I learned about the Ashley Madison website while reading a newspaper on a flight home after speaking at a marriage event with my husband. I was horrified that a married man had started this site to facilitate adulterous opportunities for married individuals. I showed my husband the article in disbelief. I even found myself perplexed by what the founder’s wife must assume about her own marriage. Seeing as her husband was helping others have extramarital affairs, I couldn’t help but wonder if she questioned her own husband’s faithfulness. Although the article went on to clarify that the founder of Ashley Madison did not personally utilize the website’s “services,” many others did — including pastors and other Christians.
At the time of this writing, it has been several months since hackers released sensitive information from millions of Ashley Madison users. The fallout from the data breech has been devastating, and as a result, many people have had their hearts broken.
Who are the innocent bystanders in this situation?
Spouses: Many husbands and wives have had to face the reality that their spouse was registered on the Ashley Madison site. Even if an actual affair had not been carried out, there was apparently the intent to do so. The marriage relationship has now suffered a break in trust, potentially leading to counseling, separation or even divorce. Whatever those husbands and wives thought they knew about their marriage prior to August 2015, it is no longer accurate.
Children: I’m sure this public exposure has caused a lot of confusion for children in families touched by the devastating Ashley Madison news, even if most young children are not privy to the full truth. For these young ones, their mommy or daddy made a poor decision, and now in many ways they are the most innocent victims. Their world — their security — has been jeopardized by the choices of someone they trusted. Many children could now be sleeping in a home with just one parent, feeling unsure about who and what to believe.
Church members: According to a blog post on Christianity Today, an estimated 400 pastors or church-related staff members were on the Ashley Madison list. Many of those have had to come forward, confess their sin and step down from positions of leadership. The impact in the church at large has been significant because of the break in trust and the many implications that reach beyond the choices of any one individual. Many believers are left feeling uncertain about how to proceed in their commitment to the church and to their leaders.
Family and friends: An unfortunate by-product of an individual’s moral failure is the shame it can cause friends and family members. I think of the news releases about Josh Duggar and the countless repercussions this has had on the Duggar family. The moral failures of one can have an enormous impact on many, especially family and friends.
Culture in general: One of the greatest negative implications surrounding the Ashley Madison scandal has to do with the overall demeaning message that’s been sent regarding how we value the institution of marriage. It’s not like marriage hasn’t already taken numerous hits recently, but we are being impacted yet again with the shock and disappointment of knowing there were people within our sphere of influence who chose to join the Ashley Madison site. Marriage in our culture has once again been dishonored.
What have we learned and where do we go from here?
With the innocent bystanders left emotionally wounded, what can we do to support them? And what can we do to help those who chose the moral failure? Although it would be easy to think that those who dishonored their marriage should be cast away, believers are called to respond differently. We are called to forgive — to love. But what does this look like?
Remember that God is our Rock. There may be Christ followers who have failed morally, and there may be more to come in the future, but we do not have to be shaken by their failures. We can stand in the truth that Jesus is our Rock and our Salvation — our Fortress. This security does not mean that we won’t experience deeply painful emotions, but amid the hurt we can be certain that God is with us. “He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken” (Psalm 62:6).
Support healing for everyone. Whether we are supporting the innocent bystanders or the individual who failed morally, it’s important that we support healing for all parties involved. This may mean a long process of being available to listen and pray, but it’s crucial that we help facilitate healing. Be faithful, both publically and privately, to everyone involved. Offer both grace and truth because Jesus said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Stand up to honor marriage. Regardless of your role in society, it’s critical that you take a stand to honor marriage in our culture. Therefore, make choices (even if you have failed morally) that support the institution of marriage. “Let marriage be held in honor among all” (Hebrews 13:4). The fascinating thing about this verse is that it exhorts all of us to honor marriage, not just married individuals. We can all make a difference.
*If you or someone you know needs to speak with a counselor, our licensed counselors are available to listen and pray with you. Find out more at FocusOnTheFamily.com/CounselingHelp or call 800-A-Family (232-6459) weekdays from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. (Mountain time).
Erin Smalley is the co-author of The Wholehearted Wife and serves in the Marriage and Family Formation department at Focus on the Family.