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Moral Failures and Pastoral Ministry

The battle against adultery is a battle to picture Christ in our hearts and desire him and his grace more than we desire sexual objects the Lord has not given us

I was heartbroken when I learned about the moral failure of a leading church figure. I was so sad for him, his family, his church, and everyone else involved in such a painful situation. He referred to this time as the valley of the shadow of death. I’m sure that’s exactly what it feels like.

Whenever I learn that a minister of the gospel has committed adultery it feels very close to me. I don’t feel outrage or disgust, as much as a concerned awareness that I could do the same thing. With all of my heart, I do not want to do the same thing, but I imagine that is true of most ministers who have fallen in their ministry. Nobody begins a ministry wanting to injure their families and bring reproach upon the body of Christ. And yet, over time, the flesh weakens the resolve of the spirit and tragedy strikes where we previously thought it unthinkable.

The same sin nature and weaknesses of the flesh reside in me as in any minister who has committed adultery. I have no stones to throw. I always want to take the opportunity of such disasters to pray for those who have fallen, and for all those that were harmed in the aftermath whether church members, family members, and even those who cooperated in their sin. O, how I pray for Christ to cover all that has gone wrong in his redeeming grace.

I also want to take the opportunity to shed new light on any dark corners in my own life. Where am I leaving a door open for sin? Where do I need to refresh my vigilance? I want to finish strong in my ministry. But at 35 I am aware that there are a lot of years between now and then. So here I want to offer a few reflections on Ephesians 5:1-3 to remind me of how I need to fight if I would avoid a ministry-destroying fall into sexual immorality. This is counsel that I offer to myself and to anyone else interested in fighting with me for the long faithfulness of sexual purity.

“Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love . . .” (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Paul begins his instruction in Ephesians 5 by giving us a goal to pursue. He tells us to do something. He says that we should imitate God, and that we are to do that by walking in love. Love is the goal of the Christian life. It is one thing against which there is no law. Sexual immorality, on the other hand, is regulated in God’s world because it is an exercise in hate (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6).

Christians in general, and ministers in particular, are called to flee the kind of hate that consumes women for our selfish sexual ends, and puts our families and churches through unspeakable turmoil. In calling us to love, Ephesians 5:1-2 calls us to sexual purity which brings honor, joy, peace, and care to those God has given us in relationship. Infidelity is an act of hate. We work to undermine it in our lives by praying, planning, and practicing to live a life of love for God and others.

“Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2)

Paul continues by further explaining what it means to walk in love. The standard for our loving walk is Jesus Christ. But in describing the standard of love to us Paul does more than paint a picture of the love of Jesus, which we should emulate. In describing the kind of love that Jesus exhibited for his people he also explains how his people can emulate that picture. The loving sacrifice of Jesus did  more than set an example, it also procured our ability to follow the example. None of us—no Christian, no minister of the gospel—has the ability to walk in love on our own. All we can do is walk in hate. That means we need Jesus to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

Jesus’ love is the example of love that we should follow. Jesus’ love is also that fuel that makes our love possible. This means we will be able to walk in love, pursuing purity only when we we are walking very closely with Jesus, deriving strength from a growing understanding of who he is and all he did for us. Tragically, its possible to talk about Jesus a lot without really growing close to him. One of the most sobering realities any minister of the gospel can face is that a fall into immorality means that we were not as enamored with Jesus as we should have been even when it is our vocation to speak of him.

God help us.

“But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among the saints.”  (Ephesians 5:3)

After calling Christians to the goal of love, and showing Christians who it is that gives strength to reach that goal Paul provides something of a practical strategy to fight against sexual immorality for love. There is something of a reverse progression in the terms sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness. Sexual immorality is the final stop on the progression and is the sinful and adulterous behavior that grabs everyone’s attention in a ministry failure. But this open and obvious sexual immorality is preceded by the kind of impurity that is the opposite of holy living. It is exemplified by all the sketchy behavior we pursue when we are oriented away from Christ and toward our sin: flirting, complaining about our spouse, pursuing time alone, pushing physical boundaries. Impurity is preceded by something too, namely, covetousness. We covet whenever we want something more than God allows and in this passage Paul talks about it in the sexual sense. Lustful coveting is the foundation of all sexual infidelity in ministry.

No minister of the gospel ever committed adultery without being involved inappropriately with another person, and without having lustful desires precede that involvement. Adultery is the last stop on a long line of faithlessness. This sobering and painful reality points us to a very helpful strategy in our fight for purity. If we want to maximize our effectiveness in this battle we must be committed to waging the war as early as possible. An effective fight against adultery requires a fight against the kind of impurity that leads to it, and that requires a fight against the covetous desires of our hearts that lead to that. We are on the winning side of the struggle when we are depending on God’s grace to squash every covetous sexual desire long before it manifests in impurity and sexual immorality.

The battle against adultery is a battle to picture Christ in our hearts and desire him and his grace more than we desire sexual objects the Lord has not given us.

As we pursue this struggle there will be many things we do. For me, I’m already talking with guys I love and trust about how to grow in my love for others, about how to fight for purity, and about how to do all of that by depending on the grace of Jesus Christ that can alone empower the fight.

Let us commit to praying for one another to do this well. May God use those prayers to grow up powerful ministers of the gospel who are marked by purity.