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Practicing purity

By Ron Keener

Are pastoral affairs on the increase or is it the media and Internet that makes it seem so? It’s not a new problem for clergy.

“The Rev. Travis Smith paced First Baptist Church’s sanctuary [in Stover, MO], decorated for the holidays with poinsettias and a Christmas tree. He addressed his congregation about forgiveness. ‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you,’ he read from the Gospel of Matthew.”

The subtext of this account (from Religion News Service) is that Smith had been arrested in October on sexual abuse and statutory rape charges, which follow similar allegations from 2010. The RNS report says that “forgiveness from his congregation has become critical to his survival as its pastor. It is this group of about 100 souls – not a bishop, nor a disciplinary committee nor national church leaders – who will decide Smith’s future in the Southern Baptist Convention,” unlike other denominations.

Judgment was swifter at First Baptist Church of Hammond, IN, back in August when senior pastor Jack Schaap admitted to adultery with a teenage girl of his church. Schaap had led the 15,000-member church for 11 years, and told police that he was not aware it was against the law to take an underage youth across state lines. “People are very pleased at how fast our deacon board acted in the dismissal of our former pastor,” Christian Post reported a church spokesman saying.

Then in December, pastor Isaac Hunter of Summit Church in Orlando, FL, with 5,000 worshippers, resigned after admitting to an extramarital affair with a former staff member. His father, Joel, is pastor of a megachurch in Longwood, FL, and is a spiritual advisor to President Obama.

One can imagine the ugliness of all these events to the families, the churches, the community, and the individuals accused or confessing. Are there more pastoral affairs today, or are we just hearing about them more, questions blogger Todd Rhoades. “Makes me think that it could be that we’re just hearing more about pastoral affairs these days because of the instantaneous nature of our culture, the media and the Internet in particular,” Rhoades wrote in November.

“I think many times when we see a pastor fall, we somehow tie it to our screwed up culture, to the size of his church, or to an over-bloated ego that caused an attitude of entitlement in the man who has fallen. Many times this may be the case. But I don’t think this is, by far, a new problem for pastors and churches.”

Saddleback’s Rick Warren recently said, “Sometimes I feel attracted to women who are not my wife. I don’t act on it. Just because I have a feeling doesn’t make it right.”

In last April’s issue of this magazine we carried an interview with Edward Mrkvicka Jr., the author of a book on adultery, in which he observes that clergy are not exempt from temptation, and that “because of counseling obligations, the lure of adultery to clergy, if anything, may very well exceed the norm” and that counseling for the pastor “too often leads to their sin becoming our sin.”

As for forgiveness, where we started this piece? Mrkvicka shares that “forgiveness is too often used and abused by sinners to relieve the pressure of knowing they are in willful spiritual rebellion. They tell themselves their sin will be washed away, no matter what they do. That is treating the blood of Christ as a common thing, and God will have none of it.”

Pastors deal with temptation as all of us do. A quote from comedy writer John Dryden puts it best: “Better shun the bait than struggle in the snare.” But, unhappily, there seems to be some truth in what English literary critic Robert Orben once wrote, “Most people would like to be delivered from temptation, but would like it to keep in touch.”

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