Josh Duggar and Ashley Madison: The problem of selective forgiveness

Josh and Anna Duggar with their newborn daughter Meredith Grace. Duggar has admitted using the Ashley Madison adultery website.(Instagram/ joshduggar)

There is a sort of gruesome fascination about the tide of Duggar disillusionment which has risen around the 19 Kids And Counting family.

Josh Duggar was revealed in May to have abused young children, including his own sisters, when he was a teenager more than 10 years ago. A flight of advertisers and widespread outrage contributed to the decision of the TLC network to pull the show and Duggar resigned from his position at the Family Research Council, which campaigns for "traditional" marriage.

Now he's been outed as a user of the Ashley Madison adultery website, along with 37 million others.

It's not great news for the Duggars, or for Josh's defenders, of whom, to a limited extent, in a nuanced sort of way and with various caveats, I was one. Alright, he did bad things when he was young, I argued, but he seemed to have lived a blameless life since.

Only, it turns out that wasn't true. In a statement released after the news broke, Duggar said: "I have been the biggest hypocrite ever. While espousing faith and family values, I have secretly over the last several years been viewing pornography on the internet and this became a secret addiction and I became unfaithful to my wife."

He speaks of his shame at his double life and his grief for the pain he has caused to his family. It's a pretty comprehensive mea culpa. Interestingly, a second statement on the website of the Duggar family – who don't seem to know how the internet works – finesses his opening paragraph, removing references to pornography addiction and replacing "became unfaithful", with its implication of a valiant battle against temptation tragically lost, with the bald "was unfaithful".

Yes, Josh, you were. And the response has been entirely predictable. The leopard didn't change his spots after all, comes the cry. Once a deviant, always a deviant. Comments on the Duggar Facebook page are sympathetic to Josh's wife Anna, critical of the family's child-raising policies and pretty unsympathetic to the guilty party – though many urge prayer and support for them all. The secular media has been all over it in a gleeful feeding frenzy: here we go again, another reason to despise Christians!

Well: on one level, that's fair enough. Christians sign up to represent Christ. We pray that Christ will be seen in us and we can hardly complain if people take note when he isn't.

But I have two worries about this.

First: I worry that Christians won't care, or at least that they won't care enough. There is a ritual about these affairs. Someone's caught out in a sin. They issue a statement saying how sorry they are, how they've let people down and how they trust in God for forgiveness. The language is finely calculated to press the right theological buttons: we all love a repentant sinner. A few months later and they're back on the platform talking about how much they've learned from their experience and how grateful they are for the support they've had from faithful Christian people. 

I hope Josh Duggar doesn't do that. He's been used to the limelight, but he needs to step down and walk away from it. He should resist the temptation to be public about anything. If in years to come he finds his way back into some kind of Christian work, so be it. But his integrity will always be in question, and right now it's been shot to pieces. So he needs to concentrate on his own soul and his own family – and the Christian community can best help him to do that by recognising the gravity of his sin and resisting the lure of the celebrity sinner.

But second: I worry that Christians will care too much. There is, it seems to me, something particularly wicked about what he has done. Ashley Madison's business model is based on encouraging lying, cheating and deception. It thrives – or it used to – because it trades cynically in lust and betrayal. Duggar has betrayed his wife not because he fell in love with someone else, but because it was easy.

Whether we think there ought to be or not, in most people's minds there are pardonable sins and unpardonable. We understand sexual temptation. We understand the attraction that can grow between people and which can tip over into an affair. We can even understand the temptation of pornography – it's everywhere and it's easy. We don't condone, but we get it. We don't get the cool cynicism about marriage and family which leads someone to sign up to Ashley Madison.

And that's where we need to be truly Christian and say, so what?

If we don't get it, that's not the point.

By all means line up to give Josh Duggar a kicking, if it makes you feel good. But the thing about Christianity is that it preaches forgiveness and restoration to people you wouldn't have in your house. It says to people who've done far worse than adultery, "You're welcome. Repent and receive Christ's forgiveness." It says at communion, "This is a table for sinners."

It tells the stories of Jesus, who didn't condemn the woman taken in adultery but said: "Go and sin no more."

That line was no more popular then than it is now. But in the end, Josh Duggar is just another sinner. Aren't we all?

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.