My heart has been grieved over hearing about resignations and suicides resulting from the revelation that a lot of men within the body of Christ sought out extramarital affairs through the Ashley Madison website. When I first heard about the data breach, and the threat the hackers issued concerning the release of the large amount of customer data they stole, I had mixed feelings. I felt the hackers were misguided in their attempted extortion, because the people who would be most hurt by their threatened release of gigabytes of company data were not the people running Ashley Madison, but the people who had used the site. But, if I’m completely honest with myself, I didn’t feel too bad for Ashley Madison’s customers; because, they were, after all, men seeking adulterous relationships. I didn’t feel bad for the people who were being threatened with having their sexual indiscretions made very public; and, I now find myself having to repent of that misguided inclination to not care about the suffering that was being threatened at the time.
Now, we are starting to see what the Ashley Madison data leak means and the fallout is as unpredictable as it is, potentially, terrifying. Multiple suicides have already been tenuously connected to the data leak, and more are likely to follow. I have heard of resignations of pastors and other religious leaders in states where lists of “cheaters” have been published online. And, my heart grieves for the suffering that will flow in the weeks to come. Sin needs to be exposed (Ephesians 5:11), there is no doubt about that. But, the way sin needs to be dealt with is with an eye towards redemption. None of us is without sin that need to be exposed and dealt with, but that does not mean all sin ought to be exposed in the same way, and certainly not all sin needs to be exposed with the sort of recklessness that has characterized the Ashley Madison data breach. What we have in this situation is not anything resembling a Christian notion of sin being revealed. Instead, what we are seeing is a mass shaming with no intention or effort at encouraging repentance or redemption for those who have pursued sin.
I grieve for the lives that have been, are being, and will be destroyed by this reckless attempt to blackmail a company by threatening, and then following through with, the shaming of their customers. Again, this sin needed to come to light; but, not like this. I grieve most for the universal church, who will suffer the familiar refrain of being called hypocritical on the issues of marriage and sexual ethics in the wake of the revelations that pastors and other religious leaders were among those seeking illicit relationships on the Ashley Madison website. But, what I grieve most for is the expectation I have that the church will not respond to this scandal well. I fear that Christian churches will turn to legalism and harsh criticism, instead of loving correction and careful shepherding. I worry that we will prove ourselves hypocrites by abandoning our obligation to minister graciously to those who suffer. I fear that spouses will prove just as quick to seek divorce in this instance where they have moral cause as so many spouses have proven willing to seek divorce for no moral cause at all. I fear for the further demonstration that the church is made up of a bunch of hypocrites — and that I will be counted among them.
But, I do not fear for the mission of the church or the cause of the Gospel. The church is full of hypocrites because the world is full of hypocrites. We all judge others by standards we fail to apply to ourselves. We all conceal the things we are ashamed of from even our closest friends — even from our spouses. We all exchange the truth of God for idols of our own designs and desires. We are all hypocrites in the end. But, God, being rich in mercy, sent Jesus Christ to die to redeem such wretched creatures for His own purposes and His own glory. No matter how many are disgraced by the data stolen from Ashley Madison, Jesus Christ spilled his blood to redeem as many as would repent and believe.
That reality must be the rallying cry of the church in the wake of this scandal. We must not cease from preaching the message that Jesus died to redeem sinners from the worst of themselves. We must proclaim that the blood of Jesus can cleanse the soul of the vilest offender. We must continue to share the good news of Colossians 2:14 that our certificate of debt, which we all owe to God on account of our sin, has already been nailed to the cross, for all those whom He has, is, and will make alive together with Christ. We must preach the Gospel in this hour of need. God help me to minister grace to those who need it — even my own wretched self!