I feel physically ill every single time. Unfortunately, I have had this feeling far too often in the last few years. What causes this revulsion? Pastors and ministry leaders who sexually abuse those who look to them as spiritual leaders.
For all Christians, sexual faithfulness is a direct response to the gospel. For pastors, seminary professors, or other recognized ministry leaders, sexual infidelity is disqualifying abuse. The idea of a church or seminary continuing to provide a guise of spiritual authority to a sexual abuser should be unthinkable.
Sadly, when a pastor or spiritual leader’s sexual infidelity is uncovered, their first reaction is often an attempt to minimize their misdeeds. One frequent way to do so, especially in light of the recent reckoning with sexual abuse in the church, is to admit their action was sinful and wrong, while defiantly denying it was sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse is often described as sexual activity that misuses authority and is not consensual. Thus, it’s hard to fathom that there are spiritual leaders and office holders who believe claiming “they wanted it” minimizes their rebellion and means they are not spiritual abusers. Nevertheless, a quick Google search will reveal many do.
So, can a pastor in a recognized position of spiritual authority have a sexually unfaithful consensual relationship with someone who recognizes them as a spiritual authority? No. I am not making a legal claim here but rather a biblical-theological claim.
We all recognize that position and power dynamics can render it impossible to view a relationship as consensual. Children cannot consent to adults. Students cannot consent to teachers. Players cannot consent to coaches. Each of these situations involves position and power dynamics that make consent impossible. Sexual activity in these situations would always be abuse.
In my opinion, there is no higher office than that of pastor. I agree with CH Spurgeon, who said to pastors, “If God has called you to be His servant, don’t stoop to be a king.” But, more importantly, consider Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 3:1, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task.”
The pastor or spiritual leader who uses their spiritual position and power to be sexually unfaithful is an abuser. Full stop. End of the story. This conclusion ought to be obvious in conservative Christian circles where biblical inerrancy and the priority of expository preaching are cherished and championed.
Of course, the repentant sexually fallen spiritual leader can be restored in their walk with Christ and their church as a repentant member. But any attempt they make to minimize their actions by refusing to recognize them as abuse do not reflect godly sorrow and genuine repentance. Let’s be clear, pastor. It was not consensual; it was abuse.