4 Causes of Sexual Misconduct by Church Leaders
This is a situation that happens far too often: A pastor or church leader is exposed for cheating on his wife or for performing all kinds of sexual misconduct with member(s) of his own congregation.
These cases are exposed literally every week or month all over the world and are perpetrated by leaders who should be exemplary and reflect Christian godliness, instead of manifesting the carnal character and nature of the secular world.
Sexual misconduct or any kind of abusive leadership can traumatize families & marriages and it can also damage the Christian faith of many individuals.
Whenever a church leader is exposed for sexual misconduct, there are many victims that are impacted as a result: from the wife, the children, the exploited victim and also the entire congregation or Christian community.
Sexual misconduct by a church leader can also damage the Christian witness to a watching world that is already cynical, doubtful and ready to point out any hypocrisy within the Christian faith.
Furthermore, sexual misconduct by a church leader is not something that happens suddenly or out of nowhere. Instead in many cases it is premeditated or well-thought out and progressive. It can involve manipulation and coercion over a period of time and sometimes the victims of sexual misconduct can be more than just one individual.
So what are the causes of sexual misconduct by many church leaders around the world? Why is this problem occurring so much, and what does the Bible say about it? How can sexual misconduct be avoided within the religious context and within religious environments?
Definition of Sexual Misconduct
Sexual misconduct by a church leader refers to any sexualized behavior that occurs within the church context and where one party has more power or influence than the other.
The perpetrator can be anyone in a leadership position from a pastor, counselor, elder, youth leader, deacon or Sunday school teacher.
Sexual misconduct can take many forms: from a married leader being verbally flirtatious with another woman to a situation involving physical contact.
In the Biblical context: when a church leader engages in adultery, rape, fornication, homosexuality or any form of sexual abuse including unwanted flirtatious advances or innuendos, this can be identified as sexual misconduct.
The Causes of Sexual Misconduct by a Church Leader
1. EVERY PERSON IS A SINNER
Ultimately it’s important to realize that beneath the religious titles that people may possess and beyond the religious functions and activities that people conduct within a church or religious organization – every single person is a sinner who falls short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Therefore nobody is perfect and everyone can be tempted to sin due to man’s fallen nature.
However, for the sake of the victims, sexual misconduct or sexual abuse should never be ignored, excused or covered-up.
James 1:14-15 says: But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
John 8:34 – Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.”
So in a fallen world, sin turns people into many things. People can become slaves to sin. For example sin turns people into thieves, idolaters, murderers, liars and even sexual predators or womanizers.
Therefore whilst many church leaders love to demonstrate to their laity a false image of perfection or flawlessness, there are many church leaders who struggle just as much with sin and temptation than their followers can ever imagine. It is possible in many cases, that an individual member of the laity will demonstrate more godliness and exhibit more self-control and greater power to overcome sin and temptation than his/her own church leader.
However, the Bible says that anyone who desires to be a teacher will face a much stricter judgment from God. So anyone who is perceived to be a church leader is held to a higher standard by God.
Therefore God will judge church leaders more harshly because of the enormous impact their sins can have on people who are both saved and unsaved.
James 3:1 says: Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
When speaking about false teachers, 2 Peter 2:10 NLT says: He (God) is especially hard on those who follow their own twisted sexual desire, and who despise authority
Therefore the sins of anyone perceived to be a church leader can directly or indirectly cause spiritual harm and bring shame to the name of the Lord, and God takes such repercussions very seriously.
2. PRIDE and NO ACCOUNTABILITY
The Bible says that pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall (Proverbs 16:18).
When one studies the lives or behaviors of many church leaders before the exposure of their sexual misconduct – there is always a trail of arrogance and pride that preceded the eventual exposure of the leader’s sins.
Narcissism and pride is one of the biggest snares of church leaders and this ultimately blinds a leader into believing that he is above the moral laws of God.
Factors that encourage pride in a church leader’s life include: “pastor worship” from the laity or congregation; a leader putting himself on a pedestal or position reserved for Christ alone; a leader projecting the appearance of perfection and all kinds of facades; a leader desiring the praise and affirmation of followers; a leader using his position to abuse and disrespect individual personal boundaries.
Therefore when a church leader is consumed with pride or a grandiose sense of self – this ultimately blinds him into believing that he is not accountable to God’s word. Therefore in his pride, a church leader will believe that he can do as he pleases, including gratifying his personal sexual fantasies or desires.
2 Peter 2:18-19 NLT says: They brag about themselves with empty, foolish boasting. With an appeal to twisted sexual desires, they lure back into sin those who have barely escaped from a lifestyle of deception.
Jesus expects consistent humility from leaders. Christ knows that humility is what grounds or anchors people because a spirit of pride ultimately leads to destructive behavior.
In Matthew 23:11-12 Jesus says: “The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”
3. A CHURCH LEADER CANNOT MANAGE HIS OWN HOUSEHOLD
When a church leader does not have his own household in order, this can sometimes lead to sexual misconduct where he may prey on members of the laity. Perhaps the church leader is having deep-rooted marital problems with his wife and relationship problems with his children which then negatively affect his emotional and spiritual response to these problems.
The qualities of a church leader or Christian leader are mentioned in 1 Timothy 3:1-13.
1 Timothy 3:4-5 says: He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, 5 for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?
In religious environments where Christianity is about outward performance for the laity, instead of being a genuine Biblical lifestyle where Christ is glorified, there can be pressure on church leaders to keep up appearances and project to the laity a facade of being a “happy” or “perfect” family.
However deep-rooted family problems within a church leader’s family can eventually lead to adultery or sexual misconduct where a leader may decide to secretly and sexually prey on people whom he feels are easy to control and are responsive to his charisma and false image.
Furthermore, when a church leader is sexually immoral, one of the direct victims who suffer the most is the wife of the church leader and his children.
Biblically, Jesus would always emphasize that a person must reflect inward godliness, rather than giving a false outward appearance of righteousness (Matthew 23:25-28). Therefore God warns church leaders against living a life of hypocrisy.
4. NO SPIRITUAL CALLING FROM GOD TO LEAD OTHERS
To the discerning eye, it is no secret that there are many people in religious institutions who are church leaders and bear religious titles within their churches or organizations – but yet they have not been specifically or personally called by God Himself to be in such leadership positions.
When a person is not called by God to have the church position that he holds, that person is more likely to abuse his power and authority within the group.
Most people who are not called by God do not project any fear of God when they spiritually abuse others.
Jeremiah 17:9 says: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?
For some people, church leadership is attractive because it fulfills an inner need for power, recognition and control over others. It is well-known that unfiltered power corrupts people – and there is always a power aspect of being a sexual predator. Therefore people who are not called by God, will seek to abuse their authority in order to meet their personal and deceitful needs.
However, with the calling of God, the Lord will also provide the grace, the character and provision to do His will with a sense of reverence and humility towards Him and for the well-being of others.
God does not wish to see His name being tarnished, and so God will always call the right people to do His will.
This is why the Bible occasionally warns of imposters, false teachers or wolves in sheep’s clothing. It is a warning from God to beware of people who have not been called by Him – but yet pretend that they belong to Him. So God warns that a leader is not judged by his title but by the fruits.
Matthew 7:15-20 Jesus says: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”
How Can Sexual Misconduct or Abuse Be Prevented in the Church Environment?
A) Women Should Counsel Women and Men Counsel Men
A Biblical method of preventing sexual temptation or a gradual progression of sexual misconduct in a Christian environment is to have a culture where women will counsel other women and the men to counsel other men.
Titus 2:3-5 says: Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.
Titus 2:6-9 says: Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.
Furthermore, if a male church leader is to counsel a woman for any reason, then he must not counsel her without the presence of another woman during every counselling session.
B) Beware of the Church Leader with a Saviour Complex
A church leader who has a saviour complex is a person who encourages his victim to have emotional and spiritual dependence on himself rather than in Jesus Christ.
This is the one with a perverted fantasy who perceives himself as a “hero” saving a damsel in distress. Therefore such a leader will encourage his female victim to seek emotional comfort and answers from him alone. So the church leader becomes the only reference and source for truth and healing to the victim, which becomes an unhealthy and toxic relationship.
If the female victim is married, the church leader may even coerce or manipulate the female victim to disobey or undermine her own husband and family authority so that she only listens to the leader.
Leaders with a saviour complex love to target people who are emotionally vulnerable. A church leader with a saviour complex is one who receives self-gratification by being needed and wanted emotionally, psychologically and spiritually by his victims. Such inappropriate dependency on a person can eventually lead to sexual misconduct.
C) There Must Be Accountability Protocols To Keep Leaders In Check
Within the religious context, sexual misconduct and other forms of spiritual abuse mostly occur in environments where the church leader is not accountable to anyone.
It is possible on many occasions that an adulterous relationship by a leader can be committed for weeks, months or even years and the general laity not be aware of it. Those members who do know might be afraid to expose or confront the church leader. Or other members may actually participate in deceptively covering up any abusive behavior on behalf of their leader.
Ephesians 5:10-12 says: And try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12 For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret.
Having transparent accountability protocols may help prevent spiritual abuse and may also protect potential victims.
So a church leader must be accountable to the entire group or church and must be willing to face disciplinary action for any misconduct or abuse towards church members.
D) Do Not Put Any Church Leader On A Pedestal
For women especially, it is important to avoid placing any religious man on a pedestal. Men can predatorily target women who are emotionally vulnerable.
There is no man who is perfect or who can emotionally and spiritually satisfy besides Jesus Christ.
It is therefore important to make Jesus Christ the Supreme Person in your life and in whom you depend on and in whom you trust.
Every person is a sinner. Every person will ultimately stand alone before God to give an account of his/her life – including church leaders, who will face stricter judgment from God. So it is important to understand that every person, irrespective of his religious title, is just as human and subject to God’s judgment just as you are.
Therefore every person needs redemption and healing through one Person – Jesus Christ – and so your relationship with God is not by the power of men, but it is through the work of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Philippians 1:4).
Jesus Christ must be Supreme in your life because He alone has the name that is above every name. Whatever name or title your church leader has – the name of Jesus Christ is above all people and all institutions and all ideologies (Philippians 2:9-11).
This kind of understanding of who Christ is in your life will help you avoid being spiritually abused or to feel tempted to emotionally depend on a church leader who is not your husband or who is married.
The more we know Christ and love Him, the more we will want to depend on Him and the more we will discern truth from deception.
When we understand the supremacy of Jesus Christ and who He is in our life – only then are we able to understand that our physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual satisfaction can only be found in Christ and not in man (Colossians 1:15-23; John 6:35,41,48,51).
Even in situations where there has been spiritual abuse or sexual misconduct, God is able to provide healing to the victims and forgiveness to those who truly repent and seek Him. Without God’s involvement there can be no healing to those who have been traumatized by the experiences.
It is therefore important to always seek God for emotional and spiritual healing.