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Grace and Disgrace: Our Response To Pastors Tangled Up In Ashley Madison

The Internet is a brick. It builds things, offering online community, convenience and information, but it crashes through windows, providing quick access to pornography, gambling and, well, affairs.

No one could have missed the recent headlines about marital affair website Ashley Madison, when every user’s information was hacked and released. And I thought it deplorable that such a website even exists, but let’s face it, as much as we want to point to it as a vile extreme, everyone’s darling Facebook has a dark side, too. According to statistics, one out of three divorces mention Facebook as a cause. So they’ve been providing an avenue for cheaters, Ashley Madison just did the same and put up road signs.

I suppose the only thing that comes as a surprise is the number of people who stepped into the tangled web of Ashley Madison. As shown in this link, only three zip codes in the entire United States were without a registered account.

Apparently news got out about this website, and unsatisfied marriage partners were listening.

Under Pressure

Another news story broke, too. An expert stated his estimate that about 400 pastors would step down from the pulpit this past weekend due to their names surfacing on the reports (link here). This is heartbreaking news. There is no “I just like the articles” for the people visiting Ashley Madison. So any such news would surely send immediate ripples through a congregation and cause sizable damage.

It is a horrible, saddening thing. But I still question whether such an act should validate immediate resignation.

Sure, it seems like the right thing to do. The pastor should be the spiritual leader, a person each congregant can look to when seeking answers or divine inspiration. Right? Sure, that seems to be the role we have assigned pastors, but maybe that’s just a bit too much pressure for anyone who’s name isn’t Jesus and maybe that’s why pastors are experiencing burnout.

Of course there are instances where this could be entirely valid. Say, if the pastor had a long history of suspected cheating and always denied it. It would be hard to regain trust after this news and it would surely cause more drama and conflict than it would be worth.

This is very possible. But in most cases the pastor stepping down would probably just be the easiest way out for everyone.

Take The High Road

Several years ago my co-worker and friend suddenly quit his job. We were in the middle of a busy work season so it caused a log jam of projects and it was a real hardship. I logged into Facebook that night and found that he had deleted me as a Facebook friend. As well as every member of the team.

This was sad since it was without cause. I didn’t hold anything against him. I understood the pressure of the job was just too much, and sure, there were better ways to go about it, but we’re all human and we all make mistakes. Sadly, he felt shame and the easiest way to deal with it was to cut ties and pretend none of it ever existed.

The 400 pastors caught on Ashley Madison screwed up, but like my co-worker, they’re human. Jesus never asked us to be perfect, but instead asked us to repent for our sins. And I, the congregant, have no biblical basis for expecting my pastor to step down in such a situation (that I know of. As usual, please feel free to comment below with any biblical context you see as applicable). Jesus did give instructions about a brother or sister who is in sin: “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Of course, this doesn’t really apply either, as these pastors are resigning, not exactly refusing to listen.

And when the pastor resigns, another human will take his or her place. Another human who is fallible to sin. If we expect that this will solve our problems, we are wrong.

Then there’s the congregant. They are harmed as a result of all this, too, because he or she will think the pastor should be an infallible person, heaping more stress onto the pastors’ heads. Also, he or she thinks this is supposed to happen when people sin. The person in sin doesn’t work on it. The people around him or her don’t rally around them and do whatever it takes to restore them. Rather, the person who has sinned sneaks quietly out the back door and everyone can pretend the whole thing never happened.

We must flip this on its side. As Christians, we need sinners as leaders. We can’t continue to be a bleach-washed people group. We are dirty, too, and only one person has ever walked our earth without getting dirty. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking otherwise.

  • http://parrinoreads.blogspot.com/ Emily Parrino

    Hi Matt! I couldn’t help but weigh in on this post. You bring up some interesting points about how resigning after a pastor’s indiscretion is an easy way to sweep away the scandal. I agree that abruptly uprooting a leader and his family would, in most cases, be harmful to the congregation and devastating to the family, especially at a time when the pastor and wife and children need support most. I also agree that putting leaders up on a sinless pedestal is damaging on so many levels. When leaders feel they can only maintain their authority by appearing sinless, it forces problems and weaknesses into secrecy rather than bringing them into the light and healing of fellowship. This sets a fatal example for the entire congregation. But still, Matt, I think church leaders who are caught in affairs or on affair-seeking websites DO need to step down from their post. Not to get too proof-texty on you, but Paul spends a lot of time talking about good deacon and elder material in 1 Timothy ch 3: his life is above reproach, he’s a faithful husband of one wife, he must exercise self-control… You can keep reading it if you want.

    So I think these verses indicate that habitual sins against one’s family are a strong signal that a pastor will not be able to effectively lead God’s church. But, like you, I don’t think resigning from the leadership position means going into exile. We all are sinners. But we can’t just take comfort in that. There needs to be some action by both the disgraced and the potential grace givers! The verses you quoted about other Christians rallying around a fallen believer to address the pattern of sin and restore him (or her) to the fellowship shed light on the Jesus-minded response to leadership scandals. After all, how did Jesus treat sinners and tax collectors? :)

  • http://www.matthewrennels.com Matthew Rennels

    Hi Emily!

    Thanks so much for weighing in. That’s what makes blogs special, because without further discussion then it isn’t much more good than a ‘Reader’s Digest’ article.

    Regarding your point, unfortunately that’s the downside of any written work because I limit quite a bit to keep it concise. It would have maybe helped to elaborate more. A big question behind all of this is who these hypothetical pastors are and what sorts of situations are they in. Because maybe we are reviewing them from two different perspectives. The pastors I’m imagining are ones who are willing to admit they have messed up and are unclean and as a result are stepping down. I still argue that this, in my mind, doesn’t warrant immediate surrender of a position, as I reviewed your passage and that does appear to be the standard, and perhaps they fell beneath that standard but this is the wake up call they needed to admit they had fallen from grace.

    In another scenario, the pastor is unwilling to admit wrong, that God wants him or her to be happy and live free, and if the congregants can’t accept it then good riddance. So they just quit so they can keep living in sin without anyone bothering them. Absolutely, I think that pastor has a major problem.

    Otherwise, if anyone doesn’t measure up to the items on that list then I feel all pastors should probably be hang it up because I saw “hospitable” also on the 1 Peter 3 list and I know of no pastor who has always kept this standard.

    Please let me reiterate that Ashley Madison is vile and no pastor should allow himself or herself to be tangled up in that junk. But I still challenge if it should be immediate means for removal. Again, the background could validate it, but who knows.

    Thanks always for chiming in! And I seriously hope you have settled nicely into Ohio living. :)