Most pastors say adultery shouldn't permanently disqualify clergy from ministry: survey

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Most pastors believe church leaders who commit adultery should withdraw from the pulpit for some time, but only a small percentage believe extramarital affairs permanently disqualify pastors from the ministry. 

"Pastors’ Views on Moral Failure," a new survey of U.S. Protestant pastors by Nashville-based LifeWay Research, finds that most pastors believe a fellow pastor who has committed adultery needs to take time away from the ministry. However, opinions vary when it comes to the duration of the sabbatical.  

The survey of 1,000 Protestant pastors found that around one in six pastors (16%) believe an offending pastor should stay gone for at least a year; 3% say for at least three months, and another 3% say at least six months.

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Other pastors believe those who commit adultery should remove themselves from public ministry for a longer period of time: 10% say at least two years, 7% say at least five years, and 1% say at least 10 years.

Just 27% of pastors believe those who commit adultery should withdraw from public ministry permanently, and 2% of pastors believe a fellow pastor who has an affair does not need to take any time away. Three in 10 pastors (31%) say they aren’t sure what the appropriate time frame would be.

“Scripture doesn’t mince words about adultery,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “From the Ten Commandments, to the apostle Paul’s lists of wicked things, to the qualifications for elders listed in 1 Timothy, adultery is not appropriate for a follower of Christ nor a leader of a local church.”

“While the Bible is clear that this behavior does not fit a pastor or elder of a church,” said McConnell, “there is much debate over how long this act would disqualify someone from pastoral ministry.”

LifeWay found that the ethnicity, education, and denomination of a pastor influenced the likelihood of their response.

The survey found that African American pastors are the least likely to say one who commits adultery should withdraw from the ministry permanently (8%), while Pentecostal pastors are the least likely to advocate for a permanent withdrawal (6%) and most likely to support staying away for at least a year (35%).

Pastors with a bachelor’s degree (34%) are more likely to select “Withdraw permanently” than those with a master’s degree (27%) or a doctoral degree (22%). 

Church size also impacted respondents' opinions: Pastors of churches with attendance of 50-99 (31%) are more likely to select “Withdraw permanently” than those with attendance of 100- 249 (23%).

“Pastors’ opinions on the subject are a good barometer for opinions across churches,” said McConnell. “There is widespread disagreement from pastors across denominations, church size, age, race and education levels to quickly restoring pastors who commit adultery to public ministry positions.”

Theologian John Piper previously said that standards can vary for what can disqualify a pastor for life “because I don’t think the Bible gives a clear instruction about how a disqualified pastor can become qualified again.”

“I don’t think this is the kind of issue where the church as a whole will ever have agreement,” Piper said. “I think every local church should pray and think and study their way through the Scriptures into a position from which the elders can work in unity with regard to these kinds of things.”

Still, the Desiring God founder said he considered sins like adultery that are committed “after one’s conversion and well into one’s Christian life” to be “more serious indications of unfitness for ministry than our sins prior to the new birth and the new creation in Christ.”

“Adultery after conversion is sinning against the glory of the light of Christ,” he continued. “Before conversion, we were all in spiritual darkness; we were acting according to our nature.”

“The issue is that the offense has been compounded by its deeply multilayered betrayal of God, wife, Christian newness, the Holy Spirit, the people of God, the Gospel, the reputation of the Gospel in the Christian ministry.”

Megachurch Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, said it's possible for fallen pastors to return to public ministry — if they have demonstrated true repentance. He also recommended that the offending pastor move to a different church.

"There are too many variables to make a hard and fast rule for every situation. Whether a fallen pastor can or should return to ministry depends not only on the pastor's response, but also the congregation's response. Sometimes a genuinely repentant pastor may be able to lead a congregation again, but it may have to be a different congregation. We must balance the very high moral qualifications for pastors found in 1 Timothy 3 with the possibility of restoration for those who truly repent of their sins," said Jeffress.

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