Twenty-something years ago I was sitting with some family members shooting the breeze. Eventually the breeze blew in the direction of a local minister, a man I had known my entire life but who, let me hasten to add, had never been my pastor. The news that had just blown up about the minister was that he had resigned from his church because of an extra-marital affair. As we were talking about how terrible it was that this man of the cloth had hurt his family, injured his church, and crippled his ministry, the one participant in the discussion who was the least faithful Christian, if she was a Christian at all, spoke the only words that demonstrated any compassion and understanding for the fallen pastor: "Well, after all, he's only human."
A few years later I told that story in an adult Sunday School class as an illustration of how judgmental Christians can be. "Isn't it interesting," I said, "that the marginal or maybe even non-Christian was the only one in the group who understood that ministers are human and fallible and are subject to sin like everybody else is." I can still see the faces of the folks in that class as their looks communicated their lack of agreement with me; I can especially see one lady who closed her eyes and shook her head. Those folks in that Sunday School class did not agree that their pastors were only human.
I've thought about that tension a good bit over the years. On the one hand, to state the obvious, ministers are human beings. On the other hand, ministers have responded to a call from God that gives us a special responsbility to bring honor and not dishonor to Christ and to his Church. Like physicians, we are responsible to do no harm. As shepherds, we are responsible to protect the flock. And as human beings, we are responsible to love, to nurture, and to honor our families. Unfaithfulness of any sort, including unfaithfulness in our marriage relationships, can never honor our Lord, our family, our call, our church, or ourselves.
While I recognize the particular demands and responsibilities that fall on ministers because we are ministers, I believe that the most crucial obligations fall on us not because we are ministers; surely all Christians have the same responsibility to be faithful to their families and to their witness to Christ in the world. And I would distill it even more than that--in some ways, the most crucial obligations that fall to us in relation to our families fall on us not because we are ministers and not really even because we are Christians; indeed, the responsibility to be faithful is ours because we are human. To be fully human is to to be loving and mature and responsible in our relationships. I surely believe that we can do that best in Christ because it is in Christ that we have the best opportunity to become fully human.
My point is that while it is true that ministers, like all people, are only human, it does not necessarily follow that to be human means that we must fall and fail in our most crucial responsibilities. Still, when someone does so fall, I am not willing to be judgmental and self-righteous in my assessment of them. There is simply too much that I can't know. I do not walk in their shoes. This much I know--we all fail. By the grace of God, most of us do not fail in ways that destroy our families or our ministries. But let's never forget that we do fail and let's never forget that, by God's grace, it is not necessary that we fail in crippling ways.
John Edwards is not a minister. He is a public figure, though. He is a former United States Senator. He is a former Presidential and Vice-Presidential candidate. He is a man who has watched his wife Elizabeth struggle with cancer. And he is a professing Christian. He is even a Baptist.
And now he has admitted to committing adultery. I guess that some of his crueler political adversaries are pleased. I suppose that the public thinks that it is their right to know such things about a public figure like Edwards. I reckon that some will conclude that Edwards has now lost his right to speak on the moral and ethical issues that confront our society, such as the plight of the poor that he has consistently stressed. It goes without saying that, if he was on Sen. Obama's list of possible VPs, he isn't anymore.
As for me, I will not attempt to pass judgment; such is thankfully not my right or my responsibility. I will say this: as a Christian, my first reaction should be a sense of sorrow and compassion for the Edwards family. I will further say that I will never be comfortable with the idea that we all need to know about such matters; we might be better off if some things were left private. (I suppose I see the point in exposing the hypocrisy of those who have appointed themselves as our culture's moral watchdogs but who habitually practice immorality themselves, but I'm not sure the Edwards situation qualifies.) And I will also say that such a failure does not disqualify someone from doing what good he or she can still do going forward.
Here's the thing: John Edwards, like my minister acquaintance of so long ago and, frankly, like the rest of us, is only human. Indeed, it is at being human that he has failed; he has failed in being faithful to his family and to himself.
We who share his humanity should be sorry--we should be sorry for what he has done and for those whom he has hurt. We should also be sorry for whatever wrong we have done and for whatever harm we have caused. And we should pray for Edwards and for his family and for all of those who have failed to be all that we could and should be--including ourselves.