8 Ways To Guard Against Moral Failure

Often I read of a Christian leader who has fallen in some form of immorality, sometimes active and sometimes verbally inappropriate, but always unexpected and inexcusable. It is unbelievably painful to see this happen, whether to famous or unknown leaders.

Many years ago when I was young I did an internship with J. Vernon McGee at the Church of the Open Door in downtown Los Angeles. About half way through the summer Dr. McGee took an interest in me and began to talk to me every week about various aspects of being a pastor, particularly about remaining pure before God. He had a radio program, of course, and he often received letters from women who would propose a meeting with him at some hotel on a certain day and time. Dr. McGee had no intention of meeting with these women, but he had a standard answer he sent to each one of them that he told me about. He would always write and say, “I am unable to meet with you on the day you mention, but my wife would be delighted to see you if you desire.” No woman ever desired to meet with his wife, of course, but I got quite a laugh out of his response. I also saw how he protected himself, his marriage, and his family from such a proposal. He taught me a very important lesson concerning how to be pure before the Lord. I had other men in my life, faculty members at Dallas Seminary such as Howard Hendricks, Haddon Robinson, Stan Toussaint, Don Campbell, Charles Ryrie, J. Dwight Pentecost, and S. Lewis Johnson, as well as my pastor and mentor, Ray Stedman, who taught me similar lessons, both by what they said and the way they lived. They impressed on me how imperative it is to keep a husband’s wedding vows. It may have been that this caused me to create greater distance than necessary from other women, but it also kept me from ever allowing inappropriate intimacy with women.

I know that today’s world is different from what it was in the past, that women occupy greater positions of influence and power than they did previously, and I see much good about this. Many women have served with me and given me significant insight into life and human need as we have worked together while never facing a moral risk of any kind. Certainly the role of women in medicine, business and politics, as well as other areas of life, is greater than it has ever been and this is good both for them and for society. Yet working together in ministry calls for greater wisdom than ever before, even though some women may not understand this and regard caution as more of a bother than a blessing, as more ignorance than insight. There are some men, including some pastors, who see themselves as God’s gift to women and some women who think so ideally of pastors they don’t recognize the need for disciplined caution. Christian leaders, both men and women, need to be aware of the moral danger they face and protect themselves in every way possible, as I sought to do both as a pastor and a professor.

Here are some steps I took along the way. I’m not sure how helpful they will be for you, but they have kept me from moral defeat.

1. Because the elders of my church wanted me to be pure they required (I thought wisely) to separate my home office from our bedroom area, so my office was downstairs, and the bedrooms were upstairs. That way I could counsel in the evenings at home without running any moral risk.

2. When we built our church building we made the office suite so we could have closed door privacy by putting windows in each office door. That way others could not hear what was being said even though they could look in at any time. No one ever made a negative comment about that arrangement because they knew they were totally safe.

3. Both during my years as a pastor and as a seminary professor the entry area to my offices were full of people: receptionists, other pastors and professors, church members or students coming and going. The area was never empty so there was no risk of inappropriate privacy, although doors were closed so conversations were private.

4. When doors did not have windows they were located on busy hallways where it was impossible for inappropriate moral behavior to occur.

5. Someone always knew what I was doing, what my schedule was, who was coming to see me, how long each one was scheduled, when someone came and left.

6. I never have traveled alone with a woman other than my wife. I realize things are different today, but I still believe it is an essential practice and one that I pursue no matter how old I am getting.

7. I just about never talk about a woman’s physical appearance as I regard that as inappropriate to say. There is always something good you can say about a woman beside how attractive she is. I prefer to talk about her wisdom, the good books she reads, how well she does her job, how valuable her contribution is to our goals—all these subjects are appropriate and don’t put her at risk. I might tell her how appropriate her appearance is for an event, but it always relates to the event and not to her attractiveness.

8. A friend of mine has a practice of never having a birthday or some other special meal to honor a woman who works for him without having another woman join them, so he is never with less than two women except for times with his wife. This is a wise practice as I see it.

I realize that today’s world is different and many younger women may regard these practices as old fashioned and unnecessary. Perhaps so, but it seems to me that we hear about pastoral immorality far more today than in past years. There may be some women who regard this as an attack on women’s rights, but this is not my intention at all. Women must understand that men are different from them and are more likely to make moves they would never think of. Perhaps one of the things I fear the most is coming true: women are becoming more like men and must realize that many of the old fashioned practices were not judgments on them, just unstated confessions by men that it is much wiser for both men and women to maintain healthy physical distance so they can express deep respect and value for each other and for the Lord.


Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International, Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he served full-time for twenty-four years (1981-2005). During this time he also was the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership for twelve years.