the shape of leadership

Sexual Sin in the Church

Maintaining purity amid a growing epidemic

Walter Harvey on August 17, 2020


Sexual immorality and sexual abuse have long been epidemics in our nation and churches.

In 1972, the United Church of Christ became the first mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S. to ordain openly gay clergy. Others, like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the Episcopal Church in the United States later followed.

In recent years, the Roman Catholic Church has been rocked by sexual abuse scandals.

During 2016, Barna Group reported 57% of pastors and 64% of youth pastors had struggled with pornography at some point — and 14% of pastors and 21% of youth pastors admitted currently using pornography.

There is not a single denomination unaffected by the epidemic of sexual sin. It is often treated like a family secret we refuse to talk about or confront.

Too many churches have looked the other way as deviant leaders rose to prominence, including some who were pedophiles.

When I was 5 years old, an adult male relative began to play what he called a “game of shame” with me. In this perverted game, he would publicly expose my genitals to family members during their drunken adult parties. This lasted until I was old enough to outrun and resist him.

The inappropriate touches prematurely opened doors within me that I did not have the maturity to understand. I struggled with embarrassment, shame and confusion. My early teenage experiences included pornography, perverted thinking and sexual experimentation.

Many adults have buried their secrets and chosen silence regarding sexual abuse. I hope my transparency will help others who have also been touched inappropriately to receive healing from sexual brokenness.

I met my wife, Judy, soon after my conversion to Christ at age 19. Our courtship and engagement were marked by sexual purity and devotion to Christ. I appreciate so many things about her. One is her commitment to cleanliness.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Judy carried Lysol spray, hand sanitizer, and wipes everywhere she traveled. She was ahead of her time.

As we all now know amid the current pandemic, dirty hands spread bacteria and infections. That’s why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend frequent hand washing, along with covering coughs and sneezes, wearing face masks, and physical distancing.

We are called to pray for, and not prey on, God’s people.

One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic is not being able to physically touch people as we previously did. Touch was God’s idea. Touch is an expression of His nature, from Genesis to Revelation.

God intends for human beings to experience affection, acceptance and affirmation — all expressed in the incredible power of touch.

The story of healing for the woman in Mark 5:25-34 illustrates the power of touch: “If I just touch his clothes, I will be healed” (verse 28). To me, this story also demonstrates the process by which one can be healed from sexual brokenness.

The unnamed woman made a spiritual connection with Jesus, while the crowd only made physical contact. As a result, Jesus asked “Who touched my clothes?”

Imagine a beautiful crystal glass filled with a cool, thirst-quenching beverage. After the drink is consumed, the fingerprints of the user remain on the outside and residue remains inside the glass.

Our bodies are like the glass. Long after sexual sin or sexual abuse, a trail of shame and fingerprints are left behind on a person’s soul. The fingerprints have to be removed by a touch from God so we can be vessels of honor for Him.

The Greek word hapto is used for “touch” in Scripture. It can mean “to fasten or cling to,” “to have fellowship with,” or “to have sexual intercourse.”

First Corinthians 7:1 says, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman” — or, as the NASB puts it, “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” Why? Because, depending on the context, sexual touch can be a means of transferring blessings or wounds.

God is not a cosmic killjoy, but He wants His children to enjoy the blessings of sex within the right context. He created sex to be experienced only within the context of a lifelong marriage between one man and one woman.

Sex is a fire, and marriage is the fireplace. When the fire is taken out of the marriage context, destruction follows.

Proverbs 6:27-29 says, “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched? So is he who sleeps with another man’s wife; no one who touches her will go unpunished.”

As ministers, we are held to a higher standard. Our hearts and hands must be clean because we are guardians of God’s people and stewards of His message of grace.

Our calling and profession expose us to unique stressors, temptations and vulnerability. Nevertheless, ministers must not engage in sexual immorality or tolerate sexual abuse in the Church. We are called to pray for, and not prey on, God’s people.

Sexual sin will callous the soul. If not repented of, God in His righteousness, mercy and grace will expose it publicly.

Recommended Reading

  • Walter Harvey, Who Touched Me?: Healing the Wounds of Sexual Brokenness
  • Lisa M. Sinclair, Restoring the Paths: Sexuality for Christian Leaders
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