This past Sunday the pastor of the church where I came to know Christ resigned after admitting he’d been involved in an extra-marital affair. His wife and children suffer while the members of the church wonder how this could happen again – that’s right, in the past 30 years this church has had three ministry leaders resign because of marital and sexual infidelity.
This church is far from being alone. I can think of very few churches that have escaped such a trauma. Sometimes the affair creates a spectacular end to the pastor’s service, other times it’s quietly the cause of a resignation. However it plays out, it leaves everyone involved hurt and wondering why it happened and how it could have been avoided.
Over the past twenty years I’ve had the honor of coaching and serving alongside some strong and capable church leaders. Here’s what I have learned from them about marriage:
- Everyone is vulnerable. From King David to Gordon MacDonald, even some of the best leaders stumble. This means that every single pastor is capable of having an affair. An absolute crucial element for avoiding an affair is to admit that it’s possible – even for you. Sometimes a leader can be so effective and so fruitful that he begins to believe he’s incapable of disastrous sin. But to believe such is to deny one’s sin nature and to withhold that area of your life from the power of the gospel. Admitting vulnerability allows us to invite Christ to make amends for our shortcomings, to protect us from temptation, and to allow the power of the cross to shield our vulnerability.
- Know your commitment. An excellent leader and great friend of mine, Jonathan Bow, reminds his congregation often that a man should NOT be committed to his marriage, but should be committed to his wife (and vice versa for a wife to be committed to her husband). While there is power in being committed to an institution and a promise, a pastor does even better when committed to the person he married. This reminds us that it is not MY marriage that is important, but the person we married who is important. When we stop honoring and constantly committing to our marriage partner, we enter dangerous territory.
- Allow temptation to guide you to the gospel. Every temptation is an indicator that something is off. When a pastor is tempted to break the bonds of marriage, the temptation can actually serve as a helpful starting point for discerning what is out of alignment with the pastor’s life. There are two responses to temptation: you give in to the temptation or you can treat the temptation like a warning indicator and investigate what problem it is signaling. With the discernment of the Spirit, you can trace the temptation to the real issue and find solution in the good news of Jesus Christ.
- Back up your behaviors with character. Too much marriage-saving advice hinges on surface behaviors. For instance, it’s well known that Billy Graham would not enter a hotel room without it first being checked out by a colleague. His behavior ensured no hint of impropriety could occur. That’s an admirable behavior. And while we are wise to imitate the wise behaviors of others, it’s also important to back up those behaviors with gospel-centered character. It’s easy to change behaviors; they are on the surface and are subject to whims and changing contexts. But character is who we are, and from our character flows what we do. Don’t ignore behaviors, but make sure you are not using the right behaviors to paper over a flawed and rotting character.
- Nurture a gospel-centered character. It’s important to have honest conversations with yourself and with God about your temptations, vulnerabilities, and longings. An affair doesn’t just happen, it is fruit born from seeds of an unmet need, an improper longing, and/or an attempt to escape some sort of pain. Pastors have affairs because they feel lonely, stressed, tired, unappreciated, unfulfilled, and the list goes on. Like any sin, infidelity is the rebellious attempt to be made whole via unwholesome means. To nurture a gospel-centered character, we need to trace back the temptation to its seed, then take that need to the cross of Christ. Only in the gospel can our deepest needs be met. When our deepest needs are met, our identity is found in Christ, our worth is secured through the cross and our future finds sanctuary in the promises of the Father, then we have a character is gospel-centered instead of self-centered.
- Put marriage in its place. Why marriage? That’s a great question. The best pastors I know recognize that marriage is not about finding comfort or satisfaction. Instead, marriage is a God-given means for becoming more holy and extending life into the world. When we expect marriage to make us happy, we will be disappointed and go looking for happiness elsewhere. But if we approach marriage as an instrument in the hands of a God who wishes to craft us into a holy person, then we are better able to lean into the rarely comfortable but always sanctifying relationship. For a great read on this notion of marriage see Tim Keller’s recent book The Meaning of Marriage.
- Finally, an affair is not the end of the story. While we should not make too little of sin, we should not make too much of it either. The gospel is grace, not law. God bestows unmerited favor on us through the cross of Christ, and this grace does not simply get us into heaven, it also mends us from the harm we cause ourselves and others. Some pastors allow sin to have more gravity than the gospel. But the good news truth is that which has the power to straighten the crooked and make smooth the rough. If you think an affair is THE thing that happened in your (or someone else’s) life then let me introduce you to someone who makes the aff
air look like a snow pea compared to the sun.