When I was 28 years old, I married a Christian pastor. We prayed together, counseled married couples together, planted a church together, and “waited patiently” together to have sex until we were married. We checked all the boxes.
So imagine my surprise when, four years into our marriage, I found out he’d been “having an affair.”
I put “having an affair” in quotes because this is far too often how this behavior is conveyed in the church — one man’s moral failings, a “slip up” he made because he was burnt out or because he wasn’t getting his needs met. This is for sure how my now-ex-husband spun the story and the church followed suit. I received dozens if not hundreds of emails from people urging me to give him a “second chance” and telling me plenty of couples recover from this.
I’ve learned to perk up my ears when another man in the church is “having an affair” — it’s often much deeper and more twisted than that.
What I discovered first was a thread of text messages my husband at the time had forgotten to delete from his iPad, although he had meticulously deleted them from every other device he owned. And as bad as that was, that message thread turned out to be just the beginning of what was to be uncovered. It was the “thread” (pun intended) that, when pulled, makes the rest of the sweater come unraveled.
Within days, there were bank receipts, photos, emails, more messages, and page after page of incriminating detail he didn’t know I had.
When I confronted him about these things, he was careful. He admitted some fault — but as little as possible. Until he would find out I had more evidence stacked against him. Then he would admit a little more. Until finally I confronted him about a bank account he had opened without my knowing, to which he insisted I had been there at the signing. (I hadn’t). This was the moment I decided I would file for divorce.
You might think that it’s possible my experience was an isolated one — or just a sad, small percentage of “bad apples” who happen to weasel their way into leadership in the Christian church. But sadly that is not the case. Since my own experience years ago, not a month has passed without new news of yet another scandal, another man, another pastor who is “having an affair” which I’ve learned is far too often code for sleeping with more than one woman, sleeping with women on his staff, sleeping with women who are underage, paying for sex, stealing money from the church, abusing his wife or children, or any other number of other illegal or inappropriate behaviors.
And yet somehow — nobody seems to be doing much about it.
These men are payed off, told to quietly walk away, asked to “take some time off,” often even imported into other church communities, no questions asked.
This is not “one bad apple,” this is a powerful system that is protecting the system itself at the expense of the vulnerable individuals inside of it.
Recently yet another megachurch pastor was found to be “having an affair.” It doesn’t matter who — because wait a week, and it will be somebody else. I think the most shocking part each time I hear news like this is always how shocked everyone else seems to be. “No, not him!” “Another good one falls!” Or my personal favorite, “Pastors are so prone to burnout!” Again, this is not a moral failing of a single individual or the result of pastoral burnout. There are a predictable set of factors that set up any environment for hidden abuse — and the church is not immune from this. The way the modern western church has chosen to operate not only invites men like this to exist in church circles — but we give them leadership positions where their abuse and predatory behaviors get to continue, unchecked!
This particular set of circumstances will play out again and again, until the end of time — unless we decide we’d like to do something about it.
If you watch in the comment sections of these often public apologies, you’ll see a trend. It’s not the vitriol and hatred you might be afraid to see when someone has a vulnerable moment on social media. It’s actually a hailstorm of comments that look like this:
Nothing but grace for you brother…
God’s grace is big enough to cover you…
No judgment here – just grace…
Grace grace grace grace grace…
And at first glance, this might not seem as problematic as it is. What’s so wrong about the members of a community sending their brother “grace” in the midst of a challenging time?
The problem, again, is that when you see these posts on social media, you rarely have all of the information. “Affair” is far too often code for what would be better categorized as dangerous and predatory (and even illegal) behavior. A gross misuse of position. The problem is that our view of “grace” has not historically included things like accountability, transparency, and the appropriate adjustment of power.
Grace is not a soft cushion meant to shield you from the pain of being human. Grace is a container, strong enough to hold you in the fire while it does what it was always meant to do. To humble you. To burn away your ego. To remind you that you are no better than anyone.
Some people stay in this fire and get their grace.
Others don’t want to get a sunburn.
Far too often it is men in leadership in the modern church who are given free rein to do whatever they feel like doing, whenever they feel like doing it, no matter the consequences. They’re protected from the natural ramifications of their actions, let alone the “punishment” that they would otherwise deserve. They’re shielded from criticism, overly coddled, and deferred to by everyone around them. All in the name of grace.
Sometimes it can be good for us to take the long fall from the pedestal where we have wrongly placed ourselves. Grace is not making sure nobody ever “feels bad” about themselves or experiences the consequences of their actions. Grace is not stroking the edges of an already overblown ego.
Grace is the 600 square foot apartment I lived in after my divorce was final, where I cried myself to sleep most nights for months. Grace is the life that was pulled out from underneath me, making way for a better one. Grace is the life I get to live now — out in the open, with nothing to hide from anyone.
Grace is putting the exact right words to what happened to me. Manipulation. Gaslighting. Betrayal. Abuse.
What a grace.
Author Kathleen Norris has this quote about grace. She says, “If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it? Maybe it’s because grace is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.”
Yes. Unwelcome change indeed.
What a grace that our world is changing. What a grace that women have a voice. And not just any women—but the women who have been manipulated and used and abused for far too long. What a grace that the tides are changing. That we get to finally put the exact right words to an unfair situation. It’s not an affair. It’s dangerous, predatory and toxic behavior that needs to change.
We are better and we can do better.
What a grace.