How to Respond When a Servant, an Elder, or the Preacher Struggles with Pornography
WHEN A SERVANT STRUGGLES WITH PORNOGRAPHY
Churches are chock-full of sinners. We know that. We’re all sinners. Churches are also chock-full of servants. You know what that means, right? Those servants are sinners, too.
But what happens when sinner-servants stumble into pornography? Churches have deacons with biblical qualifications to meet (1 Tim. 3:8–13). But we also have volunteers serving without a title. It could be the gal playing violin on stage, the elderly man greeting at the door, or the millennial working in the children’s ministry.
How should church leadership respond if it discovers a volunteer within the body has viewed pornography? I’m focused on someone who has expressed sorrow for his sin (2 Cor. 7:10–11) and is eager to demonstrate repentance. Of course, every instance is unique, and providing specific counsel without knowing the particulars would be foolish (this is why every local church should have elders who roll up their theological sleeves and ask this question).
Thankfully, God’s Word does give us principles to guide us when a servant of the church stumbles into pornography.
1. Remember it’s not the unforgivable sin (Matt. 12:31). Remind him this is yet one more reason he or she is in desperate need of God’s mercy. There is hope in the cross and resurrection (Rom. 6:1–14).
2. Don’t make light of the sin. Pornography comes in many forms, from a lingerie ad in a magazine to live videos. Whatever the degree, all sin is heinous. Make that clear. The tiniest sin is an affront to an infinitely holy God (James 2:10).
3. Gauge the severity of the sin. Jesus spoke of differing degrees of punishment (Luke 12:47–48). This implies some sins have greater consequences. This is an important principle. When sin is uncovered, a number of questions should be asked:
- What was the intensity of the pornography?
- Was this a one-time stumble or a pattern?
- If there is a pattern, what is the frequency?
- Is the confessor asking for help or was he or she outed?
- Is there a willingness to make war against sin or is there a spirit of defensiveness?
4. Require appropriate confession. Confession should be made to each offended party. In the case of a single, did she lie to a roommate? Did he use someone else’s computer? In the case of a married individual, does the spouse know? At this level, the confession of sin is private. The more confession, the more light, and the more light, the more willingness to make war against sin.
5. Urge the brother or sister to take extreme measures. If it’s better to gouge out the eye than give in to lust (Matt. 5:27–30), then it’s certainly better to lose the smart phone or disconnect the cable.
6. Ensure appropriate accountability. Sinners like to hide their sin. But revealing sin offers an opportunity to create systems and forge relationships that will make it harder for this sin to once more rear its ugly head.
7. If necessary, ask the person to step down from public service . There are several reasons you might want someone to step down for a season. For example, the confessed sin may have been particularly severe and the volunteer service particularly public. All this makes ongoing service unwise.
Furthermore, if the servant is a deacon, he or she is required to meet specific qualifications in order to hold that office. I’m not suggesting deacons who stumble should be automatically removed from service. I’m simply asserting that biblical qualifications matter, and we have to be open to the possibility of a leader disqualifying him- or herself for a season.
A word about working with children: please be especially cautious about placing someone with children or youth if you know he struggles with pornography. He or she may especially need to step down here—even if only in this particular ministry—until there’s a proven track record of victory.
8. Rejoice because the sin is in the light. Whatever action you finally make, pray your church is a place where confessed sin is seen as a godly triumph. Yes, there should be consequences—especially if the sin is particularly severe and the servant is in a particularly public ministry. But don’t gloss over the fact God kindly brought it into the open. Your leaders now have the opportunity to demonstrate the grace and mercy of God.
Is your church a place where both grace and holiness are valued? The answer to this question is found in how you respond to a leading servant who stumbled into pornography.
WHEN AN ELDER STRUGGLES WITH PORNOGRAPHY
Elders are sinners, too. However, the consequences of their sin are more serious than the average church member’s. How do we know this? There are a number of reasons:
- Jesus said, “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40). Because elders are the teachers of the congregation (1 Tim. 3:2), the church body will, over time, begin to resemble them—in ways good and bad.
- Elders are public examples of the faith: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7). Because all eyes are on an elder, his stumble into the pool of pornography causes more waves.
- Teachers are judged with greater strictness (James 3:1–2). Though James is focused on an elder’s tongue, certainly his whole life is in view. An elder flippant with his eyes is flippant about his eternal future.
Nonetheless, sin wheedles its way into the elder body, and leaders are tempted to hide. But sometimes they can’t. Thankfully, their sin is uncovered. This may be because it’s caught by a wife or friend. It may be because they’re overcome by a fear of the Lord. Perhaps they have an accountability partner who probed, and they were honest—praise God!
What should be done when an elder admits to stumbling into pornography? Much of what I said in “When a Servant Stumbles” applies here. I’ll attempt to focus on what’s slightly different in the response to an elder’s sin.
1. Appreciate the gravity of the situation. Don’t overlook the significance of a pastor’s failure. The church rightly expects elders to devote themselves to “prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4). James notes how the “prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16). It seems safe to conclude that the prayers of an elder are hindered if pornography is a problem in his life. This is bad for the church as a whole.
2. Beware the elder’s temptation to minimize the problem. Every sinner is going to be tempted to do this. But there’s a special expectation for elders to be holy, and that means they will be tempted to say, “This was a one-time thing, just a moment of weakness.” The elder who says this may be right. But he should be gently pressed to shine as much light on his struggle as possible. The depth of his problem will inform the appropriate response.
3. Be glad the sin is in the open. In this case, I’m assuming the elder took initiative to confess or that he is very, very receptive to his sin being known. This is good. We want a culture in our church where everyone feels the freedom to confess sin without being labeled a freak or a monster, including elders.
4. Ensure the elder shares his stumble with another elder. If a church leader has fallen into pornography, another church leader should be made aware. Should the same action be taken with any stumble into sin? For example, if an elder overeats one night (Prov. 23:20–21) or is too quick to speak (James 1:19)? Probably not. Pornography is an unusually dangerous sin that should be uniquely addressed (1 Cor. 6:18–20).
5. If the sin is less serious, the elder should engage in one-on-one discipleship where appropriate accountability measures are put in place . The devil is obviously in the details here. Much wisdom is needed. But the larger point I’m trying to make is if an elder stumbles only once it is probably unwise to require an immediate, public response—either from the elder body or to the whole church. In this case, if the elder’s behavior were to be censured publicly, other elders would be unduly tempted to hide their sin instead of confess it. Simply put, it’s possible to overreact to a stumble into pornography, which can have the unintended consequence of tempting needy brothers to hide their sin.
6. If the sin is more serious, the elder body should require him to step down from public ministry for a season. If a pattern of behavior has been uncovered, the elder should refrain from teaching or praying in public for a few months. In this case, I’m talking about a brother who’s been hiding irregular and infrequent pornography use for months and has finally confessed it to a brother. Though it may or may not be appropriate to remove him from the elder body, he ought at least to confess it to the elder body and step down from public teaching and prayer. In a church with a larger elder body, the congregation may not notice. In a church with a smaller elder body, some explanation may be required.
7. If the sin is most serious, the elder body should require him to resign as an elder. Jared Wilson helpfully observed, “The bar for the pastoral office is set rather high. . . . Beyond giftedness and ambition, it requires maturity, testing, and a long obedience in the same direction.” That last phrase is especially helpful: “a long obedience in the same direction.” If the elder in question has a life marked by a long disobedience—it’s time for him to step down. Moreover, he should want to step down.
8. If an elder steps down from his office, the congregation should be carefully informed . At the church I serve, the members of the congregation elect elders. It is appropriate, therefore, for them to know if an elder no longer meets the biblical qualifications. But this must be done with so much care. Assuming repentance on the part of the elder, it’s an opportunity for the congregation to:
- understand the sin was serious, but not of a kind that requires excommunication;
- rejoice that a man in the church cares more about holiness than leadership;
- be told he didn’t commit the unpardonable sin;
- give thanks for elders who take the biblical qualifications seriously;
- be told if the possibility for restoration exists;
- encourage this brother who has willingly stepped down for the good of the church;
- be reminded we all sin;
- and avoid gossip.
Unless the brother speaks to the church himself, the comments at a members meeting might look something like this:
Tonight we are announcing that John Doe and the elder body have agreed he should step down from serving as an elder. You need to know this is not because of any public, scandalous sin. Rather, there are some patterns of behavior in John’s life that make it impossible for him to currently serve as an elder. We commend him to you as a man who loves the Lord and this church. He has modeled for all of us a willingness to put personal holiness before public leadership. Expect to see John serving in a number of ways, and please pray for him and his family.
God is honored when his churches handle sin in a serious and gracious manner. Let’s pray all our elders are above reproach.
WHEN THE PREACHER STRUGGLES WITH PORNOGRAPHY
The public nature of an elder’s ministry will heighten his temptation to hide sin. This reality is magnified when the elder is the main preaching pastor. For reasons both good and bad, more is expected of him. Moreover, the fact that he is dependent upon the church for an income can muddy the waters, making it even harder for him to be open about his failures.
This may be a reason so many passages warn against recognizing elders who are in love with money (1 Pet. 5:2; Titus 1:7; 1 Tim. 3:3; 2 Cor. 11:7). A pastor overly attached to a certain standard of living may have a much harder time confessing and fighting sin.
But is it really true that more is expected of the main preaching pastor? I think so. This is in part due to the fact that he preaches more than anyone and is, therefore, the most visible elder in the church body. Thus, when the average visitor or member is looking for an example of the Christian faith, they’re most likely going to point to that man. Moreover, if those elders who are unusually devoted to preaching and teaching are especially deserving of double honor (1 Tim. 5:17), then it’s legitimate to expect those elders to be especially faithful to the Word they preach and teach.
How should church leadership respond when their main preacher stumbles? Before you read on, if you haven’t already, do look at the articles, “When the Servant Stumbles” and “When an Elder Stumbles.” Much of what is said there applies here—and I won’t repeat all of it. In the paragraphs that follow, I want to focus on just a few points that may be unique to the elder who is in the spotlight—the one who handles the majority of the preaching. We can all agree, if pornography is in his life, it needs to be addressed.
What are we to do, then, when the preacher stumbles?
1. Have a category for pastors struggling with a sin that is not disqualifying .[i] When thinking about a pastor’s stumble into pornography, we have to once again remember some sin is more severe than others. Garrett Higbee is helpful here:
While all pornography is immoral, there are different degrees of sexual sin that warrant differing consequences. It is helpful to look at sin on a continuum. Sexual sin does have a unique set of consequences (1 Cor 6:18). Some factors are the private and public nature of the sin (who is impacted), what is an isolated incident versus a regular habit, and how severe it is. Did they stumble onto a sex-scene in a movie but quickly turn the channel? Did they linger but then became convicted and shared it with an accountability partner? Was it premeditated with late night viewing on an internet site? Did they have to get caught? Has it gone past viewing to flirting or sexually inappropriate activity? [ii]
Of course, nobody wants to think of his pastor struggling in any of these ways, but the statistics indicate otherwise. [iii]One of the best things we can do to curb pornography use in pastoral ministry is to allow for this category of pastors who struggle, confess, and are appropriately shepherded into greater and greater degrees of holiness. I’m not saying we ought to allow it to continue! I’m saying we ought to give pastors who have stumbled on the less-serious-side of the continuum the freedom to confess to church leaders without fearing for their job.
2. Appoint an elder to be the preacher’s accountability partner . Pastors are, of course, free to have numerous accountability partners, both inside and outside the church. That’s fine. But there should be an elder within the church to whom the main, preaching pastor is especially accountable.
Where I serve, the elder chair is my accountability partner. I want to know he’s going to ask me tough questions, and I have committed to sharing with him when I am feeling tempted. As the chair of our elders, there’s a sense in which he is over me, even though I am the senior pastor. His unique watchfulness over my soul is important to me, and I am thankful for the transparency it provokes.
When a pastor admits to having viewed pornography, another elder should quickly discern what steps need to be taken. He should be the first line of defense and offense. He should be the one to:
- press to see if more is going on (ensure the preacher is being completely forthcoming);
- discern if there are any bad ministry patterns that are making it harder for the preacher to fight sin (these patterns are no excuse for stumbling, but the church should nonetheless be sensitive to the unusual load most preachers bear);
- and explore whether the preacher’s marriage is healthy and talk with his spouse if appropriate.
In short, when the leading preacher of the church stumbles, it’s very wise for the leading elder in the church to be the man to begin the process of shepherding his soul.
3. When necessary, ask the preacher to confess to the entire elder body . It’s such a privilege to be a pastor. When things go well in the church, we often receive an inordinate amount of public praise. Other elders tend to look at us with great respect and admiration. What an honor!
A good pastor will understand that with his unusually public ministry comes a special responsibility to be unusually public about his failure. In other words, he should feel a heightened degree of responsibility to be transparent, when appropriate, not merely with one elder but with all elders.
If he’s struggling with pornography, has confessed this to another elder, but there remains some question as to whether further action is necessary, take it to the elders. Let them pray over the situation. God has made them elders (Acts 20:28), and they should be trusted to take action that will honor the Lord, the church, and the preacher—in that order.
It’s not easy to learn that your main, preaching elder has been stumbling—especially into pornography. But it doesn’t necessarily mean he shouldn’t preach. Let the elders discuss and pray and then decide.
4. Feel the freedom to call on the preacher to step down. Depending on the degree and regularity of his sin, he may simply be disqualified to be an elder. If that’s the case, the leadership of the church needs to make that decision and then make the appropriate recommendation to the congregation. There’s nothing easy about this, but this option must be on the table. If our leadership teams and churches are content to allow unqualified men to serve as preachers, they shouldn’t be surprised when God removes his hand of blessing.
I’m a preaching pastor, and I regularly experience the temptation toward lust in one form or another. I’m not helping myself, my family, or my church by hiding that temptation. Moreover, I agree with Charles Bridges who drew a straight line between the preacher’s character and the spiritual vitality of the church. “The want of Divine influence on our work,” said Bridges, “should therefore suggest a close and searching scrutiny—Is the whole heart in singleness of purpose consecrated to Christian ministry?” [iv] In other words, the holiness of a church’s leaders has an effect on the church at large. God disciplines those he loves.
Churches should respond well to their preachers who stumble. Letting them know what will happen should they stumble is a great place to start.
[i] This language is taken from Garrett Higbee, “Restoring a Pastor After a Struggle with Pornography,” Porn and the Pastor, 89.
[iii] Morgan Lee, “Here’s How 770 Pastors Describe Their Struggle with Porn,” in Christianity Today (26 January 2016). Found at https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2016/january/how-pastors-struggle-porn-phenomenon-josh-mcdowell-barna.html .