You’ve seen it in the news, I’m sure: Josh Duggar, of TLC’s 19 Kids and Counting, issued an apology this past Thursday after reports surfaced that he molested young girls (the report implies these girls were his young sisters) as a teenager. Reactions have, perhaps predictably, varied: critics of Christianity and of the Duggars’ politics in particular have seized on the moment as an unveiling of moral hypocrisy and others like Mike Huckabee have leapt to the family’s defense, chiding the sensationalism around the story and reminding others that Duggar has been forgiven and is living “a responsible and circumspect life as an adult.”
Leaving aside the question of whether or not the Duggar family’s belief system falls in line with mainstream Christian tradition (their belief system aligns closely with the Quiverfull and other fringe Christian movements, though the Duggars themselves deny such an association) there’s no denying that this scandal is, at least in the public perception, another example of Christians Behaving Badly. For more examples, see: Ted Haggard, Eddie Long, Jim Bakker, and the 10,000 other less-famous Christians you know who have become notorious in your local community for their decidedly un-Christlike acts.
I’ll admit that, when confronted with these stories, my first instinct is to blurt out, “But not all Christians!” It’s a defensive reaction; I know I’m not the only Christian out there who cringes at these stories. I’m well aware that people predisposed to criticize Christianity have an idea in their heads of Christians as fun-haters and law-invokers, hypocrites who want to force everyone to accept and abide by God’s laws even while they sin privately. I want to correct their bad impressions. I want to give them the whole spiel about sinners being saved by grace and remind them that we’re not hypocrites, just human, and…
And then I take a deep breath, and I step back.
I’m writing a book about humility, and it occurs to me that part of humility means that we can’t just throw a blanket over the things we don’t like or don’t want people to see or don’t want to be associated with. We can’t pretend Christians only ever do good. A man called himself a Christian and has done an awful thing, full stop; if we get too caught up in explaining that we aren’t really all like that or in trying to contextualize his sin (“it was years ago! He’s been forgiven since! good people do bad things!”) then we are missing a golden opportunity.
What do we do, then? We respond honestly. We admit that wrong is wrong. We love people even when they’re imperfect, but we also let them suffer the consequences of choices they’ve made. Forgiveness is not a get-out-of-jail-free card; Christians do not and should not receive special immunity from punishment or consequences even when they’ve been forgiven, even when they’ve been set right with God. We don’t need to throw blankets over bad behavior, or minimize it, or ignore it in favor of the ten thousand genuine and wonderful things good Christians do. We should confront wrong openly. And when a Christian does something awful, it ought to spark humility in us, remind us of our own humanity and our own fallibility.
Most importantly, we should remember grace. And not just to the Christian who has sinned. And that’s the issue right now, isn’t it? A Christian did a horrible thing, and now we’ll all hear ten thousand lessons on redemption and forgiveness and penitence and change. All of that is true and all of that is good. But we as believers are required to give that grace to all. If, as believers, we are unable to extend the same grace to non-believers who disagree with us as we are to Josh Duggar, then we have failed. If we are so concerned about the church looking bad, or people having a bad impression of Christians, that we are unable to step back from an awful thing and say with the rest of the world, “This is terrible,” then we have failed.
Our job is not to protect our own. Our job is to extend grace, love, and kindness to all. So when a Christian does an awful thing? Admit it’s awful. Shake your head. Pray for that Christian, certainly. But also pray for his or her victims or those who might suffer because of that Christian’s actions. And when people turn to you and say, “that’s about what I figured, for a Christian,” let it break your heart. Admit to them it does. Don’t justify or defend; simply be honest. Tell them that you can’t control the actions of those who claim the name of Christ – you can control your own. And then be mindful of that.
Let your life speak – not “in the tongues of men or of angels,” but in love (1 Cor. 13:1).