Upon returning to Birmingham from a refreshing study sabbatical I was greeted with a news flash, a warning and a probing question. The news flash informed me that there was a website devoted to providing a network for married people to pursue adultery – euphemistically identified today as an “affair.” This website predictably was not only easily accessed but also promised privacy to its 38+ million subscribers while attracting them with the catchy motto – “Life is short. Have an affair.” Furthermore the website had been hacked and the hackers had warned they were going to make public the names of its participants. The website’s name is Ashley Madison – then came the warning.
The website had a large number of well-known, well-situated and prominent subscribers. But even more ominously I was warned the list included professing Christians and leaders from Evangelical churches and organizations – then came the probing question(s).
Pastor how are you going to handle this? What are you going to do about the list? Are you going to search it? And more pointedly what will you do if there are church members on the list? These questions were not only probing but rightly demanded pastoral answers. So here is a brief distillation of my pastoral response.
My heart and hopefully yours is deeply grieved. This website’s existence, popularity and purpose reveals a desperate emptiness in our narcissistic culture providing one more cesspool of death and despair camouflaged as a fulfilling well of life. Beyond that, this website represents millions of empty lives about to be destroyed along with their marriages and families including untold numbers of devastated children in the wake of inevitable relational carnage. My grief was geometrically extrapolated as I then contemplated the number of professing Christians and ministry leaders numbered among the subscribers and the devastation soon to be visited upon their ministries, churches and families when the names became public.
But as evil as this website is in its intent and its impact, the fact is, it is also legal – though immoral. And because it is legal it is private property. By the way, when will the public realize social media is never private no matter what is promised? Therefore, whoever hacked into the website is a thief and what they obtained (including the subscribers list) is stolen property.
Because it is stolen property I will not be searching the published lists of subscribers that are now being made available. Personally, and as a Pastor, I will not participate in pursuing stolen property.
Let me illustrate. I really need a new pair of golf shoes. I would certainly enjoy a new pair. What if someone told me about a man who had a truck full of new, name brand golf shoes that he was selling for much less than retail pricing? My next questions would probably be, “Where did he get them?” “How is he able to sell them so cheap?” The answer – Pastor you don’t want to know where or how the seller got the golf shoes. My response? – I would not buy them. If I did, I would be complicit and supportive of his thievery. Although rationalizations to buy them would be numerous and inventive, the fact is, I would be participating and supporting larceny by receiving stolen property. Likewise, the Ashley Madison list is stolen property so I will not pursue it no matter the rationalizations offered to do so. The end does not justify the means.
But what if someone else reads the list and comes to me? Good question-keep reading.
If someone came to me and said, “Pastor I know someone who is a professing believer/Christian leader on the list. What should I do?” This one is easy. I would take them to Matthew 18:15-20 and explain their first and possibly next three steps.
First, I would tell them to go to your brother/sister personally with two intentions – to clarify the accuracy of the information and to “win” them to Gospel motivated and directed repentance. Because there will be cases of false information and stolen identity/credit cards, clarification and verification is crucial. Remember, more importantly, you are trying to win them. You are not trying to punish them, unnecessarily expose them or “catch” them. If they repent and confess their sin then affirm their forgiveness in Christ and guide them to the next steps of “deeds appropriate to repentance.” In a word, shepherd them to restoration, restitution and reconciliation. If they are in positions of leadership, admonish them and hold them accountable to go to those who are in authority over them to confess and step aside from leadership in order to address the non-negotiable issues of Gospel sanctification essential to being a leader “above reproach.”
But what if they don’t confess yet the information seems accurate? Matthew 18 anticipates such a situation.
Secondly take “one or two witnesses with you.” Galatians 6:1-5 directs us in such ministries of reconciliation to make sure that these “witnesses” are spiritually mature. Remember you are still trying to win your brother/sister. But what if they still refuse to respond?
In the case of those who do not respond to the first two steps, Matthew 18 directs us to “tell it to the church.” Now, this does not mean to stand up and announce it to the church at a Lord’s Day worship service; nor does it mean to publish it on the prayer list and circulate it to the members of the church. That, of course, is gossip even if accompanied by the Christian postscript – “bless his heart.” To “tell it to the church” means to bring the information to the elders who then have clear Biblically delineated steps as shepherds of the flock concerning the right way to redemptively pursue “wandering sheep” including elder repetition of Matthew 18.
Ashley Madison is just another example of our intricate and exotic efforts to pursue sin now through technological inventions. In so doing, it affirms two facts. One – God’s Word is sufficient to direct us in how to love the lost under the bondage of sin and how to love one another when caught in the deceit of sin. The second is that men and women in rebellion against God, relentlessly pursuing every form of idolatry to exalt self, will do so even though the pursuit always brings death. “The wages of sin is death”- physical, relational, spiritual and ultimately (for the lost) eternal death. Therefore, the real problem is the “heart” – not the tempting website. “The heart of the problem is the problem with the heart.”
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.Jas.1:14, 15
The death of ministries, marriages, hopes and dreams now become nightmares. But in the midst of this “death march” we have good news. There is a Savior who, on the Cross, has won the victory over sin and removed the sting of death. By His amazing and transforming grace He can make roses of majesty out of the ash heap of sin.
Ashley Madison? Ashley Madison is one more reason and one more opportunity to tell lost sinners and remind wandering saints that there is a Redeemer. His name is Jesus Christ.