Can I Sue My Pastor?
- Dr. Roger Barrier Preach It, Teach It
- 2014 14 Jan
Editor's Note: Pastor Roger Barrier's "Ask Roger" column regularly appears at Preach It, Teach It. Every week at Crosswalk, Dr. Barrier puts nearly 40 years of experience in the pastorate to work answering questions of doctrine or practice for laypeople, or giving advice on church leadership issues. Email him your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I have been in an affair with the pastor of my church for 15 years. Now that it is ending, do I have any legal rights for damages?
Dear Name Withheld,
I read your questions with much pain and sorrow in my own heart. I have dealt with people trapped in affairs way too many times. The pain, hurt and misery are incredible. Fifteen years is a long time. Your relationship with your pastor has most likely overwhelmed your emotions, hopes, dreams and expectations (and hopefully a sense of guilt as well). I am so sorry for the pain and confusion that you are experiencing.
If parts of my answer appear to be rather harsh, I don't mean them to be so. I do hope that you find my thoughts and ideas to be helpful and Biblically based.
While there are many Bible verses that have a bearing on your situation, the most explicit is in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. Please take some time to read this passage. It contains all the information you need to make the right decision.
"If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? 2Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? 3Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life!
4Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? 5I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? 6But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers! ...
Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? ...8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.
9Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were.
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."
The answer to your question is simple. You have a legal right to sue your pastor. When a harm is perceived or actually occurs, people can sue just about anyone they want to for most anything.
I am not a lawyer so I am not giving any official legal advice; but I can give you some of my pastoral observations from dealing with others who had questions like yours.
Pastors have a responsibility to their parishioners to provide them with protection, security and care. If they violate this, pastors leave themselves open to lawsuits.
The reason military officers are forbidden to date enlisted persons has to do with the possibility of manipulation and abuse. From my experience, pastors can use their position to manipulate and/or hold sway over people who are unwise, ignorant or easily influenced by the actions and behaviors of those they look up to.
As far as I can determine, pastors have been accused, sued successfully and/or imprisoned for taking advantage of those under their care. Think Roman Catholic priests!
I will not speculate on how the court system would look at a fifteen-year affair as anything but consensual--unless the pastor is found to be guilty of taking advantage of you when you were quite young. But, again, I can give you no legal advice these matters because I am neither qualified or a lawyer. You need to talk to a good lawyer about these things.
However, I can share with you what the Bible asks you to do.
First, in your case, as a Christian, you are not to sue your pastor in court. Christians are not to sue in secular courts because it gives outsiders the impression that Christians who are to love and follow the example of Christ are hypocritically no different in their relationships than anyone else.
Now it gets a little sticky. Paul says that pastors who commit adultery must resign and begin to put their--and their family’s--lives back together.
Second, where are you to go to gain satisfaction in this matter? You take grievances to the church and allow the church's spiritual leaders to deal with the issues (see Matthew 18:15-17 and Galatians 6:1-2). Paul says that the sins of pastors are not to be glossed over. They must be dealt with like the sins of anyone else in the church. Accusations against a pastor or elder are entertained only on the testimony of two witnesses (1 Timothy 5:19). You seem only to have one--yourself. Are there others in the church or among your friends who will corroborate your story?
Third, of course, when you expose the pastor you put yourself at risk of exposing yourself as his/her sexual partner. At that point, you will most likely come under church discipline for your past sinful behavior. I hope that your church leaders understand that church discipline is for restoration and not for punishment! Keep in mind that your behavior has put not only two families but also extended families at risk of agonizing turmoil when the truth is known.
I am often asked whether or not someone with a skeleton in their closet must tell their husband or wife about their past sin. Consider carefully how to approach your partner lovingly, humbly and honestly. Only through God's grace and unconditional love can a marriage survive.
On the other hand, I have seen too many marriages fall apart when the skeleton comes out of the closet. The Bible teaches that skeleton sins need to be exhumed by confession, repentance and forgiveness from God. It may be in every one's best interests to do the confessing to a pastor, priest, or other church leader instead of to a marriage partner who was never involved anyway.
Fourth, instead of seeking damages in a secular court, why don't you consider that the Christ-like way to handle this is, as Paul says above, "Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?" Paul is talking about forgiveness.
Forgiveness doesn't mean that you treat the experience as if nothing happened.
It does not mean that you have to, "let them off the hook." They are still on God's hook: "Vengeance is mine says the Lord."
It does not mean that we forget what they did to us. While the pain may be great God's grace can heal over time.
It does not mean that we must restore the relationship with the one who wronged us. We can restore the relationship if we choose, but we don't have to.
You know that you have forgiven them when you don't want to hurt them anymore.
Finally, let's talk about humility, sin and responsibility. Yours.
Instead of plotting how to get revenge or profit from your fifteen-year adultery, read again what Paul wrote and let it break your heart.
9Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral ... nor adulterers ... will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were.
Your pastor did not commit this sin in isolation. You were a big part of it.
I suggest that before you go any further, you let the Holy Spirit wash over your heart how broken hearted is your Heavenly Father. It is time for what Paul called, "godly sorrow". This means you begin to feel about your sin as God feels about your sin. Imagine fifteen years of watching your adultery--every time you engaged the practice. He is weeping over your sin. After experiencing a little godly sorrow (1 Corinthians 7:10) you will be in a much better position to decide how to handle this tragedy and whether or not to sue your pastor.
Well, Name Withheld, I hope that I have given you some "food" for thought as you work through this difficult time in your life. I am so broken hearted for you and your pastor. I have seen too much agony in the lives of people who commit adultery. I am so sorry you got caught up in it. I will ask God to pour wisdom into your heart as you decide how to proceed.
Dr. Roger Barrier retired as senior teaching pastor from Casas Church in Tucson, Arizona. In addition to being an author and sought-after conference speaker, Roger has mentored or taught thousands of pastors, missionaries, and Christian leaders worldwide. Casas Church, where Roger served throughout his thirty-five-year career, is a megachurch known for a well-integrated, multi-generational ministry. The value of including new generations is deeply ingrained throughout Casas to help the church move strongly right through the twenty-first century and beyond. Dr. Barrier holds degrees from Baylor University, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Golden Gate Seminary in Greek, religion, theology, and pastoral care. His popular book, Listening to the Voice of God, published by Bethany House, is in its second printing and is available in Thai and Portuguese. His latest work is, Got Guts? Get Godly! Pray the Prayer God Guarantees to Answer, from Xulon Press. Roger can be found blogging at Preach It, Teach It, the pastoral teaching site founded with his wife, Dr. Julie Barrier.