Ashley Madison: Why I'm not cheering the adultery website hack

Adultery website Ashley Madison was hacked and users' details have been released on the internet.

Ha. Serve 'em right.

That, I imagine, would be the response of many Christians to the news that the personal details of the 37 million users of adultery website Ashley Madison have been leaked online.

After all, what right-thinking person is going to shed tears for the lying, cynical cheats who are prepared to break their sacred vows to gratify their lust with random strangers, without even the bad excuse that they're in love? The very existence of this site was a blot on society's conscience. There's something profoundly satisfying about the fact that it is probably heading for annihilation amid shareholder panic and expensive lawsuits.

Well: I won't say I shed tears for them, but do I think there are a good many reasons why the first response might not be the right one. Among them are the ones that have received a plentiful airing in the secular media: yes, you might not like what Ashley Madison did, but it was legal and the hackers broke the law. Furthermore, they did so without regard to the consequences: and among those 37 million will be fragile people at risk of suicide, people with children who will face divorce, and people whose interest in the site led no further than casual curiosity. Try convincing a suspicious wife or husband of that.

Even more alarming is the fact that, as internet security consultant Graham Cluley points out, the fact that an email address is in the Ashley Madison system may mean nothing at all and the owner may never have even visited the site. The havoc that might be wreaked on perfectly innocent people hardly bears thinking about.

The only genuine cause for rejoicing here seems to be the probable downfall of Ashley Madison itself. So if our first thoughts turn out to be not really appropriate, then, what might our second thoughts be?

Lord Macaulay once wrote, "We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality." The old cynic was not entirely correct, but he does nail something important. It's really easy to say, when someone's sins are laid out for the world to see, "You deserve this, it's your own fault because you shouldn't have done it."

This is the sort of finger-wagging behaviour with which the Church is generally associated. We rather like the idea of the walk of shame in which, Cersei Lannister-like, evil-doers are exposed. And in cases like Ashley Madison, where despite the large numbers of people up for a clandestine affair the weight of public opinion tends generally toward the censorious, it's rather nice to be on the right side.

But how much better would it be if, instead of condemning people for the bad things they may (or may not) have done, we helped them see the value of faithfulness and loyalty? And how much better would it be if we started with ourselves and with our own congregations?

We should be honest: in most Christian congregations there will be people who have been unfaithful to their spouse. It's not normal and it's not acceptable, but it happens. An appreciation develops into an interest, which develops into an attraction. In some circumstances, desires are acted upon. Aside from being wrong, these things are rarely satisfying and don't end well.

Readers who have never experienced any of these stages are fortunate. But we need to ask ourselves what keeps married people faithful. There are two things.

First, the positive desire to love and to cherish. The ability to experience a rich, deep and intimate relationship with another person is a great gift of God, and those who have it need to nurture and protect it. It's not for nothing that the marriage relationship with another person is an emblem of the relationship between Christ and his Church. Devotion to a husband or wife is an expression of devotion to God. Just like the latter, it's a form of discipleship.

Second, the sense of judgement. It's not enough for fallen human beings to be shown the blessings of the right path. We need to be imprinted with the strongest possible sense that some things are just wrong and that consequences will follow if we break the moral law. Now, it's true that fear of the consequences – spiritual or material – is not a very noble motivation for preventing sin. But even when fear rather than love is our reason, doing the right thing is better than doing the wrong thing.

The real problem with Ashley Madison – and with the ubiquity of internet pornography, among other things – is that it normalises sin. The poet Alexander Pope once wrote:

Vice is a monster of so frightful mien
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.

For Christians, sin is not normal. We should be full of grace and loving kindness toward those who have fallen, but we should never let ourselves be seduced into approving it.

But every one of us, married or not, will face temptation, sexual or otherwise. Every one of us will fail some test at some level; there is none righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:8).

There is a lot of fear in many households at present, as people who have taken risks with their own and their spouse's happiness wait to see whether their behaviour will come to light.

Ashley Madison's address book is on the internet. But Jesus says: "There is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open." If Christians are inclined to read the first of those sentences and gloat, they should read the second and tremble.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.