I was greeted this morning that R.C. Sproul, Jr., a noted Christian leader and theologian, had been outed as a user of the adultery-facilitation website, Ashley Madison.
It made me terribly sad, even if it didn’t surprise me the way such things used to do.
Here’s the link to the breaking story:
Ed Stetzer provides a helpful approach to those churches with a leader outed on the site. Here’s the link:
Let me offer first a disclaimer, and then I’ll offer some of my own observations about Ashley Madison and why even highly revered Christian leaders were drawn to it.
My Personal Disclaimer
I am not morally superior or inherently better than anyone who has fallen.
I cast no stones, even though I confess to a deep sadness over this news–it’s a wound to the entire body of Christ and to Christ’s reputation in our culture.
Having been in recovery from a sexual trauma experienced in childhood, I am keenly aware that, on account of my greater vulnerability in this area of life, I have been specially protected by God.
Like everyone else, I have a sin-monster within me.
Part of that monster is my propensity to over-notice feminine beauty, my propensity to store and gaze upon sexual images in my mind, and my capacity to develop attractions towards other women who are not my wife.
Admitting this openly is part of self-outing my own sin-monster, and allows me the grace to live like I’m weak and terribly vulnerable instead of pretending I’m invulnerable.
So I take precautions, observe limits, live within healthy community, build up my marriage, and guard both the eyeball entry gate to my soul and fight unholy images with holy images.
Observations About Ashley Madison
So, with all that said, let me make some observations about Ashley Madison.
First, the users are overwhelmingly male, and females are fairly rare on it.
The provocative image of a gorgeous woman with a finger on her lips, promising to tell nobody about the fulfillment of illicit fantasies, is a dead giveaway.
The site is primarily about male fantasies, most of which probably aren’t consummated in actual adultery.
Ashley Madison is really are just another kind of digital pornography site.
Second, their guarantee to remove the identity of users for a special fee is telling.
Part of fantasy is secrecy and the ability to control who knows and who doesn’t know.
So Ashley Madison caters to this whim as well.
Finally, these fantasy-based promises are lies.
The reality is far less happened in real life than most male users wanted, and, with the hacking, all the secrecy has been blown apart.
Now painful reality is breaking forth upon the fantasists.
Their names are out there for all the world to see, and all who have compromised their morality or positions of trust are being outed.
As Moses said, “You can be sure your sins will find you out!”
Pressure at the Top
So why were Christian leaders using this site and engaging in mostly fantasy and some acting out on adultery?
I think the simplest answer is this: we don’t do well spiritually in a high elevation life.
When people occupy high positions, receive adulation and praise from followers, carry heavy responsibility and bear the highest expectations, it becomes jailing.
And as the pressure grows, and the gap between their personal brokenness and what’s expected of them increases, they begin to look for an escape.
And that’s often true in their families and marriages–which are supposed to be perfect and above all problems as well.
And that fantasy of escape from their unhealthily entwined, spiritually toxic church and marriage life quite frequently turns towards sex.
Illicit sex is the fastest way out of the pressures of home and ministry, and therefore the strongest tool a self-sabotaging person has in their arsenal.
Lonely At the Top
I think another part of the answer is how utterly alone it is at “the top”.
Leaders are usually very isolated and deeply lonely.
They have little time for their spouse and children, and can never quite get away from the demands of their high-elevation position.
Personal vulnerability, sharing of real issues and struggles boiling in their own souls, is not rewarded but punished by adoring, spiritually sick followers.
The reason is such self-disclosing soul honesty destroys the fantasies of the followers.
It requires followers to take responsibility for their own sin-monster instead of vicariously living above their own level through a leader.
It destroys the two-level, more comfortable universe for them–leaders live above so they can live below, leaders live high so they can live low and get away with it.
So where can these mighty rams we call leaders be little lambs in the arms of God?
Where can they be flawed human beings with a fallen nature, who deeply need community and regular public confession of sin and repentance as a normal part their Christian life?
They mostly can’t–and that’s a huge problem and also feeds unholy fantasies of escape.
Sick People Pursuing Spiritual Health Together
I say none of the above to justify betrayal or sexual sin.
Rather, I want us to understand the soul dynamics behind self-destroying leaders who override all their values, beliefs, and morals to pursue fantasies of escape.
So pray for your leaders–already fallen or vulnerable to a fall.
And work to de-fantasize your church culture, recalibrate expectations about sin, and head towards a culture of radical self-honesty.
Allow and expect leaders to practices of confessing sin, of repenting early in the sin cycle, and of needing to immerse themselves in a mutually vulnerable, self-disclosing community.
If we do that, we’ll not only have less fallen leaders, we’ll have a whole bunch of spiritually healthier followers as well!