Sex, Morality and the Protestant Minister: What Sexual Standards Should the Clergy Obey?

By Woodward, Kenneth L. | Newsweek, July 28, 1997 | Go to article overview

Sex, Morality and the Protestant Minister: What Sexual Standards Should the Clergy Obey?


Woodward, Kenneth L., Newsweek


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. …

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