As sad as it is, adultery happens, and it is not restricted to non-believers. It also happens in the church and sometimes among the leadership. A church can be in a real quandary as to how to handle such a serious situation.
My husband has never pastored a church where the offending party was in a staff or leadership position, but we have seen it happen, and we have also known leaders who were the offended spouses. People who believe their private actions do not affect others are seriously wrong. When church leaders, their spouses, or even other members of the church commit such a sin, the entire church is affected. At the very least, the church has to decide what the appropriate response will be.
I have seen adultery by someone in a staff position handled a couple of different ways. In one situation, after being made aware of what had happened, leadership took the matter to the church members in a business meeting. The church decided to apply grace. They restored the person, but they did not allow the person to continue to serve in the position he had previously held. The offending party was repentant, and healing of the marriage took place. After a period of time, this person was able to serve again in a different church.
In another situation, though, the adultery was ongoing and the person was caught in the act. Church leadership handled the situation quickly and quietly, relieving the staff member of her position and ministering to the offended spouse. The church at large was notified after the fact—no details, just the simple statement that the person was no longer at the church and a brief statement about the reason. The person who had committed this act married the person with whom she was involved, and she went on to serve elsewhere. She paid a high price, though. The last I heard, her children from the first marriage had chosen to not have a relationship with her.
What happens when the church leader is the offended party—when adultery is committed by his or her spouse? I have seen this happen more than once. In this case, if the person in leadership did not commit the sin, I do not believe it is necessary for the person to step down. In my experience, some do anyway; sometimes because they are embarrassed, and sometimes because they want to focus on dealing with the situation.
There is no cookie-cutter way to deal with adultery. A church’s response will depend upon whether the offender acknowledges the sin and wants to make things right. When someone is repentant, grace should be applied. Still, since leaders are to set examples for those they serve, the church is within its rights to not restore the person to his or her previously-held position. Each church must determine the measure of grace to be extended.
As in the second example, some people involved in adulterous relationships are unwilling to repent. In that case, as painful as it may be for everyone, Matthew 18:15-17 may need to apply: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” Above all, the health and unity of the church body must be preserved.
Maleah Bell is a freelance editor and pastor’s wife. She and her husband make their home in Middle Tennessee.