Are Our Standards for Sexual Purity Too High for Pastors?

00:00-10:51

Interview with John Piper

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

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Is faultless chastity too high a standard for pastors? That’s today’s question. And it’s a question that reminds me of a personal experience a few years ago. My family and I slipped into the back of a church to see a preacher I liked. The church was packed out. The elders were on the platform. Tissues were being passed. The preacher was not there. Moments after arriving, it was announced he had been booted from his pastoral role the night before, after the discovery of his romantic attachment to a woman that was not his wife. And when this punishment was formally announced to the church, the man directly in front of me, whom I had never seen before — I didn’t know him at all — turned straight around, looked me in the eye, and said in a loud voice, “That’s over the top, don’t you think?!” I was startled; I’ll never forget it. Moments like these, and any formal church discipline, are startling; you don’t forget them. And they land on some with a shocking strictness.

This is the experience leading to today’s question from a female listener in Houston. “Pastor John, one of the pastors at my church was recently dismissed from his position after confessing to have had sex with the lady he was dating. On the one hand, I was so humbled by the high view of God’s standard taken by the church leadership. But on the other hand, I wonder if this is too harsh. It takes a very special grace to withstand sexual temptation, especially in a man or woman of a certain age and experience. And many pastors struggle with hidden sins such as pornography. Is faultless chastity too high a standard for pastors?”

Well, I start with the conviction that the coming of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, into the world; and the revelation of the love of God in the sacrifice of his Son; and the pattern of suffering and self-denial set by Jesus; and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the risen Christ; and the vivid clarification of the riches of the Christian inheritance beyond death; and the radical, countercultural teachings of Jesus on how Christians are to live; and the establishment of the new covenant in which the law is written on our hearts — I start with the conviction that all of these and more mean that the standards of behavior for God’s people now are higher than they were in the Old Testament. Jesus raised the bar.

Ocean of God’s Grace

He said, for example, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). And then he called them to rise up above the Mosaic compromise with sin. So, with that conviction, I don’t disagree that it takes a very special grace to withstand sexual temptation; indeed it does. My point is that this grace — this blood-bought grace, this glorious, new-covenant grace — is available in Christ to all Christians. For example,

  • “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8). Every good work — which includes the very minimal good works of staying out of bed with your girlfriend until you’re married, and then being faithful to your wife after marriage. Those are minimal good works.
  • Or 1 Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” In other words, yes, yes, it requires great grace to be chaste — grace beyond common grace. But that’s the very ocean we were thrown into when we were united to Christ.
  • “Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:2). And I would say, “in which we swim” — an ocean; it’s an ocean of grace.
  • To be a Christian living in this ocean of almighty grace is to be led by the Sprit. Romans 8:14: “All who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.”
  • Galatians 5:22–23: “The fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control.” That word, egkrateia, refers explicitly to sexual self-control in Galatians 5:23.
  • Or Colossians 3:5–6: “Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming.”
  • Just like Jesus said: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 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” (Matthew 5:28–29).

Jesus and Paul talk about hell in relationship to the failure to adopt, receive, be empowered by this grace that God has purchased for us in the new covenant.

Held to a Higher Standard

Then after the conviction that Christ’s standards are higher than Moses’s standards, there’s the truth that standards for elders and pastors are higher than for ordinary Christian church members. Besides the special gifting required for elders and pastors called “teaching” and “governing” (1 Timothy 3:25), there are ethical standards where the pastor is to be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2), because he’s a very public figure and has the weighty calling of being an example to the flock (1 Peter 5:3) and an example to the world (1 Timothy 3:7).

  • “I exhort the elders among you . . . [exercise] oversight . . . not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:1–3).
  • Paul makes explicit that this example that pastors are to set is sexual purity: “Set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
  • “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works . . . so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (Titus 2:6–8).
  • All of which leads to Paul’s weighty words to the elders in Acts 20:28: “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood.”

Not Just One of the Guys

In spite of the fact that many pastors try to give the impression, with misplaced humility, that they are “just one of the guys” — “Don’t put me on a pedestal; I’m just one of the guys” — they are emphatically not “just one of the guys.” I’ll say it again: pastors are emphatically not just one of the guys.

They are the shepherd of the guys. They are the wolf-catchers and wolf-fighters of the guys. They are the examples to the guys. They are the protectors and teachers with authority over the guys. Maybe one of our problems is that we’ve just scared pastors witless about being what they ought to be.

What I’m suggesting is that it is biblically inconceivable that such a shepherd could be living above the standard of Moses, and above the standard of ordinary Christians, and above the reproach of the world, and yet be living in sexual sin. My answer to the question is that it is not too high a standard to require that a pastor live a life free from sexual fornication and adultery and any ongoing use of pornography.John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Coronavirus and Christ.ASK PASTOR JOHN

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