Everybody loves a scandal, it seems—evangelicals and fundamentalists included. When news of some alleged or actual misdeed hits the Web, traffic soars and discussions heat up. Emotions (or affections, for purists) run the gamut from shock and disappointment, to outrage, to barely-disguised glee.
What just about nobody seems to feel is what’s needed most: caution—no, outright fear.
Christians should regard scandal as a kind of femme fatale, as dangerous as it is attractive. (Proverbs 7 comes to mind.) We ought to approach every scandal suspiciously, expecting that some kind of trap is hidden there waiting to ensnare us. We should be all the more alert when the scandal seems to call for an obvious response. That’s the seduction at work. The eyes are batting and the perfume is wafting. Probably wisest to walk (or maybe run) away.
Watching for missteps
By “scandal” I mean a report of about someone misstepping. Though the English “scandal” doesn’t precisely match the biblical Greek terms σκάνδαλον (skandalon, e.g., Matt. 13:41) and σκανδαλίζω (skandalizo, e.g., 1 Cor. 8:13), it shares with them the idea that some misstep has occurred or may have occurred.
In August two scandals—by this definition—gained much attention here at SharperIron (as well as elsewhere). One concerned sexual immorality on the part of a Baptist leader who was much admired by one segment of Baptist fundamentalism and about equally despised by another segment (along with many who are neither Baptist nor fundamentalist).
The second scandal concerned the relationship of a certain historically non-charismatic Bible college with members of a quasi-charismatic church, and comments by the president of the college highly commending them.
Don’t misunderstand. These two stories do not concern equally weighty questions, nor am I interested at all here in what happened or didn’t happen or what ought, or ought not, to be done about it. Quite the opposite.
My purpose is to point out that as different as these two hullabaloos were, both are stories about missteps, and as scandals, the dangers in one are equal to the dangers in the other.
Why you should worry if you’re drawn to scandals
1. Scandals possess a subtle and pervasive allure.
Though Scripture doesn’t use the femme fatale metaphor, it does speak in analogous terms about “tales” of misconduct. Proverbs offers this warning twice:
The words of a talebearer are like tasty trifles, And they go down into the inmost body. (NKJV, Prov. 18:8, 26:22)
The phrase “inmost body” emphasizes the depths of our being. The idea is that the kinds of tales people most like to tell about other people are also very satisfying to hear. But the proverb is a warning—tasty doesn’t mean good for you.
2. Scandals can be addictive.
There’s a time to expose wrong-doing and confront it (2 Thess. 3:14, Eph. 5:11). But if we find ourselves enjoying that activity and devoting a lot of time to scrutinizing others to see if they might be stumbling (skandalizo), it’s time to wonder if we’ve gotten hooked on a spirit-wasting drug.
We’ve all encountered people who have become obsessed with finding fault in others. The saddest cases are characterized by increasing pettiness and irrationality. It’s scandal-addiction in full bloom—a sad, sad way to live. But many of the scandal-obsessed didn’t start out that way. They started out trying to help and warn people and got hooked on finding exciting new things to “warn” people about.
Bear in mind that this addiction is an equal-opportunity afflicter. It doesn’t care if you’re a “hyperfundamentalist” or a post-fundamentalist “don’t label me,” or a garden-variety evangelical.
Whether our target is people we believe are “compromising their stand” or people we believe are insufferable “Pharisaical legalists,” the danger of self-destructive addiction is no less real.
3. Scandals distract from self-correction.
Pointing out others’ evils can feel pretty good because, deep down, some spiritual dopamine is released and our own sins sting less. Without realizing it, scandal mongering can become our way of avoiding painful reflection.
We need to see this situation clearly. Sometimes the other guys’ sins really are huge and heinous compared to our own. To use Jesus’ metaphor, sometimes the beam really is in the other guy’s eye, and even the most humble and self-honest among us start to feel superior when we’re looking at stories about creeps who abuse their pastoral office to take sexual advantage of youngsters.
The danger of scandal-distraction in these cases is more subtle but not more benign. The view from Mt. Lookatthatcreep is fascinating and makes us want to just stand there and gaze for hours. Some decide to make a career of it.
But we’re called to another vantage point: Mt. Lookatthatsavior. From there we see not only how much we’re not like Christ but also how beautiful He is. There’s a pain and a sweetness at the same time. This is really the place to be! It’s our calling and privilege—and to be distracted from it is self-sabotage.
4. Scandals encourage sloppiness and recklessness.
With scandals, the more distant the target, the greater the danger. The target’s distance from where I hang out ecclesiastically or theologically (or ethnically, or whatever) makes me less inclined to view him sympathetically. The more unlike me he is, the less inclined I am to identify with him and feel that he is entitled to the kind of respect or caution I feel I’m entitled to.
In other words, far away feels like “someone I really don’t have try hard to be factual and fair toward.”
We all expect others to see us as innocent until proven guilty. We expect them to see as as rightly motivated unless there is airtight proof for thinking we have base motives. But when we’re dealing with a story about someone “not in our camp,” the distance fuels forgetfulness of the old Golden Rule. The stumbling one is Other, so we can leap to whatever conclusions we like about his conduct and motives.
The tendency is greatly intensified when we’re preaching to the choir. It’s so easy to talk to other conservative, traditional fundamentalists and make reckless accusations against those are not of that ilk. But get this: it’s also insidiously easy to talk to fellow-critics of “Independent Fundamental Baptists” about the failings of IFB leaders in recklessly judgmental terms.
5. Scandals create a false and distracting sense of urgency.
When a “somebody has stumbled” story breaks, a mysterious sense of urgency seems to possess most of those involved in discussing it. Some of us find it extremely puzzling.
The false urgency usually centers on figuring out exactly what happened, who’s telling the truth and who isn’t, and even worse, who acted with what intentions. Sadly, it seems the people least responsible and able to make those determinations are the ones most energetic about spinning their wheels in pursuit. And spinning wheels is about all they do (complete with sinking deeper and making mud fly). Passion increases as information decreases.
For whatever reason, there is a human tendency to react to scandal by chasing a false problem and neglecting a real one.
The false problem (for all but those closest to the situation) is the “we’ve got to reconstruct the crime” problem. Oddly enough, to the degree that problem is solvable at all, haste is not our friend. More information comes to light over time.
But the real problem for those uninvolved is a categorical one. We know that whether the scandal du jour is true or not, people do behave in these ways. Pastors do fall. Coverups do happen. Doctrinal and ecclesiastical compromise does occur. Whether it has occurred in a particular case is secondary to the fact that these kinds of things are part of our reality. And what does that fact teach us? What does that reality call on us to do, who love the Lord and desire to be faithful to Him? We don’t need to solve particular cases to answer these questions.
A tip from Joseph
In Joseph’s case, the seduction by Potiphar’s wife wasn’t exactly subtle. The “strange woman” known as Scandal is craftier. Still, Joseph’s strategy was a good one. I imagine his advice would be along these lines: When responsibilities require you to be in Scandal’s vicinity, proceed with great caution. When she really starts to get fascinating, run!