Whenever a Christian leader is discovered to have carried on a clandestine affair, a self-assured voice emerges among the gasps and sniggers. “Let us remember,” it says, “that all sin is equally heinous before God. Sexual sin is no different. We are all sinners, and in God’s eyes we are as guilty as our fallen brother or sister.”
There is a logic to that statement. It seems to suggest that if we will accept a leader with a mean streak, or learn to live with a visionary who subordinates accounting procedures to his pet projects, then we can rally round the banner of a sexually fallen leader.
But at least three realities set sexual immorality apart from other sin—and move us to treat it far more seriously when we discover it in the life of a leader.
First, like no other sin, dalliance destroys trust. Before the adultery comes the marriage. A man and woman stand before their community and the official representative of the church and the state. Short of baptismal promises, the marriage vows are the most comprehensive vows a Christian can make. When the dike is breached by adultery, spouse and children can drown in the tide of pain. And the ripples and eddies of hurt reach far beyond the immediate family.
The leader who philanders has broken a trust placed in him by a wide community—trust in his vision, reliability, wisdom, and veracity. And the essence of leadership is that trust. So a leader who violates trust in a fundamental and public manner is ipso facto no longer a leader.
But not only does adultery break a leader, it brands a leader. Acts of lust inflame the imagination. More than any other sin, sexual immorality scripts mental movies in which we can star.
When a leader treats a subordinate unfairly, it may stir up a storm. But soon the sea is once more calm. Yet when a leader is caught in illicit love, visions of “Dynasty” dance in our heads. A leader’s sins of the flesh become the sins of the imagination for the wider, lustful public. And the sins of the imagination breed yet more sins of the flesh.
Finally, sexual sin destroys a leader’s image. An essential part of leadership is the way leaders’ images match their organizations’ goals. Thus Presidents—a rail-splitter, a peanut farmer, a Hollywood cowboy—image American ideals.
While no Christian leaders are perfect—or should pretend they are perfect—they must reckon with reality: Christian leaders must look like islands of virtue in a sea of vice. Indeed, image and reality must match, however roughly, if they are to survive for years as leaders.
In short, whether or not all sins are created equal, different sins have differing social consequences. For the social good, we are wise to spotlight the special dangers of sexual sin. (At the same time, of course, we should not become obsessed with sexual sins and so further, if inadvertently, inflame our imaginations.)
We are not alone in classing sexual sins apart from sundry other trespasses. In 1 Corinthians 6:18 Paul writes, “Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body.”
Although it is clear that Paul considers sexual sins in a category by themselves, his precise meaning is far from transparent. Perhaps Gordon Fee’s New International Commentary: 1 Corinthians is of help here. After considering several options, Fee paraphrases Paul’s meaning: “In fornicating … a man removes his body (which is a temple of the Spirit, purchased by God and destined for resurrection) from union with Christ and makes it a member of [a prostitute’s] body, thereby putting it under her ‘mastery’.… Every other sin is apart from (i.e., not ‘in’) the body in this singular sense.… Thus the unique nature of sexual sin is not so much that one sins against one’s own self, but against one’s own body as viewed in terms of its place in redemptive history.”
If Fee is right, each sin is as gross as the next for the non-Christian. But for those who have been marked as Christ’s own, sexual immorality is an especially grievous sin: Since our bodies belong to Christ, they cannot, from an eternal perspective, also belong to an accomplice in adultery.
By David Neff.
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