Preachers’ moral failures remain a depressing irony from which God’s people cannot realistically escape. From my youth I remember quiet discussions explaining why a particular preacher lost his job or why he no longer received invitations to speak throughout the brotherhood. These instances baffled me for years, having witnessed my own father’s character and faithfulness despite difficult circumstances. However, when preaching school classmates lost themselves in such worldliness—only a few years removed from graduation—this reality hit home on a different level. Nothing has changed materially in the time since (Ecc.1:9), though the internet and social media have increased opportunities to indulge in sin surreptitiously. And while you might think the ease of communications today would allow the truth to spread easily about such behavior, the opposite often occurs. The innocent trust that their brethren will recognize the truth while the guilty rush to “get ahead of the story” in order to create a more sympathetic narrative. Thus, confusion reigns amidst ambiguity, and people may either step away to avoid any responsibility of discernment or choose sides based upon personal relationships over truth (2 Cor. 10:12). This toxic atmosphere only contributes to the problem because it allows a preacher to commit egregious sin—knowing that he can likely justify it to a sufficient number of people or reinvent himself within a new group of people. Unfortunately, many have grown to accept such failures as inevitable instead of as tragic and preventable. While we can recognize that moral failures will indeed happen due to the nature of man and the nature of sin (Jas. 1:13-15), we should simultaneously do more to prevent such ruin (Jas. 5:19-20).
The preacher’s work environment presents its own challenges and temptations. By the very nature of the work, most preachers work in isolation with absolutely no direct supervision. Their responsibilities include visiting people at home, counseling privately, and studying with individuals, sometimes at odd hours of the day. Without the proper character and self-control (1 Tim. 4:12), this situation provides numerous temptations. Internet access without any supervision and low chance of interruption can create a breeding ground for a pornography addiction. Counseling without the proper safeguards can create emotional bonding with vulnerable women, leading to extramarital affairs.
Men become preachers for a number of reasons, and not all of them are good (Phil. 1:15-17). While I am thankful to know so many who have made great sacrifices to serve the Lord and His people, there remain some who enter ministry–ironically–for somewhat selfish purposes. Some men like being on a stage, and preaching offers that opportunity. It provides an opportunity where people listen to you and take what you say seriously. It can be a shortcut to self-importance, feeding the ego by making a man the center of attention—given much respect for his knowledge (which is often borrowed from others). But motives are difficult to discern and wrong to assume, which means that the wrong attitude may not present itself–except in subtle ways–until it has created a real issue in a congregation, or even in the brotherhood.
Another contributor to preachers’ moral failures lies in the implied need for men to present themselves as stronger spiritually than they actually are. After all, what congregation wants to have a preacher who is himself spiritually weak? However, this means that preachers must often handle their weaknesses alone because few people are equipped or have the strength to help. Some preachers have the commitment to grow themselves out of a problem by growing in the scriptures and applying those lessons they present to others to themselves first (1 Tim. 4:16). But other preachers do not possess either the strength or the knowledge necessary to do so. As a result, they conceal their weaknesses, which undermining their work by first eroding their own character. They know they are living a lie; if they do not overcome it, it eventually overwhelms them, leading to an entire series of internal compromises that usually become external as well.
The role of the preacher carries a natural expectation of morality, self-control, and spiritual maturity that can be taken for granted. Thus, men who have the role, but not the character, find themselves in an environment where few would suspect their true character. Because we rightfully respect preaching as the God-selected means of preparing people for eternity and recognize the contributions of the men of God in scripture (Rom. 10:14-15), we can forget that preachers fail morally because they are men— susceptible to temptation just like anyone else—flawed, and sometimes needy (Rom. 3:23). This is no excuse for preachers, but it should serve as a reminder for all Christians. The church has the responsibility to hold preachers accountable for their behavior. When we begin whitewashing a preacher’s sin, we neither help him nor the church. We can love and forgive the repentant preacher—just like any other sinner—but we must also consider and value what God expects of those who dare speak for Him and hold them accountable.