Elders Who Commit Adultery Are Disqualified From Being Elders
An elder of the church who commits adultery should be permanently disqualified from ever again serving as an elder of the church.
This statement may seem to contradict the Christian spirit of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, grace, and restoration, yet it remains the biblical truth.
1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1
In 1 Timothy 3:1-7, Paul lays out the requirements for an overseer/bishop of the church, repeated by him in Titus 1:5-9 for elders of the church. In both passages (1 Tim 3:2, Titus 1:6), Paul says that the officer of the church must be a μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρα, literally a “man of one woman”. This is commonly translated as “husband of one wife” (e.g. the CSB, ESV, KJV, NASB), but some translations have rendered it as “faithful to his wife” (e.g. NIV, NLT). Both of these translations get to an aspect of its meaning, but by themselves are inadequate in capturing the full sense of the phrase.
The idea in Paul’s requirement is not that an elder of the church is merely monogamous, but is faithful in his commitment to his wife. To be an elder you must be a man of one woman, and someone already an elder must remain a man of one woman. Of the elder it can be said that he is both married to only one woman, and has not acted in a connubial fashion with anyone other than his wife. To be a man of one woman is to be a man who is of or had of only one woman. Paul’s command not only honors monogamy and sees bigamy or polygamy as a disqualification for eldership, but has adultery in view. Whether or not sexual relations are recognized by society as marriage (e.g. polygamy), to have them with one woman while married to another is to cease to be a man of one woman.
This standard is unique among the others of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. Every other qualification is something that a candidate for eldership could fail, and then later be deemed to have met. For example, he is not to be a drunkard (μὴ πάροινον, literally “given to much wine,” 1 Tim. 3:3). This can change. A man could be a drunkard in his 20s and then later forsake alcohol and remain sober. Considering him for eldership in his 20s should lead to disqualification because of his drunkenness, while that is no longer a factor later in life. All the other qualifications are like this: there is room for growth, maturation, and sanctification.
Not so with the marital requirement. Obviously the hope would be for the elder who committed adultery to be sanctified and remain faithful henceforth. But this requirement is describing a state of being: you are a man of one woman, not that you are currently acting faithfully. This standard is not just about character or virtue, but your status of being. To commit adultery is to cease being be a man of one woman. This is why Jesus emphasized that divorce is legitimate if your spouse has committed adultery (Matt. 5:31-32, 19:9). The one-woman-manness of marriage has been violated and is no longer true.
Now, reconciliation in marriage is possible and is a good thing, and it certainly should be encouraged. But there remains a sense in which sin scars, and that scar will remain until Christ returns and redeems all things. That scar of unfaithfulness is grievous enough that Paul says if it marks you, you cannot be an overseer of Christ’s church.
1 Corinthians 9
An example of Paul addressing this is 1 Corinthians 9:27: “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” The thrust of 1 Corinthians 9 is that Paul has given up good things in order to gain a better hearing for the gospel, and that it would be foolish to insist on unimportant trappings that be a roadblock for his preaching. Paul and the apostles have realized that their role is so important that they need to eliminate every unnecessary avenue of criticism for their motives and approach. This culminates with Paul saying no matter how well you have run the race of ministry you can be disqualified at the finish line by lack of discipline. This disqualification is not a loss of salvation. Paul is not suggesting that a last minute sin can separate us from Jesus; otherwise the entire book of 1 Corinthians loses its meaning!
Rather, Paul is saying that he can be disqualified from what he has been previously doing: preaching the gospel, acting as its steward (1 Cor. 4:1-2) in ministry. Even he, an apostle of Christ, can be disqualified from ministry by sin. Paul says remaining qualified requires a discipline of his body and control of it.
What does the discipline of his body reference? In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul identifies sexual sin as impacting the “whole loaf” of the church (1 Cor. 5:1-9), employing a eucharistic metaphor for the church, later described as the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 11. Sexual sin is the sin against the body. But he gets more specific in 1 Corinthians 6. In 1 Cor. 6:12-20 he repeatedly denounces sexual sin as sin against one’s own body. In 6:16-17 he states that having sex with a prostitute is to be joined with her in one body in violation of the one-flesh union of marriage. This is something which very much undermines the one-woman-manness for elder qualifications. To commit adultery is be carnally joined with someone other than your spouse. So Paul disciplines his body and exercises self control of it so that he does not sin sexually with his body. To do so would be a disqualification from pastoral ministry.
It should be noted that the word “permanently” does not appear in 1 Corinthians 9:27. But neither does the word “temporarily,” and to utilize Paul’s illustration of running a race, no one who is disqualified from a race is later readmitted to it. To commit adultery is to be disqualified from the work of gospel ministry.
What sets adultery apart from other sin? The Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 151 teaches that one of the things that makes some sins worse than others is if the perpetrator should have known better and is in a position to set an example. WLC 151 cites a number of pertinent biblical passages (Jer. 5:4-5, where the prophet expects those who know God to follow him; Luke 12:47-48, the parable of the servants who know their master’s will and refuse to do it; Nathan’s rebuke of David in 2 Sam. 12:7-9, pointing out that David as king ought to have known better; Paul’s statement in Rom. 2:17-24 that the Jews, unlike the Gentiles, had the Old Testament and therefore should have turned to Christ; and Paul’s rebuke of Peter in Gal. 2:11-14). An elder of the church is qualified based on their personal sanctification and ability to teach and lead. They serve as an example to the church (1 Peter 5:3).
Therefore, the egregiousness of sin on the part of elders is greater. Part of the example that elders are to set is in the conduct of their families, specifically fidelity in marriage and belief and good character in his children. Paul states in 1 Timothy 3:4-5 that if elders are to manage God’s church they need to be able to manage their own home. To fail to do so is a disqualification from the office. Unlike fidelity in marriage, the character and belief of children is fluid. Kids may regularly misbehave during one stage of life, but may be more submissive later. They also grow up and leave home, while the marriage continues on.
Ephesians 5:25-33 teaches that marriage is a living parable of the relationship between Christ and his church. Paul uses this point to urge husbands to love their wives as their own bodies, as Christ loved the church. Marital fidelity is a picture of Christ’s faithfulness to his people. One-woman-manness reflects Jesus’ commitment to his people. To commit adultery is the ultimate unloving practice, and destroys the picture of Christ’s faithfulness. It is lack of self-control not just towards your own body, but the body of your spouse. The elder serves the church as an example of godliness through fidelity to his wife, because marriage is an example of Christ’s fidelity to us. To violate the one-flesh union of marriage then is to sin not just against your spouse, but against Christ whose sacrifice for the church is pictured by marriage.
Adultery by elders is treated with such seriousness by Paul because the first example of Christ’s sacrifice for the church is marred by those who are supposed to point people to it. Since elders are presumably mature Christians, and since they are examples to the church, the impact of their adultery is not limited to their own marriages, but to the life of the church as a whole. It is for this reason, along with the aforementioned scarring effect of adultery, that makes it a permanent disqualification for elders.
What about Grace?
Of course, the gospel message is that even though we are faithless, Jesus is faithful. Though we sin, Christ will present his church fully sanctified, spotless, without blemish. Though we violate our marriage covenant, Christ remains faithful. Forgiveness is offered us continually through the person and work of Christ, and the healing offered in the gospel is a great testimony to the church and world of God’s grace.
It can seem a permanent disqualification from ministry runs counter to this theme. But restoration in the Bible is always a restoration to communion with God and fellowship with his people, not a particular function in the body of Christ. The hopeful resolution Jesus holds out in Matthew 18:15-17 is that repentance and forgiveness lead to you gaining a brother. This is a restoration of familial unity, and what Paul has in mind in Galatians 6:1 and 1 Thessalonians 3:6, 14-15. The reversal of the purge commanded by Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 is the restoration of the ex-communicant to the fellowship of the church. Paul’s instructions in 1 Corinthians 11:27-34 to examine yourself before eating the Lord’s Supper show that restoration from sin involves return to the fellowship of the eucharistic meal. The ministry of the gospel is the ministry of reconciliation, but that reconciliation is to God and fellow believers (2 Corinthians 5:16-21, 13:1-10), not to a specific role in the church. This reconciliation is premised upon repentance, turning from sin to love of God, but the existence of suffering in that process (2 Cor. 7:8-12) means everything does not return to its previous state. This work of restoration is about turning from sin to God (James 5:19-20, 1 John 5:16-17) in the sense that otherwise-damned souls are preserved.
The grace described in the Bible towards Christians who have sinned in fellowship-severing ways is restoration to that very fellowship. The church is the body of Christ, and restoration to his body exemplifies restoration to him. He is faithful!
But nothing indicates that restoration to fellowship with God erases the effects of sin in this life. Grace is about God saving his people. Not all are called to be elders, not even all of the most respectable Christians. To say that an elder is disqualified from serving as elder again due to adultery is not cheapening God’s grace, but acknowledging that even in restoration they are no longer called to that office by virtue of the effects of sin in their life.
What about David and Peter?
David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but remained king, and post-adultery was still described a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). What about him?
- David was not an elder of the church, but the king of Israel. His role was not to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ by word and sacrament.
- David’s repentance after adultery did lead to restoration, but it was a restoration of fellowship with God. That was the primary problem. David admitted that he needed a clean heart as a result of his sin and that sin was not first against his own wife, himself, Bathsheba, or even Uriah, but God (Psalm 51). Restoration and reconciliation for David was the same as in the New Testament: turning away from sin and in faith to God.
- David still suffered irreparable horror as a result of his sin. David repented as soon as Nathan called him out (2 Sam. 12:13), yet even after that David had to experience his son dying as an expression of God’s judgment and discipline. There is restoration in repentance and grace, but sin still scars.
Peter denied Jesus three times. Denying Christ is a great sin (Matthew 10:32-33), yet Jesus not only restored Peter to fellowship with God, but used him as an apostle and elder for building of the church. This is also true of the other apostles who fled when Jesus was arrested. If Peter could be restored after denying Christ, then why can a pastor not be restored to office after committing adultery?
- Because we submit to God’s word. Fidelity in marriage is identified by scripture as a requirement to be an elder, and fidelity is not a one-time thing, but a description of being. While denial of Christ would prohibit someone from serving as an elder in Christ’s church, such a person could repent and truly acknowledge Christ before men so that they were no longer denying him. This is the premise of the church rejecting Novatianisn and Donatism.
- Peter was not restored to the office of apostle. While previously called to that office, its function and proper initiation was at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples. He entered into that office after being restored. He did not lose and regain it. It is only in his restoration to fellowship with Christ that Peter receives the calling to feed God’s sheep.
- The criteria and expectations for elders in Christ’s church were delivered after Pentecost. Now we have the Holy Spirit poured out upon us, the same Spirit who regenerates and gives us life. The Holy Spirit is the one who will lead his church in all truth (John 16:13-14) and gives us the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:6-16), and so the expectations of knowing and following God are raised with the coming of the Spirit.
- Peter was restored by Jesus himself. When Jesus comes again he will make all things new, but he will not personally restore someone to particular office before that time. In the interim and his absence, we must rely on his word by his Spirit.
What About Non-Christians and Immature Christians?
The heinousness of adultery by elders is tied to their role as mature, exemplar Christians. Right before Paul discusses sexual sin as sin against your own body in 1 Christians 6:13-20 he reminds the Christians in Corinth of their transformation:
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
This is a beautiful picture of the gospel’s effects. The Christian’s identity is no longer in their sin and brokenness, but in Christ Jesus. 1 Cor. 6:20 caps this section off by stating that we were bought with a price, so we must glorify God in our bodies. What this means is that sin pre-salvation does not automatically disqualify someone from serving as an elder. We were these things, but are not any longer. Therefore, since Christ has died for you, do not live in your previous life of sin.
The restoration of people dead in their sins to life in Christ is to make us a new creation in him. It is living like the old creation, in opposition to God, that is unacceptable for elders. Sin committed before salvation does not prevent someone from serving the church in leadership.
The same basic idea is true for immature Christians, which is why Paul includes that requirement in 1 Timothy 3:6. Christians who do not know better and are still growing in their faith cannot be expected to live as if they have been saints their whole lives. It should be no surprise if a serial adulterer who converts to Christianity continues to do so for a time. Now, they are not fit to be an elder at that stage, for that reason among many others. This is the lament of Jeremiah in Jer. 5:4-5. Much more is expected from those who know God than those who are ignorant.
This does raise the question of determining when someone moves from an immature to a mature Christian. And the followup question to that is, “If a Christian who is not an elder commits adultery, and they appeared mature at the time of their sin, are they permanently barred from serving as an elder?” These are questions scripture is silent on, and so I am unwilling to be dogmatic on them. They require wisdom and contextual understanding.
In general I do not think that an immature Christian who commits adultery is permanently barred from being an elder. I would be far more hesitant with a more mature Christian, on the grounds that they should know better, and so it is a greater breach of faith with God. Mature Christians, whether or not they are elders, tend to be seen as examples in the church, so the damage is also greater. But I’m not willing to get dogmatic on these points.
But someone who has been called by the church to be an elder has claimed, by virtue of that office, a certain spiritual maturity, and has been ordained as a shepherd and example to Christ’s people. To commit adultery after being ordained as an elder is be disqualified from that office.
To repeat the good news: even though we are faithless, Jesus is faithful. Our hope is not grounded in possessing a particular role in the church, but in the salvation offered to us in Christ.