When Pastors Violate Trust

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Trust.  This is the first qualification of a pastor.  He must be trustworthy.  This is because a pastor stands in the place of Christ, and has tremendous power over others.  He has been appointed by Christ to protect the flock, not to harm it.

It is wrong when a man says sexually inappropriate things to an unknown woman in a bar.  But because he has no power over her, she would feel little pressure to put up with his disgusting behavior.  However, when someone in a position of trust and power (for example, an employer, a doctor, a teacher, or a pastor) uses their office to say sexually inappropriate things to an employee, a patient, a student, or a parishioner, that is not only intrinsically wrong, it is also a violation of trust.

People with power over others have a duty to protect those in their care.  Doctors must protect patients.  Teachers must protect students.  Employers must protect employees.  And pastors must protect parishioners.

A pastor should not say sexually inappropriate things to an employee or a parishioner.  This is especially because a pastor has tremendous social power, not just over the victim, but often also over her family and friends.  He could not only use his position to create a hostile work environment, thereby pushing her to quit and lose her employment, but he could also apply social pressure in the church environment to keep her quiet, and to discredit her.  As a result, she could lose a job, a church, friends, and she could become depressed and maybe even alienated from Christ.

One might expect the wolves to attack the sheep, but a shepherd has been given a position of authority and trust.  He is there to protect the sheep.  Therefore, the shepherd must never intentionally harm the sheep, not even one of them.

Would a babysitter or daycare operator who intentionally harmed a child ever be put in that position of trust again?  Would a nurse who intentionally took sexual advantage of a patient ever be put in such a position of trust again?  Would a psychiatrist who intentionally hurt a patient be allowed to continue practicing?  The world does not tolerate this sin.  In the world, people who have violated a trust are not given offices of trust.

The issue is not just the intrinsic wrong, but also the abuse of an office to commit that wrong.  Those are two distinct offenses, and they magnify each other.  When a powerful person hurts a weaker person, that is an especially grievous sin.  How much worse is it when the powerful person is trusted by the weaker?  It is far worse because it is also a betrayal.  A pastor who has intentionally harmed an employee and/or a parishioner has also betrayed them.  He has betrayed the trust of not only the victim, but also his office, the Church, and Christ.

We do not trust betrayers.  Therefore, a shepherd who intentionally harms the sheep cannot be a pastor.

“But what about repentance?” some will ask.  First, “repentant” is not the only qualification to be a pastor.  A pastor must also be blameless and above reproach.  (1 Timothy 3:2, 7).  Second, genuine repentance involves not just faith, but also contrition.  (AC Apology XIIA (V) 28).  There should be fruit worthy of repentance.  (Matthew 3:8).

Thus, if a pastor says sexually inappropriate things to an employee or parishioner repeatedly over many months, he should resign immediately.  The pastor should not wait until her husband finds out.  He should not wait until the Circuit Pastor finds out.  He should not wait until the District President finds out.  He should not wait until after Christmas.  He should not wait until after the congregation’s building dedication.  He should not wait until the Synod President finds out.  He should not wait to be told to resign.  Finally, he should not file a meritless lawsuit against the victim or her husband.

True repentance is contrition and faith.  True contrition means that we accept the temporal consequences for our sins.  In contrition we accept the consequences, in faith we trust that even though we suffer in this world because of our sin God will still protect us to eternal life.  Only a man who completely surrenders in contrition and faith will ever be trusted again.

But if we try to avoid taking full responsibility, then we show that this world is more important to us.  And if we do not bear fruit worthy of repentance, then we are not fit to be called “pastor” or even “Christian.”

Jesus said, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  (Matthew 10:39).  May the Lord grant to all of us true repentance.

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