More Than Hypocrites — Ministering in the wake of Ashley Madison

Depressed

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!

Being Holy — Thinking About Holiness Part 1

Our Lamb Has Conquered - Let Us Follow HimHoliness is an odd topic for many Christians, primarily because many have never heard it taught. They know that God is holy, and they think that means he’s some great “other” and unique, which are both true. But, that is hardly the full extent of holiness. The idea of personal holiness isn’t something that crosses the minds of many individual believers. Yet, it is not a minor theme in Scripture:

For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:45 ESV)

So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. (Numbers 15:40 ESV)

[B]ut as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16 ESV)

[E]ven as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:4 ESV)

Even from this tiny sample of verses we can see a few things about holiness. First, the people of God are Holy because God declares them to be. Leviticus 11:45, as well as countless Old Testament passages speak to the holiness of Israel as a then present, effective, reality. The people of Israel were holy because God said they were and had made them so by the act of His will and redemptive work. The same is said of the Church in the New Testament; we see this in verses such as Ephesians 1:4. So, in one since holiness is a declaration that God makes based on His work alone. In this sense, it is connected to our understanding of justification and the knowledge of our righteousness in Christ.

Unfortunately this is as far as most believers get in their understanding of holiness, but the Bible does not stop with our declarative holiness. The Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments speaks of a sort of progressive holiness. We see this in Old Testament passages like Numbers 15:40 which encourage the people of Israel to keep the commandments of God. In this sense, holiness is something to be worked out. The odd thing is that, despite the difference in declarative versus progressive understandings of holiness, the exact same Hebrew word is used. This signifies that a full understanding of holiness must incorporate both an understanding of being declared holy and set apart, as well as being conformed to a God-given standard of conduct.

As Christians it is clear in the New Testament that works of the Law can not save. Only the work of Christ is able to accomplish salvation, and it is applied as the result of faith alone:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10 ESV)

But, even such well known passages as Ephesians 2:8-10 don’t leave room to wonder about whether progressive holiness is necessary. Ephesians 2:10 is crystal clear that the Christian is expected to “walk in” the “good works, which God prepared.” This idea is further reinforced by 1 Peter 1:15-16 and other New Testament passages that expect holiness in connection with the conduct of the believer.

So, the call for the Christian to be holy is inescapable. But, what is the standard the believer is to use to examine their walk? Paul encourages the Galatians to “not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 ESV). In that context he is explicitly referencing circumcision, but he is clear that submission to even that one tenet of the Law makes the believer “obligated to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3 ESV). So, if the Law is not the standard the believer is to adhere to, what is? That is the question we will take up in “Holiness and the Law of Christ – Thinking About Holiness Part 2.”