Have you been following the saga of Tullian Tchividjian? He is a grandson of Rev. Billy Graham and a Presbyterian minister. He lost a prominent pastorate in Florida after admitting to having an affair, and he lost another ministry position after admitting a previous affair. (Click here for the latest on this story and for previous links from Christianity Today.)
Tchividjian’s story is not unique. Ministers of various faith traditions and levels of fame have cheated on their spouses. Still, this very real human tragedy got me thinking. Here is what I came up with.
1. Adultery is a serious matter.
Maybe I don’t have to say this, but I am going to anyway. Adultery is a serious matter. We know this because it is condemned in so many places in the Bible. Now, it could be objected that adultery is only condemned because it tore at the fabric of small, agrarian communities (by inciting jealousy and violence) and because it impaired the ability of society to produce legitimate heirs. But, at least for Jesus, there seems to be more to it than that. His teachings on divorce strongly imply that sexual involvement outside of marriage tears at the very fabric of the institution. We will need to talk about why this is in a later blog, but, for now, we can say that it is because marriage is a fundamentally relational (not socio-economic) arrangement.
Jesus’ point is really important for his disciples. Before a couple are husband and wife, they are brother and sister (assuming, of course, that they are both believers). Adultery not only violates the terms of the marriage covenant, it also violates the sanctity of their relationship as fellow disciples of Jesus. In addition, the couple is imbedded within a larger network of spiritual and emotional kinship. Just like the small, agrarian communities of the ancient Near East, congregations can be torn apart by the actions of an unfaithful spouse. And all of this is besides the fact that marriage is the image that Paul uses to portray the relationship that Christ has with the church. Adultery makes a mockery of that beautiful image.
2. Those who live in glass houses should not throw stones.
All of this having been said, I find it difficult to be publically critical of Mr. Tchividjian. I have never cheated on my wife, but I am a sinner. Sometimes I have gotten away with it—and I bet you have, too. This does not mean that I excuse what Mr. Tchividjian did. I don’t. It just means that I am more interested in rooting out the sin in my own life than I am in publically condemning someone else.
3. A public indiscretion is not an isolated incident; it is the end result of a long and destructive process.
My guess is that there was a lot more going on in Mr. Tchividjian’s life and marriage than has been reported—and a lot was reported. Churches and para-church organizations need to understand that the problem they face isn’t the specific act that a person has committed. It is everything in that person’s life that led up to the act.
This means that the restoration process is going to be a lot harder and take a lot longer than either the organization or the offender wants it to be and to take. It is not about improving accountability and putting safe-guards in place (although these are both good things to do). It is about addressing the patterns of thought and behavior that made the indiscretion possible and the social, emotional, and spiritual circumstances that made the indiscretion attractive. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work to do this successfully, and not everyone will be able—or willing—to complete the process.
4. The minister’s spouse should be the first line of defense against sexual sin.
Male ministers have long been advised to have at least one male friend with whom they can share their deepest secrets. I understand why this advice is given, but it has always troubled me a little bit. It seems to me that, at least when it comes to sexual issues, the first person we ought to talk to is our spouse. It seems to me that we could head off a lot of trouble if we just told our spouses about that illicit fantasy that we harbor or about the girl/guy at the office that we find intoxicating.
This isn’t just idle speculation on my part. My wife and I do this. We do it because we believe in the essentially relational character of marriage, and we do it because we love each other. I’ll be the first one to tell you that it is hard sometimes. There is a lot of shame associated with sex (even in our society), and sexual failings are as apt to produce grief and wrath as any that I can think of. Nevertheless, we have found that talking about our struggles is an effective tool for strengthening our relationship with one another and for driving out the sin in our lives.