Sex, Morality And The Protestant Minister

ALTHOUGH HE WASN'T MARRIED himself, Jesus had some rather clear teachings on the subject. Adultery was sin, he declared, and that included even lustful looks at another woman. He was tough on divorce, too, saying that anyone who divorces and marries another also commits adultery. But the authority of Scripture isn't what it used to be - even for those who preach it from the pulpit. In recent years the divorce rate for Protestant clergy has risen to match the general population's. Now the question is, Are the Scriptures condemning adultery and fornication to be modified as well?

It's not an idle inquiry. Various surveys suggest that as many as 30 percent of male Protestant ministers have had sexual relationships with women other than their wives. This summer three Protestant churches, meeting in solemn assembly, addressed issues involving sexual standards for their clergy. The General Synod of the United Church of Christ tabled a resolution that would have ""encouraged fidelity in marriage and chastity in singleness'' for all ordained ministers. That left in place a looser formulation that enjoins all members to observe ""integrity and faithfulness'' in marriage and in other ""covenanted relationships'' - a phrase that conservative critics say gives approval to gay and other nonmarital sexual relationships.

In June the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) debated an amendment to its constitution, which requires all church officials to be faithful in marriage and chaste if single. But so many congregations threatened to ignore the amendment that assembly delegates voted to drop the chastity requirement. And last week in Philadelphia, the General Convention of the Episcopal Church opened with delegates steeled for a heated debate over a similar set of resolutions defining the sexual standards expected of its clergy.

To a large extent, the issue of clerical morality is driven by the debate over ordaining sexually active homosexuals. All three denominations have clergy who are living with members of the same sex, and some of these ministers regard their relationships as more ""spiritual'' and less ""sexist'' than heterosexual marriage. Hence this year's effort by traditionalists to tighten up the rules on clerics' private lives. But the new rules apply also to heterosexual ministers. So one unintended result of the debate on gays is the bright light it beams on the sexual morality of straight clergy.

Although religious denominations do not audit clerical infidelity (or divorce), outside sources do. In 1993 The Journal of Pastoral Care reported a survey of Southern Baptist pastors in which 14 percent acknowledged that they had engaged in ""sexual behavior inappropriate to a minister.'' More startling, 70 percent said that they had counseled at least one woman who had had intercourse with another minister. In 1988 a survey of nearly 1,000 Protestant clergy by Leadership magazine found that 12 percent admitted to sexual intercourse outside marriage. Seventeen percent of these affairs occurred with people they were counseling, and 52 percent involved members, ministers or other leaders of their own congregation. An additional 18 percent disclosed that they had kissed, fondled or masturbated with someone other than their spouse. When asked what consequences they had suffered - in their marriages or their careers - as a result of their sexual adventures, only 6 percent said that they had lost their jobs. And nearly a third reported no adverse consequences of any kind.

Powerful attraction: Just last week the board of the National Baptist Convention, the nation's largest black denomination, gave a vote of confidence to its president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, despite considerable skepticism about his relationship with another church officer. A week earlier, Florida police had reported Lyons's wife of 25 years told them she had discovered that her husband and Bernice Edwards owned a $700,000 home. Police also report that the pair had bought a $30,000 diamond ring and made $100,000 in other purchases. Reverend Lyons has denied any misconduct, and his wife now supports his statement.

In all walks of life, charismatic figures exude a powerful attraction to the opposite sex. Charismatic clergy have the added aura of representing God or channeling the Holy Spirit. That's why Billy Graham, for example, decided early in his ministry never to be alone with a woman other than his wife. Few others are so fastidious. A generation ago, philandering clergy usually lost their jobs. That still happens. But in an age when adultery is tolerated in political and other leaders, religious denominations are hesitant to set too high a standard for their own. What some Protestant denominations seem to believe is that sexual behavior is either too personal to legislate or too trivial to condemn.