I was grieved this morning to read the headline: “Christian Minister R.C. Sproul Jr. Is Suspended After Confessing Visit to Ashley Madison in ‘Moment of Weakness.’” Dr. Sproul has been suspended from ministry after confessing to his elders, as well as to the leadership at Ligonier Ministries, that he had visited the website “Ashley Madison” (a dating website that markets to married people) in August of last year (1, 2).
At times like this, it is tempting to speculate, to exaggerate, and to pontificate. As Dr. Sproul has said, the elders of his church and the board of Ligonier are handling the matter, so we need not probe or speculate beyond what has been disclosed by those involved in the matter; and we certainly don’t add anything to the discussion by further condemning and shaming him. That being said, because Dr. Sproul is such a loved, respected, and high profile pastor-theologian, it will catch our eye, it will break our hearts, and it will cause us to consider the nature of man and of sin more deeply. In light of that, I thought I would record some of my own reflections, for what it’s worth, to balance our attitudes as we think through these troubling issues.
I know that some people are upset that Dr. Sproul has been removed from ministry over this because “he didn’t even do anything.” And I can see their point. He was on the website for a few minutes, and left in fear and shame having never made use of their service. Also, His wife passed away several years ago, so, according to Romans 7:2, he is free from that marriage covenant. So that being the case, it would not necessarily be wrong for him to go on a dating website, meet other women, possibly even get married again.
However, that being said, this particular website is marketed specifically for married people for the purpose of indulging in extra-marital affairs (i.e. adultery), which brings up the question — why that website? Why choose this particular website instead of any of the myriads of other dating and matchmaking websites? Well, as I said before, it’s not really our business to know the details. The elders and the Ligonier board are looking into the matter, and we must respect Dr. Sproul’s privacy in the meantime. It’s become sort of the thing to do to follow the train-wrecks of the lives of celebrities… but pastors are not celebrities. R.C. Sproul Jr. is not a celebrity for us to speculate about or follow with unhealthy fascination as his world is shaken. Because he’s rather high profile, it affects more people than you or I would; and because he is a loved and respected theologian, it’s all the more shocking. But it’s still not really our business… That’s all there is to it.
All of that to say this: I do not believe he’s been removed from ministry primarily (if at all) for failing to live up to the requirement of being “the husband of one wife” (1 Tim. 3:2). Rather, the qualification he is removed because of is that he must be “above reproach.” Thank the Lord Dr. Sproul did not in fact commit adultery. As he said in his own testimony, he has always been faithful to his wife. That is not the issue here. The issue is that he must be above reproach… above suspicion… beyond any reason for distrust. There are times when scandal comes into the church, and a leader needs to be removed quickly (think of 1 Cor. 5, but not anywhere close to that level!). And while there is always forgiveness available, and at times there may even be restoration to ministry… the question is, right now, can we say that Dr. Sproul is truly above reproach? He seems to be repentant, and indeed may be. And he may very well return to ministry after the designated time (July 1, 2016). But I believe the reason he is not remaining in his position in ministry for the time being is for the sake of the health and honor of the church, the glory of God, and the examination of his life and heart by himself and by his elders. In order to be in leadership as he was, he must be above reproach.
It is also important to remember, as Alistair Begg has put it, that even the best of men are men at best. Sometimes people are cripplingly shocked when they hear news like this about someone so loved and respected. But the fact is that although sin is no longer a power that owns us as Christians, it still wages war against us. Therefore, we have to be ever-vigilant, and remember that not one of us is free from the lure of sin, or from “unhealthy curiosity.” Every one of us sins every day, and we dare not be so proud as to think we are above the possibility of one day falling into some more consequential sin (that is, having more serious earthly consequences). Quite honestly, news such as this should make those of us in ministry absolutely terrified. We should be praying every day that God would rescue and preserve us from our own sinful tendencies and desires. Humility is imperative. Even the best of men… are men at best.
Pray for Dr. Sproul during this time. Pray that repentance and grace would meet, and that God would be glorified through it all.