Why is an Affair with a Church Member “Clergy Sexual Misconduct?”

Tullian Tchividjian, when defending his return to the pastorate after being defrocked by his Presbytery and fired from multiple churches for both adultery and subsequent cover-ups, claimed that having sexual relations with a church member was not “abuse.” He is wrong.

Pastors, church leaders, evangelists, and church elders do not have affairs with congregants. They commit abuse upon congregants.

Pastors, church leaders, evangelists, and church elders do not have affairs with congregants. They commit abuse upon congregants.

What we desperately need people to understand in the age of #ChurchToo, in between all the wild-eyed fanaticism and shameless victimology, in between the “believe the woman no matter what” nonsense and the incentivizing of false accusations by the celebritization of victims, is that no matter what, there is no such thing as a pastor-congregant “affair.”

Tullian told the Christian Post, “I don’t care what role a person has, a consensual relationship between two adults is not abuse. And some of these people will try to make the case that, ‘Well, because you’re in a position of authority, it is abuse. And I’ll go, ‘Okay, I can see how that has been and can be used by people in those positions.’ … [But] that just was not true for me. I was not abusing my authoritative role to try and find women.”

I had an abnormal psychology class while briefly working on an MA in political science at Arkansas State and a detective from the Jonesboro Police Department came to talk to us about criminal pathology. After demonstrating a lie detector and comparing it to the powers of human observation, he went into some detail regarding the pathology of child molesters. His claim was that virtually all criminal confessions include an assertion that the child wanted it. This general truism about child abusers allowed detectives to routinely get written confessions by capitalizing upon the abuser’s belief that their abuse was consensual.

However, Tullian’s former congregant says that the sexual relationship was not consensual. She doesn’t claim that she didn’t want to have sex with the minister in the moment, but that moment of sexual penetration was the product of substantial grooming and manipulation conducted through an unfair power dynamic.

I also watched the recently released Leaving Neverland, the incredible HBO documentary that follows the story-lines of two notable abuse victims of Michael Jackson. As the documentary demonstrates through the interview process, Jackson’s victims wanted (on various non-sexual levels) to be molested by Jackson. In fact, one victim, in particular, seemed to yearn for it. But, who would blame the children? They were taught by behavioral reinforcement, brainwashed, isolated from parents and loved ones, manipulated by Jackson’s private despair, and enamored by his celebrity. Both victims featured in the documentary went on to maintain (shallow) adult relationships with Jackson even after their abuse and childhood were over. “Consent” doesn’t imply the absence of abuse. In fact, abuse can create (a form of) “consent.”

Would someone like to argue that because an abuser can manipulate a child into “willingness” that it is, therefore, consensual?

Yes. There is someone who would argue that. Larry Kramer, an advocate of “boy-love” and founder of an AIDS activist group wrote in Reports from the Holocaust (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991)…

In those cases where children do have sex with their homosexual elders… I submit that often, very often, the child desires the activity, and perhaps even solicits it, either because of a natural curiosity… or because he or she is homosexual and innately knows it. …

It sounds like Tullian. They wanted it.

Similar arguments have been glibly made for years regarding the many headlines about female teachers having sexual relations with underage male students (especially when the teacher is perceived as attractive). He wanted it.

Thankfully, legality doesn’t start and stop at the physical attractiveness of an abuser.

One doesn’t have to argue that a 30-year-old female teacher having sexual relations with a 15-year-old is the same as having sexual relations with a 5-year-old to acknowledge that both are abuse. I’d rather not wade into the subjectiveness of sin-leveling, but find it sufficient to say that crimes (or sins) need not be identical for them both to be sinful.

The only question that needs to be asked in order to diagnose abuse is if there is power differential. “Power” can be defined in different ways, but usually pertains to authority. We recognize this legally, in which criminal charges will be filed upon those who are adults preying upon minors, parents preying upon their flesh-and-blood children (incest laws don’t only pertain to age), or teachers preying upon students (many state laws forbid public school teacher-student relationships regardless of whether the victim has reached the age of consent). This principle is understood in the military in regard to relationships between ranks and those under immediate command, it is understood by corporations that have strict policies with explicit guidelines, and it is recognized societally in our social mores and taboos in polite society.

I would (probably) differ from certain of the Survivor Blog Women, like Julie Anne Smith or Dee Parsons, regarding pastoral authority or the role of church government in general. What feminists, egalitarians, and Sectarian Minimalists sometimes call a “cult” I view as just traditional church.

Those differences aside, I believe there’s unity on this particular issue because of my view of pastoral authority. I believe that what the Scripture has to say about the role of spiritual leaders makes it abundantly clear from the Bible that there’s no such thing as a pastor-congregant “affair.”

I believe what the Scripture has to say about the authority of spiritual leaders makes it abundantly clear from the Bible that there’s no such thing as a pastor-congregant “affair.”

What does the Bible say about pastoral authority?

Hebrews 13:17 says, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.”

The necessary caveats for this verse include (1) obedience and submission do not imply draconian implementation, the violation of conscience, breaking of God’s commandments, or doing that which you feel is wrong. Furthermore (2), the motivation behind this exhortation to listen to your pastor’s personal advice is because he gives an account for you to God as an undershepherd of Christ, and therefore what is good for you will be good for him. Because of this, the good undershepherd has every reason to give you the best advice possible.

The affable and compliant church member who does not ignore their pastor’s counsel causing him joyless “groaning” is pleasing God but is also opening themselves up to vulnerability in the case of abusive pastors who give manipulating counsel.

Nonetheless, the Bible teaches that those in the office of elder, bishop, presbyter, shepherd, pastor, steward, or overseer (all Biblical synonyms for the same office) have authority. People should (wisely and discerningly) submit to the advice and counsel of their pastors.

Furthermore, this command is from God. You can see, hopefully, why this creates a power dynamic that’s just as real as between any parent and child, teacher and student, or adult and minor.

Someone like Greg Locke, who put away his wife and married his secretary (after counseling her through her own divorce) should be seen as a pathological, intentional abuser who groomed a congregant to sin rather than stirring them up for righteousness. The egregious violation of trust of the pastoral responsibilities cannot be overcome by time-off and a public relations and crisis manager (as Tullian has hired).

If you’re a cop and you’re busted running a drug-ring, you don’t get to be a cop again…ever.

If you’re a judge and you’re busted taking a bribe, you don’t get to be a judge again…ever.

When a doctor got caught “having an affair” with his gynecological patients, the medical board pulled his license. He also claimed it was “consensual” but it didn’t matter. It breached the boundaries of what is acceptable for professional conduct.

Pastors have authority if for no other reason than that it’s presumed the Holy Spirit has made them an overseer (Acts 20:28). Surely you can see that the power dynamic between someone who’s presumed to be appointed by the Third Person of the Trinity and the penitent congregant is a vast chasm.

No, Tullian should not be a pastor again. And no, neither should Greg Locke. And no, neither should Clayton Jennings be an evangelist.

It’s not an “affair.” Whether or not it’s consensual is as meaningless as the sentiments of the kids from Neverland Ranch. It’s clergy sexual misconduct and should be called by that name.


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