Adultery in the pulpit

By Ronald E. Keener

Failure in marriage fidelity shows up clergy as big-time hypocrites.

The health of a pastor is about more than germs and disease; it is as much about thoughts and temptations. Adultery is one of those temptations, and Edward F. Mrkvicka Jr. says “avoiding the temptation of adultery is like a fire. When it first starts it can be put out rather easily, but if we don’t act immediately, a small fire can quickly escalate and burn down our house and everything in it.”

It is a fire that has and can consume clergy as much as the parishioner in the pew. But there is a higher bar to be reached by pastors and church leaders.

“As God’s earthly representatives, clergy must be held to a higher standard, as when we fall, hundreds, perhaps thousands of people see and/or feel, that Christians are nothing more than heathens who go to church on Sunday. A clergyman cannot be a hypocrite,” says Mrkvicka, a lay minister and counselor living in Marengo, IL.

He has written a book on the topic, No Innocent Affair: Making Right the Wrong of Adultery,  (Tate Publishing, 2011) with his daughter Kelly Mrkvicka. Church Executive asked him about what he has found on the topic within the church:

Do we have any evidence of the prevalence or impact of adultery within ministry?

The alarming statistics of adultery are applicable to all; i.e., the clergy is not exempt from temptation. Truth be told, because of counseling obligations, the lure of adultery to clergy, if anything, may very well exceed the norm; e.g., in various studies it’s reported that 70 percent of clergy have directly counseled a woman who had or was cheating on her husband. That’s potentially dangerous and too often leads to their sin becoming our sin.

Does adultery always prohibit service within pastoral ministry?

If we’re talking about an unrepentant adulterer, the answer is a resounding yes. As the Bible says, adulterers will not inherit the Kingdom, they most assuredly should not be practicing clergy here on earth.

You write, “Adultery is choosing Satan over Jesus, death over life, and hell over heaven.” Tough words; what causes people to do so anyway?

I once wrote an article on that topic, entitled “Why Adulterers Cheat,” the conclusion being that adulterers are, in their heart of hearts, narcissistic. I ended by saying, “It is impossible to be a narcissist and a practicing Christian at the same time. They are mutually exclusive.

On the other hand, when God, instead of self, becomes the center of our universe, suddenly the natural flow of life becomes obvious — and makes sense.”

What salvation is available to those who have committed adultery? You’ve written, “Unrepentant adulterers will not spend eternity in heaven.”

Repentance, repentance, repentance. We must repent or perish. This is not salvation through works, as such a thing is not biblically possible. It is instead, a holy response to the completely unmerited gift of everlasting life given to us at such great cost by our Savior.

I’m aware of one pastor who confided in his wife the type of woman who was a danger to him (or to whom he is attracted), and together they worked through those times of temptation. Do you recommend this approach?

I recommend we do whatever is necessary to remain clean and holy, as long as the approach is not in conflict with the Word. From a secular perspective, there is usually more than one answer to a problem. From a Christian point of view there is only one — we, as an expression of our love of Christ, must remain obedient so we have the right to claim his name.

How can wives help their husbands in this tricky territory; where do pastoral couples go wrong in working this out together?

My experience is that the number one mistake couples make in this regard is reacting after-the-fact instead of being vigilant before-the-fact.

Perhaps it’s a it-can’t-happen-to-us mentality, but as we unfortunately know, it can.

Of course, once an adultery has happened, the ball is always in the adulterer’s court. Here the mistake is that we try and save the marriage, without realizing that the marriage cannot be saved until the adulterer first gets right with God.

There was one well known pastor who committed adultery, left the pastorate, did other church work, and I believe today is back with a congregation in the pulpit. Under what circumstances is this possible for others who might be selling shoes rather than preaching the Gospel?

Fallen clergy who have truly repented, may, if offered, return to their position. The issue then becomes, have they actually repented? We must look to their actions to know their heart. Many pastors talk a good game after being exposed, but when you strip away the tinsel, instead of repenting, they blame-shift, try and rationalize their bad behavior, possibly remarry, and in the end take further advantage of a loving congregation that wants desperately to forgive the betrayal.

Should pastors seek therapy on an ongoing, general basis to counter the stresses of ministry, among them temptation to adultery?

I recoil at the word “therapy,” as it has a secular connotation. To be honest, I often have trouble with even some Christian counseling, as it is frequently little more than secular claptrap with a short prayer before and after the session.

On the other hand, Christian fellowship based completely and solely on the Word of God is most assuredly helpful as we all need to be constantly reminded of God’s standards and our responsibilities.

Are covenant groups with several pastors useful in giving support against the temptations of stepping outside their marriages; or does so much depend on the willingness of participants to really open up in such settings?

I have seen pastor groups do great good. Others, while properly intended, fail miserably. That being true, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that those attending determine the results — good or bad.

For me personally, I love to talk and interact with those of like faith, but I’m very careful to always remember that nothing even comes close to some one-on-One time with the Lord.

What do you mean when you write about “committing adultery without knowing it”?

Many people, ignorant of the Word, remarry without biblical grounds. They have been deceived, and sometimes “innocently” misled into believing what God calls adultery is not adultery. But God’s Word says what it means, and means what it says — and we are to know the law.

Where does forgiveness play into turning away from adultery?

Unlike what you might think, 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.

How heartbreaking that the glorious gift of forgiveness has been perverted, as Jesus died on the cross so our sins could be forgiven, not so we can continue to sin.

Where can ministry go from “here” in lowering the incidents of adultery with pastors and ministry leaders?

As the world needs real Christian leadership now more than ever, we cannot shirk our duty by not following the example of our God who can do all things except fail. We must be a holy case in point. Failure is not an option.

Lastly, we need to openly and often talk about adultery among ourselves and with our congregations, as God’s truth is the greatest disinfectant.

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