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Q&A: Ray Ortlund Answers Your Questions about Porn and Pastoral Ministry

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

Cultivate a Culture of Honesty about Porn

A couple of months ago, we asked listeners to submit their questions for pastor Ray Ortlund related to the difficult topic of porn and pastoral ministry. In this episode, he answers your questions about how pastors can cultivate churches where honesty and repentance thrive, how to counsel men and their wives when their use of porn comes to light, and advice for the pastor who is currently struggling with porn himself.

The Death of Porn

Ray Ortlund

The Death of Porn by Ray Ortlund is a series of personal letters written to men assaulted by the porn industry. Every man can experience his true royalty—not through self-help, but by believing the gospel. Pastor Ortlund paints the picture of a whole generation redefining their future with new dignity and confident purpose.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:52 - What Is the First Thing You Say to Someone Who Confesses a Struggle with Porn?

Matt Tully
Ray, thank you so much for joining me again for another special episode of The Crossway Podcast.

Ray Ortlund
I’m glad to be with you, Matt.

Matt Tully
Today we’re going to spend some time answering some questions that pastors in particular sent in for you on this topic of pornography, so let’s jump right in. A pastor from Stanton, Nebraska writes, “As a pastor, what is the first thing that you say to a man who admits that he can’t stop looking at porn?”

Ray Ortlund
Great question. Before I answer it, let me say this to this brother in Stanton and to every pastor who is engaging with this: I’m just profoundly grateful for every one of your ministries. I’m profoundly grateful for how God has called you. God has upheld you. God is using you. God is pleased with you. The Bible says that we are the aroma of Christ to God in our ministries (2 Corinthians). That’s amazing! Whether people appreciate your ministry or not, God experiences your faithful gospel ministry as a sweet savor of Christ. Isn’t that amazing?

Matt Tully
Why do you feel like it’s so important to emphasize that to pastors right now?

Ray Ortlund
Because every pastor feels the sting of criticism, fault finding, disagreement, nothing he ever does is good enough. Whatever he does, somebody is going to find fault with it. We’re hammered with this frequently. So, somebody needs to stand up and tell pastors how awesome they are, because they are! We’re not making this up. It’s in 2 Corinthians, so I’m glad to say that.

Matt Tully
So, back to the question. What is the first thing that you say to a man who admits he can’t stop looking at porn?

Ray Ortlund
In that moment I would look him right in the eyes and I would thank him for leveling with me. I would thank him for trusting me. I would thank him for the honor that he has put upon me of telling me what’s really going on, trusting me at that level. I would want him to know he will not end up regretting that he opened up to his pastor.

03:26 - How Can Pastors Foster a Culture of Confession and Repentance?

Matt Tully
Here is another question from Gallatin, Tennessee, which I think is right down the road from where you live. “How can pastors create environments, or foster cultures, in their congregation that encourage confession and repentance from sexual sin?”

Ray Ortlund
All I know really is what I have experienced at Immanuel Church, and it was in small groups of men and one on one relationships where I as the pastor had the privilege and the responsibility to signal to all the guys involved the ground rules in this conversation in this group. The ground rules are that we admit to what’s really going on. We come out and talk about how we’re not doing well. We’re not here to polish our appearances. We’re here to own up to our realities. No man in this circle or in this conversation is going to be stigmatized, shamed, bullied, cornered, embarrassed. But as men come out of hiding and out of the shadows and walk in the light (1 John 1:7), we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. That is a sacred and glorious reality. It starts with the pastor himself owning up.

Matt Tully
I wonder if that’s a question that many pastors wrestle with is they are called to be above reproach, to be an example to the flock. And yet, just like everyone else, they struggle with sexual sin. How would you advise a pastor to think about the healthy balance of being transparent, being honest, sharing their struggles, but not doing so in a way that is actually unhelpful?

Ray Ortlund
It takes wisdom, but part of being a good example is confessing sin. Those are not working at cross purposes. James 5:16 says this to all Christians everywhere (including pastors): “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” A pastor has to be wise in those to whom he confesses his sins, and he has every right to expect the guys with whom he shares that level of trust to confess their sins to him.

Matt Tully
That’s another question I had. It seems like sometimes pastors might say, I’ve got some other pastor friends who aren’t even in this church who I’m transparent with, I share things with, I confess with—but they might be reticent to confess their sins to guys in their own congregation, maybe even their own elder team. What do you think about that?

Ray Ortlund
I would ask what is that man doing there? What is he there for but to develop a gospel culture of honesty and transparency and openness? Would any faithful pastor consciously withhold that from his people? With the elders of his church, for example, I believe a pastor owes that to his elders. His elders have every right to know what’s going on in his life, and he has the right to know what’s going on in their lives. That’s the brotherhood they share. An elder team is not a religious version of corporate America for crying out loud! They’re a platoon of soldiers going into warfare together, and they’ve got each other’s back. If an elder team is not of that nature, then gently, patiently, courteously—but unstoppably—a wise pastor is going to help them over time turn the corner and be less corporate America and more apostolic and New Testament. You’ve got to help them get there.

07:42 - Is There Any Hope for Freedom?

Matt Tully
Another pastor from Sydney, Australia writes in and asks, “I started trying to help men in this area about three years ago in my church, and I’m struck by how hard it seems for men to truly gain freedom, even after they feel like God has given them a new heart and new desires. What evidence is there that the methods and the programs and the efforts to actually help someone get out of this ever actually work?”

Ray Ortlund
We might as well ask, What evidence is there that the ministry of the gospel works? Why not conclude we pastors are just wasting our time and all we’re really doing is running a religious community center and managing programs for the customers and keeping the machine ticking over, picking up a monthly paycheck, and waiting it out until retirement? The very thought is horrible. We are agents of revival. God put Acts 2 in the Bible because he wants to put Acts 2 in every one of his churches. Maybe the first barrier to that that we pastors need to face is our own unbelief. Maybe some of us need to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, When did you stop believing in the power of the gospel? Why? Who gave you the right to go there in your mind? Maybe we need to get down on our faces before the Lord and ask for renewal in our own hearts.

Matt Tully
Do you think there have been seasons in your own ministry as a pastor where you have struggled to believe in the power of the gospel to change someone?

Ray Ortlund
Absolutely. I’ve gone through some terribly dark seasons. I basically had given up. I was going through the motions. I remember there had been two times in the course of my ministry where it was not just on one Sunday, but I went through seasons of this. All I can say, Matt, is that God had mercy on me. Let’s all admit that’s not where the Lord wants us to be mentally and in our attitude. I was in a dark place, and God rescued me from it. Here’s something else—this is important—there was a time some years ago when I was terrified. I thought God must hate me. Look at my life, look at my ministry, look at the damage. My life is like Berlin in 1945—it’s just smoking rubble. Look what has happened. I’ve always believed God loved me. Have I been wrong? Maybe God almighty in heaven above hates my guts. That would explain everything. That’s where I was. Now, today, we’re here having this conversation and I’m embarrassed at how loved I feel by God. Matt, I didn’t reason my way from there to here. I didn’t even theologize my way from there to here. I can’t account for it except God had mercy on me. He didn’t let me go. I want to say to that dear brother in Australia God is totally committed to you. He will not let you go. When you can’t save yourself and you can’t leverage your way out of the suffering that you’re experiencing, I know that God will be faithful to you and your ministry is going to go well.

11:58 - At What Point Is Looking at Porn a Disqualification from Ministry?

Matt Tully
Another question from Canberra, Australia: “At what point is looking at porn a disqualification from ministry for pastors?” And maybe the backstory on this is there have been a number of surveys and polls done over the last few years that seem to indicate that many, many (a high percentage) of evangelical pastors seem to be looking at porn on a regular basis.

Ray Ortlund
I suppose some fellas are not going to like my answer. I think one foray into porn is a shocking betrayal of Christ and his gospel and the call of the ministry and the church that called that pastor. They called him, believing he was a serious man of God. They called him, saying to their own children, You see that guy up there? I want you to grow up to be like him. That doesn’t mean we have to be perfect, but it does mean we have to be true and sincere and wholehearted. I believe if I took one trip into the fantasy land of porn, I would be duty bound to run to my elder team and say, Guys, I’ve got to confess something to you and I’m utterly devastated, I’m utterly brokenhearted. I’m shocked at myself. I’m indignant at myself. But I owe you full disclosure. It may be that if guys would have the courage and the integrity to live in that kind of transparency with their elder team, maybe some guys would have to leave the ministry, for a while anyway. But I believe their own souls would get healthy. Their churches would know integrity is sacred, and the gospel would be advanced. But, guys, we can’t pretend as pastors and servants of the living God. We can’t put on a false front in front of the church we serve. They deserve to know that flawed and imperfect as we are with our many shortcomings, we’re all in and we do love the Lord. We’re doing our level best to walk with him and honor him and serve the people. If they could see everything inside our lives, they would see some mess, but they would not be shocked. They would see a man who loves Christ with all his soul. If that’s not who you are, what are you doing there? Who gave you the right to continue and to pretend that you are a man that you are not? We have got to have honesty and integrity before God and before one another. I’m thinking of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts. They misrepresented themselves to the early church and Peter says, You have not lied to men. You have lied to God (Acts 5:4).

Matt Tully
It seems like one of the complicating factors in this particular conversation is that unlike people in various other professions, they can be struggling in something and they can confess that sin and they can get help from other believers. But for pastors, if that is a disqualifying type of thing and maybe even immediately disqualifying, that could have an impact on their ability to provide for their families, their housing, etc. There are often so many big issues that are often tied to their work in a church that can make it maybe feel all the more difficult to actually consider being really honest about something. How have you wrestled with that personally in your own mind, and what advice or encouragement would you give to the pastor whose mind goes right there to those practical realities?

Ray Ortlund
Yes, and so much is on the line at so many levels. But on the other hand, what if we don’t live in integrity? There’s only one thing harder than obeying the Lord, and that is disobeying the Lord. If we put the Lord first, we’ll pay a price; but if we put anything else first—like professional survival, saving face, convenience, and so forth—we’ll pay a far higher price. How much would the Lord bless a pastor and elder team where everybody around that table their hearts all crack open, they all start confessing their sins together. It could be the tipping point for revival. If a pastor comes to his elder team and starts opening up about serious issues in his life, the only godly response from that elder team is not to pounce on that man, shame him, punish him, but to join him in disclosure and vulnerability and transparency. And then, together as one, figure out what is the best path forward here. How can we most honor the Lord, be true to the gospel, care for one another, and demonstrate utter integrity? Looking at porn is not the only violation of integrity. Elders punishing a pastor—that, too, can be a violation of integrity. Can we all walk in integrity together? It is not too much to ask pastors and elders, together as one, to do the right thing together. By the way, in Matthew 1 where it says that Matthew—how is he supposed to know about a virgin conception? He thinks Mary has betrayed him, so “he resolved to divorce her quietly” (Matt. 1:19). It says because he was a just man. True justice is merciful. Spurgeon, in his sermon on Matthew 1, makes the point when a severe thing must be done, the just find the tenderest way to go about it.

20:04 - How Can a Husband and a Wife Heal?

Matt Tully
Another question from Sacramento, California: “How can a husband and a wife heal after porn has been in the relationship, particularly as a pastor? Is there hope for a marriage to glorify Christ after there has been such a betrayal?”

Ray Ortlund
Yes, there is hope for two reasons. One, that husband and wife took vows on their wedding day. Why are vows built into a wedding ceremony? Because no one can foresee the future—not only the buffetings of this life, but also the betrayals of the husband and wife. A vow is like a super promise. It’s a very deliberate, solemn declaration in advance before bad stuff happens, that when that happens, I’m still going to be here.

Matt Tully
A vow sort of assumes bad things will happen.

Ray Ortlund
That’s the whole point. I’m marrying a sinner. I am a sinner. Both are equally joining in and saying, Whatever happens to us, and whatever we discover along the way, I will not walk away from you. So they have that going for them.

Matt Tully
That almost feels like a counter-intuitive view. The way we view vows is that it is a promise that we will not allow those bad things to happen in the first place.

Ray Ortlund
That’s a misunderstanding. The whole point is this is going to be hard at times. If it were all smooth sailing, what would be the point of vows? We’re saying in advance, You can count on me for better, for worse. A couple that’s been deeply shaken by porn inserting itself and insinuating it’s way into their marriage, that couple can go back and be strengthened by the commitment they made. The commitment that still stands even after it’s been violated. Indeed, that’s when the commitment can shine the brightest. The other advantage that that married couple has, if they have not completely lost heart, if their vows still resonate (heartbroken though the couple is)—Jesus said to them both, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Heb. 13:5). That couple needs and deserves to know that their Savior above is still all in with them. He foresaw the whole thing. He was able to see what the future would bring, and he still made the commitment. So there’s hope for them in him as well.

23:45 - How Does One’s Personal Strength Work in Conjunction with the Supernatural Strength of the Spirit?

Matt Tully
A last question from a pastor in Montgomery, Alabama, and I think this is relevant for a pastor himself or maybe in a counseling context: “For those who are battling porn, how should we understand the relationship between the divine work of the Holy Spirit (God’s work in our hearts) and good, old-fashioned human effort and discipline? How does one’s personal strength work in conjunction with the supernatural strength of the Spirit?”

Ray Ortlund
That’s a great question. I think the biblical answer is it’s a both/and, not an either/or. I’m thinking of 2 Peter 1 where the apostle tells us to make every effort to keep growing incrementally, taking one step at a time, in this journey of character building. That’s what our lives are really about, Matt. It’s not about ministry accomplishment, it’s not about professional career. Those categories are so not profound. Character development—that is what the Lord is after. “Make every effort” (2 Pet. 1:5)—those words are in the Bible because the power of the Holy Spirit so engages us, and engages us at a very practical level. That “make every effort” is how we experience the power of the Holy Spirit. His power and our efforts are highly compatible, it’s just that his power is deeper. His power underlies our efforts, but let’s not wait around swinging in a hammock in the backyard, sipping iced tea, waiting for the power of the Holy Spirit to show up. Let’s get up and take the next step, trusting that the Lord is going to be with us while we take that next step, however hard it might be.

Matt Tully
The human heart is so deceptive in that sometimes we can start to rest too heavily, to rely too much, on us taking that next step, so how do you discern that point where you have started to not recognize that God is fundamentally the one at work here and you started to trust in your own efforts?

Ray Ortlund
Two tip-offs are pride and despair—two opposites. Self-admiration is a little, red, flashing warning light in my conscience. Thoughts of, Hey, I’m good at this! That’s not a good sign. I have departed from the Holy Spirit. Or, despair: I am so incompetent! I am so pathetic! I am so half-hearted! This is never going to work. I am such a spectacular sinner I have defeated the Holy Spirit of God. That’s not a good thought. So, either self-exaltation or self-hatred—either one—that’s crazy. But here’s how, I think, the Holy Spirit works with us. I get up and I do the next right thing with rugged determination and resolve with this prayer in my heart all the time: Lord, help me! Five seconds later, Lord, help me! Five seconds later, Lord, help me! I think that’s how it works, and I just do it. I get after it.

Matt Tully
Ray, thank you so much for taking the time today to answer these questions from pastors all over the country and the world. We appreciate it.

Ray Ortlund
It is such a privilege to be with you, Matt, and to serve all these great guys. I wish I had better answers for our friends, but the Lord is with us all.


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