Why Black Church Leaders Often Get Away With Sexual Misconduct, and the Woman Breaking the Silence

Conflict of Interest, 'Sloppy Theology of Forgiveness'

Pointing to how Simmons was able to remain in his job even after he was caught in the act of adultery by his parishioner, Cooper noted that his staff might also be reluctant to act against him because they are dependent on him for their jobs.

"In this particular Baptist church, if it's like other similar black and white Baptist churches across the country, there is a very strong pastor with a charismatic preaching gift. That's how, usually, he got the job. He won the job by out-preaching the other candidates.

"There is a board, maybe a deacon's board, maybe an elder board that is for the most part appointed by him. So this board is reliant on him for their jobs," she said.

"So of course this pastor, after this incident with the gun, the next Sunday he gets his wife, he does what a congressman caught cheating does. He has the prerequisite press conference (a church meeting in Simmons' case) with his wife standing beside him. ... Nothing is going to happen because there is no individual higher than that pastor because of the polity," she said. "Who can step up and remove him? It has to well up from within the congregation."

The problem with the congregation acting is that usually, there is no independent guidance available.

"There is no one really to guide the conversation on this and he's not an impartial witness, is he," she said of the compromised pastor. "He's trying to hold on to his financial viability."

Even in some of the most egregious cases of pastoral misconduct, Cooper explained that congregants caught in the aftermath of a scandal will find ways to justify support for their leader.

"I believe that if you go to that congregation today, there are people who would tell you all of the reasons why they believe the pastor is innocent. They will blame the woman. Some of them might blame the pastor's wife, they will talk about an attack from the devil. There's a martialing of theological justifications, unfortunately, for this kind of behavior. People will explain it," she said.

The difficulty for these congregants, she said, is the ability to separate the transformative work that the pastor has done in their lives from the destructive behavior.

"They look at this situation and say, 'now the pastor is in trouble, I need to show up for pastor like pastor showed up for me.' And there has not been, unfortunately, I think there is a need for the development of a way to think about this theologically," she said.

"There is a really great need for some thoughtful and theological attention to how individual Christians, our obligation, for when a crisis of this nature takes place. What is the Christian's obligation to forgive? What is the leader's obligation to repent?" asked Cooper.

"There has been some discussion about people stepping down and stepping out of the pulpit and invariably those decisions are made in the context of the economic pressure 'I need a job.'

"So pastors get caught but they don't step out of the pulpit. And that's not just a black church experience; that's across races and denominations and traditions, and the like. I think we need to just think seriously about how or if it's possible for a pastor to be restored," she added.

"We have, I think, a very sloppy theology of forgiveness — that 'Oh, he said he was sorry, we forgive him.' I think that the consensus that is emerging, and it's not just a theological consensus but also a legal consensus, is that organizations have an obligation to protect the vulnerable from folks who have been proven to be abusers," she explained.

"You have to put your theological forgiveness on one side and the obligations of your institution on another side. You might forgive them but that doesn't mean that they get to go back to children's church next week. They shouldn't."

The Culture Problem

In Sexual Abuse of Power in the Black Church: Sexual Misconduct in the African American Churches, Matthews agrees with Cooper's assessment of the response to clergy sexual misconduct in black churches.

His research suggests sexual misconduct among leaders in black churches has become so normalized in the culture, congregants "will defend their pastor's actions as long as some modicum of discretion is involved."

"It seems that many black church persons are so accustomed to accepting the misconduct of their pastors that it's now assented to as normal behavior. In effect, because their moral compass has never been set to understand the dynamics and damaging effects of pastoral sexual misconduct they have developed a kind of denial regarding their minister's sexual misconduct," he wrote. "I doubt whether most or even many black church persons have any idea of what it means for a pastor to engage in acts of abuse of power."

"The typical black pastor commands and expects such love and devotion that it has almost become expected that he will abuse his power and be forgiven for it. This unwillingness to criticize the pastor is indicative of the blind trust and devotion that a community under crisis has given its spiritual leaders," he continued.

"Ultimately, this devotion has also resulted in a lack of ability for churches to cooperate with each other as each church and its leader developed a social and sexual fiefdom of its own. Each church requires a single-minded devotion to their particular pastor and leader and is therefore willing to overlook the misconduct of its leaders and has a limited capacity to trust other churches and their leaders."

Cooper agrees with Matthews that sensitivity in discussing questions of sex and sexuality also prevents the black church from honestly dealing with sexual misconduct among leaders.

"We (black women) were accused of being hypersexual. There was a period when a black woman could not bring a charge of rape and successfully prosecute a white assailant, for example. That was the Jim Crow era that wasn't that long ago," she said.

"So there is a kind of real sensitivity around these issues. Theologically, it's expressed in a kind of holiness culture. Sociologically, it's expressed in a concern for respectability and so there's a real reticence to put those kinds of issues in the market place. There's a real desire to keep things private.

"Now that desire for privacy is often at odds with a desire for justice. Sunlight is the best disinfectant and if the congregation is not willing to be honest about what happened, it becomes increasingly difficult to actually get justice for victims."

Cooper also agreed that the kind of loyalty demanded by black church leaders, particularly those in evangelical churches, leaves their congregations open to abuse.

"The congregations are often tremendously loyal. This is not just about sexual assault and harassment, this is also true with regards to financial misdeeds. Unfortunately, financial misdeeds often go on for quite a while as there's no one with authority in the congregation to be able to call the pastor to account," she said.

"When the Roman Catholic Church addresses sexual misconduct there is an entire hierarchy that becomes involved. When mainline denominations deals with these types of accusations there is a hierarchy, there is a set approach to how the situation will be dealt with," Cooper explained.

"But when the misconduct happens in the historically black denomination, there often is not the same systemic approach to redress," she said.

"If you're part of a wealthy denomination that has an on-call legal staff, then accusations get handled differently than if you're a part of a denomination or organization that maybe it's not even a denomination, maybe it's a freestanding congregation, then the ways that specific allegations are handled are done differently," she noted.

If the misconduct goes beyond the moral and involves criminal contact, such as relations with a minor, churches, not just black ones, are usually more likely to simply fire the accuser than seek to bring criminal charges.

"If it's discovered that someone who was involved in the youth program was not handling youth appropriately, people are more likely to fire them than to charge them with anything," she said.

Cooper noted that sometimes this culture allows individuals to go from congregation to congregation and repeat their crime.

She also noted that it can be difficult to get members of the African-American community to report crimes due to historical mistrust of the criminal justice system.

"There is often distrust of and discomfort with the criminal justice system. If you're in a city where you're concerned with the police shooting African-Americans then the way that you handle difficulties in your congregation you might have really strong reasons in wanting to avoid the police," Cooper said.

She noted that there were also issues concerning the access that members of African-American congregations have to proper legal representation should they seek to hold churches accountable through civil lawsuits.

In her discussion of the culture of abuse among African-American pastors, Cooper asked "if there is a professional code of conduct for black church leaders, [and] where do they learn it?"

Matthews, in his book, suggested that the code of conduct came from their predecessors.

"The first time that I became aware of the abuse of pastoral authority and power was when I was a student in a theological seminary. I had several black male friends who were also pastors and who were also studying for the ministry," he said.

"It seemed as though they were in competition to see how many women they could seduce. They emphasized the number of women they could attract and seemed to be infatuated by their own appearance and pastoral gifts of preaching and teaching," he continued.

Matthews went on to detail a culture in which the future pastors began sleeping with each other's wives as their own marriages fell apart. He highlighted instances in which the behavior continued even after the men were installed as pastors of their own churches.

"They were even able to quote scriptures that they said provided justification for their actions," he wrote.

At least one other Christian leader, personally affected by pastoral sexual misconduct, spoke out recently.

Pierre Whitlow, a former worker in the ministry of controversial self-proclaimed prophet Brian Carnrevealed in a video posted to YouTube in June that Carn had an affair with his wife. Whitlow presented his wife in the video as Carn's victim.

"It's a sad day for the church. I was so very much manipulated in a very low time that we were experiencing by a man that we trusted. He baptized me," Whitlow's young wife, Keisha, said as he prompted her to "speak up" in the video.

"Words can't describe the pain, the remorse that ...," she said before she was cut off by her husband who said, "we'll come back to her."

Should Wayward Pastors Be Restored to Pulpit?

A 2016 Lifeway Research study indicated that African-American pastors are more likely than other pastors to support remaining in the pulpit while being investigated for sexual misconduct.

They were also found to be more likely to recommend the least amount of time — three months to a year — away from the pulpit as discipline for a pastor who was proven to have had an affair.

While there are varying views on if or how quickly a pastor found guilty of sexual misconduct should be restored, Eric Geiger, vice president of the Church Resource Division at LifeWay Christian Resources, notes that the Bible's guidance on sexual immorality among pastors is quite strict.

"The Apostle Paul does not advocate for a congregation to remove someone for lack of hospitality, but he does for sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 5). The sins, while both deep violations of the character of God, have differing levels of consequences because they bring differing levels of reproach upon His church," Geiger wrote last summer in Church Leaders.

He strongly advised against restoring pastors found guilty of sexual misconduct immediately. He suggested that there are strong arguments for not restoring them to leadership positions at all or restoring them after a period of deliberate repentance and counseling.

"Some leaders believe that restoration can and should occur when the restoration is done deliberately, when there is ample time to observe the sweet fruit of repentance, and when credibility can be restored through a season of learning and counseling. They preach 1 Timothy 3 and believe that blamelessness can be restored," he wrote.

Timothy Rogers, 38, a popular Arkansas evangelist and singer who has performed widely on the black church circuit, told CP that while he believes unfaithful pastors should be disciplined, he doesn't believe it should disqualify them from leadership.

"I have a lot of friends that pastor and some are single and some are married that go through different issues. They have had their share. So personally, I would feel super uncomfortable with giving a solid answer on this because I don't want to seem like I have the answer to what should happen to that preacher," Rogers said. 

"Me personally, I've been preaching for at least 20 years, and I've run into all kinds of preachers. I think it should be dealt with, but as it relates to should they not lead anymore, should they not be a pastor anymore, I don't want to say. I don't really know," he said when asked if unfaithful pastors should step down.

"I really couldn't say that. I really wouldn't know what to say because in my heart I think that the average pastor, you know even if he didn't do it, has probably thought about it," he added.

When pointed to the 2017 case in which Simmons returned to the pulpit days after he was caught sleeping with his parishioner, however, Rogers was a bit more nuanced in his response.

"It's tragic. ... I saw that particular incident. I don't know that preacher ... but I will say I think it's appropriate when one is caught in a fault like that, I think it is befitting for one to kind of sit down and surround himself with some brothers who can actually help him mentally, spiritually, and all of that to get him back to where he needs to be. The Bible says if a brother is overtaken in a fault, ye that are spiritual, restore such a one in meekness, considering yourself lest ye also be tempted," he said.

"So I think there's a time to restore but also I think there is a time to kind of step back and examine, make sure you are healed spiritually, mentally and all of that kind of stuff. If it was me, you wouldn't have to make me sit down. That's something that I would want to do. I would want to feel loved. I wouldn't want nobody to make me feel like I'm a monster. I wouldn't want nobody to make me feel like I'm less of a man or no good," he added.

He pointed out that the church should remember that many of God's chosen vessels like David and Solomon struggled with sexual temptation and indulged but were still used by God.

"[David] was a man after God's own heart and he took another man's wife and had that man killed, and after that man was killed he married that woman. And they had a son named Solomon. Solomon wrote 'Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not to thine own understanding but in all they ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy path,'" Rogers said.

"Those writings came from a man who had 700 wives and 300 concubines ... so these fellas are in our Book. And some of those people we quote every day of our lives but we really don't know the dark side of their lives. We talk about people in Scripture but there is a lot of dark stuff in Scripture. God still managed to use those people in whatever capacity that they were used," he said.

He explained that churches should ensure that whenever a sexual relationship between a pastor and his parishioner is brought to light, the church must minister to both the pastor and the parishioner.

"When we have issues like that, I think that we should give it special attention and we should make sure that the offender is dealt with and make sure that the offended is not pushed out without being helped also," he said.

But some believe pastors should be held to a higher standard and that sexual sin should not be tolerated in the pulpit.

John MacArthur, a California pastor and author known for his internationally syndicated Christian teaching radio program Grace to Youargued in an op-ed that pastors who commit sexual sin should be disqualified from leadership.

"Gross sin among Christian leaders is a signal that something is seriously wrong with the church. But an even greater problem is the lowering of standards to accommodate a leader's sin. That the church is so eager to bring these men back into leadership is a symptom of rottenness at the core," he wrote. "Our pattern for ministry is the sinless Son of God. The church is to be like Him and her leaders are to be our models of Christlikeness."

He then pointed to New Testament Scripture rebutting unseemly behavior among church leaders.

"We must recognize that leadership in the church cannot be regarded lightly. The foremost requirement of a church leader is that he be above reproach (1 Timothy 3:2, 10Titus 1:7). That is a difficult prerequisite, and not everyone can meet it," he said.

"There are some sins that irreparably shatter a man's reputation and disqualify him from a ministry of leadership forever. Even Paul, man of God that he was, said he feared such a possibility. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he says, 'I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.'

"When referring to his body, Paul obviously had sexual immorality in view. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 he describes it as a sin against one's own body — sexual sin is in its own category. Certainly it disqualifies a man from church leadership since he permanently forfeits a blameless reputation as a one-woman man (Proverbs 6:331 Timothy 3:2)."

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