What Pastors Can Do To Help Couples Affected by Adultery
By Larry E. Hazelbaker
The Word of God is replete with examples of sexual misconduct and is clear about the price people pay for such sin (Proverbs 6:27–29; 7:1–23). What lies at the end of the road of an affair? An adulterous relationship usually results in a loss of family, reputation, job, self-respect/dignity, trust, and a relationship with God. Furthermore, a spouse will always question the loyalty and commitment of the spouse who had the affair:If he is capable of cheating, will he cheat on me again?
At the beginning of an affair the relationship between these two people seems subtle, nonthreatening, honest, and harmless; but the ties between them only grow and become stronger. The lure is enticing and, in most cases, irresistible. Once a person decides to bite, he is hooked. (See sidebar Four Stages of the Start of the Affair.)
Affairs usually do not just happen. According to Andy Stanley, a person crosses the line of adultery once he makes a series of small, unwise choices. There is also a psychological factor. Alfred Adler’s theory (brand) of psychology says that people have a natural tendency to possess feelings of inferiority. His theory proposes that all people suffer from these feelings and constantly strive to overcome them.
In my experience as a counselor, I have found that feelings of inferiority are often the reason behind sexual misconduct. A person tends to gravitate toward whatever gives him a sense of self-worth.
Most people I have counseled who had an affair did not intend for it to happen. But from my 30 years of ministry and counseling experience, I have discovered that most people have an affair because of one of two reasons. First, a spouse is not happy in the marriage. Neglect in a relationship tends to cause an environment in which an affair can begin. Second, people tend to move toward others who validate them. Sex is a strong source of validation.
So what are pastors to do when a member of their congregation commits adultery?
What are the guidelines for counseling those who are having an affair?
People in an affair have different reasons for coming to see their pastor. First, someone learns of the affair. I am always surprised when people are surprised that someone caught them in their affair. Why would anyone who engages in an inappropriate relationship with another person believe he could do so without ever getting caught? At some point the affair will end — usually when one of the partners in the affair breaks it off. The person who breaks it off invariably tells someone. Be sure your sins will find you out.
Second, one of the individuals feels guilty and begins to pursue absolution. He usually ends up at the pastor’s door. Regardless of how or when the person comes, the pastor’s role is to first lead the person to repentance, then deal with the outcome of the affair. This is never a pleasant undertaking. In fact, sometimes it can be dangerous. If a pastor discerns that the offended spouse is violent, he may need to call reinforcements, or even the authorities.
Once the couple (the adulterer or adulteress and the offended spouse) turns to the pastor for help, the pastor will need to deal with the couple as a whole. Some of my colleagues differ from me on the issue of transparency, but I am adamant about transparency. To say what one doesn’t know won’t hurt him is wrong. The word of God says, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Discussing the affair openly will not be pleasant, but the process can set one free.
What is the counseling approach when the guilty spouse is repentant?
Whether the offended spouse is able to forgive and move on depends on the person. Christians often believe they need to forgive and forget. This is not always easy, nor should it be. Jesus offered the ability to forgive, forget, and move on when He granted the victim of a protracted affair permission to divorce the adulterer.
Even though the adulterer is repentant, it is impossible to undo the act of adultery. The most a pastor can hope for is to show the couple what they will lose through divorce and encourage reconciliation.
Even if the adulterer is repentant, sometimes the affair is enough to send the marriage into bankruptcy. If both the offender and the victim are willing to salvage the marriage, the pastor must decide whether he can commit to a long-term counseling process.
If the pastor commits to providing long-term counseling, he needs to understand that emotions are incredibly high during this process and often border on mental illness. During this time, a pastor might suggest a time of separation. If the adulterer and the victim continue to reside in the same house, they will constantly be reminded of the transgression. The environment will be unhealthy and conflict will grow.
Depending on the extent of any mental instability on the part of either spouse, the pastor might recommend that they ask their physician for medication to ease their anxiety. Their separation and possibly medication can help them achieve some sense of mental stability.
As long as people stay in an environment that produces anxiety, they will have limited ability to rationally deal with the important issues that need to be discussed. This is similar to trying to counsel an alcoholic while he is inebriated. It will not work. Each person must be rational if a pastor is to counsel the couple through to reconciliation. Each spouse must be able to think clearly.
In pastoral counseling there are several different approaches to helping mend relationships if the offender is repentant and the offended is willing. One approach suggests the offender reveal every piece of information regarding the affair with a counselor present. This helps the victim consume the information slowly and carefully. People also possess a gift of imagination. They often react to imagined events as though they were true. Undisclosed details, no matter how small, can become the source for vivid imaginations in the offended spouse’s mind. The offended spouse, however, needs to determine when enough is enough. He or she must have opportunity to hear, consume, and react to as much information as needed to begin closure.
The other approach is: “What one doesn’t know won’t hurt him.” As I stated previously, I disagree with this approach. Again, the offended spouse must determine how to best work through the problem.
One major irreversible mistake is to make the offended spouse feel guilty for not being able to forget the incident. We are not God. We can forgive, but I have never met an offended spouse who has completely forgotten the offense. Those who claim they forgive and forget usually redirect their anger or hurt by living in denial and punishing the offender by withholding intimacy and sexual relations.
When does the pastor make a referral?
If a pastor does not have the time and energy to devote to a long-term process and be a 24/7 emotional supporter, he needs to refer the couple to a qualified marriage and family therapist. Also, if the problem becomes greater than the pastor’s ability to solve, it is time to make a referral. The couple may need to see a counselor who specializes in marital counseling and divorce mediation for the consistent and effective counseling needed for healing to take place.
Pastors often become frustrated when people do not process quickly enough. They may push the offended and offender to come together too soon. We must remember that the primary role of a pastor is to get people saved and teach them to apply God’s Word to their lives. To expect a pastor to be all things to all people is unrealistic. The pastor who overextends often finds himself overwhelmed. If he regularly overextends, the possibility for burnout becomes a reality. The American Association of Christian Counselors Web site (http://www.aacc.net) can help a pastor locate a qualified Christian counselor in most areas of the United States. Also, the Office of Ministerial Enrichment at 417-862-2781, ext. 3014, provides a list of qualified counselors throughout the nation.
What is the counseling approach when the guilty spouse is unrepentant?
If the adulterer is unrepentant, the pastor might want to refer the spouse to a counselor. If the pastor has copious amounts of time, he may choose to see the victim regularly (usually one to two times per week) to provide emotional and spiritual help. Those who seek counsel usually find healing.
If the adulterer is a member of your congregation and will not repent and reconcile to his spouse, but continues in the affair, then it is necessary to excommunicate him from the body of Christ.
Pastors can also refer the victim to an attorney who will help with legal issues related to divorce and separation if it is certain the marriage is irreconcilable. As stated before, this is a time when a person’s suffering can lead to his forming a type of mental illness. It is hard, if not impossible, to think rationally when one finds his spouse has been unfaithful. A person in crisis tends to make poor choices. Therefore, it is imperative that spiritual counsel and a good Christian attorney are present while the victim is on the road to recovery.
What about church discipline?
A pastor must approach this area gently. Church members involved in lay ministry in the local church must be held to a high standard. If they’ve committed adultery or other grievous sins, they should not be allowed to participate in ministry until they undergo a process of restoration. A repentant man or woman who commits adultery should not be allowed to continue to sit on a church board or teach a Sunday School class. We would not allow an usher to collect the offering if he were caught stealing. Likewise, we should not fill important ministry positions with people who have strayed outside God-given moral boundaries. Instead, offenders need to demonstrate to the body of Christ that they are in submission to the authority of church leadership and are willing to accept church discipline. It will be up to church leadership to determine if the offender can serve as a greeter, help with church maintenance, or other lesser positions in terms of influence and responsibility.
Finally, relationships are powerful entities. The most powerful relationship is a marriage fortified by a strong spiritual and physical bond. Unfortunately, most marriages have neither. To have great marriages, we must recognize that any weakness in our spirit or our physical relationship can and will be exploited by the enemy of our souls. We need instruction on these areas early in our lives. Sadly, when many realize their need for such instruction, it is often too late.