Sexual Sin and Church Leadership

Should a church leader continue to be a leader after a sexual sin? I thought the answer was an obvious, unequivocal, “No.” But apparently, church leaders have kept their positions of leadership, or have been reinstated after some “brief” period of temporary discipline or absence, soon after the sexual transgression was discovered. Is there biblical justification for a Christian leader to continue to lead after committing a sexual sin?

Jim, Jim and Ted. Perhaps, the 3 most “famous” Christian sexual transgressors in the U.S. are Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart and Ted Haggard. Pedophile priests would fall into the same category. Because of their prominent positions of Christian leadership and influence, they have given the non-Christian public “justifiable” reasons for rejecting Jesus, Christianity, the Bible, and the church.

Reasons for allowing a Christian leader to lead after a sexual sin. According to reports, it has been “common” for leaders to continue in their positions of leadership in the church after sexual transgression. Common justifications include:

  • “God forgives all sin, including sexual sin,”
  • “He repented,”
  • “He served so well for so long,”
  • “He has great gifts that can greatly benefit the church,”
  • “Now he can understand sinners better.”

There are ample biblical arguments for each of the above justifications, which I will not go into, but which you may wish to address.

What about “lesser” sins? Others say, “If Christian leaders are dismissed because of sexual sin, shouldn’t those who commit other sins, such as pornography or “lesser” sins, also be dismissed or disqualified?”

All of the above are “reasonable” reasons for keeping a Christian in a position of leadership and influence in the church after sexual sin. But are they adequate and biblical and reasonable reasons to keep a Christian in leadership?

Intimacy in marriage points to Christ’s love for the church (Eph 5:25). Sexual intercourse is a special gift from God ONLY in the exclusive context of marriage between a man and a woman. Thus, sex with anyone but one’s spouse violates this. When ANY Christian commits a sexual sin, he obscures and sullies the beauty of Christ in his unique sacrificial love for the church, not to mention betraying his spouse, his children and his friends. When a Christian leader does this, the impact, influence and damage increases exponentially.

Sexual sin is not an “ordinary” sin. The Bible seems to “elevate” the seriousness of sexual sin, when Paul says, “All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor 6:18), because our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 6:19).

Would you listen to a Christian leader who had sex with your daughter? The answer to this question seems obvious. So, why might anyone in the church think that it is OK for that leader who committed a sexual sin to preach and teach other women and other daughters in the church? Reason itself should disqualify a “fallen” Christian leader from leading in the church.

Disqualification from leadership does not mean exclusion from fellowship. Disqualification by sexual sin does not mean exclusion from fellowship in the church, who should forgive and welcome him in the grace of Jesus, and provide counseling for him and his family.

This is an extensive topic. Volumes have been written. I have obviously barely skimmed the surface. To read more, I have found these helpful:

Sex is always a hot button issue, because sex pushes our buttons regardless of whether we are Christian or non-Christian, Christian leader or church member. May God give us grace and wisdom to deal with sexual sin, not just of Christian leaders, but especially of lust and the temptation of sexual sin in our own hearts.


  1. Thank you for sharing this Ben. Because of Jim, Jim and Ted, we should not shy away from the subject of sexual sin. Here are my initial thoughts:

    1. How we treat elders/pastors/leaders greatly affects how we would deal with their sin of any kind. If we elevate leaders highly above everyone else, we are setting them up for a huge fall, because every one of us has fallen and no one is good (Romans 3:12; Luke 18:19). 

    2. Having a worldview that separates “good” people from “bad” people is not a view taught by Scripture. I am learning that God sees people as sinners who are either repentant or unrepentant. The only thing that counts is “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6)

    3. Our God is our Redeemer. God doesn’t just start all over, endlessly repeating a wrenching pattern of tossing out people who fail. God redeems. God can and does redeem our lives. In a surge of anger, God will hide his face from us, but he promises to have compassion (Isaiah 54:8).

    I think whatever response is taken to such a situation, the response needs to involve justice, truth, honesty, facts, prayer, mercy, grace, faith, hope and love. Our response needs to be void of malice and gossip. Our hope is not in any person nor in any organization. Our hope is only in Jesus, Him crucified.

    If we put leaders on a mountaintop, appointing only people who we think are “blemish-free”, we will need to do a lot of covering up to protect that spotless image. Sure, a leader who sins can be redeemed and should not be cast out permanently. But action must be taken to address the issue. Whatever is done will demonstrate the kind of people we are to the world.

    Are we people of truth? Do we love the plumbline of God’s justice and God’s righteousness (Isaiah 28:17)? Or do we love our own filthy rags, pretending our own righteous acts are worth something (Isaiah 64:6)? Do we boast of our weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30), cry out for God’s mercy and demonstrate to the world that our Redeemer lives? Or do we create endless cover-ups, hide from God like in the Garden, and so tell the world that Christianity is really just a business, no different from any other philosophy, religion or human endeavor?

    • Sadly, the church has a history of “protecting” her leaders in an attempt to keep her “good image,” while not deeply regarding the massive trauma inflicted upon the victims.

  2. Dr. Toh, is your message essentially: We can forgive leaders who committed sexual sins, but they should not be allowed to continue in a position of leadership? I would imagine that you would agree that (unrepentant) sexual predators will continue to prey irregardless of their position. Hence, it seems like your saying we can reduce the potential further damage by removing them from positions of leadership (even if they repent). Is this correct?

  3. Great questions, Gerardo. We Christians should always forgive all others, because forgiveness is God’s free grace to us which we never deserve (Luke 23:34). So surely, we forgive our fallen leaders who have failed sexually, and we do not hate them or break fellowship with them, even if they show hardness of heart and no sign of repentance and humility.

    However, forgiveness does not equate with letting them continue to lead, because they have broken a sacred trust and abused their position of leadership through sexual misconduct. Leaders should be blameless and above reproach (Titus 1:6; 1 Tim 3:2) and held to a higher standard (James 3:1).

    Yes, I would say that a Christian leader disqualifies himself from leadership when he abuses his position of leadership and authority through sexual sins. This authenticates:
      * that God takes sin most seriously,
      * that leaders are judged more severely (James 3:1),
      * that we emphatize deeply with the victims (by making no attempt to protect or hide the perpetrator). Surely, publicly dismissing the fallen leader gives some sense of justice toward the victims, even if they might already be scarred for life by his sexual abuse.

    Yes, sexual predators will continue to sin, for committing a sexual sin usually equates with a long standing serious compromise with the holiness of God (years, decades), and usually not just a sudden lapse of sexual continence. Think Jerry Sandusky? They may need years, maybe even a life time of rehab.

    This is surely a highly delicate and sensitive subject. May God have mercy on us and help us!

  4. There’s no specific date or year when a Christian leader could resume his leadership but I agree that they should not be excluded from the fellowship. Why? We will be sinning towards God. What right gave us to condemn them? Just remember ourselves before God called us. Paul considers himself the worst sinner. May God forgive us who sinned sexually. We are in the hands of God’s grace alone.

    • I agree Noah. We can and should forgive a leader who sins. In most cases, that leaders must at least have a leave of absence or time off from leadership. Any leader who is repentant will volunteer for such a leave, actually.

      So it is not the specific sins that are the problem. The problem is choosing to willingly and knowingly cover-up such sins, refusing to follow God’s way of repentance and going our own way instead.

      I am starting to be convinced that the only sin God is unwilling to forgive is the sin of “going our own way.” as in Deuteronomy 29:19-20. When we say “I will persist in going my own way”, we will certainly find the Lord unwilling to forgive.

  5. Among the seven deadly sins, the one considered the most destructive is not lust, but pride. St. Augustine conjectured that God will often allow the man to fall prey to some lesser sin in order to break his pride. If so, the church that covers up the pastor’s sin (in order to spare his honor and protect him from shame) would be thwarting God’s redemptive work in the erring pastor’s life.

  6. Vitaly,

    ADMIN NOTE: As on of the ubfriends admins, I unapproved both your comment and my last comment on this thread. Neither is appropriate for this website. People can search elsewhere for specific sins reported about UBF leaders (such material is easy to find and has been for 10 years). We’re not going to regurgitate those details here.

    Exposing or discussing specific sins of others is not the purpose of this website. But we will allow anyone to confess here out of their own desire.

    Your questions are valid and should be addressed however. Perhaps we can discuss these questions without referencing specific people’s names: “How was the conflict resolved? On what principles?” These questions relate well to the topic Ben raised here.

    I think these questions are worth discussing publicly. However, in UBF’s case, we probably know the answers already. The conflict you speak of was most certainly “resolved” by private meetings and a lot of covering up of facts. Is there a case in UBF where leader’s sins were not handled this way?

  7. Vitaly, since you raised some valid questions, I feel compelled to answer with my firsthand observations (not about the case you mentioned but a different one).

    Once a UBF leader was arrested on campus for public exposure. That person’s situation was dealt with rather gracefully and with mercy (on an individual level). However, the community issues relating to this sin were never dealt with properly, in my opinion.

    In fact, that person is now in an even higher leadership position as if nothing ever happened. Who knows? Perhaps that person is even involved in children’s ministry! In my good conscience, I cannot support such a way of dealing with sexual sin. Such sins should be dealt with on both a personal level and on a community level, as far as I can tell from Scripture. That particular situation was not handled the way the Bible dealt with the sexual sins of leader’s such as King David and Bathsheba.

    When we don’t (as a body of Christ) deal with such sexual sin openly, the situations blow up. And since this is the year 2012, the situations will blow up on the internet. 

    • Brian,
      Could you elaborate on how the situation should have been dealt according to David’s situation with Bathsheba? 

    • Oy… I don’t have thoughts on that collected yet. My only point is that we should learn integrity and honesty from the way our God handled King David’s Bathsheba situation.

  8. Thank you, Brian. I am sorry if I didn’t observe the site policy in my previous comment. I think the topic of this article is an important one. How an organisation deal with such sins especially those of leaders and espesially on a community level shows what kind of organisation it is. In Russia there is a saying “Show me your friend and I will know who you are”. I suppose that it is not so good to be even a UBFriend now (I mean a friend of UBF). I left UBF in november. At the moment I was suggested to start a new UBF chapter. I answered that I wouldn’t like to become a leader in an organisation with such a dirty name. It seems that russian internet blowed up some years ago and many so called sheep don’t want to come and ask questions based on information they find about UBF on internet. I’d want to preach the gospel, not to answer questions nor to protect some organisation and its leaders. I think there is no future for UBF until they deal sins problems that way. And unfortunately “dealing in a wrong way” is not the only UBF problem.

    • Interesting comment Vitaly (beautiful name BTW). Some close UBF friends of mine feel sick and tired of always having to defend UBF’s name against some past wrongdoings. 

      After the whole sex abuse scandal that errupted 2 years ago, the Archdioses sent out a survey to Catholics asking how they could serve them better. From what I understand, many people responded by asking the archdioses to respond to the sexual abuse scandal since they didnt know whether to believe the secular news media. I was delighted that at least in our Archdioses, they ended up creating discussion groups in various parishes for people who wanted answers or just have a place to talk with an representative from the Archdioses about their frustrations with the whole situation.   

    • “I was delighted that at least in our Archdioses, they ended up creating discussion groups in various parishes”

      Amen Gerardo! There are growing indications to me that the Spirit is working in the Catholic church these days. Maybe such actions will cause me to acknowledge my Catholicity :)

    • Thank you for understanding Vitaly. Your thoughts are very much welcome here!

    • Haha… Brian, there are some serious problems that still exist within the Catholic Church. While I think the media does distort some facts, it is undeniable that in some cases some bishops did not act the way they were commissioned to. This needs to be better addressed but I am glad that parishes are at least responding to their flock’s desire to know something and not be left to the wolves. 

    • “parishes are at least responding to their flock’s desire to know something and not be left to the wolves.”

      That, for me, is the whole point of this discussion. Silence allows Satan to have a field day with people’s hearts and minds. 

  9. I sense that people in authority have no choice but to be more HOT – honest, open and transparent; they can’t play games as much. Why?

    Jesus says that what we whisper in our bed rooms will one day be shouted from the rooftops (Lk 12:3). But the internet is doing so even before Jesus comes again!

  10. I happen to see a sad story today. A 60 year old Wheaton College professor of Christian education was charged with possessing images and videos containing child pornography:

    • GerardoR

      This is sad. So many people are turned away from the faith when they see a man of God submit to such a repulsive kind of sin. I always think about the various people who followed these priests and pastors. People who saw them as father figures the way Timothy saw Paul and who have their faith shaken. 

      I wonder if people’s faith are shaken because they lift up their pastor as an example of someone who knows Jesus but still fails. Or whether their faith is shaken because the sense of trust they shared with another individual of faith is shaken which leads them to feel uncertain about connecting with their heavenly Father.

      We all need people to help us to learn the faith which must make it hard to grow in your faith if your not willing to trust a a person with some authority within your religious circle given a past scandal with a pastor or priest. 

  11. Thanks, Gerardo. I am studying about JOY from Philippians. Paul had joy in jail. He had joy when others disliked him so much that they preached the gospel more. When anyone succumbs to pornography or to sexual liasons, I’d have to say that they had no joy in Christ, and sought it in all the wrong places.

    I agree with you that elevating any Christian leader makes disillusionment far greater when (not if) they sin. As a husband, father, pastor, I know that I can “easily” discourage and crush/devastate my wife, my 4 children and my congregation. For this reason, I cry out to God daily for His mercy on me.

    Reading the details of this story is even sadder. As an educational psychologist, his own bio states: “Most of my research has involved children either in school or church contexts. I am particularly interested in family nurture of children’s spiritual experiences and development,”

    On the subject of children and spirituality, his personal website states: “I appreciate children in all of their richness and complexity. They can be baffling, frustrating, delightful, and overwhelming. While I have studied child development in depth … I am particularly interested in the spirituality of children.”

  12. Thanks for reference to my book, The Stain That Stays. I have been asked many times, “Do you still believe what you wrote here almost twenty years ago?” The answer is a more assured yes than I would have given then. Sadly, the need for this kind of book remains huge. To few leaders are willing to ask the question(s) you raise Ben and draw the conclusions you do. Thanks for helping many rethink an important issue that impacts every church and Christian movement I know. None of us can walk away from this problem unless we want to walk away from both grace and repentance at a the same time. 

    • Hi John! Really glad to hear your comments. It is refreshing to hear someone say that you “more assuredly” say “yes” to what you wrote about 20 years ago.

      These days I am reading stuff I wrote over the past 20 years… and I assuredly say “no” I do not believe most of what I wrote. But I am glad I have so much material about how not to live a Christian life. 

  13. This issue has a lot to do with what Sharon mentioned in her last posting, “that we are now living and evangelizing in a context where the church has a bad name.” This is particularly obvious for the Catholic church and their cases of child abuse. Maybe you only think of the cases in the US, but the same issues have been reported from Ireland, Germany and many other countries, most recently in the Netherlands. Thousands of cases. And child abuse is so much worse than what is usually understood as “sexual sin”. In the past, the Catholic church dealt with it in the same way as UBF, by covering it up. Often, the culprits have been transferred to other locations without notifying the people there, so they were able to continue the abuse at their new location. But the strategy of covering up clearly did no work. Finally, things could not be covered up any more, and tens of thousands of people left the Catholic church, disappointed. Not to talk about the poor traumatized victims of the abuse.
    The whole issue clearly shows that something is fundamentally flawed in the Catholic church. 1) When such grievous sins happened, they did not react appropriately. 2) They are not willing to openly discuss what caused these issues, though it has been revealed that these are not “singular cases”, but a systemic issue. Nor are they willing to challenge their traditions and put them into question, like celibacy, even when they could be the root cause for these issues and they are not directly deducible from the Bible, but clearly traditions only.

  14. Very sad to read about Tom White, the executive director of Voice of the Martyrs, age 65, committing suicide while being investigated for molesting a young girl:

    Another man and his wife had parented 75 foster kids, and was being held on charges of molesting 2 of his foster children, age 6 and 12:

    May God have mercy on us. 

  15. One of my professors is a member of GRACE (Godly response to abuse in the christian enviroment). He told us a story, where this organization was involved as a third party investigation commity. So they investigated the activity of NTM (new tribe missions) mission agency in Africa. While missionaries were busy with missions, their kids were taken to the agency school, so they can serve missions without family burden (!). And unfortunately in the school many cases of different types of abuse where found. I read their report. As for me the most frstrating thing was that many of this missionaries were really commited sacrificial people. And many good things happened as well even in this school, as GRACE reported. Though in the same time so ugly things as abuse and covering were going as well. The good thing about NTM is that at the end they invited GRACE as an independent third party to investigate the cases and to help them to correct theirselves.

  16. Thanks David for sharing. The links are interesting. I like the definition of spiritual abuse from the report.

  17. Armstrong’s latest post from today:

    He asks good questions that might still be not easy to answer: “What should happen to pastors who fall into sexual misconduct? Should they return, repentant, to leadership/pastoral ministry within weeks or months – or should they return at all? Does the Bible and church history give us any help with these kinds of questions?”

  18. How easily can an older leader “take advantage” of a younger member of his church.

    This is not just adultery; it is abuse of the worst kind, by a man who is supposed to be the shepherd of his flock:

    The plea by Ed Stetzer is for people to speak up with humility and tears, instead of covering it up to protect the leader.

  19. forestsfailyou

    I agree with everything you said here. Someone who has done such a thing might be forgiven, but has become incompetent with serving members of the opposite sex in such a way. Some might point to King David as a counter but King David did not advice and console women. For what it’s worth my grandfather is a huge fan of all three of these guys, and my mom has more or less told me never to look them or any of their sermons up.

  20. I would like to emphazize that the safety Standards that are valid at Schools should also apply to churches, may they be denominational or free, because there are human beings everywhere, that can commit sexual sin. Here is a German link, youth initiative for safe church

  21. I think we should finally get away from the thought that sexual sin is something more likely committed in Schools or Boarding Schools than in our cosy churches of UBF or whatsoever

    potential danger is everywhere, we should be alert in the LORD and also alert using our Brains and Setting the same Standards as in worldly institutions