?
A life driven to sexual sin reflects thinking that has long been infected by sensual images and self-pleasure. These thoughts may have become so common that a pastor is hardly aware of them. Therefore, what he knows or thinks he knows theologically and biblically is less important than the imaginations of his heart that eventually cause him to act out what he thinks.
A pastor may justify the imaginations of his heart by his past and present pain. He then finds relief through false intimacy on the Internet or he may actualize his imaginations through sexual encounters with needy women who are looking for a listening ear. In the end, pastors are deceived into believing their relational needs will be met and their search for significance secured through these activities. Only a biblical paradigm of the heart will effectively alert him to these mortal dangers to his soul.
Sam’s passion was to plant a church in the rapidly developing north side of a southern city. Sam and Lisa moved into the area, obtained secular jobs, and started an evangelistic outreach. Long hours and personal sacrifice coupled with prayer and fasting brought slow, but steady, results. Eventually the small congregation was able to pay Sam a modest salary. But short paychecks were common, and the couple continued to go without new clothes, adequate home furnishings, and a much-needed second car.
In the midst of it all, Sam and Lisa enjoyed serving together and found satisfaction in the fruit of their ministry. Ten years later the church had grown from a handful to 1,500. Life and ministry were different now. Sam and Lisa had a new home, two late model cars, a savings account, and a modern worship center with dedicated staff.
At the end of a late night elders meeting Sam was pulled aside by a leading elder and rebuked for being too materialistic. As he drove home, his anger kindled and he said to himself, I’ve sacrificed all these years, and that’s the thanks I get. From now on, I’m going to get something for myself.
Sam’s theology was the same, and he still wanted to preach the Word. His conscious thinking, however, was now being shaped from imaginations deep within his heart, imaginations so long imbedded that he was no longer even aware of them. While apparently committed to his covenant of marriage with Lisa, his commitment to get something for himself coupled with years of guiltless lust became a greater danger. His secretary wanted Sam’s attention and soon gave her all. Their affair began, but Sam’s sin did not end before he had lured three other women he was counseling into physically intimate relationships.
Self-interest is a real personal danger. Sin predisposes people, even pastors, to be a law unto themselves where they do what they want regardless of the consequences.Instead of submitting to God as the final authority for their private lives, pastors often live their lives focused on themselves. They begin to worship God’s creation (themselves or their ministry) rather than the Creator.
This heart attitude seems to free them to control life and obtain their desires. Pastors are, then, no longer slaves of righteous but are slaves to sin and slaves to themselves. Simply put, pastors become committed to what they believe to be in their best interest. This lessens their commitment to God and increases their commitment to themselves.
As soon as their loyalty to God changes, pastors are in danger of being more loyal to themselves. Before they know it, sexual temptation is knocking at their door. Church policies that limit or prohibit time alone with the opposite sex will not protect pastors, nor will glass walls in a church office, Internet protection on a computer, routine accountability, or a public stand for purity. James wrote, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (James 1:14).
The enticement of sexual sin always involves the self-centeredness, self-inflation, and self-deception of one’s own desires. The root of sin develops primarily from one’s self-interest, not merely from shameful childhood experiences.
Tim grew up on the mission field. The typical m.k., he never felt like he belonged. He was not Japanese, but he thought and spoke like the Japanese. He had an American passport, but when he was home on furlough, he did not fit in with his peers. Tim started to comfort himself with masturbation in boarding school. He eventually discovered pornography. Years later, as he studied to enter the ministry, he was still lonely. Wanting to be accepted, he yielded to the offer of oral sex in a massage parlor. He justified his actions by believing he would still be a virgin when he married Janet because he had not had sexual intercourse.
The higher the pedestal, the greater the fall. Ministry, or even the call of God itself, can become sinful when pursued for personal fulfillment. When a minister is so preoccupied with hisministry that he becomes the most important person in his own life, ministry has become a sin for him. Members of the congregation, family members, his wife, and even God himself begin to matter less to him than his own opinion of himself and his ministry. Seeking God’s approval is exchanged for seeking man’s approval when the legitimate desire to be well-liked turns into an unwillingness to risk any disapproval.
Many ministry couples who need counseling to deal with sexual sin fit the following profile. The pastor is outgoing, zealous, and liked by all who sit under his charismatic preaching. But he begins to believe he is married to a lifeless pastor’s wife. She has no life, no feelings, and no warmth. She has given everything and has done her duty to make her husband the greatest. He is on a pedestal and self-inflated, while living a double life of sexual sin. His silver tongue is a counterfeit for God’s anointing. His position in the church provides him a facade of authority, status, and power. This man owns the local church. He is a taker, not a giver or a steward of the gifts of God.
The ministry can be insecure and frustrating, and some men obtain security by controlling and manipulating people in their congregations and communities. Controlling others through the symbolic acts of ministry reduces their fears and anxieties. In the end, they are only committed to what they want, and they get it — including sexual gratification. Sexual pleasure is only the decoration, but its function provides a powerful sense of significance.
If sexual sin is a false intimacy — empty and vain — and a counterfeit for real intimacy, how do Spirit-filled leaders fall? Sexual sin is a great deception. Not only must a pastor lie to maintain a double life and a broken marriage covenant, but he is also deceived and “led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:3).
When a pastor commits sexual sin and loses his spiritual virginity, he is deceived about true moral guilt and the need for forgiveness and repentance. Losing one’s virginity before marriage is serious, but losing one’s spiritual virginity before the return of Christ is much more dreadful.
The effects of sexual sin after our conversion (betrothal) are more difficult to understand: “I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:2). Paul’s words are full of meaning and emotion as he presents himself as a spiritual father. Perhaps he remembered the Law that allowed a husband who found his new wife was not a virgin to bring her back home to her father and stone her (Deuteronomy 22:20,21).
Like Paul, pastors are responsible for the spiritual purity of others (Philippians 2:4; Hebrews 3:12,13). Paul’s strong emotions come in the form of a godly jealousy and fear. As a spiritual leader, Paul was responsible for the flock and was committed to keeping it from drifting into sin. Likewise, pastors must preserve their own spiritual fidelity so they can protect the Body from being deceived and led astray into an insincere and impure devotion to Christ.
Deception may come from outside sources. But regardless of the source, deception affects the mind and influences what people think about God and themselves and easily leads them astray. To understand how we are deceived is one thing, but to guard against it is another. We often do not know when we are being deceived. That is the nature of deception. Deception attacks God-centered living through self-centered thinking and comes from within one’s own heart and mind.
Every sexual sin is deceitful and affects the mind so the temptation is often not recognized for what it truly is until after the sin is committed. Christians are capable of being “deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures” (Titus 3:3, niv).
First, deceit hides what we should clearly understand and consider — our faithfulness to God and spouse. Second, deceit conceals the consequences of sexual sin so our minds are diverted from understanding its danger. Deceit prevents us from seeing the foolishness of sexual sin in the moment of temptation. When we examine the impact of sexual sin on truth, on the life of the church, and on the purity of our faith, we begin to understand how deception is one of the greatest challenges to the church today.
The nature and power of deception to attack a person’s faith combined with the subtlety of his self-centered heart is a lethal weapon against his soul. Jesus warned “many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold” (Matthew 24:10–12, niv). The church in America, like the church in England, will likely not disappear. However, Christian morals will become more insincere and impure, leaving the Church deformed and Christians in danger of losing their souls.
The problem is not only the poor spiritual condition of leadership, but also dysfunction in fulfilling the pastoral role. The shepherd, by neglect, is destroying his own flock. A layperson may sin sexually and destroy his family, but a pastor who commits sexual sin harms not only his family, but the family of God.
Rebecca called me because her marriage was in total disarray. She was furious. “You counseled the pastor who was committing adultery with our counselor while she was trying to help us resolve my husband’s unfaithfulness. We need help, but who can we trust?” Little did she know that while her former pastor had been writing sermons to feed the flock he was also writing pornography and leading others into sin.
Ezekiel addressed pastoral neglect: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, and the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered” (Ezekiel 34:2,4,5).
God’s accusations emphasize the harm that results from severe pastoral negligence. Regardless of mutuality of relationship and/or consent, any woman who comes for pastoral care has a need, and any pastor who becomes sexually involved with her has taken advantage of her weakness and has fed himself. The severe criticism of Jude 12 about “shepherds who feed only themselves” (niv) reinforces the warning of Ezekiel that pastors are required to follow a higher standard and conduct a selfless ministry.
You Are Only As Accountable As You Want To Be
In the past a minister was the last person anyone expected to fall into sexual sin. That is not true today. Ministerial life is disconnected and lonely, and pastors are good at covering this up. In addition, many pastors have no one to answer to and are therefore prime candidates for temptation.
Many ask, “Where does the caregiver go for help?” We also need to ask, “To whom does the pastor answer?” Someone needs to question, admonish, and encourage the pastor.
Herein lies the problem: a minister is only as accountable as he wants to be. That is why every series of questions on accountability ends with, “Have you just lied to me?” and “Have you just lied to me about lying to me?” A person can lie and still pass a polygraph test. So is there a solution? Yes. But pastors must begin to look on the inside and let someone in behind their closed doors.
In a mutual accountability relationship, both parties ask the questions, and the questions seek honest feedback, not a passing grade. For example, ask your wife, “Do you think I am placing God first in my life?”
Ask a trusted senior elder, “Do you sense any weaknesses in my relationship with my wife?”
Do not look for a “yes” answer, but look for feedback that indicates where changes can be made. Elders need to take a firm stand on less work and more family time for their pastor and see that he structures this time into his schedule. If he structures this time into his schedule and his family life still does not change, ask “Why?”
The Danger Is A Real Threat
While Christians may think that people generally take a dim view of sexual sin, this is no longer true. The Church has entered an age when Christians are saying, “Pornography is only for self-gratification, a kept woman for feeding my neglected emotional and physical needs. A wife is to manage the home and give an image of a Christian family.”
The biblical standards of human sexuality may not be easily accepted by new converts or maintained by Christian couples that have grown up in the church. The problem is not simply a weakened attitude toward sexual sin or the minimizing of sexual sin, but a failure to know the real enemy.
The consequences of sexual sin among clergy are worse than the consequences of war, disease, economic failure, or terrorism. What happens to people in this life is far less dreadful than what can happen to them in the life to come. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” (Luke 12:4,5).
Pastors must be trained to fight this war and know the enemy within. We cannot know another person’s heart, but deceitfulness keeps people from facing the truth of whom they are inside. An examination of the darkness and ignorance in one’s heart should not be avoided. A look at indwelling sin is humiliating and takes courage and wisdom, but if pastors have any interest in pleasing the Lord, knowing His will (Ephesians 5:10,17), and avoiding sinful behavior that grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), they must accept this challenge.
Will pastors fail to follow biblical standards and live out a spirituality that continues to avoid the problem of sexual sin? Clergy must address anything in their heart and in the hearts of others that gives false comfort and disconnects them from biblical warnings (Hebrews 13:4).
When Paul addressed sexual sin in Corinth, the problem was more than the existence of sexual sin and how word of the problem was spreading. The greater problem was that the church took no action to correct the immorality. The church’s problem was arrogance (1 Corinthians 5:2). Arrogance blinds the heart and mind and prevents one from seeing his own spiritual condition or the spiritual condition of his brother or sister. The Corinthian brand of spirituality produces insensitivity to sin. This insensitivity to sin diminishes the consequences of sexual sin in the minds of those who have a life in the Spirit.
Like the Corinthians, pastors cannot allow their spirituality to become self-sufficient instead of dependent on the finished work of Christ. One pastor said in counseling: “All my attempts to control my sexual sin failed. Prayer, fasting, and casting out demons didn’t work. I couldn’t break free. I had to face myself and admit to my lack of intimacy with God. I was substituting my thirst for God for other things. I simply did not know God. I had been deceived by a shallow desire to satisfy myself. Victory came when I sought to be consumed by the joy that is set before us.”
The internal battle with the enemy will be difficult, but keeping the biblical commandment for purity will not be burdensome if God’s servants prefer His holiness above other things (1 John 5:3). In doing so, the pastor’s goal is not to simply avoid sexual sin, but to partake of the divine nature. We can do this because “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (2 Peter 1:3,4).
Temporary satisfaction will fully diminish when pastors respond to the radical call to pursue full satisfaction in God. It is a call to joy, freedom, and sacrificial faithfulness to God and others. It is always true. When a person seeks to find life through his own illusions of fulfillment, he will lose his life. When a person seeks to lose his life in the reality of God’s glory, he will find life.
1. Scripture references are from the English Standard Version unless indicated otherwise.