Q: Based on Proverbs 6:32-33, can someone who has committed adultery in the past ever be a pastor or elder?
A: Proverbs 6:32-33 says:
(32)But a man who commits adultery with a woman is lacking sense; whoever does so destroys himself. (33) Wounds and disgrace he will find, and his reproach will not be blotted out."
Since 1 Timothy 3:2 says an elder/pastor must be "above reproach", some use this verse to claim that the sin of adultery permanently disqualifies someone from ministry since "his reproach will not be blotted out." While it is true that someone who is actively engaged in or unrepentant for adultery (or any other sin) is disqualified from ministry, the interpretation outlined above is a serious misunderstanding of God's Word.
First: We must read this passage according to its literary context. One of the first rules on biblical interpretation is that context determines meaning. Proverbs are not prophecies, but rather statements about how life generally works. For example, Prov 22:6 says "train up a child in the way he should go and when he is old he will not depart from it." This is not offering Christian parents a guarantee that their children will be saved, but rather more often than not children will follow after God if parents provide them with a godly foundation. Proverbs are truisms, in that they explain how life generally works. Prov 6:33 is telling us that life works in such a way that adultery is considered shameful, even by the standards of the non-believing world.
Second: Read the passage according to its immediate context. These verses talk about more than just shame/reproach. Verse 33 says that adultery will receive "wounds", which refers to physical beatings from the husband of the woman involved in the adulterous relationship. Verse 34 says the husband will be "furious" and "will not spare when he takes revenge". Verse 35 says the adulterer will never be forgiven by the husband. Certainly Scripture is not justifying physical violence or the refusal to forgive! It is simply saying that the offense is so serious that the refusal to forgive is the normal response (as well as the physical beatings!). Yet, if we are to claim that adultery permanently disqualifies a man based on this verse, then we must also claim that the offended husband has the right to continue to beat him and refuse to forgive him. We don't have the right to pick and choose which statements in the verse we are going to apply.
Taking this verse rigidly leads to other problems. The text says "his reproach will not be blotted out". Is this during the man's lifetime? Does it mean that his reproach will be on him for all eternity? Most holding to the 'permanent view' would never make that latter claim, but the text itself does not allow for such arbitrary limitation. Furthermore, can we make an exception for someone who committed adultery before they were saved? Most would, but again if we are taking the more rigid view the text doesn't allow for that limitation. Are we then to believe that pre-conversion adultery brings us shame upon us that will last for eternity? Certainly this cannot be Scripture's meaning.
Third: Pay attention to who is doing the action in the passage. Who, exactly, is refusing to 'blot out' this man's sin? Verses 30-35 are contrasting society's responses to theft and adultery. Whereas "people" (v.30) will show pity to a thief who steals due to hunger, they will show no pity to an adulterer. Society will refuse to 'blot out' (e.g. forgive/forget) this kind of sin, as evidenced by the recent example of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sinful human beings are the ones refusing to 'blot out' adultery, not God.
Fourth: Read this passage with a biblical view of sin. Often those who hold the 'permanent view' believe they are taking sin seriously, and therefore take a hard line against adultery. The real problem, however, is that they have a superficial and rather silly view of what adultery really is. Jesus tells us this sin is much more widespread and deeper than most believe. Matthew 5:27-28 says "You have heard that is was said 'You shall not commit adultery'. But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart." If those holding to the permanent disqualification view are correct, then according to Jesus every single pastor on the planet must immediately resign. If Jesus--who is God incarnate--has said there is no difference between physical adultery and mental adultery, then the consequences for both should be the same (and according to Matt 5:29-30, they are!). If the permanent view is correct, then anyone who has lusted after a woman is also permanently disqualified from ministry.
Fifth: Read this passage through the lens of the Gospel. Scripture must be read according to a redemptive framework. The overarching story of the Bible is that sin brings shame, but Christ brings forgiveness and restoration. Both Deuteronomy 22:22 and Leviticus 20:10 clearly teach that adulterers must be put to death, but no Christian currently puts this Law into practice. Christ has written a new law onto our hearts. To believe that one sin brings permanent shame is a rejection of the very Gospel we proclaim! Paul boldly told the Roman believers, "as it is written, 'Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense; and whosoever believes in him will not be put to shame" (Rom 9:33, ESV). Christ has removed the reproach and shame of all who put their faith in him.
When writing to the Corinthian believers, Paul said this:
"Do not be deceived, neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. 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" (1 Cor 6:9b-11).
Some in the Corinthian congregation had committed the sin of adultery, yet they found full restoration in Christ. The ugliness of sin (including adultery) is that it deserves the punishment of eternal shame. The beauty of the Cross is that Jesus takes that shame from us. He takes the repentant adulterer and washes him, sanctifies him, and justifies him. The former sinner now becomes a holy vessel before the Lord. We need to remember the truth God once spoke directly to Peter, "What God has called clean, do not call unclean" (Acts 11:9).
Proverbs 6:33 warns us of the dangers of adultery. It reminds us that even the non-believing world around us condemns this sin. It also warns us that life can go terribly wrong when we refuse to listen to God and go off in our own sinful direction. But the Gospel reminds us how God forgives and restores. David, himself an adulterer, once cried out to God, "Hid your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquities. Create in my a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Psalm 51:9-10). David had confidence that God would blot out his sins. This is a precious truth, and God wants us to know it. Even though the world around us may not 'blot out' (e.g. forget/forgive) the sin of adultery, God most certainly will. Every repentant adulterer should find comfort in what God told Isaiah, "I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins" (Isaiah 43:25).