Ed Stetzer and Me … and the Evangelical Leadership Disease. The Ashley Madison Case

I don’t mean to throw Ed Stetzer under the bus. He’s a friend. We’ve had some good dialogues in the past. I respect Ed a lot. Nonetheless, I’d like to take a shot at THIS POST he wrote this past summer on his Exchange Blog over at Christianity Today. (Because he can take it!! 🙂 ) This post illustrates for me what is at stake in protestant evangelical ecclesiology as we try to examine ourselves for a new engagement with our cultures for mission.

The post addressed the Ashley Madison fiasco of this past summer. The Ashley Madison website, a website dedicated to matching partners who wish to engage in adultery/sex outside of their marriages, got hacked and identities of all users on the site were exposed. Supposedly, the hackers revealed the names of a large number of pastors who were users of the site. To say the least, it was a crisis for many pastors, families, and their churches. According to Ed Stetzer, at least 400 pastors would resign in the upcoming Sundays (this is back in August). His question was, what is a church to do? how is the local church to respond?

Ed proceeds to outline a series of steps that a church should take in mitigating the damage this moral failure will have on the church. He urges Christians whose pastor has been caught in such immoral judgment to a.) Focus on God who does not fail. Don’t focus on the pastors’ failure but on God, for He remains on the throne, b.) Support young Christians who might want to quit the church. Come alongside them and care for the less mature who will be most disturbed by this revealing of the fall of the pastor, and c.) Care for the pastor’s family

Ed then goes on to offer advice to congregations on how to guide the pastor who has been found out via the Ashley Madison website. Ed emphasizes the gravity of the situation and the need for pastoral restoration. He advises the pastors to a.) Repent publically. Do not hide the resignations or hush the details. b.)  Repent thoroughly. Tell all. Get it out. Hide nothing. C.) Begin restoration. Enter a time of discipline and accountability. Ed recommends a 2 year hiatus for all such pastors doing restoration.  Ed encourages the church to remember that God’s grace is sufficient for the shepherd who fails.

There’s wisdom in Ed’s advice. It has been the common advice carried out within evangelical church for probably 50 or more years. But for me, alone, it’s lacking. It deals with the individual, but doesn’t touch the system which creates the conditions for these moral failures to keep happening with increasing regularity in the life of evangelical churches.  It’s a miss of an opportunity.

I think instead, we should start by addressing two things in evangelical life.

1.) The Idolization of the Insular Nuclear Family

We have a system of church that idealizes the insular nuclear family as the place where all intimacy/friendship takes place. This perfect nuclear family is put on a pedestal in our churches. It is where we get all our needs met. The church, by default, provides the support for nuclear families to flourish (the stereotype of this kind of support is Jim Dobson’s Focus on the Family). It all breeds a climate where pastors (most pastors in evangelicalism) as leaders of these churches, must look like this perfect family. This high expectation puts pressure on the pastor’s marriage to act perfect all the time. A pastors family thereby becomes isolated. They are unable to reveal or talk with anyone about the marital issues they face with anyone in the church. They therefore must avoid their issues or deal with them in their own minds. Is it any wonder, pastors are prone to fantasy worlds within their own minds.

2.) The Idolization of the Icon (celebrity) Pastor

The problem of celebrity pastorship adds on to this dynamic of isolation. The senior pastor is elevated by the church to a status over the church in a way that now people look up to him  (most of the time it’s a “him”) to embody what we’re all shooting for. The leader somehow inspires through image. I’d say it can even become a dynamic where the congregation leads the ideal Christian life/marriage vicariously thropugh their pastor. (This is evident whenever the average church chooses the pastoral candidate with an attractive looking family to be their pastor). This adds to the isolation and the pressure to be something nobody can be in this lifetime. This is all a very toxic culture for the pastor and his family.

IS IT ANY WONDER? we have an epidemic of failing marriages, sexual infidelity, mind games and sexual fantasies going on with pastors? I am sure Ed has written elsewhere on these topics. He’s a brilliant church leader. Nonetheless, in my opinion, Ed’s post misses the point of the Ashley Madison revealing. It is only in a community of vulnerabilty, where we regularly share life in forgiveness, confession, reconciliation, being with the poor, presence around Table fellowship in the Spirit, prayer and worship, that our lives can be shaped and sanctified together in the Spirit (I take this to be the lesson of Eph 4, but of course several passages on sanctification and fruits of the Spirit in the Pauline epistles.) Sanctification does not happen in isolation but in a community of the practices of living before His presence.


Here’s my 3 quick off the cuff recommendations for churches dealing with the Ashley Madison moral crisis in a pastor (or any other moral crisis).

1.)  Demythologize the Single Head Lead Pastor and instead develop a core group of three to five pastors that lead communally in mutual submission one to another where they all meet regularly to live life as sinners before one another.   Let them depend mutually on each other and exhibit their individual limitations and ongoing sanctification before the rest of the body as the way we all should be living communally one with another.  

2.)  Demythologize the Nuclear family as the insular place we get all our needs met. Broaden the practice of friendship and communal life together in our churches. Make more central to the church the neighborhood practice of table fellowship in the neighborhoods where married people, single people, kids gather together to share life around a table in Mission.

3.)  DeMythologize individual singular discipleship and recognize discipleship happens together as we practice reconciliation, proclaiming the gospel, forgiveness, truthtelling, and Table relationally into our everyday lives.

Let us no longer overlook the latest moral failure of a pastor as a one off rare event and see it as a symptom of our evangelical leadership disease. When these moral failures happen, let us to look more closely at “us.” and ask what is this saying about who we are. Let the Ashley Madison debacle (or any moral failure of the senior pastor) afford the opportunity for us to reshape who we are and our politics of leadership. I am thankful people like Ed Stetzer and others are asking these questions and leading us to a reevaluation of the pastor’s place, role and location within an congregation, and how that mal-shapes us all for ministry in the Kingdom of God .

What do you think? 

We extend this conversation on the Theology On Mission podcast this week with a discusssion on what does Ed’s post assume about the doctrine of sanctification. Listen to the podcast HERE. 

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