If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

In the current climate of Roman Catholic discontent about sexually abusive and active priests, bishops, cardinals, and a church structure that made cover-up possible, it may not be the best time to raise questions about sexual infidelity among pastors. But a dinner with old friends and colleagues this summer at General Assembly and now reading about what to do about priests who have fallen has me thinking (always dangerous to do in public).

The thought is this: why is sexual infidelity worse than other sin? As the title of the post indicates, Peter did something that was pretty rotten. He denied his Lord three times. At certain times in church history (persecution in N. Africa in the third century and in Korea in the twentieth century), that kind of infidelity could get you booted from the ministry. But you could add lying and stealing as big deals. How do you trust a pastor who commits those sins? And perhaps not as obviously wicked, but what about idolatry or blasphemy (never mind keeping the Lord’s Day holy)? Why do we zoom in on the seventh commandment to adopt a one-strike and you’re out?

Here is how Robert George put it this week:

In short, what the Church (and by “the Church” I am referring to the lay faithful as well as to the Church’s hierarchical officials) should demand—that is, absolutely insist upon without exception—of its clergy is what the clergy should preach to the people, namely, fidelity. Fidelity, fidelity, fidelity. Priests must believe and preach what the Church holds as true about God and man—and must practice what they preach. Am I advocating a zero-tolerance policy toward grave sexual sins, such as fornication, adultery, and sodomy (even when committed by consenting adults)? Yes, I am. It is not because I think these sins are unforgivable, or even that they are the worst sins. (In fact, they are forgivable and, though grave, they are not the worst sins.) It is because the infidelity expressed by and embodied in these sins, and because the scandal—undermining of the faith (including the faith of the sinning priest and the faith of the person with whom he sins)—they occasion, is simply intolerable. These sins are toxic to the priestly ministry. Priests who cannot or will not avoid them cannot effectively carry out their mission.

So there is the logic from a conservative Roman Catholic:

Sexual infidelity undermines the faith corporately and personally.

Therefore, sexual infidelity is intolerable.

I understand it but the argument is not exactly airtight since you could insert idolatry, lying, and stealing into the premise and come to the same conclusion.

I am not trying to excuse sexual infidelity (or lying and stealing). I am curious though if our revulsion at sexual sin reveals more about those judging the sin than it does about the nature of the sin. I understand that according to our standards, some sins in themselves and by reason of several aggravations are more heinous in the sight of God than others. But that catechetical language gives room for what may only be “like your opinion, man.”

15 thoughts on “If Peter Can Deny Our Lord Three Times (dot dot dot)

  1. Umm, I’m guessing the failure itself much less the several aggravations are of such consequential nature that while someone can be retrieved and restored to membership, the failure is of such a nature(aggravating consequence and high probability for re-offense) that the expectation to restore to office is unwarranted. Who is so important to the gospel proclamation that it would necessitate such a restoration? Do we have a new apostolic class?


  2. Doesn’t Paul treat sexual sins differently? All other sins are external and all that. Perhaps sexual sin disrupts the fabric of community in ways that others don’t. You wife may lie to you, still from you, commit murder, and even renounce the faith and it seems you still wouldn’t be justified in divorcing her. But if she has an affair, you are justified. Perhaps there is a parallel here between lying, blaspheming, thieving pastors and pastors who commit sexual sins? Maybe not worse sins, but perhaps sins that make one unqualified to serve as a shepherd?


  3. Isn’t a big part of the scandal the exploitation of the weak & defenseless, rather than the purely sexual aspect?


  4. To pick on Peter is to become Donatist and thus fail to locate the transfer (in time) of sacramental grace in the objective ministry of the one true visible church

    John Calvin—“The integrity of the sacrament lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them.”

    By the standards of Ohio State football, losing games is more of a sin than a coach lying about having reported domestic abuse.


    Crawford G—Until the mid-1980s, ministers of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland were required to believe that the pope was the antichrist. But in the aftermath of the Troubles and amidst sudden secularization, old enemies have become new friends


  5. Q. What doth every sin deserve at the hands of God?
    A. Every sin, even the least, being against the sovereignty, goodness, and holiness of God, and against his righteous law, deserves his wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come; and cannot be expiated but by the blood of Christ.

    Westminster LC 150 :
    Q. Are all transgressions of the law of God equally heinous in themselves, and in the sight of God?
    A. All transgressions of the law of God are not equally heinous, but some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others.

    The president of Reformed Seminary—-“Others use this phrase as way to “flatten out” all sins so that they are not distinguishable from each other. Or, to put it another way, this phrase is used to portray all human beings as precisely the same. If all sins are equal, and all people sin, then no one is more holy than anyone else. In a world fascinated with “equality,” this usage of the phrase is particularly attractive to folks. It allows everyone to be lumped together into a single undifferentiated mass. Such a move is also useful as a way to prevent particular behaviors from being condemned. If all sins are equal, and everyone is a sinner, then you are not allowed to highlight any particular sin (or sinner).”


    WCF 25:6 There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.


  6. Darryl, see my comment about apostolic class. I do believe in repentance, why does that mean restoration to office? Paul seems to make a direct correlation, and put it on the dude, between things at home and who the guy is at church. I’m sure there’s room for evaluating specifics of a case but now we’re in the realm of exceptions to the rule.


  7. I suspect that like divorce, it depends. But whatever the case sexual sin seems to occupy it’s own territory even if it isn’t worse than murder, idolatry, or theft.


  8. Darryl, I’m thinking of 1 Tim 3:5 and making distinction between suitability for membership and suitability for office. I’m holding forth the idea that there are opportunities that disqualify for office.


  9. I know plenty of elders (teaching and ruling) that are pugnacious. I know quite a few that rarely show hospitality. And in multiple churches (PCA particularly, some OPC) in Dallas (where I worshipped from 2002-2009), the love of money, or at least being wealthy or a successful businessman, is often a prerequisite for elder candidacy. If disqualification for office is to be argued from 1 Tim. 3, then sexual sin is only one among many issues that need to be addressed. The subject in question should rightly be, as Darryl points out at the end of the post, not whether sexual infidelity is a disqualifying sin or not, but why do we raise it to the level of defrocking so quickly while we turn a blind eye to the many others outlined in this passage? Perhaps it does say more about us than we would like to admit.


  10. J.H., I think I’m in agreement with the point you are making and certainly there are some who in a knee jerk fundy way, revolve around the salacious sexual sin, but the other side of that, for me, is the attempt to bring clergy to heel based on their overall lack of character, which as you point out is evident in many other ways. Getting that done in the GOBC PCA is an impossibility. This is a group who at presbytery and GA make a show of licking each other wounds and at least indirectly, and often directly, impugn the character of the congregants who they’ve sacrificed for at six figures take home pay to ‘minister’ to. Maybe more than sexual sin, in fact certainly so, the problem in the church, prot or cat, is clericalism.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.