Ashley Madison and Church Leadership

Many of my evangelical friends are in distress over the revelation that R.C. Sproul Jr., the influential evangelical leader, was caught with his name on the list of Ashley Madison users after that adultery website was hacked last month.

It isn’t just Sproul. Conservative blogger Ed Stetzer speculated last week that over 400 church leaders would be resigning after being found on the site. It’s a sad, sad situation for those leaders, their families, and their churches. (note: some of these leaders are likely in mainline church circles like the one I serve, but I haven’t seen reactions from those quarters like I’ve seen in Christianity Today)

I’m going to work out a thought here about this scandal and the reaction in evangelical circles. The thought is essentially that spiritual language like “sin” and “holiness” is not helping people make good decisions about their families and their own health. Here’s a representative example of that language:

Men, you are supposed to be modeling holiness before the world (Titus 2:6-8). You are supposed to be cherishing your wives as Christ cherishes his church (Ephesians 5:25). You are supposed to be abstaining from all sexual immorality (1 Thessalonians 4:3). You are supposed to be fleeing youthful passions (2 Timothy 2:22). Why are so many of you failing at these basic tasks? Is it really that difficult? You would almost think that this one sin is beyond the power of the Holy Spirit.

I have been married for 13 years and in ordained ministry for 10. Both of those vocations are hard, and, put together, they can form a swamp of loneliness and unmet expectations. But–and this is the kernel of my thought–my training prepared me to think about those difficulties with professional and not spiritual language. And I think that makes a difference.

My seminary required graduates to attend a sexual ethics seminar led by a trained psychologist, and both of the presbyteries I have joined have had similar requirements for clergy. It’s not that those trainings are unspiritual, only that they view the risk of sexual misconduct in more professional and psychological than Biblical terms. They urge self-awareness, self-care, and therapy. Their guidance is based on a realistic appraisal of the relational rigors of pastoral ministry and candid warnings about the particular character of the temptation. It’s very rarely about lust. It’s almost always about affection and attention in the midst of loneliness and disappointment.

My training urged me to pay attention to my own needs and to not beat myself up when I experience disappointment and loneliness in my work. It normalized the conditions that lead to sexual misconduct even as it advocated strict boundaries to avoid actual misconduct. It did not urge me to resist “sin” or pursue “holiness.” It didn’t quote the Bible at me but research.

Do people who receive this kind of training still have affairs? Of course. Should sexual misconduct be singled out for particular reproach and leaders tarred as “sinful” and “unholy?” Of course not.

The spiritual and the professional approaches to these problems are not opposed to one another. A purely professional one fails to take the whole of church leaders’ lives and relationships into account, including their relationship with God. A strictly spiritual one, as we are seeing, doesn’t do enough to build self-awareness in people or to utilize psychological insights to prepare men and women to recognize when they are emotionally compromised.

Let no one delight in this scandal. Let us respond with compassion and awareness, with the aim of equipping all church leaders for spiritual and relational health.

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