By Jacqueline J. Holness
In December people begin reflecting on the best and worst parts of their year. For many, there will be high points from 2015 for which to be thankful, such the birth of a grandchild, a new home purchase, or a new job. Many will also be glad the year is coming to a close for a myriad of reasons, such as a precious family member passing away, the diagnosis of a debilitating illness, or the discovery that a beloved minister was revealed to be an Ashley Madison user.
Church Leaders on the List
If you are unfamiliar with Ashley Madison, it is an online dating service for married people seeking opportunities for infidelity. It was launched in 2001. The slogan of the controversial company is, “Life is short. Have an affair.” In July of this year, hackers infiltrated the website, accessing the emails of millions of Ashley Madison members. The hackers threatened to reveal member information if Ashley Madison was not taken down. At the end of July and in August, the hackers, who refer to themselves as the Impact Team, followed through on their threat, releasing the identity of millions of Ashley Madison users, which were overwhelmingly men.
As could be expected, many families were likely destroyed by this shocking revelation. Most surprisingly an estimated 400 church leaders, including “ministers, elders, staff, deacons, and so on,” resigned on a single Sunday, according to Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, minister, and contributor to Christianity Today magazine. While 400 is a paltry number in comparison to the rest of the millions who were exposed, the number is still cause for concern, especially when a single minister’s indiscretion may potentially affect thousands.
What Can the Church Do?
New Orleans minister John Gibson Jr., who also taught at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, killed himself over the revelation. The body of the father of two was found by his wife. According to The Times-Picayune, Gibson grappled with sexual addiction for years.
I’m not an expert on this topic, but in light of this dark revelation and the fact that hundreds of congregations are being affected, I think the church should ask itself some hard questions as we head into the new year and beyond. Hopefully asking these questions and others, even if we don’t have the answers right away, can lead to healing.
How can we create an environment in which we don’t perpetuate the notion that ministers and other church leaders are perfect? I’m sure we are all familiar with the verse, “Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1). Church leaders should be held to a higher standard, but they will never be perfect, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). We naturally put church leaders on a pedestal because we have entrusted them to teach us about God’s Word. Gibson’s widow, Christi, said of her husband, “He thought he had to be perfect. He couldn’t admit his flaws.” How can we offer leaders better accountability? If they must step down because of sin, we can still extend forgiveness and encourage them to get help.
What kind of ministries can be created uniquely for men? We all know that men and women are wired differently, and this Ashley Madison hacking revelation further solidifies the difference. It is not known how many women were on the site, as Ashley Madison “created an army of ‘fembots’—fake female profiles—to lure men to the site and to keep them there once they paid the up-front fee,” according to the Christian Examiner. In addition, “the site may have included only thousands, not millions, of active female users.” This data underscores the need for unique ministries for men to provide accountability and address the specific thought processes and temptations they face.
What can we do to minister to the families of those affected? Churches should offer compassion rather than critique the families of those church leaders who sinned. In the Bible, Jesus Christ was noted for his compassion, and we, his church, should be as well. Let’s find ways to stand beside hurting families and walk with them on the journey to recovery.
Hopefully this Ashley Madison hacking scandal, though initially devastating, will ultimately lead to long-lasting healing.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service, an online, national news service for attorneys. Read more on her website (afterthealtarcall.com).