Does Pornography Use Disqualify a Pastor?
Editor's note: You can listen to Garrett's story here.
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The question I want us to consider is this: how do we discern whether or not a pastor who sins with pornography is disqualified?
The Scriptures are clear that before pastors are shepherds, they are sheep. They struggle, stray, and sin, just like other believers. But pastors are also to serve as an “example to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3). They’re to be “self-controlled,” “upright,” “holy,” and “above reproach” (Tit. 1:6–8, 1 Tim. 3:2). Being “above reproach” doesn’t mean a pastor never sins, but it does mean they serve as an example of how to resist and repent of sin.
So, if a pastor succumbs to the temptation of pornography, he will be tempted to hide it. The fear of losing his job or being publicly shamed can be paralyzing. The church must hold their pastors accountable by not minimizing sin while at the same time extending mercy to those who repent. Knowing how to hold these tensions together cannot be reduced to a formula. Rather, it requires prayer, wisdom, and the grace of God.
DIAGNOSING THE SIN STRUGGLE
Are your current pastors struggling with pornography? This is a question every healthy pastoral team should seek to answer honestly. My hope is that you have worked to develop a culture of humility and honesty. I recommend every pastoral team spend time answering this question:
Have you intentionally accessed sexually explicit material in the past year?
Because sin is deceitful, it’s necessary to clarify every element of this question. By intentionally accessed, I mean, have you knowingly clicked on links, typed in searches, or sought out sites where exposure to seductive material could be found. By sexually explicit material, we mean any suggestive or hardcore images, movies, cartoons, or literature.
If a brother answers “no” to this question, it’s good reason to thank God. Resisting sin is evidence of his grace. However, it doesn’t mean they have no need to be pressed further about their walk with Christ. I’d encourage you to explore more deeply how they are dealing with other abiding sins such as pride, greed, fear of man, and anger.
If a brother answers “yes,” further discussion will be necessary to help us get a full picture of what his sin pattern looks like. You can create your own follow-up questions, but I suggest the following:
- When was the last time you intentionally sinned in this way?
- When was the last time before that?
- What has been your pattern of compromise?
- What type of material did you access?
- How long did you look at it?
- How did you respond after you looked at it?
- To whom have you confessed your sin?
- What steps of repentance have you taken?
- How have you lied or been deceitful about this sin?
- Have you lied to us about anything we’ve just asked you?
- Is there anything else you do not want us to ask you?
Several key areas of the struggle are addressed in these questions.
Content. What sort of material are they viewing? While every lustful look is sin, there’s a vast spectrum between looking at swimsuit catalogs and child pornography. Where the brother is venturing reveals the progression of his sin.
Frequency. How often? Once a year? Once a month? Once a week? Daily? Do they show a capacity to resist or are they impulsively indulging? Exhibiting the Spirit’s self-control is a mark of maturity, whereas impulsivity reveals callousness.
Trajectory. Is this brother’s resistance improving or worsening? The trajectory conversation is especially important for brothers who are showing weakness toward searches of material that is “non-pornographic” yet sexually alluring. The more you walk along the edge of temptation, the more certain you are to fall into it.
Honesty. Is this brother walking in the light about their struggle? If sin comes out in these conversations that he hasn’t already confessed to someone else, it’s a sign that other sins—pride, fear of man, and deceit—are alive in his life.
WEIGHING THE SIN STRUGGLE
If the brother has answered yes, and you’ve gathered as much information from him as necessary, you and your fellow elders prayerfully need to consider next steps. As you do, keep these principles in mind:
Take Sin Seriously
Overlooking sin can be as serious an offense as the sin itself. We must never minimize something for which Christ shed his blood. Fellow pastors can be tempted to overextend grace and allow a culture of passivity toward sin to take over. We must remain sober-minded about the gravity of sin. Reading relevant passages together can provide opportunities for the Holy Spirit to bring appropriate conviction to the pastors (Gen. 3:1–24; Psalm 32, 38, 51, 103, 130; Eph. 5:1–14).
Take All Sin Seriously
We must not elevate the sin of pornography in a way that minimizes other sin. While sexual sin is uniquely serious (1 Cor. 6:18), we must be careful to weigh all abiding sin rightly. In some churches, you can be as proud as the devil, but if you aren’t looking at porn, you’re good to go. We’re not permitted to show partiality to particular sins. Remember that anger, quick-temperedness, insensitivity, harshness, pride, laziness, fear of man, people-pleasing, greediness, and neglect of family are all potentially disqualifying sins. Will you take the same approach with those sins as you do with pornography?
Take Grace Seriously
In an attempt to honor God, some churches have unnecessarily crushed pastors who wrestle with various facets of this sin struggle. Our response to a sinful saint, regardless of their status, must be to help them to the throne of grace (Heb. 4:14–16). Showing patient mercy to a repentant sinner is the essence of Christian ministry. Jesus was patient with sexual sinners, but diligently rebuked those who withheld mercy from the repentant (Jn. 4:1–30, 8:1–11; Lk. 7:39–50, 15:1–2). Throughout your dealings with a pastor who has sinfully compromised, keep both your eyes and his on Jesus who died and rose so they would not be condemned (Rom. 8:1; Heb. 12:1–2).
Wade Through the Complexity
While principles and policies can be helpful guides to navigate the fallout of sin, we must resist reductionistic shepherding. A “no tolerance” policy with pornography is likely to do more damage than good. Why? For one, it discourages confession and transparency. It tempts pastors to hide. But also, there’s a great difference between a pastor who has an instance of sinful compromise and one who has a pattern of deceitful indulgence. Sin is complex, as is its unraveling. There’s no one-size-fits-all procedure to handle this kind of situation, so they must each be taken on a case-by-case basis.
CASE STUDIES OF SIN STRUGGLE
What you are about to read are two real scenarios. These cases occurred in the past few years among born-again, Bible-teaching pastors.
Case 1: An elder’s wife catches him looking at pornography. After much prying, he confesses to looking at pornography on six occasions in the past two months on his phone and computer. His compromises lasted between three minutes and an hour. He deleted his search history, confessed his sin to God, and resolved not to do it again. He requested friends pray for him because he was “struggling with lust,” but he hadn’t been truly honest with anyone.
Case 2: An elder is working late on a project and begins to scroll through social media on his phone. He clicks on a link that leads to sexually explicit pictures. He scrolls through them for five minutes, resisting the Spirit’s conviction. He’s suddenly sobered, deletes the app on his phone, confesses to God, and then tells his wife. She locks down his phone, and he installs software on all his devices. The next day he confesses his sin to fellow elders with much godly grief.
In both these instances, the pastors have sinned. But the way they sinned, the severity of their sin, and the probable consequences of their sin differ significantly.
In the first case, the pastor’s sin included a pattern of lying, deceit, cover-up, and prolonged indulgence. At this time, the pastor’s ability to treasure God as beautiful, see other people with purity, and serve the church with a clear conscience is called into serious question. He’s not qualified to be an example of resisting or repenting of sin at this time. A period of sabbatical, counseling, and proven repentance would be necessary before this brother could be considered for service again.
In the second case, the elder’s sin is grievous, yet his response was encouraging. He has shown godly remorse and humble confession; he has initiated concrete steps of repentance. There’s no pattern of enslavement, nor any hint of hypocrisy. In my opinion, this isolated incident doesn’t automatically disqualify the brother from service. Instead, continued repentance and intentional discipleship should be pursued.
As with most pastoral work, navigating the sins of a leader is difficult. This is why it’s tempting to avoid the hard work of pastoring by either avoiding the discussion or having an “immediate disqualification” rule. Neither of these stances captures the shepherding that’s necessary to evaluate and care for the pastor who has sinned.
These two cases include the same sin, but not the same engagement. The way forward for each of these brothers will likely be drastically different, but the same Savior will be their strength, and the strength of those who walk with them.
PATHWAYS AFTER COMPROMISE
How we respond to a pastor’s sin will depend upon many factors. In all cases, the pastor’s wife and all the elders should be involved. Here are a few categories to consider.
1. Private Care. A pastor whose struggle isn’t characterized by a pattern of compromise and deceit should be prayed for, kept accountable, and likely allowed to continue serving.
Some may push back on this and say that a brother who has compromised in this area will be tempted to pull punches in their teaching about this sin. While I agree that pastors who have hidden sin will sometimes begin to espouse twisted teachings, those who have godly grief accompanied by confession and repentance tend to approach the subject with unique clarity, compassion, and conviction (2 Cor. 1:3–11).
2. Private Rest. A pastor whose struggle is slightly more pronounced in frequency or severity may need a private sabbatical. This means the brother doesn’t step down publicly, but refrains from coming to elder meetings for several months while he and his wife receive focused care.
This application may also be appropriate for a potential elder candidate that compromises while being considered for service. For example, if a brother was in the pipeline to be recommended to the congregation in two months, but has a compromise similar to Case 2, then that brother’s recommendation could carry through, or, probably better, you could wait several months while not totally derailing the move toward a recommendation. As with every other case, this requires much prayer and wisdom from God.
3. Public Rebuke. Some pastor’s sins reach the level in which it’s necessary for the congregation to be informed. As with any other church member’s sin, this step shouldn’t be made hastily. Helping a struggling pastor privately is preferred, but if their sin persists or proves to be severe, then Paul’s instruction must be heeded: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim 5:20).
This rebuke may be accompanied by the removal of an elder from office. If the pastor is in the pay of the church, then the elders may recommend a termination of the pastor’s position depending upon the severity. In other instances, the congregation may support the pastor during a sabbatical-like season in which counseling, accountability, and true repentance is pursued.
Restoration of a fallen pastor is an important conversation, but it’s not the most pressing one. I strongly discourage setting any dates or timelines early in the process in order to protect the brother from trying to “get it together” by a set date. The Lord will do work in his heart, and you can’t put a timeline on that.
If you’re part of the elder board, I strongly encourage you to care for the pastor and his family in a God-honoring way during their troubling season. Pastors’ souls and their families’ wellbeing are often overlooked through this process. This can have devastating effects. For more information on the restoration of pastors as well as other important issues surrounding this topic, check out this resource.
In conclusion, I leave you with three exhortations.
1. If you’re flirting with sin, heed Jesus’ words, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell” (Matt. 5:29). Do whatever you must not to give into this sin. Do not fight alone. Reach out to a fellow pastor and honestly confess your struggle.
While it’s true that there’s no condemnation in Christ for sin, there are consequences. Even forgiven sin carries devastating effects. If you’ve already sinned, now is the time to step into the light. You likely have a million reasons not to, but Jesus is worth whatever it will cost you. You can read about my own journey with confessing this sin as a pastor here.
2. If pornography isn’t an area of temptation for you, remain cautious, “let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Cor. 10:12). Be careful not to be overly harsh or punitive in your care for a fallen brother. The Lord has been mercifully patient with you when you didn’t deserve it. You just may be the instrument of mercy God uses to change your fallen pastor’s life.
3. Look to Jesus. Whether you’re in a season of helping another brother or being helped, Jesus must be the source of your strength, wisdom, power, hope, and joy. Take to heart this promise, “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen” (Jude 24–25).
Amen, come Lord Jesus.